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History of the Cane River Region

Natchitoches at dawn
Photo by Philip Gould

 Early Exploration and Settlement


Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Cane River region was populated by several American Indian tribes, including the Natchitoches Caddo, the Yatasi Caddo, the Adaes and the Doustioni. In 1700, French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis met the Natchitoches as part of an expedition led by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. St. Denis impressed the tribe and many of the Natchitoches later moved temporarily to St. Denis' fort in south Louisiana along Lake Pontchartrain to engage in trade with the French.


St. Denis and his Natchitoches allies returned to the Cane River region in late 1713, during a trading expedition to Spanish Texas. Though it was Spain's policy not to allow its colonies to trade with foreign powers, the French believed that Texas was willing to ignore this mandate. St. Denis encouraged the Natchitoches to resettle on the Red River. Within their village, St. Denis constructed a storage house and a barrack. This event marks the founding of the city of Natchitoches.


After establishing Natchitoches, St. Denis ventured into Spanish Texas. The Spanish rejected St. Denis' trade overtures and the Frenchman was briefly imprisoned. After his release, the Spanish offered St. Denis a paid position on an expedition to reestablish missions in East Texas, which he accepted. Most notable of the new outposts was San Miguel de los Adaes, located near the French border just west of Natchitoches. Los Adaes later served as the first capital of Texas.


St. Denis returned to Natchitoches and oversaw the growth of the village. The new Spanish settlements near the border greatly increased the importance of the French outpost. In 1716, the French colonial government ordered the building of Fort St. Jean Baptiste and deployed a sergeant and six soldiers to the area. Settlers soon followed the military, bringing with them the first documented African slaves to the region.


Natchitoches proved to be both a secure and profitable place to settle. St. Denis's diplomatic skills turned potential enemies into friends, forging strong trade and defense alliances with the Spanish and with various American Indian tribes. Trade with these groups provided the French with a nearby market for their goods. Access to the Red River allowed farmers in the area to ship agricultural goods to New Orleans and other downriver settlements. Natchitoches prospered under the leadership of St. Denis, who led the town until his death in 1744.


[photo] The Roque House is a fine example of French Creole architecture
Photo by Candice Pauley, courtesy of Cane River National Heritage Area

The Spanish Period


Spain allied itself with France against the British in the French and Indian War, and both Spanish Havana and Manila fell to the British. To compensate its ally for its losses, France in 1762 ceded to Spain all of its territory west of the Mississippi River, including New Orleans. Spain changed little when they took over in an attempt to avoid resistance. In Natchitoches they appointed as commandant St. Denis's son-in-law, a Frenchman named Christophe Athanase Fortunat de Mézières, and allowed him to govern Natchitoches generally in accordance with French customs, smoothing the political transition.


One disruption that was unavoidable, however, was the disappearance of the border. Natchitoches lost its strategic importance, and the fort was abandoned and allowed to deteriorate. The fort had always been the center of town, and area farms and businesses had grown up in its shadow. In 1788, a small Catholic church was erected at the corner of today's Front and Church streets, and the population of Natchitoches moved north around it. In doing so, Natchitoches established a new town center and ensured that the town would survive the loss of the fort. This migration laid the foundation of the current city's National Historic Landmark district.


The Rise of Plantation Agriculture


In the 1780s, the plantation culture for which the region is known began to grow in earnest. The fertile land and access to the river made the region an ideal place to live on the frontier. In the early days, plantations primarily produced tobacco and indigo. This changed with the invention of the cotton gin in 1793, which made possible the widespread production of cotton. Cotton quickly became the preferred cash crop of local planters.


Planter families purchased enslaved Africans to work the land, creating a large slave population in the region. During the colonial era, it was culturally acceptable for planters to enter into lengthy relationships with enslaved Africans and American Indians, despite French and Spanish legal bans on racial mixing. The children of these relationships often were granted their freedom, forming an influential class of people who blended aspects of French, Spanish, African and American Indian cultures. Many of these "gens de couleur libres"-or "free people of color"-became successful planters in their own right. The descendants of these people in the Cane River region are known today as Cane River Creoles, many of whom still occupy the same land where their ancestors' plantations once stood.


Kitchen at Fort Jesup
Photo by Candice Pauley, courtesy of Cane River National Heritage Area

The American Transition


In 1801 Spain was forced to cede Louisiana back to France. In 1803, Napoleon sold the territory to the United States to help finance his wars in Europe and Haiti. The Louisiana Purchase was the largest peaceful land acquisition in U.S. history, containing territory that eventually comprised 15 states.


Natchitoches did not weather this transfer from Spanish rule well. The democratic, secular government of the U.S. was very different from the Catholic monarchies that previously governed the territory. Natchitoches residents clashed with the American government over issues of public land, church and state, political representation and the status of "gens de couleur libre." In the end, Natchitoches citizens made compromises with the government and added American attributes to their diverse cultures.


Along with the controversy, the United States brought the region renewed military importance. Natchitoches was once again on the border with Spanish Texas and the U.S. built two forts in the area. Fort Claiborne was established in Natchitoches shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, but was replaced in 1822 by Fort Jesup, located several miles west of town.


The Americans made another large impact by removing the Great Raft, a 100-mile long logjam situated north of Natchitoches. From prehistoric times, this obstruction had made river travel any further north nearly impossible. The project had an unforeseen effect of making the main channel shift gradually away from Natchitoches. The river bypassed the city almost completely by the 1870s, leaving Cane River open to riverboat traffic only during the rainy seasons. What was left of the river was later dammed to make the oxbow lake that exists today.


The Civil War and its Legacy


The Civil War reached the Cane River region in 1864, when Union General Nathaniel Banks was ordered to move his army out of Union-held New Orleans and capture the Confederate capital of Louisiana at Shreveport in what is known as the Red River campaign. Federal forces pushed through Natchitoches during their advance up the Red River. Before they could reach the area, Confederate forces burned cotton gins and storehouses to prevent their capture. Midway to Shreveport the Union army fell into a Confederate trap, suffering defeats at Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. Banks began a retreat, setting fire to many communities along the way, including the town of Campti and Magnolia Plantation.


The ravages of the war combined with low cotton prices made the Reconstruction period (1865-1877) difficult for the Cane River region. Despite the hardships, the Cane River communities survived. Many of the established planter families remained, as did many newly freed slaves. Plantations operated in much the same way as before. Slavery was replaced by sharecropping or tenant farming, and often freedmen were housed in the old slave quarters of the plantations they cultivated. This system remained in place until the 1960s when tractors finally became prevalent in the area. Mechanization caused many laborers to lose their jobs, and many moved out of rural areas into cities.


[photo] Oakland Plantation
Photo by Candice Pauley, courtesy of Cane River National Heritage Area

The Cane River Region Today


Natchitoches has changed significantly in the last century. The city has attracted new industries that have enabled it to grow and prosper. Natchitoches ' greatest industry has been preserving its own past. The region boasts Cane River Creole National Historical Park (which includes Oakland and Melrose plantations), Cane River National Heritage Area, the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District, six other National Historic Landmarks, three Louisiana State Historic Sites, and the National Park Service's National Center for Preservation Technology and Training. The region also is home to several preservation organizations that have ensured the historical integrity of the area. The result is a beautiful region with enduring living traditions and cultural landscapes that recall Louisiana 's complex history. Natchitoches attracts thousands of visitors every year and has served as the site for several movies. Natchitoches continues to honor and preserve its history, as the region understands that its future is, in many ways, dependent upon its past.

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