LOUISIANA PLACE NAMES
By Clare D’Artois Leeper
LSU Press, $39.95
If we could all leave the world a parting gift as lovely as the one Clare Leeper left in this book, it’d be a much nicer place. Leeper, who was a longtime columnist at The Advocate and a tireless researcher into the origins of Louisiana place names, died in July. But she lived long enough to complete this compilation of place names, a continuation of a 1976 work. It was a book, Louisiana Places, a compilation of her newspaper column, “Louisiana Places: Those Strange Sounding Names.”
As the publisher’s note at the front of this latest book observes, “Looking into the derivations of place names is an organic and ongoing process, and this book’s gift to future generations is to assemble in one volume a lifetime’s work of listening to, gathering, and transcribing the accumulated information we have about how our towns, cities, bayous, and other places came by their names.”
That’s a true observation, but this collection — which doesn’t come close to treating every Louisiana place name — is much more. Leeper’s wry humor and appreciation for a good tale shine forth in just about all the entries. Take “Go to Hell” in Iberville Parish. “Go to Hell is the name of a stream running in the southern portion of the parish. Only one mile in length, it flows from Bay Natchez and at one time connected it with Lower Grand River.
“The stream got its name from an Indian guide who one day had been paddling for hours showing a U.S. surveyor various rivers in the area. When the surveyor asked the name of this particular stream, the Indian, tired and impatient, told him, ‘Go to Hell.’ The surveyor took him seriously and the body of water was recorded as Go to Hell,” Leeper writes, then adds, “Corruptions of the name are Godel and Gomel.”
The subtitle of this book is “Popular, Unusual, and Forgotten Stories of Towns, Cities, Plantations, Bayous, and Even Some Cemeteries.” Leeper notes that the many nationalities that played a part in settling the state all contributed place names. Of course Louisiana the word honors a French King, but as Leeper notes in the introduction, it “combines the French Louis and the Spanish iana, meaning ‘belonging to’ Louis XIV.” Even words got fused in the melting pot that was early Louisiana.
Of course there were already people living here when all these Europeans and others came flocking into Louisiana. Those people, Native Americans, left many place names that are still used, even if they are sometimes altered. “Manchac,” which is the name of a bayou, pass and town in southeast Louisiana (the bayou is along East Baton Rouge’s southern boundary) is a Mulgulasha word derived from “imahaka, ‘back route’ or ‘rear entrance,’” which is a reference to the waterway’s use as a shortcut to the Gulf of Mexico through lakes Maurepas and Pontchartrain.
“Ponchatoula” might refer to “hair hanging” that the moss in the trees there suggests, but Leeper says it is most likely, “from the nearby creek Ponchatalawa, Choctaw for ‘singing cattails’ or ‘singing water flags.’ The Indians gave this name to the creek because of the sound the wind made blowing through the reeds along the banks of the stream.”
Leeper also recounts apocryphal stories about an Indian maiden who loses all her hair and another about the son of Chief Tammany, a northeastern Indian who visited the Ponchatoula area and was honored by having his name attached to St. Tammany Parish — one of the many places in Louisiana bearing the title “Saint.” “Nezpique” in Acadia Parish derives from the words for “tattooed nose” in French. The Indians who lived there were centuries ahead of their time in the body ornamentation department.
One tale leads to another in Leeper’s book, and that is what makes it great fun and full of information.
Sometimes the names harken back to another era, like “Light and Tie” in Acadia Parish. The name refers to “a method of dismounting and securing the reins around the horse’s front legs so that it could not wander far.”
This book is just a delight to browse. You can pick it up and read a few entries and set it back down. Maybe you want to thumb through and find some places you know and see how they got their names. It’s alphabetized for quick reference, but you could just read it cover-to-cover. It’s that entertaining and is only 293 pages including source list, bibliography and index.
Whatever your preference, light and tie and settle in for a some reading and laughing courtesy of a bright and witty writer who will be sorely missed.