Most people when asked about the oldest
city in Louisiana would guess New Orleans. They would be wrong.
Natchitoches is four years the senior. The city of Natchitoches
grew from two simple huts to become Fort St. Jean Baptiste des
Natchitoches. The city grew around the fort and became a primary
French trading post.
|Display at Visitors Center
explains the lifestyle of the Caddo Indians
A French Canadian named Louis Juchereau de
St. Denis started it all. He led a group of soldiers up the Red
River in 1714 with plans to reach Mexico and establish a trade
route. A band of Natchitoches Indians, one of the Caddo Tribes
native to Louisiana, guided the French. However, when St. Denis
reached a log jam on the river he could go no farther. The men
built the two huts there and the rest is history.
| "French Soldier," circa
1730, shows us the parade grounds of the fort
Today, Fort St. Jean Baptiste is
preserved as a state park. I visited on a recent Travel South
press trip and discovered a little known treasure. Sadly, the
original mostly log structures did not survive Louisiana's hot
humid weather but the replica is quite authentic. It is built
within yards of the original fort on Cane River Lake which was
called Red River then with authentic material. The plans
followed those of Sieur Charles Claude Dutisne, the commander of
the troops sent in 1716 to man the garrison and protect the
French colony of Louisiana from the Spanish in Florida.
|Exploring the fort and meeting
the interpreters is so much fun
When you arrive at the Fort's Visitor
Center, you can see a video explaining life in the era before
you visit the fort. The fort was built to protect from Spanish
invasion but that was not a serious threat. It was mainly a
trading post. The Caddo Tribes became dependant on the French
trade goods. Displays in the Visitor Center show the type of
goods traded and dioramas depict the villages of the Native
|Examples of the Caddo's trade goods
||Commissary shows simple goods
to the soldiers and their families
Other exhibits portray family life. Since
French women were scarce here, many of the soldiers married
Spanish women from the nearby Spanish fort or Indian women from
the friendly Caddo Tribes.
|A cabin that an average family
Once I stepped inside the pine log stockade
I felt I was back in the early 18th century. The fort
was built to house about 18 men and some families. There are
costumed interrupters that give it a more authentic feel. We
wandered around the barracks, imagined cooks preparing loaves of
bread in a huge outdoor clay oven and even visited the small
|Clay ovens like this one were
common in early French settlements.
The commander's house is larger but still
built of rough-cut timbers with a shingle roof and a single
large fireplace for heat in winter. (It's the header image)
Inside the furniture is simple wood pieces. The table was filled
with examples of the trade goods, moccasins, knives, beaded
holsters, mirrors and other simple items that would appeal to
|Our interpreter explains about
the trade goods in the house.
The commissary tells a lot of the life the
fort's inhabitants lived. There are lanterns, cloth, cast iron
cooking pots and utensils. Just the basics, no luxuries.
|The chapel has a simple beauty.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste gives the visitor a
close look at life on the frontier for the soldiers and simple
people. If you wish to understand the history of Louisiana, you
should not miss seeing this fort. It's where it all began.
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