Heart of Louisiana: The first settlement

Published: May. 15, 2012 at 8:46 PM CDT|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 3:37 PM CST
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High above the bank of Cane River Lake, you'll find the oldest European settlement in Louisiana.  Predating New Orleans by four years, the city of Natchitoches has a striking resemblance to the slightly younger French Quarter.

"Natchitoches has sometimes been called by people the little New Orleans," says Tommy Adkins, an interpretive ranger at the Fort St. Jean Baptiste historic site. "And it does very much look like New Orleans when you go downtown."

In 1714, French explorers built an outpost on what used to be a bend in the Red River.  With the French wanting to protect their claim in Louisiana, Fort St. Jean Baptiste was built at Natchitoches to stop the Spanish from encroaching on this territory from the west.

"We can claim being the oldest permanent settlement in the entire Louisiana territory because of those 10 men that St. Denis left here in 1714," Adkins tells us.

The Fort St. Jean Baptiste historic site is a recreation of the nearly 300-year-old French settlement at Natchitoches.  The original French plans show a nine-foot-high wall of logs, a church, living quarters, a powder magazine and an area for cooking.

"Times in the fort were difficult, at times," Adkins tells us.  "We know that there were times when the colony, the garrison here, was not doing well.  There were times when the supplies didn't come in."

"Survival was the number one thing," says Rhonda Gauthier, another ranger at the site.  "Trade goods that made it to New Orleans and to Mobile didn't necessarily get this far to the north.

And that meant the French settlers, with the help of Native Americans and a nearby Spanish outpost, had to trade among themselves for what they needed, make their own candles and soap, and grow their own food.

"The French they were very good herbalists, so they did bring a lot of herbs with them when they came," Gauthier says.  "They brought rosemary, thyme, parsley."

The French controlled this outpost and trading center for nearly 50 years.  But with an English victory in the French and Indian war, France ceded this territory to Spain.   The fort at Natchitoches was abandoned.  But the early European influence lives on in the family names, and the historic architecture of this old city.

The state of Louisiana used original French plans for the reconstruction of Fort St. Jean Baptiste.  It sits only a few hundred yards from its original site at the city of Natchitoches.   For more information, go online to http://www.crt.state.la.us/parks/iftstjean.aspx.