Heart of Louisiana: Cane River Creole National Park
NATCHITOCHES, LA (WVUE) - Once part of the Red River is a 35-mile long oxbow known as Cane River Lake. It is the site of the oldest European settlement in the Louisiana Territory and its rich farmland and historic plantations are the cradle of Creole Louisiana.
"We were people born of a new world," said Tracey Colson with the Creole Heritage Center. "We were a man without a country. We weren't just French, we weren't just Spanish, we weren't just Native American, we were a lot of different things all meshed together like a really good gumbo."
The Cane River Creoles were wealthy plantation owners and they were laborers. They were a rich mixture of classes and races that have defied traditional labels.
After the Civil War and fall of the Class System, Creole became invisible," Colson said. "It was very confusing there was no longer a box to check."
Tracey Colson is a direct descendant of Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French merchant who was among the first settlers on Cane River. The Frenchman married one of his slaves and the couple had ten children. They became wealthy land owners. The family funded the first Catholic church for people of color in the United States. St. Augustine Church is still the centerpiece of the Creole community.
"This area is very untouched," Colson said. "Its the very same for someone that was here maybe 40 years ago and they come back and everything still looks the same."
Renowned folk artist Clementine Hunter lived on nearby Melrose Plantation. Her paintings depict the church and workers in the cotton fields. An old film from Magnolia Plantation owner Ambrose Hertzog captures farm life in the 1930's and 40's. The sharecroppers work the cotton fields by hand. They live in cabins left over from the days of slavery. They play baseball in the fields and socialize on the front porch of the plantation store.
Today, Magnolia's Old Store and outbuildings are part of the Cane River Creole National Park. The park also includes nearby Oakland Plantation, which dates to the late 1700's. Magnolia features a barn with a cotton gin, and both a mule-powered and steam-powered cotton press. There are slave quarters built in the 1850's. Each of the bare structures would house at least two families. Eight of these brick slave quarters remain at Magnolia Plantation and one reason they're still here is that share croppers were living in these buildings into the late 1960's.
"We can interpret the life of the slave but also interpret the lives of their free ancestors who continued to live and work here well into the 20th Century," said Nathan Hatfield with the National Park Service.
Many Creole families from New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana can trace their roots to the Cane River.
"Creoles are every shade," Colson said. "We're a really good cup of coffee. You just can add a little bit of mile or a whole lot but it's still Creole Coffee. It's still the same thing."
It's not the color of the skin, but the rich heritage and culture that defines Creole.
The Cane River Creole National Historical Park is located in central Louisiana, south of Natchitoches.
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