Anyone traveling there from out of state, looking at a map, or reading a news item about Louisiana, may be surprised to see the word “parish” used as a political demarcation.
After the 1803 Louisiana Purchase — arguably the best real estate deal in history — the massive Louisiana territory was divided into two parts: the southern part, now the State of Louisiana, but called then the “Territory of Orleans”; and the upper part, the “District of Louisiana,” from which 13 states or parts thereof were later divided. By European custom going back to the eighth century, parish borders were used for civil as well as religious purposes, so counties were not needed in the Territory. Since the parish was generally also the center of public and social life, there was an undeniable logic to this.
Controversy began after the Purchase, when the Territory was almost immediately divided into 12 counties — apparently one price for being admitted into the U.S. In 1807, the Louisiana Legislature passed an act delimiting 19 civil parishes, but keeping the 12 counties as well. The two geographical divisions apparently overlapped, so that, for instance, “Orleans” gave its name to both a parish and a county. When Louisiana was admitted as the 18th State of the United States in 1812, its new constitution totally ignored the question of parishes or counties. Until 1845, when a new state constitution was ratified, map-makers and legislators argued over, ignored, or attempted to reconcile the two systems. The new constitution settled the issue in favor of parishes. Today, there are 64 parishes in the State of Louisiana . . . and not one county!