By Joe Darby
Maybe it is. And maybe it isn’t. It probably all depends on how one takes the meaning of “oldest continual settlement.”
This question has arisen because of a new book, “Bayou St. John, 1708-2018: Gateway to New Orleans,” by the late Mary Louise Christovich and others, produced by the Louisiana Landmarks Society and published by the UL Press at ULL.
As we all know, Natchitoches was founded by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis in 1714, four years before New Orleans was laid out in 1718. This new book documents the fact that in the spring of 1708, Bienville handed out several land grants along Bayou St. John to some Canadian friends.
Bayou St. John is in the Mid City area of New Orleans and runs from Lake Pontchartrain, alongside City Park and ends a little south of Esplanade Avenue. It provided a crucial shortcut from the earlier French settlements around Biloxi and Mobile to the site where Bienville would lay out New Orleans, today’s French Quarter. Rather than trying to work their way up past the powerful Mississippi River currents in their sailing ships, the French could just cut through Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, enter Bayou St. John and then end up very near the Mississippi River.
Bienville wanted the future New Orleans to be located where it is and he obviously felt that populating the short cut of Bayou St. John would help lead to that end result.
Today, the bayou is the site of many beautiful old homes, dating back to the late 18th century and which are illustrated in this handsome new book. The book itself does not specifically lay a claim to Bayou St. John being the oldest settlement in Louisiana, taking the place of Natchitoches as the senior settlement.
But the facts of the land grants do raise the question. Interestingly, one of the recipients of a Bayou St. John land grant in 1708 was none other than our very own St. Denis, who was a nephew by marriage to Iberville, Bienville’s older brother. It sometimes seems that St. Denis was everywhere during the first years of Louisiana’s founding.
Anyway, the book goes on to say — and this is crucial, perhaps — that all of the original land grantees had moved on by 1718 and that one man had bought them all out. “Between 1718 and 1721, Antoine Rivard Lavigne had acquired all land granted within the initial concessions…”
Dr. Susan Dollar, a professor of history at NSU and a specialist in Louisiana history, questions whether Lavigne’s sole ownership of the bayou-side land constitutes a true continuing occupation of that area. “Would you call one landowner a settlement?” she asked.
She told me that she feels Natchitoches’ claim to being the oldest continuous settlement is still solid because, beginning in 1714, Natchitoches became a true settlement, being home to a number of men, with the early fort and other structures being built here.
Dr. Dollar did find the revelations in the book interesting, however. “It looks like Bienville was taking care to set up his Canadian friends with the land grants,” she said. “I’d never seen (the land grant documents) but I’m glad to see that scholarship is continuing in that area of studies.”
In any case, nothing can take away Natchitoches’ fascinating early history and the impact that this old town has had on our whole region. It will continue to be recognized, no doubt, as the oldest settlement. The Chamber of Commerce and the Tourist Commission are not about to start claiming to be the “second-oldest settlement.”
And just as surely, history, a most fascinating topic to me and many others, will continue to challenge our thoughts and beliefs with new discoveries and revelations as scholars continue to pore over ancient documents.