History & Culture

Tractor event at Oakland Plantation with a farmer and his teenage daughter sitting on tractor, Photo by NPS
Not all of the agricultural holdings in this region were large plantations consisting of a big house complemented by large numbers of outbuildings. The majority of farming families ran smaller operations and lived in single-story Creole cottages along the river. The Isle Brevelle community still features many such historic homes.

Photo by NPS

Lower Cane River Lake at Monette's Ferry, Photo by John Lees
The Legacy of Cane River

Cane River, an oxbow lake that once was the primary channel of the mighty Red River, defines the region. The stories of Cane River’s people are brimming with the contrasts that comprise our nation’s history- conquest and colonialism, militarism and peace, wealth and poverty, slavery and freedom.

The landscape of Cane River has been the focal point for American Indian settlements, colonial forts, and Creole plantations. The river itself was a major thoroughfare, one that was crossed by overland trade routes. It was at this crossroads that the Natchitoches Band of Caddo Indians lived. The prospect of trade and alliance with American Indians brought European colonial powers to the area and this region soon became the intersection between French and Spanish realms in the New World. The French first came to the region in 1714, establishing Fort St. Jean Baptiste shortly thereafter. In response, the Spanish built the presidio know as Los Adaes 15 miles to the west. Settlement spread from these early outposts, and the town of Natchitoches grew up around Fort St. Jean Baptiste to become the most prosperous town in the region.

As countries came together in this place, so did cultures.  American Indians were joined by European settlers, who imported many enslaved Africans to farm the land. The interaction of these groups led to the development of a distinctive Creole culture. This culture cut across racial categories and drew from many traditions but remained grounded in French colonialism and Catholicism.

A thriving agricultural economy had developed along the banks of the river by the time the region was acquired by the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches, the oldest permanent European settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory was the region’s commercial center. Downriver from the town, in the areas known as Cote Joyeuse (Joyous Coast) and Isle Brevelle, plantations produced indigo, tobacco, and later cotton.

The Civil War and its aftermath brought great economic devastation and cultural change to the residents of the Cane River region. Tenant farming and sharecropping replaced slavery, exchanging one labor-intensive system for another. After World War II, mechanized farming permanently supplanted the old agricultural practices that depended on human labor in the fields. As a result, many people migrated to urban centers, leaving the fields behind.

This is the complex past that is etched indelibly on the landscape, in the architecture, and in the myriad cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations.

Photo by John Lees

Cane River Lake Downtown Riverwalk
Cane River National Heritage Area

The City of Natchitoches was established in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, making it the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase Territory. The French settlement had two purposes: to establish trade with the Spanish in Texas, and at the same time, to deter Spanish advances into Louisiana.
Natchitoches soon became a flourishing river port and crossroads, giving rise to vast cotton kingdoms along the river. Planters built magnificent plantations down river and built fine homes in town for social events.
The city's National Historic Landmark District, which fronts Cane River Lake and encompasses a 33-block area, includes many historic homes, churches and commercial structures. A mixture of Queen Anne and Victorian architecture, along with Creole-style cottages, can be seen throughout the district.
Along with the French Quarter in New Orleans, the Natchitoches National Landmark Historic District is one of only two such districts in the state.
The prominence of plantation culture in the Cane River region is reflected in the historic plantation landscapes, structures, and artifacts, as well as the traditional agricultural land use of the region. Initially, tobacco and indigo were important crops in the area; later, they gave way to a cotton economy that dominated much of the region’s history. Today, corn and soybeans are the area’s most common crops.
Cane River’s plantation homes pre-date the large Greek Revival plantations that dominate our imaginations of the Old South. Nearly all of the local homes were built before the cotton boom of the 1850s that financed the large mansions of other plantation districts. Instead, Cane River plantations reflect Creole architecture, one of only six colonial architectural styles that developed in America. Creole architecture includes three basic types of dwellings: the single-story Creole cottages typical of the Isle Brevelle area, the Creole townhouses found in the Natchitoches National Historic Landmark District, and the Creole plantation houses that line the banks of the river. All three styles were constructed using a mixture of mud, mule or deer hair, and Spanish moss as a fill between upright and angular wooden posts. Called "bousillage", this type of construction is usually described as a method imported from France, Canada, or the West Indies; nearly identical techniques were also found in Native American and West African societies.
Despite their timeless appearance, the national heritage area’s many plantations have been in a state of constant change over the years, continuously adjusting to demographic shifts, economic and political upheavals, and transformations in the landscape. The history of these plantations clearly shows the evolution of southern agriculture from the colonial era to the 21st century, including the transformation of agricultural labor systems from slavery to tenant farming and share cropping, and finally to mechanization.

Photo by John Lees

Contact the Park

Mailing Address:

Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc
1115 Washington Street

Natchitoches, LA 71457


(318) 356-5555

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