Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Cane River region was populated by the Adaes and the Natchitoches, Native American tribes of the Caddo Nation. The first significant contact between the Native American people of the area and European explorers came in 1700, when French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis paddled up Red River (now Cane River lake) as part of an expedition. This French expedition met with the Natchitoches tribe in peace.
As the French explored the Natchitoches area and established a fort, the community grew. The town's strategic location made it an ideal place to farm and trade. Access to the Red River allowed French farmers in the area to ship products to New Orleans and other downriver settlements. In the 1780s, the plantation culture for which the region became know began to grow in earnest. The fertile land, access to a river and military protection made the region an ideal place to live on the frontier. As a result of the French and Indian War, France was forced to cede Louisiana to Spain in 1763. This radical change could have thrown Natchitoches into unrest. However, Spain understood the volatile situation in Louisiana and appointed St. Denis’s son-in-law, a Frenchman named Christophe Athanase Fortunat de Mezieres to govern Natchitoches generally in accordance with French customs, smoothing the political transition.
During Spanish rule, Natchitoches was no longer strategically positioned on the border between French and Spanish land holdings. It was surrounded by Spain, thus losing its strategic importance. After the Natchez War, the French fort in Natchitoches was abandoned and rebuilt on the site now occupied by the American Cemetery. Like its predecessor, the fort quickly deteriorated. When the Spanish took over, they saw little need to repair it and eventually allowed it to disintegrate. The fort had always been the center of town, and area farms and businesses had grown up in its shadow. Under the Spanish, the citizens of Natchitoches built a new town center. In doing so, Natchitoches established itself as a legitimate, self-sufficient town.
European planter families purchased enslaved Africans to work the land, creating a large slave population in the region. The African population in the Cane River National Heritage Area was documented as settlers followed the military to the region in the early 1700s. In 1722, enslaved Africans comprised a substantial percentage of the total population of Natchitoches, creating the foundation for the large African American community that has existed throughout the region’s history.
Cane River Creole
During the colonial era, it was culturally acceptable for planters to enter into lengthy relationships with enslaved Africans and Native Americans, despite French and Spanish legal bans on racial mixing. This practice continued throughout the antebellum period. 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 the “gens de couleur libre” – “free people of color” – became successful planters in their own right. The descendents of these people in the Cane River region are known today as Cane River Creoles. The Creole community was established in the late 1700s by the freed slave Marie Thereze Coin-Coin and her descendents. She and her children carved out a successful agricultural venture, owning their own slaves and gradually acquiring more land. This community founded its own churches, schools, businesses, and places of entertainment. Today, St. Augustine Catholic Church is the spiritual center and heart of the community.
Last updated: August 3, 2017