The landscape of Cane River has been the focal point for Native American settlements, colonial forts, and Creole plantations for over 300 years. Cane River, now an oxbow lake, was once the primary channel of the mighty Red River that defined the region. As a major thoroughfare, it was at this crossroads that the Natchitoches Band of Caddo Indians lived. The prospect of trade and alliance with Native Americans 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 the area grew, European settlers imported many enslaved Africans to farm the rich land surrounding the low-lying river.
As Native American, French, Spanish, and African cultures merged, it led to the development of a distinctive Creole culture, which still remains today. This culture cuts across racial categories and draws from many traditions but is grounded in French colonialism and Catholicism.
A thriving agricultural economy developed along the banks of the Cane River by 1803, when the region was acquired by the United States as part of the Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches, the oldest permanent European settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory, was the region’s commercial center. Downriver in the areas known as Cote Joyeuse (Joyous Coast) and Isle Brevelle, plantations produced indigo, tobacco, and later cotton throughout the 1800s.
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.
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. We invite you to explore the unique Cane River culture still reflected in the area's historic plantation landscapes, buildings, and artifacts, as well as the traditional agricultural land use of the region.
Last updated: August 3, 2017