Jim Bradshaw: In south Louisiana, not all islands are surrounded by water
My dictionary defines a “cove” as “a sheltered bay in the shoreline of a sea, river, or lake,” and says that, in a geographical sense, a “point” is a “projection of land,” usually into a body of water. But south Louisiana is full of places that are far inland and named for those nautical features.
Roberts Cove is probably the most familiar of the “coves.” but we have also Frilot Cove, Andrus Cove, Tate Cove, Belaire Cove, and probably a dozen others.
Church Point is likely the best known of the “points,” sometimes spelled with an “e” on the end, but there are others such as Point Blue, Point Meyon, Pointe Noire, Point Verte,and more.
All of these places are on or close to the prairie and most of them, perhaps all, got their names because the waving grass that once stretched to the horizon reminded somebody of the sea.
Surveyor William Darby gave an inkling of that idea when he first visited southwest Louisiana in 1805 and said that the prairies were the region’s “most remarkable features.”
He was struck by “one of the most agreeable views in nature, to behold from a point of elevation, thousands of horses and cows, of all sizes, scattered over the interminable mead, intermingled in wild confusion,” all of them grazing in “a sea of plenty.”
Henry Brackenridge, who traveled through the countryside in the early 1800s, was one of the early writers to allude more specifically to the sea-like scenery.
As he rode across the grasslands in early May 1814, he said, “the distance of my journey was forgotten while I gazed with delight upon the waving surface of these meadows now covered with deep green … in some places bounded only by the horizon, in others by skirts of wood, dimly appearing as … some distant isle of the sea; while a thousand brilliant … flowers shed their perfume upon the air.”
Shortly after the Civil War, newspaperman Daniel Dennett made an even fuller comparison.
“The prairie is gently rolling,” he wrote, “like the billows of a deep sea. In fact, one cannot ride through the prairies without having their striking resemblance to large bodies of water constantly recurring to his mind.
"The grass which grows upon their surface, waving in the wind, looks like ripples on the bosom of the ocean.”
He goes on to describe the features that inspired so many place names on the prairie:
“The dark blue border of woods are like distant shores, the projecting spurs [of wooded land] like capes and promontories, the ‘coves’ like bays and gulfs, and the occasional clumps of detached trees like islands in the sea.”
Dennett made a similar comparison in describing the Beaubassin region between Lafayette and Carencro.
“The gentle slopes, and long tortuous ravines may be ranked with the most delightful ... scenery in Attakapas. ...The swells are like the heaving bosom of the ocean after a storm.
"Descending into the ravines one feels as though he were in a trough of the sea, soon to rise again on the mountain wave, and look out on the green ocean.”
The nautical idea is carried also in the names of a few “islands” — usually describing groves of trees — in the prairie, but most of the place names I know that use “Island” or “Isle: or “Ile” are surrounded at least by wetlands if not flowing water.
I’ve been looking in vain for the first time a settled place was given one of the nautical names.
It appears that in many instances they were first applied to broader sections of the prairie and later became names of towns or communities that sprang up in those areas.
Some of them were obviously named for families that settled nearby (Andrus, Tate, Belair, etc.) and probably came later.
I find the names a bit remarkable, because most of the settlers on the prairies had no great history of seafaring, but only a bit remarkable.
It doesn’t take much imagination for even a landlubber to think of the rolling sea when prairie winds send ripples through the grass.
A collection of Jim Bradshaw’s columns, "Cajuns and Other Characters," is now available from Pelican Publishing. You can contact him at email@example.com or P.O. Box 1121, Washington LA 70589.