Historic markers near Lake Pontchartrain offer terse commentaries but pay homage to Native
Americans who first inhabited the land surrounding the lake. They include:
“Lake Pontchartrain -- …Indians called it Okwa-ta, wide water…”
“New Orleans -- First sited as Indian
portage to Lake Pontchartrain and Gulf…”
“The Old Portage -- Short trail from Lake Pontchartrain to river shown by Indians to Iberville and Bienville, 1699…”
“Mandeville -- … Near this site Bienville
met, in 1699, Acolapissas who reported that, two days before, their village had been attacked by two Englishmen and 200 Chicasaws.”
“Tangipahoa -- …Town named for Indian
The “Indian tribe”
mentioned above, the Tangipahoa people, are best remembered now for the parish as well as the river named for them (Tangipahoa
comes from an Acolapissa word meaning "those who gather corn”). The Tchefuncte tribe was likewise recognized;
the river which enters Lake Pontchartrain at Madisonville bears their name.
Prior to the arrival of Europeans, a Choctaw village of the Houmas tribe (who viewed the crawfish
as a sign of bravery) settled along Bayou St. John where it met Lake Pontchartrain. They named the lake Okwa-ta. Bayou St.
John was called Bayouk Choupic for the "mud fish" which lined its edges. The word bayou comes from the Chocktaw
word for "minor streams".
was used for transportation and trade. Native Americans discovered that by using it and a natural elevated earthen path (now
Bayou Road), they could travel from the Mississippi River at present day New Orleans to the lake, through the Rigolets Pass,
and into the Gulf of Mexico.
When the French arrived,
they sought a shorter route from their small settlement to the gulf -- shorter than the plodding meandering upriver passage
from the river delta. It was the Biloxi tribe who showed them the way. One could say that had the Native people not so generously
shared their knowledge, the history of Lake Pontchartrain and the surrounding communities might be quite different.
The French built Fort St. Jean at the mouth of the bayou
to protect their settlement from attack via the lake. Spanish Governor Carondelet constructed a canal to connect the city
to the bayou. It would be the fist of many plans to engineer a direct route to the lake. By 1818 a lighthouse guided sailors
there and two more forts, Pike and Macomb, were constructed on the eastern shore.