Tuesday, June 27, 2023

Petit Manchac: A Tale of Two Lafayettes

The year 2023 marks the bicentennial of Lafayette Parish, Louisiana  the seat of which was Vermilionville, renamed Lafayette in 1884 to honor the Marquis de Lafayette of American Revolution fame. This two-hundredth anniversary seems an opportune time to reconsider a popular notion about early Vermilionville / Lafayette history: namely, that the community had been founded on a site known as "Petit Manchac" — the latter word thought to be of Mobilian or Choctaw origin meaning "rear" or "rear entrance."(1)

Logo of the Lafayette Parish
bicentennial celebration.

This claim that Vermilionville / Lafayette began as Petit Manchac can be found in numerous sources spanning the past century. "Petit Manchac, Vermilionville, Lafayette," observed Father Charles Léon Souvay in 1921, "each of these three names might well be taken to typify a distinct period in the life of the thriving little city by the Bayou Vermilion." "The settlement, then called Petit Manchac," asserted the World War II-era tome Louisiana: A Guide to the State, "became the governing seat of Lafayette Parish." "'Petit Manchac' Grew Up into Lafayette,” noted a Lafayette newspaper headline in 1959. "Petit Manchac, the original name of Lafayette, even before Vermilionville, means the little back door!" stated New Orleans Magazine in 2013.(2)

But is this true? Was Petit Manchac the name of the colonial-era site that became Vermilionville and then Lafayette, a city of about 120,000 people in present-day Lafayette Parish, Louisiana.(3)

Vermilionville, later Lafayette,
Lafayette Parish, Louisiana,
from J. H. Colton's 1855 map of Louisiana.

Putting aside the Petit Manchac issue for a moment, Manchac in itself has referred over time to a number of Louisiana geographic features. For example, it is the name of a bayou running through the parishes of East Baton Rouge, Ascension, and Iberville. Furthermore, Manchac refers to a small present-day community in Tangipahoa Parish. Manchac Pass is a short waterway connecting Lake Maurepas to Lake Pontchartrain. Historically, Manchac was the name of a colonial-era British fort (also called Fort Bute) and its environs located where Bayou Manchac meets the Mississippi River.(4)

Because all these features bearing the name Manchac sit in southeast Louisiana, it seems a little odd that the future site of Vermilionville / Lafayette  found in south-central Louisiana  should have been called Petit Manchac. Odd, because Vermilionville / Lafayette sits in a region with a slightly different history and culture, where the Attakapas, not the Mobile or Choctaw, resided, and where place names deriving from the latter two tribal languages are less commonly known or altogether unknown.

Although not impossible, it does seem unlikely that Vermilionville / Lafayette traces its origin to a place called Petit Manchac. There is, for example, no known primary-source evidence for the claim (at least as far as I am aware) — no known handwritten colonial-era or early-American document referring to Vermilionville / Lafayette as Petit Manchac.

So where does the story about Petit Manchac morphing into Vermilionville / Lafayette come from? 

I believe the association of Vermilionville / Lafayette with Petit Manchac quite possibly came from someone's misreading of a 19th-century work of history  namely, Charles Gayarré's French-language book Histoire de la Louisiane, published in two-volumes between 1846 and 1847.

Volume 2 of Gayarré's 
Histoire de la Louisiane (1847).

This idea, I should say, is not at all mine, though I concur with it wholly. Rather, the idea comes from my fellow historical researcher Donald Arceneaux and archaeologist Donny Bourgeois. It was they who noticed and interpreted the following passage in Gayarré's book (which I translate)  the earliest known reference to Petit Manchac:

"The English . . . [in] Their vessels, went up the [Mississippi] river under the pretext of going to [Fort] Manchac and to Baton Rouge, stopping, after having passed New Orleans, at the place where the town of Lafayette now stands. . . . The name 'petit Manchac' stuck with this place."(5)

There it is  the association of Petit Manchac with the future site of "the town of Lafayette." 

Seems pretty clear and matter-of-fact.

The crucial passage in Gayarré.

A closer reading of the passage, however, reveals that Gayarré did not refer to Lafayette in Lafayette Parish, Louisiana. Rather, he referred to a different Lafayette, one located some 135 miles to the south-southeast, on the Mississippi River just upstream of New Orleans. 

And there was indeed a town called Lafayette on that stretch of the Mississippi  a town in fact so close to New Orleans that it eventually became part of New Orleans itself. I refer to the Crescent City neighborhood called Faubourg Lafayette, now the 10th Ward, comprising part of New Orleans' renowned Garden District. “The city of Lafayette,” the state declared in 1852, “is hereby incorporated with the city of New Orleans, and shall form part of the city of New Orleans. . . .”(6)

The faubourg of Lafayette (at left),
in relation to central New Orleans (right),
from Charles Zimpel's map of New Orleans (1834).

With this information in mind, it seems to me the assertion that Lafayette / Vermilionville developed from a place called Petit Manchac is incorrect; and that this error likely stemmed directly or indirectly from a misreading of Gayarré's Histoire de la Louisiane

The alternative, I should note, would be that early south Louisiana boasted not one but two sites called Petit Manchac, both of which grew into communities named Lafayette  a highly unlikely proposition. The simpler explanation is that someone misread Gayarré and that others repeated that error. This is, unfortunately, not an uncommon occurrence in historical writing.(7)

Thanks to Carl Brasseaux and Don Arceneaux for proofing this blog article.


(1)William A. Read, "Louisiana Place-Names of Indian Origin," University Bulletin XIX (February 1927): 36. Read did not seem entirely convinced of the etymology, tentatively suggesting "Perhaps it springs . . . from Mobilian or Choctaw imashaka, 'rear,' or probably 'rear entrance.' . . ." (emphasis added).

(2)Reverend Charles Léon Souvay, "Rummaging through Old Parish Records: An Historical Sketch of the Church of Lafayette, La., 1821-1921," St. Louis Catholic Historical Review III (October 1921): 242; Louisiana: A Guide to the State (New York: Hastings House, 1945), p. 402; Lydia Krause, "'Petit Manchac' Grew Up into Lafayette,” Daily Advertiser, 30 January 1959, Sec. A, 1–5; Charles Paxton, "The Legacy of Native Acadiana," New Orleans Magazine, 1 August 2013, https://www.myneworleans.com/the-legacy-of-native-acadiana/, accessed 27 June 2023. For ease of reading I have corrected Souvey's spelling of Vermilionville from his nonstandard "Vermillionville."

(3)"QuickFacts: Lafayette City, Louisiana; Lafayette Parish, Louisiana," US Census Bureau, population estimate of 1 July 2022, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/lafayettecitylouisiana,lafayetteparishlouisiana/PST045222, accessed 27 June 2023.

(4)See Richard Campanella, "What Might Have Happened at Manchac," 64 Parishes, Winter 2022, https://64parishes.org/what-might-have-happened-at-manchac, accessed 27 June 2023.

(5)Charles Gayarré, Histoire de la Louisiane, Vol. 2 (New Orleans: Magne & Weisse, 1847), 127. It is worth noting that Gayarré himself does not cite a source for his claim that the New Orleans faubourg of Lafayette was once called Petite Manchac  but whether or not his assertion is correct is a separate issue from that surrounding Vermilionville / Lafayette.

(6)The Statutes of the State of Louisiana, ed. U. B. Phillips (New Orleans: Emile La Sere, 1855), 383 (Sec. 43, 1852-55-1).

(7)That earliest instance of a misreading may in fact be Souvay's 1921 essay in St. Louis Catholic Historical Review (see n. 2 above). Though he footnoted that work, Souvey did not mention the source of his claim that Petit Manchac became Vermilionville/Lafayette.

1 comment:

  1. Absolutely wonderful article. I have heard in the past that it was petit Manchac but I was always weary of that being correct.

    Though I do wish we had Vermilionville rather than Lafayette today.