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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 Dutisné, 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 Americans.

Examples of the Caddo's trade goods Commissary shows simple goods available
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 might have.

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 church.

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 the Indians.

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. 

 

For more info:

http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/iftstjean.aspx

 

 

 

 

 


 

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