By Joe Darby
It all started with the log jam — known as the Great Raft back in the day. And because of that giant entanglement, it’s why we Natchitoches residents live where we do.
I’m feeling in a history-kind of mood this week and hope you will enjoy reading about how our lovely little town got started. If you know the story, a refreshment of memory will hopefully be a pleasant experience. If you don’t, well let me tell you all about it.
As you know, Natchitoches celebrated its 1714 founding three years ago, quite a long time to exist for a small town in the Mid-South.
But our founder, Louis Juchereau de St.Denis actually first arrived here in 1701, on a trading expedition. He stopped at the nearby village of the Natchitoches Indians. The French-Canadian explorer and the natives hit it off almost right away. St. Denis even had his legs tattooed Indian style and they called him pretty legs. At the time he was not much more than a mere lad of 25 years.
A few years later the Natchitoches were flooded out of their village and with St. Denis’ assistance they were relocated to north of Lake Pontchartrain.
In late 1713, St. Denis, at Gov. Bienville’s orders, led a larger expedition back to the Red River, to establish trading relations with Spanish Texas. The Natchitoches decided to follow right behind him and return to their old homeland.
After a trek of weeks, the colonists and the Indians arrived here and St. Denis chose this spot because above this point the Red River was blocked by a gigantic log jam that stretched all the way past what would become Shreveport. He could literally go no further unless he wanted to take off trekking through the woods — which he didn’t want to do.
Quick aside — It wasn’t until the 19th century that Capt. Henry Shreve succeeded in clearing the log jam, opening up the river and setting the stage for the founding of the town that bears his name.
After establishing a permanent trading post here, St. Denis set out for what proved to quite an adventurous trip to Texas and Mexico, which I wrote about a few months ago. (You can probably find that column through the NPJ’s search function, if you’re interested.)
When St Denis returned to Natchitoches, he had to settle down to the less exciting but perhaps more important job of the day-to-day running of a far distant outpost in the wilderness.
You can make out the original area of settlement if you look at a Natchitoches city map, or better yet, the map produced for tourists at our Convention and Visitors’ Center on Front Street. Look at the western area of the map and you’ll see how the streets kind of turn and wind. They were likely just laid out as paths following the contour of the land. The second Fort St. Jean Baptiste was almost certainly on the hill that contains the American Cemetery now.
Now, look on the map at what is now the downtown area. You’ll see the neat grid of streets, nicely laid out in rectangles. This is the area that the Spanish built up when they took over the colony in the 1760s. So, even then, it looks like the French were rather laid back and the Spanish insisted on order.
Anyway, St. Denis set up a fairly flourishing trade with both the Spanish and the Indians, exchanging European goods for valuable hides and other products of the natives. St. Denis himself prospered and set up his horse corral on what is now the NSU campus.
Growth was slow at first. The 1722 census showed 14 French men, 10 women, 10 children, 20 African slaves and eight Indian slaves. There were also a little more than 50 French marines stationed at Fort St. Jean Baptiste. So, we were very much a military town!
The marines and settlers began farming the area and establishing homesteads. There were marriages between the colonial men and Spanish as well as Indian women. The place was beginning to look like a permanent home.
There’s much more interesting early history, but space precludes any more narrative at this time. But in the not too distant future we will examine the town’s first crisis — a major threat by the Natchez Indians, who had wiped out the French settlers back in the village on the Mississippi named for the tribe!
The source used for this column was “Natchitoches and Louisiana’s Timeless Cane River” by Seale, DeBlieux and Guidry, published in 2002.