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Friday, August 14, 2009

About those Parishes...

In my first few posts I've made reference to Louisiana's system of Parishes. You may be wondering what that means, as I did initially. The most simple explanation is that a Parish in Louisiana is basically the same thing as a County in 48 other states (Alaska, apparently, has a unique system as well). But how did Louisiana end up with this strange parlance? Like many things, it has to do with Louisiana's fascinating and defining mix of cultures.

I've heard many people explain the existence of Parishes by simply saying something like, "well, we have the Napoleonic Code." The law in Louisiana is different than the other 49 states in that it was founded upon the Napoleonic Code - literally the civil code established by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century. (A better description of Napoleonic Code can be found here.)

Nothing I've read about Napoleonic Code, however, mentions Parishes. The answer seems to lie in the religiosity of the settlers of Louisiana. The state was settled largely by the French and Spanish, two cultures with deep Catholic roots. From the blog ddbNOLA:

The parish system of division is based off of the Catholic church and the strong Catholic background of the population has kept it alive. The beginnings of the settlement of Louisiana and the rest of the Mississippi Valley after the Louisiana purchase were led by missionary priests, seeking to leave the eastern seaboard where Catholicism was not necessarily acceptable, and hoping to estabish (sic) Catholic settlements. Shortly after the Mobile parish was founded, a pioneer named Bienville took fifty men with him to Tchoutchouma, an abandoned Indian village, and erected buildings, laying out the city according to chief engineer of the colony de La Tour. The first church, dedicated to St. Louis, stands in what is now the St. Louis Parish. The city was named New Orleans after the Duc d'Orleans, and thus started its urban growth.

(Incidentally, the term "creole," which all of you have undoubtedly heard, was originally applied to Louisianans born here by French and Spanish parents. It now commonly refers to people with a mixed background of French, Spanish, African American and/or Native American.) Today, the term "Parish" seems to mostly be a holdout from a more parochial era in Louisiana. Some further discussion from the Wikipedia entry on Louisiana Parishes:

Louisiana was formed from French and Spanish colonies, which were both officially Roman Catholic. Local government was based upon parishes, as the local ecclesiastical division. Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, the Territorial Legislative Council divided the Territory of Orleans (the predecessor of Louisiana state) into twelve counties. The borders of these counties were poorly defined, but they roughly coincided with the colonial parishes, and hence used the same names.[1]

On March 31, 1807, the territorial legislature divided the state into 19 parishes, without getting rid of the old counties (which continued to exist until 1845).[2]


In 1811, a constitutional convention was held to prepare for Louisiana's admission into the Union.[3] This organized the state into seven judicial districts, each consisting of groups of parishes. In 1816, the first official map of the state used the term, as did the 1845 constitution. Since then, the official term for Louisiana's primary civil divisions has been parishes.


The Wikipedia entry has some further information on the various Parishes if you're interested. One thing I find interesting is that in general, you'll hear Louisianans refer to places by Parish much more than you'd hear a Midwesterner refer to place by county. For instance, I usually tell people I live in "Ascension Parish" rather than the name of my town. When I lived in the Chicago suburbs, I wouldn't have thought to tell people I live in "Lake County" as opposed to "Mundelein."

My next expedition is scheduled for Monday morning, so hopefully I'll have some new stories to share early next week.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. A question for you - Is Louisiana still the only state where you are "guilty until proven innocent" as opposed to "innocent until proven guilty?" I remember that was what I was taught a long time ago - maybe that's yet another Louisiana myth....

    Don't forget pictures on Monday too.

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