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Geographer"s Space

A Mysterious move An examination of Louisiana’s readjust from counties to parishes

by Richard Campanella


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Courtesy that the Historic new Orleans Collection, 1959.197

An 1834 map verified both parish and county lines in Louisiana.

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That Louisiana call its political subdivisions “parishes” and not “counties” stands as a mark of the state’s cultural distinction, one learned by other Americans either in grade-school geography course or courtesy of a polite but firm correction native a proud Louisianan. So embedded is “parish” in the state’s spatial psyche that merely saying “counties” and also “Louisiana” in the same sentence sounds dissonant.

In fact, because that the first forty years of American dominion, the two terms, and also their corresponding maps, coexisted as different systems serving various purposes. The eventual adoption of “parish” might be viewed as a victory of localism over nationwide assimilation, although politics and pragmatism additionally played roles. There’s also something the a secret behind the change.

In early american times, French and also Spanish authorities felt no pressing have to break your territory right into official sub-jurisdictions v rigid borders. Settlers were also few, and also the terrain too large or inaccessible, to necessitate an accurate delineation, and because colonials answered come an unelected monarchy, there to be no require to draw up poll precincts or electoral districts.

Instead, human being regionalized the colony based loosely on negotiation cores and peripheries and the waterways amongst them. From east to west, there to be La mobile and Biloxi in present-day Alabama and also Mississippi. Comes up the Mississippi brought you to le Detour aux Anglois (English Turn) and Nouvelle Orléans. Proceeding upriver, Chapitoulas include the banks by the contemporary Jefferson/Orleans parish line; Cannes Brûlées expected Kenner; La Côte des Allemands described the German settlements throughout the river; Manchac was just south of present-day Baton Rouge; and Pointe Coupée covered the confluence of the Mississippi and Red rivers, i beg your pardon led respectively to the Natchez and Natchitoches regions. (Orthography, it must be noted, was as liquid as location in this era.) Barataria, Lafourche, Attakapas, and Opelousas extensively implied the seaside marshes, east to west toward Spanish Mexico, whose border through French Louisiana to be so vague the both realms tacitly viewed the area (Los Adaes) as “neutral ground.” throughout the Louisiana colony, there simply weren’t sufficient settlers, nor manual government, to need clear, hardened jurisdictional boundaries.

The Catholic Church had different spatial exigencies, together clergy had tendency to their flock top top a constant and more personal basis. Houses of worship had to it is in built; masses were celebrated weekly if no daily; sacraments were administered, youngsters educated, tithes collected, and also cemeteries maintained. Every one of these services compelled a much more congealed sense of ar geography, based approximately church buildings—although right here too, ecclesiastic borders tended come be loose drawn. In French, these devices were referred to as paroisses; in Spanish parroquias; and also in English, parishes; and there were twenty-one such systems throughout the Louisiana nest by the late 1700s. Because of the predomination the the Catholic Church, ecclesiastic parishes got credibility and also expediency as a method to to organize Louisiana human being geography. This would ultimately prove beneficial to government.

After the Louisiana Purchase, representatives of the unified States installed the device of federal government they had honed elsewhere, and also jurisdictional departments topped the perform of American bureaucratic tools. In a section titled “Counties,” the Legislative council in 1805 subdivided the territory of olions “into twelve counties, come be dubbed the counties that Orleans, German Coast, Acadia, Lafourche, Iberville, Pointe Coupée, Attakapas, Opelousas, Natchitcohes , Rapides, Ouchitta and also Concordia” and stipulated that many borders would monitor the ecclesiastic “parishes the St. Charles…, of St. Bernard and St. Luigi …of St. Charles and St. John,” etc. The resulting twelve counties therefore reflected Catholic ecclesiastic parish lines or aggregations thereof, as well as colonial-era settlement concentrations—not to point out some totally invented straight lines.


Why, after fourty years, was a conventional nationwide concept abandoned in favor of miscellaneous sui generis? 

Despite their extensively disparate sizes and also populations, these twelve circa-1805 counties discovered their method into the State structure of 1812, i m sorry lumped them right into districts because that the choice of senators, the apportionment of residence members, and also the production of court districts. In various other words, this were no really units of polite governance, as other states interpreted “counties,” but rather electoral and judicial districts. No one were they completely ministerial: due to the fact that they affected who got chosen where, counties to be politically charged, and also the creolian population—relative newcomers come the machinations that democracy—tended to see them askance, together a maneuver by which the incoming Americans might tilt representation in their favor. One Louisiana historian would later speak to the American-style counties “pernicious.”

For the purposes of polite governance, the americans in 1807 realized the the twenty-one extant ecclesiastic units from late colonial times walk a better job of regionalizing negotiation patterns 보다 their own twelve sprawling counties, and, after part adjustments, adapted them into nineteen main “parishes.” much more were included as former Spanish West Florida and the old Neutral ground by the Texas–Mexico border joined the state, and also as sprawling prairie and piney woods parishes were broken into smaller ones. For years to come, both counties and parishes coexisted, the former for electoral and also judicial purposes, the later for civil governance dovetailing with spiritual congregational patterns. The dual systems were as confusing as their borders, which, in this era of weak main government, stayed ambiguous—as did numerous of the parish seats, which can relocate once populations change or a courthouse burned.

What make the county/parish terminology furthermore problematic to be its double misalignment with various other American states, which provided “districts” to typical what “counties” supposed in Louisiana, and also “counties” to median what “parishes” supposed here. Both units retained popping up in state legislation and also constitutions indigenous the 1810s to the early 1840s, providing them ongoing life in the legitimate lexicon and also the vernacular.

But this gift a greatly French-speaking Catholic state, at the very least in the south where the bulk of the populace lived, parishes were an ext familiar and an ext popular, and counties never ever really captured on. The average Louisianan in this era speak the language of parishes, in spite of that counties continued to be on the books and on the maps.

What killed counties in Louisiana to be the structure of 1845. As soon as delegates convened in Jackson and brand-new Orleans in between August 1844 and May 1845 to talk about the new constitution, they spoke plenty that both parishes and counties. Come wit, the word “county” or “counties” appears nineteen time in the released Proceedings the the constitution Convention. However the context of part usages—for example, “county or district” and “county or parish”—suggests the delegates were grappling v these terms.

Then miscellaneous changed. When the last constitution was ratified on November 5, 1845, words “parish” could be found around a hundred times. But, remarkably, “county” and also “counties” had totally disappeared. Electoral representation would currently be apportioned by parish units and also their populations, and also by new senatorial districts. The constitution of 1845 finished all official talk of counties and permanently entrenched parishes in the map and also political culture of Louisiana.

Why, after forty years, was a traditional nationwide concept abandoned in donate of other sui generis? No explanation was listed by delegates for the omission, and it’s tempting this day to check out our parishes together a triumph of localism and also traditionalism over external agents that change. Consider the circumstances: this era experienced the height of the political wrangling between the older, in your ar born Catholic Francophones (Creoles, including in this context Cajuns) and also the newly arrived English-speaking, mainly Protestant Anglo-Americans. Debates arose constantly over matters such together the French matches English language, roman inn Civil legislation versus English common Law, creole versus Anglo voter apportionments, and other flashpoints. Counties were an American import, and they symbolized the geography of American political power, whereas paroisses, parroquias, and parishes spoke that all things Creole: Catholicism, the ancien régime, the Creole sense of place, the Gallic parlance. The excising that counties may have actually represented one Anglo concession, or a creole pushback, to lastly eradicate an unloved term currently eschewed by the populace.


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Pragmatism additionally played a role. Come this point, Vidalia chronicler Robert Dabney Calhoun, interviewed by the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 1937, defined the last time “county” came up in state law. An action of December 16, 1824, stipulated the “the sheriff that the Parish of St. John the Baptist shall it is in ex-officio sheriff that the ar of German Coast, and also that in the future only one sheriff shall be appointed for stated county.” The act illustrated how redundant jurisdictions could lead come waste and also confusion. Once in 1843 that exact same sheriff test to salary his state taxes using his $290 compensation, which had actually been issued together notes by a now-defunct bank and also were thus worthless, the state had to pass a bill to authorize the deliver “from the sheriff that the German coastline county.” that was the last time “county” showed up in state law, and also the suspicion of the sheriff’s pass out parish/county double duty might have set off a conversation amongst legislators and led come the pointed exclusion of “county” from the 1845 Constitution.

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“There never was a legislative action formally abolishing the old counties; nor was there such abolition through the new constitution,” defined Calhoun. “The old counties had passed away years prior to from a pernicious politics anemia,” that wrote, in referral to exactly how the original counties swayed electoral representation. “The old counties,” he concluded, “may be likened to a row of old picture frames i beg your pardon were allowed to hang on the wall surface for countless years after the portraits had been removed.”

But what precisely adjusted over the course of 1844–1845, when “county” come up consistently at the structure Convention yet then utterly disappeared in the last Constitution, never to resurface?

So far as I can determine, that a mystery.


Richard Campanella, a geographer with the Tulane institution of Architecture, is the author of Bienville’s Dilemma, Geographies of new Orleans, Bourbon Street: A History, Lincoln in new Orleans and other books. He might be reached through richcampanella.com, rcampane

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