Is Vermilion a river or a bayou?

Historically, the Vermilion was formed in two different sections, said Emile Ancelet, Bayou Vermilion District’s water quality coordinator. “The southern part was formed by head water erosion and eventually connected to the northern section; the bayou met the river. (Photo: Submitted photo)

The Bayou Vermilion? Or is it the Vermilion River?

Surely, you’ve heard both, and you’ve probably heard the two names used interchangeably. So which is it?

Maybe it’s because of the summer heat or the holiday weekends, but I’ve noticed more and more photos of water recreation in my newsfeeds lately, and with it, more and more debate on what to call the Vermilion.

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Whichever team you’re for (bayou or river), the opinions run strong. Among the arguments I’ve come across, some claim that “The Vermilion is technically a bayou. The term river was coined purely for commerce purposes in Lafayette,” or “Calling the Vermilion a ‘river’ is a stretch. In the topographical lexicon of Louisiana, the Vermilion is properly called a bayou.”


I took a call one day at work not too long after starting my job, and upon answering the phone with “Bayou Vermilion District,” without skipping a beat, the man on the other end thanked me profusely for calling it a bayou and not a river, “because it IS a bayou,” he said — no other explanation than that. I thought it was interesting, so I brought it to the Bayou Vermilion District’s CEO, David Cheramie.

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“Well, it’s both,” he told me. I’d heard this before. But why?

Thanks to a collection of local postcards dating from 1905 to 1949 shared by Craig Zimmermann in the Lafayette Memories Facebook group, we can see the Vermilion being referred to as a bayou most frequently. But we also see it called a ‘river’ in a card from the 1920s. (Interestingly enough, the variations we see in this collection are “Vermilion River,” “Bayou Vermilion,” “Vermilion Bayou,” and even “bayaw” as a spelling for bayou). My gut instinct is that this dispels the ‘commerciality’ or marketability myth for calling it a river, as it predates the tourism boom of the 1980s.

I can see why the argument tends to be more in favor of the term bayou. It’s a localism, and we tend to be proud of all things homegrown! This Native American word is one of many that made its way into Louisiana French, deriving from the Choctaw word ‘bayuk,’ meaning ‘small stream.’

Bayou Vermilion District commissioner Tommy Michot is a research scientist with over 30 years of experience as a biologist with the U.S. Department of the Interior (Fish and Wildlife Service and USGS-National Wetlands Research Center). He thinks that Louisiana’s heritage language may have something to do with it as well.

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“As far as I’m concerned, there is really no difference between a bayou and a river; they are both names for a ‘stream’,” said Michot., a Vermilion resident who grew up speaking French at home.

While some may argue that a river is a larger body of water or that by definition it must flow into a sea, there are many large bayous in Louisiana much bigger than the Vermilion, and many that flow into the sea; Bayou Lafourche, for instance,” Michot said. “So size and destination are not adequate criteria.”

The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) does not discriminate between the terms ‘bayou’ and ‘river’ either, says Bayou Vermilion District’s water quality coordinator, Emile Ancelet, although it does consistently refer to the Vermilion as a river in its reports.

“Historically, the Vermilion was formed in two different sections,” said Ancelet. “The southern part was formed by head water erosion and eventually connected to the northern section; the bayou met the river. The northern part looks like a bayou, with steep banks and a lot of erratic meanderings, while the southern part looks like a well-formed and much larger river with nice sloping banks and clear building/eroding banks. The Vermilion, especially the southern part, is heavily influenced by the tides which would make it more of a ‘tidal river’.”

So what do you think? No matter what you call it, we want to see your pictures of how you use it. Let us know what you’ve been doing out on the water by tagging @BayouVermilionDistrict in your photos and using the hashtag #MightyVerm.

Since 1984, Bayou Vermilion District has beautified, conserved & managed sites along the Vermilion, preserving Lafayette Parish natural & cultural sources.

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