How Louisiana Got The Name ‘Parishes’

Names Indicate French and Spanish Influence

The Gazette
October 5, 1939

The State of Louisiana is peculiar in that it is the only one of the United States whose political subdivisions know as counties in the other 47 states are called “parishes”. Louisiana at present has 64 parishes.

The name Louisiana’s parishes, especially in the case of the older ones, indicate French and Spanish influence. As early as the time of the French ownership of the Louisiana Territory is the distinction of “parishes” known. In the year 1723 the Territory of Louisiana was divided into nine parts or parishes, each one governed by a commandane, assisted by a judge. There were five parishes during the Spanish domain, and each parish in the days of either of these periods was a vast territory, for Louisiana was all the known and unknown land lying west of the Mississippi River.

Goes Back to 1803

The origin of the name “parishes” in Louisiana as applied to present-day subdivisions dates back to December 20, 1803, at the time of the transfer of the Province of Louisiana from France to the United States. The scene of the transfer was the Cabildo in New Orleans facing Jackson Square, now one of the most historical buildings in the Nation, and the representative of the United States was Governor W. C. C. Claiborne of the Mississippi Territory who had been sent to New Orleans by President Thomas Jefferson.

After details of the transfer had been settled, Governor Claiborne issued a statement exercising the powers of “the Governor General and Intendant of the Province of Louisiana” and bequeathed upon the French and Spanish population of the province the “enjoyments of all rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States,” thus making our French and Spanish forebears Americans.

Claiborne Divides Territory

In order to form a substantial set-up under which the people of Louisiana might govern themselves, the United States congress called upon Governor Claiborne to divide the Territory of Louisiana into election districts. A General Assembly was established and provided for the calling of an election to name the 25 members who were to compose the General Assembly.

On December 3, 1804, this legislative council divided the territory into 12 counties called Orleans, German Coast, Acadia, Lafourche, Iberville, Pointe Coupee, Attakapas, Opelousas, Natchitoches, Rapides, Ouachita and Concordia. The boundaries of these 12 counties were vaguely drawn … the Orleans territory was not surveyed or chartered … and with the exception of Rapides and Ouachita, the locations and approximate limits of the other counties were fixed by describing them as being composed of a given parish or parishes.

Were Ecclesiastical Divisions

These “parishes”, of course, were ecclesiastical subdivisions, territory served by a particular church in a particular sector. Under French and Spanish colonization the little parish church became the community center, its sphere of influence extending to outlying territory in fairly well known and recognized limits.

On March 31, 1807, the first act of the second session of the legislature provided for the division of the Orleans Territory into 19 parishes, and the division of the territory into counties was abolished, except for the purpose of representation. Thus, a sort of dual system of county and parish government was set up, the county still retaining a portion of autonomy. These 19 parishes were: New Orleans, St. Bernard, Plaquemines, St. Charles, St. John the Baptist, St. James, Ascension, Assumption, Lafourche, Iberville, Baton Rouge, Pointe Coupee, Concordia, Ouachita, Rapides, Avoyelles, Natchitoches, St. Landry, and St. Martin (Attakapas).

Claiborne Establishes Boundaries

Governor Claiborne was given authority to declare and establish the boundaries of the parishes in any cases were difficulty or doubt was concerned.

The officers of the county judges, clerks, sheriffs, coroners and treasurers were abolished, and the offices of parish judges, et al, were set up in their places. Section 32 of the Act says “that the division of the territory into counties shall subsist for the purpose of making the election of the representatives of the territory, and levying the territory, and levying the territorial taxes”. On this score, Mr. Robert Calhoun of Vidalia, Louisiana, “an artist working in history,” observes: “It will thus be seen that the fight which the Creole population had waged for a territorial subdivision into autonomous civil parishes had at least borne fruit and with a retention of their old ecclesiastical names.”

On February 16, 1811, President Monroe approved the act of congress entitled “An Act to enable the people of the Territory of Orleans to form a constitution and state government and for the admission of such state into Union, on an equal footing with the original states and for other purposes. The people of the Territory were authorized to form a constitution and state government, to call a constitutional convention for this purpose. Congress prescribed that the convention representatives should be apportioned among the several counties, districts and parishes of the Territory of New Orleans, and of a number not to exceed 60.

Constitutional Convention

The legislature of the Orleans Territory was empowered by Congress to prepare for the convention and specify the number of representatives to the constitutional convention. The legislature declared there should be 45 representatives, apportioning them from the original 12 counties and not from the 19 parishes.

On January 22, 1812, the Constitution of the State of Louisiana was finally drafted, adopted and signed. Each delegate signed from the county from which he was elected. This constitution, drawn on broad lines, with the details of governmental set-up left to the legislature, appeared to contemplate a county rather than a parish system of local government. But the constitution did not specify either county or parish government; it did not subdivide the state into counties or parishes.

Seven Judicial Districts

At the second session of the first legislature of the new State of Louisiana, the state was divided into seven judicial districts by parishes. From about this time on the word parish supplanted county and it began to be generally adopted by everybody legislators and laymen alike. In 1816 William Darby publishes his parish map of Louisiana; he did not delineate the counties because “so much confusion would have been superinduced by so many conflicting subdivisions.” By that time Louisiana had 25 parishes.

The Act of December 16, 1824, provides “the sheriff of the parish of St. John the Baptist shall be ex-officio sheriff of the County of German Coast, and that in the future only one sheriff shall be appointed for said county.”

4 Congressional Districts

And that old sore-thumb, the county of German Coast, still stuck out as late as 1842. It is mentioned in the act of March 27, 1843, when the state treasurer was authorized to receive a sum of money from the sheriff of that county. The act of April 6, 1843, divided the state into four congressional districts by parishes; the act of February 29, 1844, separated the state into six electoral districts for presidential electors, but separated them by counties.

The Constitution of 1845, superseding the Constitution of 1812, laid the ghost of the county system in Louisiana. The word county does not appear a single time in the new constitution, the whole theory of the instrument is parish autonomy.

So today the 64 political subdivisions of the State of Louisiana are called parishes, this state being the only one in the nation having such title for the divisions. From time to time, after the state was admitted to the Union in 1812, various parishes of Louisiana were divided into smaller subdivisions, and today the 64 are just about the same area in size.

Each of Louisiana’a parishes is entitled to at least one member in the State legislature, although the larger parishes are entitled to more than one, the appointment being based on population. Orleans parish in which the City of New Orleans is situated, has 20 representatives, the 17 wards of the parish. One parish, Caddo, has four representatives, two have three members in the state legislature, and 10 have two representatives. The remaining parishes each have one representative. There is a total of 100 members of the house of representatives of the state legislature.

33 Senatorial Districts

The parishes are grouped or divided into 33 senatorial districts from which are elected the 39 senators who serve in the upper house of the legislature. Orleans parish is divided into eight districts, and the remaining 31 comprise the other 63 parishes that have been politically grouped to form districts.

The sheriff of each parish is the chief law-enforcement officer and also ex-officio tax collector. The clerk of court in each parish is also the recorder and the tax assessor fixes valuation of property. The police jury, which corresponds to the quorum court, county court or board of supervisors of some states, is the parish lawmaking body. It has great legislative and administrative powers and representatives are elected from the police jury wars tot his body which often contains as many as 12 or 16 members. The parish school board has the same number of members elected in the same way, but is in no way connected with the other functions of the parish government. School board members are elected for periods of six years, and parish officers, including police jurors, are elected for four years.

Judges and district attorneys in Louisiana are elected by districts, and are elected for six year terms. In the larger districts of the state, there is an assistant district attorney for each parish.

Population 2,120,000

Louisiana has a population of more than 2,120,000 and the area of the Pelican State is 45,966 square miles. Baton Rouge is the capital.

The land of the state is thus distributed: alluvial lands, 13,225 square miles; bluff prairies, 5,739 square miles; oak uplands, 8,103 square miles; pine hills, 7,582 square miles; pine flats, 2,256 square miles; central prairies, 785 square miles; and coastal marshes, 7,420 square miles. Of the 28,000,000 acres of land in Louisiana, between five and six million are now under cultivation.

The Louisiana Territory, after being under Spanish and French rule through settlement and conquest for over 250 years, was ceded by France to the United States on the 30th of April, 1803, for $15,000,000. Louisiana was admitted to the Union as a state in 1812.

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