views updated May 11 2018


BAYOU, a term used throughout the South, may refer to bays, creeks, sloughs, or irrigation canals for rice fields. However, in the Mississippi River Delta region of Louisiana and Mississippi, it chiefly refers to the sluggish offshoots of rivers that meander through marshes and alluvial lowlands in the flat delta. During floods, the river may break through its curving banks to forge a more direct channel. The old channel, having lost the principal flow, becomes a sluggish stretch of brown water called a bayou. Some larger examples, such as Bayou Lafourche, are remnants of belts the Mississippi once followed to the Gulf of Mexico. Five times in the last five thousand years, the Mississippi has shifted to an entirely new course. In 1963 the Army Corps of Engineers installed a dam to try to prevent the Mississippi from diverting into the Atchafalaya

River, a diversion that could leave New Orleans on a bayou.

The term "bayou" most likely came from the Choctaw bayuk ("small sluggish stream"), although some sources insist it is derived from the French boyau ("gut" or "channel"). When boats were virtually the only means of transportation in the delta region, much human activity focused on bayous. Legendary pirate Jean Laffite used Bayou Barataria in southeastern Louisiana as his headquarters in the early 1800s. Bayou Pierre, southwest of Jackson, Mississippi, was an obstacle well known to travelers on the Natchez Trace. Antebellum planters romanticized the bayous' beauty, building colonnaded mansions among moss-draped live oaks on the shores. During the Civil War, Confederates used bayous flowing into the Gulf to run weapons, medical supplies, and other contraband past the Union blockade. Today bayous are used for flood control, fishing, and even recreation. Louisiana has incorporated several bayous into its state parks.


Balée, William, ed. Advances in Historical Ecology. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

Kane, Harnett T. The Bayous of Louisiana. New York: Morrow, 1943.

McPhee, John. The Control of Nature. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1989.

Robert W.Twyman/w. p.

See alsoAcadia ; Houma ; Mississippi River .


views updated Jun 11 2018

bay·ou / ˈbīoō; ˈbīō/ • n. (pl. -ous) a slow-flowing stream in a swampy area.


views updated Jun 27 2018

bayou XVIII. — Amer. F. — a Choctaw word.