A Geography of Lafayette

Rivers have shaped Lafayette Parish.

In 1807 the First Legislature divided the Orleans Territory into nineteen parishes. The 19th parish, Attakapas, included what is known today as Vermilion, Lafayette, St. Martin and St. Mary parishes. It was not until 1844 that the modern day boundaries of Lafayette Parish were defined. The physical boundaries that define Lafayette Parish today are the watersheds that surround the area.  A watershed is an area of land that drains to a river, bayou, lake, or wetland.  The watershed of the

Teche/Vermilion Rivers is to the north, east and south.  The watershed of the Mermentau River lies to the West. 

Lafayette Parish has benefited from its geology.

The physical characteristics of Lafayette Parish today are a legacy of the region’s geologic history. The entire state of Louisiana is part of the north Gulf Coastal Plain that runs from Southeastern Texas to the tip of Florida. Over thousands of years of glacial and interglacial periods the levels of the seas rose and receded in this area.

18,000 years  ago during the last ice age, melt water and sediment flowed south from the southern part of the Wisconsin Glaciation, roughly where the Ohio and Missouri Rivers meet at the Mississippi.  Rich deposits from the ancient streams helped create the Prairie Complex on this former floodplain. Lafayette Parish is at the easternmost point of the Prairie Terrace. 

Where the rivers overflowed they left rich loose soil of clay, sand, and silt.  This soil was good for the farmers of Vermilionville, the main town  that is now the City of Lafayette.  The Prairie Terrace is well-drained at an average elevation of 40 feet above sea level . Crops grow well in the mild winters. There is no dry season.

 Natural streams drain the land of Lafayette Parish.

There are many natural streams in Lafayette Parish. The main channel of the largest stream, the Vermilion River, flows through Lafayette Parish. The Vermilion River starts north of the parish at Bayou Fuselier taking its headwaters from the Teche River and wanders south. It empties into Vermilion Bay. The Vermilion River is considered navigable for larger vessels from Pinhook Bridge on southward.In Lafayette the river roughly parallels one of the main economic corridors – Highway 167 (Johnston Street).  

Most smaller streams in the parish are part of the Vermilion watershed. In the western part of the parish smaller streams ultimately flow into the Mermentau River. These various streams now make up the drainage map of Lafayette Parish. Among the largest are: Isaac Verot Coulee, Coulee des Poches, Coulee Ile des Cannes and Coulee Mine. The Lafayette Parish Official Drainage Map shows the watershed areas by name.

Unique ecosystems give Lafayette Parish its beauty.

Today the landscape of Lafayette Parish is mostly urban. However, there are remnants of the naturally occurring  ecosystems that  thrive in our humid subtropical climate. These ecosystems include the bottomland hardwoods around the Vermilion River. The indigenous species still thrive today in Acadiana’s Nature park in the northwestern area of the parish along the Vermilion River.

Lafayette Parish has grown to be the hub of Acadiana. 

A road map of Lafayette parish reveals the story of a small parish (one of the smallest in the state) that once had a small urban center and small farming communities that served it. Today Lafayette Parish is a hub of traffic and commerce that serves the wider region of activity west of the Atchafalaya and east of Lake Charles.

The Old Spanish Trail was one of Lafayette’s earliest arteries. Today the trail corresponds to Highway 90—a road that runs the length of the eastern side of the parish and turns west just south of Interstate 10. This forms the “T” set off to the east of the parish, most likely a result of the early development near the Vermilion River.

Roads today provide those links for local commuters working in the city of Lafayette and living in one of the  smaller suburban communities in the parish.  Railroad tracks parallel this “T”.    The railroads were critical to the development of the outer areas of the parish.

Rivers, churches, railroads, and farmland helped the development of municipalities.

The largest city and parish seat is Lafayette. Known early on as Vermilionville it first developed in the mid  1800s on the banks and beyond of the Vermilion River. Like most settlements in the late 19th century in south Louisiana, it was a wealthy landowner, Jean Mouton, who provided land grants to build the early infrastructure of this new town. Along with his commitment and the formation of a church parish, Vermilionville  grew into what would soon be renamed as the city of Lafayette.

Youngsville is in the southern end of the parish. It incorporated in 1908.  Youngsville began as a community of French Acadian sugarcane farmers who settled the area in the early 1800s. It is today considered the fastest growing incorporated area. It is in effect a community of descendants of the early settlers and a suburban refuge for many who work in Lafayette. 

Broussard was originally named Cote Gelee (frozen hill). Early on cotton was an important crop that was gradually replaced by sugar. The town was reincorporated as Broussard in 1906. Broussard was named for the family that had an important role in the history of Cote Gelee and that donated much of the land that was necessary for the needs of the growing community. The railroad had a significant impact on the early development and land use in the community. The railroad and, later, the Highway 90 corridor shifted development east.  

Carencro, originally named St. Pierre, grew on the banks of Bayou Carencro .  It was settled by cattle ranchers. Today it is the northernmost municipality in the parish. Interstate 49 and North University are major corridors that have defined development and expansion north of the City of Lafayette toward Carencro.

Another community greatly affected by the expansion of rail in the parish is Scott. By 1880 the railroad linked New Orleans to Houston—and Scott became part of the early link. The community was split in half by the railroad tracks. The  map of Lafayette Parish today reflects the straddling of the community around the railroad. Scott was incorporated in 1904.  It is  locally referred to  as “where the west begins.” In later years, the Interstate 10 corridor has encouraged development north of the original heart of the community.

Duson was first incorporated in 1909 and grew from the Duson Stationa stop on the Louisiana Western Railroad that linked the cities of New Orleans and Houston. It remains today Lafayette Parish’s smallest municipality. Part of Duson lies in Acadia Parish.



Colten. 2007. A geography of Louisiana
Kniffen, et al. Historic Indian Tribes of Louisiana
Spearing. Roadside Geology of Louisiana

Louisiana legislative Acts.
La Almanac 2008-9

Reviewed, September, 2015

John St. Julien,
Feb 4, 2011, 10:32 AM