French America

The French Roots of Baton Rouge

In a testament to North America’s French heritage, many regions, towns, mountains, and rivers in the United States have French names. Every month, French-American author Anthony Lacoudre untangles their fascinating history. This issue takes us to the state capital of Louisiana and the Native American totem that inspired its name.
© Mathieu Persan

The great sailor and explorer Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville reached the Gulf of Mexico in January 1699. He had set out from Brest and was tasked by Louis XIV’s ministry of the navy with mapping the mouth of the Mississippi River and colo- nizing Louisiana, which stretched as far as the Great Lakes at the time. He went on to become the region’s first governor. Throughout three different expeditions, the Norman officer established several forts – including Maurepas (the future city of Ocean Springs, near Biloxi, Mississippi) and Louis (the original site of Mobile, Alabama) – and signed treaties with local tribes.

Accompanied by a Bayougoula chief, Iberville discovered a blood-coated cypress pole on a hill overlooking the Mississippi. This “red stick” or bâton rouge – the French translation of the Native American toponym “Istrouma” – marked the border with the lands controlled by the Houmas, according to the journal written by the expedition’s carpenter, André Pénicaut: “These two nations were extremely jealous of anyone else hunting on their lands. They would even attack their neighbors if they found them hunting beyond the limits of this red-stained totem. However, things have now changed. Everyone hunts everywhere, on each other’s land, and the two tribes are firm friends.”

Around 1718, Basque officer Pierre d’Artaguiette and his two brothers established a plantation a few miles south on the river. They are considered the founders of Baton Rouge. (A plaque next to the Old State Capitol indicates where their estate was built.) Renamed “New Richmond” during the English occupation that followed the Treaty of Paris in 1763, the city was also briefly controlled by the Spanish before becoming American. It took on its current name in 1817 and became the capital of the state of Louisiana in 1849.

As for the totem that lent its name to Baton Rouge, it has long since disappeared. Today, the campus of Southern University is located where it once stood. Louisiana sculptor Frank Hayden installed one of his works there in 1976, featuring an aluminum tepee built around a crimson central mast. Can you guess the name of the sculpture? Red Stick, of course!


Article published in the September 2022 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.