Louisiana's Cities and Towns: What’s in the Names?
Learn the stories behind the unique names of Louisiana's cities and towns.
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 that French explorer Iberville found on the bank of the Mississippi River in 1699 at the city’s present location. There are conflicting stories about the stick’s purpose. One theory is that it was a dividing line between lands occupied and hunted by the Bayougoula and Houma Native American tribes in south Louisiana. Another is that 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 American Indian residents including Bayou Goula, Houma, Natchitoches, Opelousas, Coushatta, Jena and Ponchatoula. Bogalusa is named for Washington Parish’s Bogue Lusa creek, which is Choctaw for “dark” or “smoky water.” Another town with a named tied to the Choctaw is Shongaloo, which is said to be a derivative of shakaio—the Choctaw word for cypress tree. Catahoula, a name for both a Louisiana town and parish, is Choctaw for “sacred lake.”
- 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.
- 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.
- Louisiana has places named 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. Saline in Winn Parish originated as a mining community, named for the large salt dome on which the town sits. Sulphur in Calcasieu Parish was another large mining site early in its history that was named for its rich sulfur deposits.
- French explorers named Maringouin (“mosquito”) for the pesky swarms of the insects they encountered there. Other towns with interesting French names are Cocodrie, meaning “alligator,” and Grosse Tete, or “big head.” The latter refers to the black-bellied plover that migrates to the nearby Atchafalaya River Basin from northern Maine, where, interestingly enough, the bird is also commonly called an American big head.
- Plain Dealing is said to be named after a plantation formed nearby in the late 1830s by a family from the East Coast. The plantation’s name—that of the family’s former plantation in Virginia—referred to a plain dealing or principle of conducting business with honesty and integrity.
- White Castle is another town with a name tied to a former antebellum plantation. Historical accounts say the white castle was the area’s most notable structure, a massive gabled and columned mansion with encircling galleries and a quarter-mile driveway lined with willow trees. The mansion no longer exists. It was moved four times during the early 1800s due to flooding threats from the Mississippi River, and the home decreased in size with each move until, allegedly, it was eventually reduced to two somewhat ordinary sized houses on the other side of town. But the former mansion’s heritage lives on indirectly—Nottoway Plantation in White Castle is the largest surviving antebellum home in the South.
- Located in Jefferson Davis Parish, Roanoke (as in American history’s “the lost colony of”) is said to have also been named by settlers who migrated from Virginia. Similarly, eastern Calcasieu Parish settlers named Iowa after the northern Midwest state from which they migrated. Oddly enough, Louisiana’s Iowa has a long “a” (pronounced eye-way).
- Zwolle in Sabine Parish was indirectly named by a respected Dutch businessman who visited the former railroad logging town in the 1800s. He told local officials the region’s scenic beauty was similar to that of his hometown—Zwolle, Holland.
- In the case of New Roads, it was named for a highway that was to connect its local lake, False River, with the nearby Mississippi River. Cut Off gets its name from a proposed canal that would serve as a shortcut between Bayou Lafourche and New Orleans. The canal never materialized but the name stuck to the community at the canal’s planned starting point.
- A then-new railroad depot in Avoyelles Parish was named Bunkie by a prominent landowner in the late 1800s. It is said the wealthy man’s young daughter had a pet monkey but her unpolished vocabulary skills resulted in her calling the pet “bunkie” instead of “monkey,” much to the amusement of the family. When the rail company asked the landowner to name the depot which sat on his land, he chose “Bunkie,” which had become the family’s nickname for his little girl.
- Local lore says that Waterproof in Tensas Parish got its name from a Mississippi River captain who was meeting an early community resident, Abner Smalley, to get cordwood to fuel his steamboat. It’s said when the ship captain met Smalley on a very small isle, surrounded on all sides by the river, the captain joked “Well, Abner, I see you’re waterproof.” Whether that story is fact or fiction, there’s no question the name Waterproof carries irony: It’s said the current town is about three miles from its original location and that the town moved twice during its history to avoid being swallowed up by the mighty river.