Why parishes? The story behind Louisiana’s unique map
In 1816, four years after Louisiana was admitted to the Union, the first official state map used the term “parishes” to denote local governmental units, acknowledging a church-based system that the state’s French and Spanish founders — all Catholic men – had set up in colonial times. But the tale leading to that point is hardly straightforward. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the territorial legislative council divided what would become the state of Louisiana into 12 counties that more or less coincided with the colonial parishes. On March 31, 1807, the territorial legislature created 19 parishes without abolishing the existing counties, which continued to exist until 1845.
Louisiana is the only state to divide itself into parishes instead of counties. There are 64 parishes, but they didn’t spring into existence all at once when Louisiana joined the Union. The last three — Allen, Beauregard and Jefferson Davis parishes — were created in 1912 from parts of Calcasieu Parish, following close on the heels of Evangeline Parish, which had been part of St. Landry Parish until 1910, and La Salle Parish, which was separated from Catahoula Parish in 1908.
- When Louisiana joined the Union, it had only 25 parishes. The remaining 39 were created during the next century.
- If you look closely at a state map, you’ll see that St. Martin Parish is split into non-contiguous parts. Blame a surveying error in 1868, when the Legislature was creating Iberia Parish.
- And what about those early counties? They were absorbed into parishes, and in some cases, their names vanished. For instance, Attakapas County was dissolved into St. Martin Parish in 1807, the same year that German Coast County was divided into St. Charles and St. John the Baptist parishes. Dugdemonia Parish was formed from Catahoula, Natchitoches and Rapides parishes in 1850 but was later dissolved.
- Louisiana has parishes named for the leaders of both sides during the Civil War. Lincoln Parish was created in 1873, during Reconstruction, and Jefferson Davis Parish came along in 1912.
- Louisiana boasts parishes named for six U.S. presidents: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.
- Evangeline Parish is named for the heroine of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s epic 1847 poem of the same name.
- The most recent parish-related boundary changes happened in 1979, when Lake Pontchartrain was divided among Tangipahoa, St. Tammany, Orleans, Jefferson, St. John the Baptist and St. Charles parishes.
- Apparently, 64 real parishes weren’t enough for some creative sorts, who established their own. Here are a few fictional parishes: “Steel Magnolias” is set in Chinquapin Parish, which exists only in the playwright Robert Harling’s imagination; and Rebecca Wells created Garnet Parish for novels that include “Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood.” The HBO series “True Blood,” based on Charlaine Harris’ vampire novels, takes place in Renard Parish.
The fact that Louisiana has parishes instead of counties is yet another way in which the state is distinctive. It’s something the state’s residents accept as a normal part of life, like red beans and rice on Mondays and chicory in coffee, and they probably don’t bother to think about it until someone from out of town asks where the counties are, providing an opportunity for a discussion of the state’s deep, rich history.