By Joe Darby
How many times have you driven through the intersection of the Keyser Street Bridge and Jefferson Street?
Way too many times to count, right? Well, every time you traverse those corners you are (very probably) driving right through what was the French troops’ barracks at the earliest forts in Natchitoches, from 303 years ago.
History. You just can’t get away from it in Natchitoches, can you?
The location of the forts is detailed in a research project by Justin French, park manager of the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site, which lies just a couple of hundred feet to the south from the location of the original fortification.
Justin explained about the early forts here to the Natchitoches Genealogical and Historical Association at one of the group’s meetings last spring. He was so popular that he was invited back for a second lecture and he will talk about little known tales of the early commandants, at a 7 p.m. meeting on Sept. 24 at the Old Courthouse at Church and Second streets.
But back to the early forts. The research shows that the first fort here was built on what was then the Red River and that would have been in 1716, just two years after St. Denis founded the French trading post here. The location, as stated, was on Jefferson by the bridge.
Work began that summer and by the end of the year the French had erected the structure. It did not exactly a provide a Fort Knox type of defense. Rather it was a small circular fort of wooden stakes. But it was adequate for the purpose at the time.
But in just a few years there was talk that the Spanish, over to the west, were about to descend on Natchitoches with 300 men. So orders came down the French chain of command to build a new, more substantial fort that could hold 50 troops. The first fort was rebuilt, with bastions, or strengthened fortifications, at each corner.
The Spanish never invaded but throughout the 1720s and ’30s, various improvements were made to the Natchitoches fort. The troops had to contend with the tendency of their wooden fort to rot in this Southern climate, but they added on such amenities as a church and rectory and a warehouse.
The landscape has changed in the last 300 years, but the research shows that the center of the fort was located very close to the center of the Keyser Bridge and Jefferson, with the east side of the fort perhaps edging into what is now Cane River. That, of course, would have been dry land at the time. The modern existing private residences just south of the intersection would also have been within the fort’s grounds.
By the way, it’s a good thing the fort was strengthened because in 1731, Natchez Indians came over from the Mississippi River and threatened this area. This was the same tribe that had wiped out the French settlement at Natchez just a couple of years before.
Well, by the mid 1730s construction began on the third and most substantial French fort and research indicates that would have been up on the hill that is now the site of the American Cemetery. Justin reports that the fort was finished on Dec. 13, 1737. I wonder what the weather was like that day, when their hard work was done. The way December weather is here, it could have been either a beautiful, clear day or a cold, miserable drizzly one.
Justin showed photos of artifacts that have been recovered from the fort site, including pottery, musket balls, a musket side plate, beads, wine bottle fragments, nails, and broken pipe stems. Just proofs of the everyday lives here way back in the 18th century.
Well, in the 1760s, Spain acquired Louisiana and there was no more need for a fort in this area, because no potential enemies were nearby, and the fort was allowed to deteriorate.
But we know those structures were once here and played a vital role in the lives of our earliest forbears. So when you cross the Keyser Bridge to Jefferson, remember. You’re on historic ground.