Not long ago a reader messaged to say he’d like to see more columns about the early pioneers of Natchitoches and Louisiana.
So, not having anything of urgency on my mind this week, I thought I’d talk a little bit about our founder — the one and only St. Denis. St. Denis is a fascinating character. Bold, intrepid, a skilled woodsman and trader and with enough charisma to charm a lovely teenaged Mexican girl and her family. His life, I think, would make a good TV historical drama series.
Just about everybody in Natchitoches has heard of him, but probably a good number of folks aren’t familiar with the details of his life.
First of all, St. Denis is not the surname of our founder. He was born in a suburb of Quebec, Canada in 1676 as Louis Antoine Juchereau
St. Denis was a title of minor nobility, similar to those held by Louisiana’s founders, the Lemoine brothers, one best known as Bienville and the other as Iberville.
St. Denis actually arrived in what was to become Louisiana along with Bienville in 1699, when he was 23. So, if you’re a descendant of St. Denis, you can say that your ancestry reaches back to the very beginnings of the history of our state.
He helped Bienville explore various areas of Louisiana but I’ll skip over the details of those adventures. His connection with the founding of Natchitoches began in the fall of 1713 when he received orders from Gov. Cadillac (yes, the guy for whom the car is named. Cadillac was also governor in Detroit, another French settlement).
Cadillac ordered St. Denis to depart from Mobile, then the provincial capital, and to establish a fort at the village of the Natchitoches Indians and to then enter Spanish Texas to set up trade routes.
Accompanied by 25 Canadian troops, he won the respect of the Indians and formally established the settlement here in 1714, making us, as you know, the oldest town in the Louisiana Purchase area, beating the founding of New Orleans by four years.
With about half of his troops, St Denis proceeded down to the Rio Grande, at a place then called Presidio del Norte, now known as Eagle Pass, Texas. He there met Capt. Don Diego Ramon, the officer in charge of the presidio, as well as Ramon’s lovely granddaughter, Emmanuela Sanchez y Ramon, who was in her mid teens. St Denis was 38 at the time.
It may have been love at first sight, but Spanish authorities brought St. Denis to Mexico City, where he was charged with trespassing on Spanish territory.
Here’s where St. Denis’ charm served him very well. Not only did the Spanish release him and allow him to return to Louisiana, but he won the heart of Emmanuela and her family. They were married at the presidio and, accompanied by Spanish officials, St. Denis returned to Louisiana and recommended the establishment of two Spanish trading posts, Nacogdoches, Texas, and Los Adayes just west of Natchitoches.
Louis and Emmanuela settled in at Natchitoches, parenting seven children, five girls and two boys, whose birth dates ranged from 1716 to 1740.
St. Denis, described as a large, well built man, was much admired by the Indians. He had his legs tattooed in Indian fashion and the natives called him Pretty Legs as a token of affection.
He missed his home in Canada, proven by letters he wrote to relatives there, but the French authorities did not grant his requests for retirement. He passed away in 1744 and Emmanuela lived on until 1758. Historians pretty much agree that they are buried in now-unmarked graves in the American Cemetery, not under the building at Front and Church streets as a plaque at that location claims.
They still have numerous descendants here and elsewhere. If you are related to them, your roots in North America go very far back. St. Denis’ ancestors arrived in Canada in the 1630s and Emmanuela’s family arrived in Mexico in the late 1500s. ( I could not find one of the references I was looking for in order to write this column, but I do recall that her ancestors were on this continent before 1600.)
So, that’s a quick look at our founder and his wife. Much more could be said. Hopefully, some scholar will soon write a good biography and we can all learn more about this fascinating pioneer couple.