Geography

The Astonishing French Names of the United States

Many American states, counties, cities and towns, a multitude of streets, forests, mountains, lakes, and rivers have French names. These toponyms are a testament to North America’s longstanding French history.
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Lac Qui Parle State Park, Minnesota. © Tony Webster

The States

When thinking of the states, the first French name that comes to mind is Louisiana, named in homage to Louis XIV. When René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle, the first European to sail down the Mississippi to its delta, took possession of the lands that drained into the river in January 1682, he did so in the name of the king of France. Meanwhile, the state of Vermont owes its name to Verd Mont, given to the region by explorer Samuel de Champlain on his 1647 map. This French name has even influenced Vermont’s nickname as the “Green Mountain State.”

The state of Maine has a royal charter granted by Charles I in 1639 to thank for its moniker. Some say that the king of England did so because of the fondness of his wife, Henrietta Maria, daughter of King Henry IV of France and Marie de’ Medici, for the county of Maine in the modern-day Sarthe département. This may or may not be true, but the young French queen definitely lent her name to the colony and future state of Maryland. A charter received by English settlers in 1632 proves it!

The name of the state of Oregon supposedly comes from a corruption of the French word ouragan (“hurricane”), as this northwestern American region can be quite stormy! And the state of Delaware was named after an eponymous river, which in turn owes its name to Thomas West, the English Baron De La Warre, from the Norman wer, which descends from the French word guerre (“war”).

The state of Illinois corresponds to the name given by French explorers to the native tribe in the region, while the state of Arkansas is named after the French word Akansea, as written in explorer Jacques Marquette’s journal in 1663, which became Acansa on La Salle’s map a few years later. Similarly, the state of Wisconsin comes from a French name, Ouisconsing, for the river and the surrounding areas, as suggested by Marquette in his journal in 1673.

The Counties

There are numerous counties with a French air across the United States. Just look at Calumet County and Fond du Lac County in Wisconsin, Lac qui Parle in Minnesota, Saint François in Missouri, and St. Clair, Montmorency, and Montcalm in Michigan, the last of which was named after Louis-Joseph de Montcalm, a French general in North America during the French and Indian War.

Let’s not forget the counties of Bonneville and Nez Perce in Idaho, Grand Isle in Vermont, Dubois and Vermillion in Indiana, or Luzerne in Pennsylvania, which owes its name to the Marquis de La Luzerne, the French ambassador to the United States from 1779 to 1783. And of course, Hennepin County in Minnesota, a reference to explorer and missionary Louis Hennepin, Belmont in Ohio, and Bourbon in Kentucky, named in tribute to the French royal family.

The Cities

The most French-sounding cities in America include Baton Rouge (Louisiana), Des Moines (Iowa), Montpelier (Vermont), Pierre (South Dakota, named after the explorer Pierre Chouteau), Juneau (Alaska, after Joseph Juneau, a 19th-century French prospector), Boise (Idaho, from the French boisé, “wooded”), Saint Paul (Minnesota, named by the French missionary Lucien Galtier in 1841), Cheyenne (Wyoming, after the French pronunciation of a local native tribe), Montgomery (Alabama, after the English general Richard Montgomery, of Norman descent), Richmond (Virginia, an originally Norman name), and Little Rock (Arkansas), which was originally called La Petite Roche.

New Orleans (after the regent Philippe II, duke of Orléans), St. Louis (after King Louis IX), and Louisville (Kentucky, named after Louis XVI in 1778) are also major examples. As are Detroit (Michigan), Dubuque (Iowa, after the explorer Julien Dubuque), and Marquette (Michigan, after the explorer Jacques Marquette). Then there is Terre Haute (Indiana) and Havre de Grace (Maryland), which, following the Marquis de Lafayette’s visit just after the American Revolution, was named after the original city of Le Havre in Normandy.

Prairie-du-Chien-Wisconsin
Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin. © Tony Webster

The list continues with New Rochelle (a city in New York State founded in 1688 by the Huguenots of La Rochelle), Mandeville (Louisiana, after Bernard Xavier Philippe de Marigny de Mandeville, one of the leading landowners of New Orleans in the 19th century), Grosse Pointe, Grosse Ile, Grand Rapids, Port Huron, and Grand Blanc (Michigan), Des Plaines (Illinois), Creve Coeur and Bonne Terre (Missouri), Poteau (Oklahoma), Eau Claire, La Crosse, and Prairie du Chien (Wisconsin), Vincennes (Indiana, after François-Marie Bissot de Vincennes), Montclair (California, New Jersey), (Michigan), Papillion (Nebraska), Bel Air (Maryland), Beauregard (Mississippi), Belle Fourche (South Dakota), Beaumont and Grand Prairie (Texas), Belleville (Arkansas, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey), Bellevue (Delaware, Kentucky, Washington), and Beaufort, on Port Royal Island in South Carolina.

Others include Abbeville (South Carolina, Louisiana), Bayonne (New Jersey), Chantilly (Virginia), Marseilles (Illinois, Ohio), Paris (Arkansas, Kentucky, Maine, Texas), St. Cloud (Minnesota), and Versailles (Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Missouri, and Pennsylvania). Further afield from the towns and cities, villages, unincorporated communities, and landmarks have also been named in homage to France, such as Prairie du Rocher (Illinois), founded by French settlers from Canada in 1722, Des Lacs (North Dakota), Bonneau (South Carolina), Portage des Sioux (Missouri), Terre Rouge Creek (Arkansas), and Bon Secour Bay (Alabama). Louisiana is also home to Chataignier, Grosse Tête, Pointe à la Hache, and even a village called Napoleonville!

Inspired by the Marquis de Lafayette’s American tour in 1824-1825, many towns and cities adopted his name, including Lafayette (California, Indiana, Louisiana, Tennessee), LaFayette (Kentucky), Fayette (Alabama, Pennsylvania), and Fayetteville (Arkansas, North Carolina). Meanwhile, LaGrange (Georgia, New York State) and La Grange (Kentucky, Texas) refer to the Château de La Grange-Bléneau, the estate in the Ile-de-France region where the marquis spent the last thirty years of his life.

The Mountains, Lakes, and Rivers

Francophone explorers and trappers have also left a mark on American geography. The name of the Mississippi River, as it was written on Cavelier de La Salle’s map in 1695, is a French adaptation of the native word Missisipioui, which means “the big river.” The enormous Lake Huron to the east of Michigan was named after the French term for the native tribe in the region. Other examples include Lake Champlain (separating Vermont from Canada, named after the explorer Samuel de Champlain), Traverse Lake (between Minnesota and South Dakota), Lac du Flambeau, Lake Butte des Morts, and Lac Courte Oreilles, along with Bois Brule River (Wisconsin), Loup River (Nebraska), Marais des Cygnes River and Pomme de Terre Lake and River (Missouri), La Chute River (New York), Cache la Poudre River (Colorado), Bois de Sioux River (which runs through Minnesota and the two Dakotas), and the Deschutes and Malheur National Forests (Oregon). Louisiana has Lake Pontchartrain, in tribute to Louis XIV’s minister of the navy, the Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, and Fontainebleau State Park, named after the Fontainebleau Forest just outside Paris.

Travelers will also find Grand Teton (literally, “big nipple”), a mountain named after its suggestive shape in a national park of the same name in Wyoming, Isle Royale National Park in Michigan, and Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota. This final site commemorates the French settlers who came from Canada to trade furs during the 17th and 18th centuries, and who were the first Europeans to cross the American continent. Many French strongholds, which have since become museums, many of which are National Historic Landmarks, stand as a testament to this journey: Fort Toulouse (Alabama), Fort Presque Isle (Pennsylvania), Fort Crevecoeur and Fort Massac (Illinois), and Fort Niagara (New York State). And in the same state, on the banks of Lake Champlain, the original canons at Fort Carillon (renamed Fort Ticonderoga by the English) are inscribed with the fleur-de-lys – the emblem of the French kings!

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