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The American Cemetery in Natchitoches is a perfect example of how the Red River is a historic borderland. Originally the consecrated burial ground for Catholic French, Creole, Spanish and Natchitoches during the colonial period, it was abandoned in the American period when protestants began using it.


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The Red River of the South is not just the southernmost, major river to empty into the Mississippi. During its history, its location served as a border, with the resulting clashes, between colonial empires, republics, and semi-autonomous regions : New Spain and New France; Mexico and the Republic of Texas and the United States; the state of Texas and the Choctaw and Chickasaw nations. Sometimes called a "frontier," this now quiet river belies the past struggles for power and mere existence.

Fort St. Jean Baptiste
Along the Red River behind a high bluff (the Grand Ecore), Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a French Canadian envoy, encountered the well-developed Caddoan village of the Natchitoches in 1702. He became friendly with the tribe, and removed them closer to New Orleans when a flood devastated their village. In 1714, on his way to establish trade and relations further west in New Spain, he and the tribe returned to the site of the Natchitoches village. There, St. Denis set up a small trading post as the Caddos rebuilt their settlement, thus establishing permanent trade and dominion. These two huts became the center of the European version of Natchitoches.

Two years later, with trade brisk and with constant worry that the Spanish would inch themselves into the Red River Valley, the French government erected a more substantial installation, christened Fort St. Jean Baptiste, under the leadership of Sieur Charles Claude Dutisne. St. Denis became the commander in 1722 to keep up friendly relations with the Caddo tribes as well as keep the Spanish at arm's length, as they had set up their own presidio and mission, Los Adaes, in 1716 to counter the French claim on the Red River, and which they named the capital of the province of Texas in 1720. Inside Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the first church congregation (Catholic, of course) organized.

The fort suffered a severe attack by the Natchez tribe in 1731, which prompted a slight geographic relocation and the erection of substantially larger stockades and gates on a larger mound a bit further from the shores of the Red River. By 1737, the church inside the fort had consecrated a cemetery for all of its Catholic citizens (free or slave, Indian or European or African) just outside of its walls; this location is now known as the American Cemetery in Natchitoches.

After the French defeat in the French-Indian Wars/ Seven Years' War in 1763, Louisiana Territory came under Spanish jurisdiction. The Royal Road, aka El Camino de Real, was extended from Los Adaes to Natchitoches, and the Spanish government began to supply more permanent commercial and Catholic institutions. As the official border disputes between France and Spain became moot, so did the function of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The city of Natchitoches built around the garrison, with locals most likely harvesting materials from the fortress. The fort's church vacated the old site as well. The congregation built a more substantial building and consecrated a new cemetery along the Red River just north of the original fort, where St. Denis was supposedly buried in 1744 (this site is now a commercial structure at the corner of Front and Church streets). By the time of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the fort was in utter ruins. This is why the American government built Fort Claiborne 1804.

In the late 1970s, local historians, together with the Louisiana Office of State Parks, purchased a site that approximated the original location of Fort St. Jean Baptiste to resurrect the historic fort for educational purposes. Just a block removed from the Cane River, historians, archaeologists, archivists, and architects reconstructed the fort using original plans and locally sourced materials.

The result is a wonderful educational center that uses living history demonstrations to explain life in French Louisiana. Military demonstrations, cooking classes, handwork exhibits and more are offered by exceptionally knowledgeable staff. The fort is listed as a resource for the Cane River Creole National Historic Area.

Los Adaes
East of Robeline, Louisiana
Three claims to the Red River decided a lot of fates during the colonial period (in our area, pre-1803 and pre-1836). The French claimed the river portions in Louisiana and Oklahoma and Arkansas, and the Spanish claimed the portion of the Red River in Texas, and the Caddos claimed the entire Red River as it ran in East Texas, in Louisiana, Eastern Oklahoma, and in Arkansas. Of all three powers, the Caddos had the most say during this time. They had better access to food, knew the land, knew the politics all throughout the region, and were better weaponized.

To get the Caddos to become allied with them, both the French and Spanish enticed them with trade and promises of eternal life. The French set up a trading post at the Natchitoches village (Poste St. Jean Baptiste), and the Spanish set up a trading and mission post just a few miles down the footpath at the place known simply as Los Adaes, in 1716. Like all Spanish names, the post had a much more involved moniker: the fort was officially knows as the Nuestera Senora del Pilar Presidio, and the mission was called San Miguel de Linares de los Adaes. "Los Adaes" means the Adaes people, members of the Caddo confederacy and possessors of the lands between Natchitoches and Nacogdoches.

The Europeans differed on their interactions with the Caddos, however. While the French openly traded their surplus guns with the Caddos, the Spanish forbade the weapons trade. Conversely, the French only paid lip service to conversions, while the Spanish took Catholic conversion deadly serious. The Caddos, of course, preferred trade with the French, and this is why Los Adaes became much more tied to the Natchitoches post than with the other Spanish missions further west. An agreement between the Spanish governor and St. Denis, the founder of Natchitoches who married into the Spanish governor's family, strengthened trading ties. An isolated, creole community emerged at Los Adaes and the surrounding area, combining Caddoan (Adaes), French, and Spanish customs through intermarriage and trade.

Even though the Spanish colonial government declared Los Adaes the capital of the province of Texas in 1720 to dissuade French incursions (Spanish law forbade intra-colonial trade), the people at Los Adaes continued to live their hard but simple lives as farmers, cowboys, blacksmiths, seamstresses, leather workers, cobblers, soldiers, and cooks. It was most likely due to the Adaens's peaceful policies that no other violence took place at the fort.

In 1763, the French lost their New World empire to the British (trading relationships in the Ohio River Valley and in Canada) and to the Spanish (Louisiana Territory). This made the outpost of Los Adaes obsolete. The Spanish government moved the capital of Texas to San Antonio and ordered the Adaens to leave their homes for the missions in San Antonio, too. The trek to San Antonio killed almost half of the people. They pleaded to the diocese at San Antonio to go back home; while they couldn't go back to Los Adaes anymore as the Spanish could not guarantee their safety, they were granted permission to settle in Nacogdoches along the Camino de Real instead.

For a long time, the mission and trading post at Los Adaes was forgotten until historians and archaeologists combined their efforts to explore the fort further. Today, the site is a Louisiana State Park and listed on the National Register.

Food at Los Adaes:
The soil is almost entirely destitute of water; which unhappy circumstance, joined to the natural indolence of the people, frequently reduces them to the way of the most common necessaries of life. The chief means of their subsistence is Indian corn, which they boil, mixed with quick lime, whereby the husk is dissolved into a kind of powder, and the grain considerably softened. Having washed and bruised it on a chocolate-stone, it is formed into a lump of paste, which they knead between their hands. Of this dough they made a sort of cake, which is toasted on a plate of iron laid over the fire. This bread is the native food of the people of New Spain; and indeed, when these thin cakes, or rather wafers, named by the Spaniards tortillas, are well baked, they are far from unpleasant” (Pierre Marie François de Pagès, Travels Round the World, 1763, p. 51)*

Natchitoches, Le French City
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, began as a trading post inside a large village of th Natchitoches tribe, part of the Caddo Confederacy. The post turned into a military installation, Poste St. Jean Baptiste. Here, trade and protection was brisk with the Caddos and Spanish Mexico. When the Spanish took over colonial rule of the Red River in 1763, they extended the Camino Real - the Royal Road - from Los Adaes into Natchitoches. 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 downstream to New Orleans), the town quickly developed into a thriving market center.  

Along the Red River surrounding Natchitoches, French men and women 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, Native American, 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 continued to use the Cane River as a waterway to the Red River. In the early 20th century, the corps and the Parish built dams at both ends of the river, and the outlet to the Red River was gone. Today, the Cane River Lake, which follows the ancient path of the Red River, runs through Natchitoches's picturesque downtown and ferries boaters and fishermen, but no longer plantation crops.

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. The railroad entered town late, though. In 1881, the city turned down the opportunity to station a line because it did well just by relying on river traffic. Finally, at  the turn of the century, the city received the railroad after all - the Texas & Pacific line, which linked the city via land to New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Alexandria, Shreveport, and Dallas.

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. The American cemetery is worth an extended stroll. Fort St. Jean Baptiste has been re-created as a period-authentic educational facility. Spanish and early American architectural influences are evident on Front Street, which faces Cane River, and houses from different periods and ethnicity - French Creole, African - Creole, antebellum American, Victorian, Arts and Crafts, Prairie style - give the town core an intimate feeling. Natchitoches is worth an extended exploration!

In 1810, American trader and treasure seeker John Maley wrote his grammatically challenged impressions of Natchitoches: "some of those french planters are very hospitable and others despise the Americans since that country was purchased by the united states which is merely on account that they are rather doubtful that all their claims of land will be allowed them that they held under french government I was [scouled? scorned?] times denied by them even a nights lodging even in my own blankets under their roof" (1810, first journal, p. 192).

The Cane River Creoles: Unique, or as they say in French, unique
Home to Cajuns, creoles, alligators, New Orleans, Jazz, and the Mississippi Delta, there seems to be no place on earth quite like Louisiana. Almost all of its heritage landmarks reveal a unique cultural aspect, as the Cane River Creole National Historic Park attests. Here, history is told in the architecture and culture of French Creole plantations.

Situated south of Natchitotches, the oldest city in Louisiana (and the Louisiana Purchase), the plantation homes and sharecropper cabins along LA 494 sit along what used to be path of the Red River. In 1838, Captain Henry Shreve broke up the natural log jam that formed a deep water, inland port north of the city. The waters of the Red River went to the main channel, leaving the older Cane River channel, where the plantations had set up to avoid flooding, too shallow for river traffic. In the early 1900s, the Cane River channel was dammed to ensure a fairly continuous water level, which created Cane River Lake, now the anchor of tourist-beloved Natchitoches.

Many of the plantations along the Red River/ Cane River Lake have origins dating back to the end of the 18th century. Occupied by people of French origin, they maintained French as their primary language, Catholicism as their primary religion, and kept many French traditions alive. However, as behooves the new world, many not-so-French aspects joined in, literally creating what we now call Creole (the term originates from the Latin root creare, “to create,” and used to refer to people who stem from non-Anglo cultures). Caribbean customs like voodoo were practiced within the slave quarters; the architecture combined west-African elements, Spanish ornamentals, French timberwork, and post-in ground* foundations; and old-style European pigeon breeding became the focus of wealthier land owners.

After the Anglos purchased Louisiana in 1803 and an influx of Americans migrated to the region, the French remained adamant in maintaining a separate identity, especially when it came to running their plantations. For example, unlike Anglo black codes (the codes referenced how enslaved people could be treated), the French code noir allowed enslaved blacks to buy their freedom.

One prominent example was Marie Therese Coincoin Metoyer, who was freed by her master and lover/rapist Pierre Metoyer, and with whom she had ten children. Marie Therese was her baptismal name; her West African name was Coincoin, bestowed onto her by her parents who both came directly from Angola. Coincoin added to the original land holding that Metoyer bequeathed to her after he married a French woman by applying for, and receiving, a Spanish land grant. She and children were able to build a large plantation** where she raised cotton, cattle, some sugar cane, and tobacco. She owned enslaved people, but many of the people she bought were kin or friends and all of them were baptized only if they wanted to be. With her earnings from the farm and as a renowned healer, Coincoin was able to buy her children’s freedom, too. In 1829, she and her sons founded St. Augustine, the Louisiana's first Catholic parish and church founded and run by freed people.

Coincoin and her family formed the nucleus of the Cane River Creoles. They are people descended from the sexual relationships forged between French men and African and Native American women in the colonial period.*** After the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory in 1803, the Cane River Creoles became an isolated group due to their unique ethnic and cultural make-up. They spoke a blend of French/Spanish/Bantu, were baptized Catholic, and did not intermarry with Anglo Americans or with African Americans. Instead, they intermarried with other insular Creole groups along the Red River, such as the Campti Creoles further upstream.

While only a few of the Cane River Lake’s many plantation homes are of French Creole origin – the Magnolia and Oakland being the two prominent ones - the National Park Service, in conjunction with Northwestern Louisiana State University and the descendants of the Creole families, established the Cane River Creole National Park. Here, visitors can learn all about plantation life from the perspectives of sharecroppers, enslaved, overseers, and owners; recognize and appreciate the unique ethnic and cultural contributions of the Cane River Creole people; see the machinery and self-sufficiency needed to run the mini-cities that made up the plantation system; and discover how intertwined the farms were with their culture and environments.

*Post-in-ground refers to a building style in which large timber posts/logs were placed, secured, and leveled in the ground. These timbers reached all the way to the ceiling. The floor was built "floating" above the ground along the posts, which created a large, shaded area beneath the house. The wealthier planters were able to afford the huge tree posts that enabled their homes to reach two stories tall.

**Often, the word "plantation" evokes the idea of large manor houses and genteel cotillions. Historically, however, plantations were insular, feudal communities with the owner enjoying complete control over the people living on the land he/she claimed. The plantations were self-sustaining farms that raised cash crops, produced industrial items that are then traded locally, and built the wealth of the "lord" on enforced labor.

***Historians have called the sexual relationships between European men and African and Native American women "colonial marriages" (which assumes that rape is a part of marriage). In the colonial era of the American South, European men, often second/third born from wealthy families, arrived to the New World alone to build fortunes for themselves. They began relationships with women who they had purchased/leased/kidnapped, but the children resulting from these unions were considered illegitimate and therefore could not inherit. When the European men married, they took a European wife, and often abandoned the colonial wife or forced the wives to share space (which led to obvious abuses). This problem of abandonment and abuse, resulting in poverty, was so bad that the Spanish colonial government insisted on the legal concept of community property.


Fort Claiborne, Unwanted
The Louisiana Purchase of 1803 necessitated that the Americans protect their newly-acquired property, much to the chagrin of the French and Spanish creoles in northern Louisiana, which saw these "depraved Americans" as a threat to their way of life. The conflict between the American new-comers and the "old inhabitants" along the Red River could be seen with the establishment of Fort Claiborne.

With the original fort of Natchitoches, St. Jean Baptiste, in ruins, the United States established a new garrison to the north of town. Fort Claiborne, named after the territorial governor, became a quite substantial locale as it continued to be occupied for close to fifteen years. Here, the Indian Agent Dr. John Sibley signed treaties with Caddoan, Coushattan, and other tribes - including the famous Caddo chief, Dehahuit - to begin the process of westward removal. It was also at Fort Claiborne where the Red River expedition of 1806 by Peter Custis, Thomas Freeman, and Captain Sparks was launched.

The creole (Frenc/Spanish) parishioners of Natchitoches sued the American government to remove the fort, since they believed that the fort was built on communal property that was overseen by the church, which was located at the fort's southeastern corner. The suspicion that the Creole community had against the Americans was evidenced by the abandonment of the original cemetery at the location of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The Catholic Creoles removed their dead from the cemetery once protestants began their burials at the newly renamed "American Cemetery."

Fort Claiborne thus had an active but relatively short life. After the signing of the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819, which firmly established the border between New Spain and the Louisiana Territory, the Mexican Revolution of 1821, and the American push into North Texas, the U.S. government established Fort Jesup along the Spanish Road (Camino de Real) northwest of Natchitoches.

Today, the old location of Fort Claiborne has been reclaimed by the Natchitoches citizens. The site is now occupied by the convention and visitor's bureau, Louisiana museum and hall of fame, the events center, the Main Street office, and other city service buildings. The only reminder of the old fort is its guest house, which sits at the corner of Second and Lafayette Streets.

Fort Jesup, No Man's Land
Named after Brigadier General Thomas Sidney Jesup, a decorated veteran of the War of 1812, the US army erected Fort Jesup in 1822 along the Spanish Road, which linked Natchitoches to San Antonio and other Mexican cities. The fort replaced Fort Claiborne of 1804.

After the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the western portions of Louisiana territory along the Red River were in a major disarray. Since 1763, Louisiana had been controlled by Spain. After Napoleon won the territory back in 1798, he promptly sold it the U.S. in 1803. No one, of course, asked the inhabitants what they wanted. Instead, a "neutral strip" of land between the Red and Sabine rivers was established by default, where gentleman's agreements were supposed to keep peace, but offered little in the way of an organized government. The people living there did not know to whom they owed allegiance... and some men took advantage of that. Some, like James Bowie, sold false land claims, while others may have tried to establish a New World kingdom, which Aaron Burr allegedly tried to do. The presence of the US army after the Adams-Onis Treaty of 1819 (which established the international borders between New Spain and the United States) was supposed to alleviate the doubts.

Like nearby Fort Towson in Indian Territory, Fort Jesup provided protection for native tribes and American settlers. Mostly, however, the troops engaged in road building, not combat. They built a road to Fort Smith, Arkansas and one towards Baton Rouge. During the Texas Revolution, American volunteers were mustered at Fort Jesup before entering Texas. The army regulars at Fort Jesup were also sent into Texas in 1845 to counter the Mexican army upon Texas statehood. Led by Zachary Taylor, one can argue that Fort Jesup started the Mexican American War (1846-1848).

The fort closed immediately after the Mexican American War. Its location was not of any great in importance thereafter, not even during the Civil War, as it remained unused. The federal government disbanded it completely in 1869.

Built in the Cane River Creole style of raised foundations, the fort gradually succumbed into ruins save for its kitchen, which was restored when the residents of nearby Many raised money to do so. By the 1950s, the Louisiana State Park department acquired the fort, which was also designated a National Historic Landmark.

Fort Towson, Protector
In 1819, the United States Congress decided that the upper Red River area needed protection; not for Anglo American settlers, but for Native people who faced violence in this frontier region. Building the fort was difficult, though, because materials had to be either ferried over non-existent roads across the rapids of the Cassotot and Little Rivers, or via steam boat, which the Great Raft of the Red River made near impossible to do. But, by 1823, the fort was finally operational.

The small garrison had to deal with a lot of scuffles between Arkansas and Texas Anglos who wanted to settle in the fertile valley. The military sided with the Nativ peoples, as many had come to the Red River Valley due to previous treaties that the U.S., at least at this time, wanted to honor, and the Anglos were trying to pre-empt legitimate land claims. So, because they were squatting on Indian land, the white men decided that instead of acquiescing to Union control, they'd just burn down the fort, which they did in 1829. The fort rebuilt in 1830 and was dubbed "Camp Phoenix."

As the displaced Indians moved in and established towns like Doaksville (the first Choctaw capital) and Boggy Depot, the fort stayed active but relatively small. In 1840, it housed the troops that would later fight in the Mexican War (1846-1848), but was permanently closed in 1856. During the Civil War, General Sam Bell Maxie used the old fort as a command post, and General Stand Watie of the Confederate Cherokees made it a staging area for his guerilla raids on Union troops. General Watie, in fact, was the last Confederate Commander to surrender, doing so in Doaksville in 1865.

Fort Towson is now a small historic site managed by the Oklahoma Historical Society. The fort consists of ruins, as latter-day settlers dismantled the stone buildings to use in their own houses. A small interpretive center and store houses some interesting artifacts found around the fort.

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