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Cane River Creole National Historical Park
In a rural and pristine area of western Louisiana near the winding Cane River, visitors can experience over two centuries of history by exploring Cane River Creole National Historical Park, a National Park System unit within the Cane River Creole National Heritage Area. Cane River Creole National Historical Park preserves the landscapes as well as the many buildings and structures of two historic plantations. At Oakland and Magnolia plantations, visitors can learn about plantation economies, slavery, cash cropping, Creole culture, the Civil War, sharecropping, and modernization to see how people of different ethnic and cultural groups lived and adapted to historical, economic, social, and agricultural change. Referring to locally born Spaniards, French, and enslaved people as Creole, the Cane River Creole National Historical Park preserves and interprets the diverse Creole cultures and histories of the Natchitoches region, and illustrates the convergence of the French, Spanish, African, American Indian, and others who have contributed to the multi-cultural character of the region.
After founding Fort St. Jean Baptiste in 1714, the French ceded Natchitoches to Spain under the 1762 Treaty of Fountainebleau at the end of the Seven Years’ War. The formal transfer of the colony from France to Spain did not occur until January 1767. During this period, resentment grew among the French settlers concerning Spanish administration of Louisiana. This displeasure resulted in a revolt against Spanish rule and the expulsion of the Spanish governor on November 1, 1768. For the next 10 months, the colony pursued independence from any European control. The period of rebellious self-rule abruptly ended in July 1769, with the arrival at the mouth of the Mississippi of a Spanish fleet carrying General Alejandro O'Reilly with an army of more than 2,000 soldiers. The rebellion quickly crumbled. This time Spanish authorities imposed Spanish law and government on the former French colony. However, French fears of Spanish domination proved unwarranted as the new regime caused little visible change in daily life. At Natchitoches, the Spanish adopted the French method of trade, thus attracting Native American commerce and maintaining relative stability throughout the period of Spanish domination.
Spain ceded the area back to France in the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso in 1800, but the actual transfer of Louisiana from Spain to France took place in November 1803. In the light of these developments, U.S. President Thomas Jefferson instructed his minister to France, Robert R. Livingston, to negotiate with French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte for the purchase of Louisiana, resulting in the Louisiana Purchase and subsequent turning over the Louisiana territory to the United States in December 1803.
In 1789, Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prudhomme established Oakland Plantation on a land grant from the Spanish government. By the early 1800s, Prudhomme began using his plantation, originally named Bermuda, to grow cotton, a major cash crop. Through cotton production, Prudhomme amassed great wealth. To ensure success, Prudhomme used enslaved laborers year round to grow, harvest, and bail cotton, which is a labor intensive crop.
A self-guided tour winds its way through the grounds and many of the original buildings and structures of this once bustling plantation. Visitors can see the main house, the carriage house, the doctor’s cottage, slave/tenant quarters, the overseer’s house, the cotton gin ruins, the store and post office, and many sheds, shops, and storehouses. Most likely built by enslaved African Americans in 1821, the Oakland Plantation main house is an example of a raised Creole plantation house constructed of bousillage. Bousillage is an infill material of mud, Spanish moss, and deer hair.
The historic landscape of the main house includes an 1835 bottle garden and a short alley of live oaks. Believed to be one of only two such gardens surviving in the Mississippi Valley, the bottle garden displays parterres outlined by bottles from Scotland, Ireland, England, and France. A number of sheds and shops remind visitors of the many “behind the scenes” tasks that went into the smooth running of a plantation. The old store is evidence that even when slavery ended and a sharecropping system replaced it, many freed people were still tied to a plantation-like system.
Magnolia Plantation still has 21 standing historic buildings and structures. Visitors can see a slave hospital, a pigeonnier, eight brick slave houses, a gin house, and a plantation store. While Jean Baptiste LeComte I acquired the Magnolia Plantation land in 1753, it was not until about 1840 that Ambrose LeComte II built the first main plantation house on the grounds. By the 1860s, the LeComtes expanded the landholdings of the plantation and shifted to growing cotton. Magnolia Plantation soon became the largest cotton-producing plantation in Natchitoches Parish, with the LeComtes owning the most slaves in the area.
Enslaved African Americans lived in a double row of eight brick slave houses at Magnolia. On both Oakland and Magnolia plantations, the slave quarters were places where enslaved workers created their own institutions, community, internal governance, recreation, and religious practices. Out of sight of their masters within these slave communities, they married, started families, and produced domestic goods such as clothing, furniture, tools, and toys. They also had their own gardens where they raised crops of sweet potatoes, watermelons, turnips, and other vegetables.
The 1860s brought great changes to both plantations and to the southern plantation system way of life. During the Civil War, Union troops swept through the area burning a steam cotton gin and 400 bales of cotton at Oakland Plantation. Union soldiers burned the original main house at Magnolia Plantation in 1864. Following the fire, the LeComtes lived in the former slave hospital and did not rebuild the main house until 1899. The Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation had lasting effects on southern plantations. After the war, many freed slaves became sharecroppers on plantations under conditions that were not very different from slavery. Under the sharecropping system, freed workers became forever indebted to the plantation store for what they needed and were never able to secure the land, money, education, or skills necessary to move beyond plantation life.
Visit Cane River Creole National Historical Park to better understand this diverse and controversial period of American history in a park that brings alive the world of the Creole in this part of the South where the French, Spanish, African, American Indian, and other cultures converged in the nation's story.