By Joe Darby
You know, when you think about it, the amount of history that surrounds us here in the Natchitoches area is just astounding.
To start off with, we are the oldest continuous settlement in the whole Louisiana Purchase area. We all know that, of course. Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established this place in 1714, four years before New Orleans was laid out. So, we were here at the creation, so to speak.
Years of colonial history followed, then Natchitoches became part of the United States when the US bought Louisiana from France in 1803. The shift in the Red River’s main channel away from Cane River isolated us a bit, but we continued to grow. We also continued to be pretty much a pioneer and “wild west” area, with all of the interesting aspects of that phase, which I’ll get back to in a moment.
Then, that great American conflict, the Civil War, showed up on our doorsteps in the spring of 1864, when Union and Confederate armies chased each other in and out of town during the Red River Campaign. That ended with the Northern soldiers retreating back to Alexandria and beyond, sowing destruction with fire and sword as they went.
Then the railroads came and Natchitoches began to lose its frontier life and became better connected to the rest of the state and the South. Growth and modernization continued, with the coming of “the Normal School,” now NSU, and our old town entered the 20th century, with all of its conveniences such as electricity, telephones, autos, planes, etc. It’s been a grand, heck of a ride, I would say.
But I want to touch on a part of our history on which probably most folks are not too well informed. I’m talking about No Man’s Land, that wild, open area between here and the Sabine River, back in the early 1800s. My fellow Natchitoches Parish Journal journalist Kevin Shannahan has already written a nice piece on a program held last weekend about No Man’s Land, at Fort St. Jean Baptiste. But I was so impressed with it that I want to talk about it a little bit more.
Cane River National Heritage Area Ranger Michael Mumaugh presented a detailed, illustrated talk that covered international politics, society, crime, war and other aspects of what life was like in No Man’s Land Starting 200 years ago. The bicentennial of the area is being celebrated from now until 2022.
It was called No Man’s Land because for many years no government held sway there. To the west was Spain, and in Natchitoches were the French. Then Spain gained the whole territory but the area became an international boundary once again when the US bought the Louisiana Territory. So then you had Spain, then Mexico once that country gained its independence, to the west, and the US in Natchitoches.
All of those entities claimed the area between here and the Sabine River, but no one truly controlled it, so it became a natural haven for outlaws on the run, fugitive slaves, bandits and killers along with some honest pioneer families who just wanted to settle down on their own homestead.
Travel through the area was hazardous in the extreme. We learned of gangs that waylaid unsuspecting travelers, who thought they were being put up for free overnight but, as Mumaugh said, “woke up with their throats cut.” Their goods and horses, of course, would be taken by the murderers.
The area also served as a retail outlet for the famous pirate Jean Lafitte, who sold his stolen goods, including captured slaves, to buyers willing to pay the highest price. Other slaves, as well as American Indians, made the area their home, setting up independent villages of their own.
In later years, during the Civil War, so-called Jay Hawkers, bands of outlaws and army deserters, roamed the area, killing and robbing It was not fun to live in No Man’s Land, I can tell you.
So, as I said, we have loads of interesting history on our doorsteps. The next time you drive to Many, you might want to think about what happened 200 years ago along the very road that you are traveling. You’re following in the footsteps of some very interesting characters!