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Blake Pontchartrain: 'Arpents' in New Orleans

The pre-metric French measurement was widely used in New Orleans' early days



Hey Blake,

Your column June 20 mentioned the word "arpent" as a unit of measurement. What can you tell me about its history and use in this area?

Dear Reader,

  The arpent is a pre-metric French land measurement unit common in writings and maps of the city dating back to its earliest days as a French settlement. In his book Time and Place in New Orleans: Past Geographies in the Present Day, geographer Richard Campanella explains that an arpent is the "functional equivalent of the English acre, except that while an acre measures a superficial area, an arpent measures both lineally and superficially." By lineal measure, an arpent runs about 192 feet. By areal measure, a "superficial" or square arpent equals 0.84628 acres. The term is derived from the Latin arepennis, or "surface of a field."

  In many parts of the New World, not just Louisiana, the French government divided its lands according to the arpent system. As the city's population grew, the so-called 40- arpent land surveying system developed. In it, parallel lines from 2 to 8 lineal arpents apart were drawn 40 lineal arpents deep from both sides of the banks of the Mississippi River, with a canal often forming the back end of the property. This practice gave many landowners access to the valuable riverfront. The "40-arpent line" at the rear of many properties was used to divide land areas into long lots. This explains the odd directions and layout of some current city streets and neighborhoods.

  With the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, American surveyors grappled with the French colonial systems that had been in place for nearly 100 years, but wisely left them in place. Campanella says Congress passed an act in 1807 "confirming most colonial-era land holdings, and a second act in 1811 authorizing surveyors to continue laying out long lots in areas of colonial settlement."

  In modern times in America, acres became the areal standard for land measurement.

  The term arpent still is seen in a street name (Eighty Arpent Road in Marrero), as well as in the 40 Arpent Canal in St. Bernard Parish, part of the Florida Canal that stretches from New Orleans to Plaquemines and still is called by its previous name — 40 Arpent Canal — by some folks. That historic waterway also inspired the name of a brewery, the 40 Arpent Brewing Company in Arabi.

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