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Natchitoches, le French and Creole City

Downtown buildings
The riverfront (Cane River once Red River) at Natchitoches looks familiar to those who love the movie, "Steel Magnolias," which was based on a play about a family from Natchitoches and filmed there.

The French and Creole City of Natchitoches

A long, long time ago, when people in Louisiana still spoke French and "les américains " were safely occupied fighting the natives of 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 the Natchitoches tribe, part of the Caddo Confederacy. After it burned during a Natchez raid, the post turned into a military installation, Poste St. Jean Baptiste that was moved to the west bank of the Red River. 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).

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