Fort St. Jean Baptiste in Natchitoches, Louisiana
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.