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A commemorative "red stick" statue on the campus of Baton Rouge's Southern University.

You may know that Louisiana was named for French King Louis XIV. The territory was named in his honor by French explorer La Salle, who claimed the territory to the west of the Mississippi River in the 1680s for France. The huge land tract—the Louisiana Purchase—would later form all or parts of 15 states and two Canadian provinces. 

But the cities and towns inside Louisiana have some interesting stories behind their names as well.

  • New Orleans was founded in 1718 as Nouvelle-Orléans by the French explorer Bienville. He named the city in honor of another French official, then Prince Regent of France Philip II, Duke of Orleans.
  • Louisiana’s capital city, Baton Rouge, means “red stick” in French. The red stick refers to a blood-stained pole French explorer Iberville found on the bank of the Mississippi River in 1699 at the city’s present location. I’ve heard conflicting stories throughout the years about the stick’s purpose. I’ve heard it was a dividing line between lands occupied and hunted by the Bayougoula and Houma Native American tribes in south Louisiana, but I’ve also heard it was possibly placed to mark the passing of a respected tribal elder. Either way, the stick was placed by the Native Americans.
  • On a related note, several Louisiana cities owe their names to Louisiana’s first residents including Bayou Goula, Houma, Natchitoches, Opelousas, Coushatta, Jena and Ponchatoula.
  • Shreveport’s name is tied to a 160-mile log jam on the Red River in northwest and central Louisiana in the early 1800s. A steamboat captain and hundreds of men under his command successfully cleared the log jam opening river navigation southward to the Mississippi River. They established a port community north of the jam named for the jam-clearing captain—Henry Miller Shreve.
  • Lafayette was originally named Vermilionville, for the Cajun community that formed on Bayou Vermilion in the late 1700s. In the early 1800s, locals wanted to rename the small town to recognize the Marquis de Lafayette. The Frenchman aided the U.S. in the Revolutionary War and was subsequently invited on a multi-state tour in his honor as then-President James Monroe celebrated the nation’s 50-year anniversary. It is said many towns visited by Lafayette during the tour were renamed in his honor, but it’s also said Lafayette’s tour didn’t include the present day Louisiana namesake.
  • Speaking of President Monroe, the Louisiana city of Monroe is indirectly named in his honor. The then-young outpost took its name from the James Monroe, a steam-powered paddle wheeler that visited via the Ouachita River in 1819 and showed locals the river could transform the outpost into a bustling town.

Like other U.S. states, Louisiana has places named for city founders (examples include Alexandria, Berwick and Hammond) and for nearby natural resources, such as Louisiana’s Lake Charles, Lake Providence and Lake Arthur.

Louisiana even has one central Louisiana 1800s sawmill town named for a defective natural resource. It’s said that a water wheel was built to power the mill, but the creek on which it sat would stop flowing and become a dry prong every summer. The water wheel was moved to a year-round flowing creek but the town name Dry Prong stuck.

When you’re traveling throughout Louisiana take note of our interesting place names and enjoy the stories behind them.  Learn more about Louisiana's town names in part II and part III.

Author: Jeff Richard
Posted: Thu, 07/24/2014