How Louisiana’s False River Was Created: Curious Louisiana | Curious Louisiana

The False River is an oxbow lake.

That fact is undisputed, but when it comes to the body of water’s origins, Artemas Davis has questions.

“Is the False River man-made or the result of the ever-changing mighty Mississippi?” he asked.

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The question was prompted by a story his grandfather had told him.

“He told us about his help dredging the False River,” Davis said. “And I’ve always wondered if it was a man-made formation for that reason. He would have done this work in the late 1920s or early 30s, so it could have been during the great flood of 1927.”

Wrong river

False River as seen from New Roads on December 14, 2021.

It could have happened then. Author Brian Costello, founding historian of the Pointe Coupee Parish Library Historical Materials Collection, said that the Mississippi’s fluctuating water levels still affect the False River in their own way.

“The False River gets its water from natural drainage bays and channels,” Costello said. “But of course the Mississippi’s water table is so high that it’s certainly getting some water from the underground river as well.”

But when it comes to the Mississippi, it alone formed the oxbow lake when it changed course in the late 17th century.

“It’s natural,” Costello said. “It’s part of the Mississippi, which has cut several bends over the years, with the False River being the southernmost. There are more in northern Louisiana and Mississippi.”

When the river flows south, it naturally tries to find the shortest route to the Gulf of Mexico. This avoided unnecessary curves and hairpin bends along the way.

“And we think the formation of the False River could have happened as early as 1682 with the LaSalle expedition, because as they descended the river they approached some cliffs that we interpret as Feliciana,” Costello said. “They mention a risky river, like a small canal, that slowed east on their left, so the river may have tried to take a shortcut at the time.”

The Atchafalaya Heritage Water Trail dates the formation of the False River to between 1713 and 1722, but Costello said there is documentation of its formation in 1699.

“It was definitely there in 1699 when Pierre Le Moyne d’Iberville and his Canadian explorers boarded the river,” he said. “Native Americans told them that instead of going around that big 22-mile bend, they could take a shortcut through a small channel already carved by the river that was only four miles long. So they cleared some undergrowth and debris that was in the channel and got their boats through the top of the turn.”

112022 False River location map

That was according to the earliest maps from 1699, Costello added.

“The cutoff was complete in 1722,” he continued. “The river had fully taken on its new course.”

The earliest settlers along the oxbow lake, Costello said, were Belgians. The French who settled there called it a false river or Fausse Rivière.

Finally, there is an artificial component in False River. According to the Atchafalaya Heritage Water Trail, its main outlet is an artificial drainage canal at nearby Oscar, built in 1947 as part of a nationwide drainage program.

“First called the False River-Bayou Grosse Tete Spillway Canal, then the Rougon Canal (or Lighthouse Canal) and now the False River Outfall Channel, construction was a massive undertaking, accomplished in record time,” continued the Atchafalaya Heritage Water Way. “It connects the False River to the common headwaters of Bayou Grosse Tete and Bayou Cholpe. Most of the water in Bayou Cholpe flows through an area once known as Greve’s Swamp and eventually joins the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway west of Brusly. It also drains the False River through the lake’s tall natural levee (where La. 1 is today).

Bayou Cirier, named for the numerous waxy myrtle trees that early Francophone settlers observed there, was the False River’s original main outlet before the False River Outfall Channel was built. Now the bayou only serves as a tributary when the False River reaches higher levels.

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