The Bishop Martin house, which sits across from the church
and a block from the courthouse, was built in the 1850s.
A long, long time ago, when people in Louisiana still spoke French and
"les américains " were safely occupied fighting the natives in the foothills
of the Appalachians, the city of Natchitoches was founded by Louis
Juchereau de St. Denis.

St. Denis's  town, first platted in 1714, served as a trading post with
Spanish Mexico along the Camino Real, the original Spanish colonial road.
With its location right on the Red River and at the base of the great Red
River Raft (a log jam that effectively dammed the river, which created a
large basin suitable for river traffic), the town quickly developed into a
thriving farming center.  

Along the Red River surrounding Natchitoches, French men and women -
many born in New Orleans - traversed the swampy hinterlands of northern
Louisiana to build cotton and tobacco plantations, manned by slaves from
the Caribbean. In this prosperous yet isolated environment, a unique
blending of  African-Caribbean, French, and Spanish cultures gave the
area a distinctive flair - what we now simply call "Creole," meaning
"created."

The term "creole"  came into widespread use after the Louisiana
Purchase of 1803. The original settlers of the area wanted to distinguish
between themselves and the Americans who were coming to settle in
their new territory and bringing their industrious and business-oriented
English habits with them.

Those habits almost became a death knell for Natchitoches. The
Americans wanted to clear the Red River Raft to make the river navigable
all the way into Arkansas Territory. Captain Henry Shreve of the Army
Corps of Engineers was given this task, and the first of many clearings
was completed by 1839. Gradually, the loss of this natural dam forced the
river to shift its course, and in a matter of years, Natchitoches found  itself
on the banks of an isolated oxbow lake. The river had moved to the east.

Ever resourceful, the citizens and the corps created dams at both ends of
the lake to link with the Red River. Today, the Cane River Lake, which
follows the old ancient path of the Red River, runs through Natchitoches's
picturesque downtown.

Natchitoches continued to thrive well past the Civil War. In 1884, the
Northwestern State University was founded to train teachers. Today, this
university is a cultural resource center for the Creole heritage.

With all its history, Natchitoches has become a true  multi-cultural town.
And a major tourist attraction, too. The
Cane River Creole National
Heritage Area is just south of the city, and the original town of  
Natchitoches itself is a national historic district. French architectural
influence is evident on Front Street, which faces Cane River, and houses
from different periods and ethnicities - French colonial, African - Creole,  
antebellum American, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Prairie style - give the
town core an intimate feeling.

Natchitoches is worth an extended exploration!
Natchitoches: Pronounced Naka-dish
Whenever you visit a town, always try to get away from the Main
Street - it pays off to wander. I found this brick building, with
iron shutter doors and French iron work along a side street off
of Front Street. I don't know much about the building, but it  
definitely stood out as vintage Natchitoches architecture.
Natchitoches street scene
If Front Street looks familiar, that's because the ultimate chick-flick, Steel
Magnolias, was filmed in Natchitoches. The author of the book and play lives
in a restored Creole plantation house along the Cane River Lake.
An interior door at a sharecropper's house (formerly a cabin
occupied by slaves) at the Oakland Plantation, an 1830s Creole
Plantation operated by the National Park Service.
How to get there
Natchitoches is about an hour
south of Shreveport on Louisiana
State Highway 1, or US Interstate
49. It also sits directly on the
Camino Real, the ancient Spanish
Colonial Road, which parallels LA 6.
Questions or comments?
E-mail me:
robin@redriverhistorian.com