Fort St. Jean Baptiste was established over 300 years ago by French explorers. This outpost on the colonial frontier not only served as a military installation to protect France’s position in the New World, but also functioned as the 18th century capital of trade and commerce in we know today as Cenla.
Early Exploration & Settlement
Prior to the arrival of European settlers, the Cane River region was populated by the Adaes and the Natchitoches, both American Indian tribes of the Caddo Nation. The first significant contact between the American Indians of the area and European explorers came in 1700, when French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis paddled up Red River as part of an expedition led by Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville. The French expedition met with the Natchitoches tribe in peace. Many of the Natchitoches later moved to St. Denis’ fort along Lake Ponchartrain and established strong trade alliances with the French.
St. Denis and his Natchitoches allies returned to the Cane River region in 1714, during a risky trading mission to Spanish Texas. The expedition was planned by Antoine Crozat, Marquis de Châtel, who had acquired a royal monopoly over the colony in 1712. Though it was Spain’s policy not to allow its colonies to trade with foreign powers, Crozat believed that Texas was willing to ignore this mandate.
St. Denis encouraged the Natchitoches to resettle on the Red River. Within their village, St. Denis constructed a storage house and a barrack. This event marks the founding of the City of Natchitoches. St. Denis continued into Texas and presented himself at San Juan Bautista, near present day Eagle Pass, Texas, along the Rio Grande. The fort’s captain promptly arrested St. Denis as a spy and later sent him to Mexico City for interrogation. While in custody, St. Denis not only managed to negotiate his release, but also succeeded in winning the hand of the captain’s step-granddaughter in marriage. The Spanish offered St. Denis a paid position on an expedition to reestablish missions in East Texas, and he accepted. Most notable of the outposts established on the expedition was the presidio and mission of Los Adaes. Located near the French border just west of Natchitoches, Los Adaes later served as the first capital of Texas.
St. Denis returned to Natchitoches and oversaw the growth of the village. The new Spanish settlements near the border greatly increased the importance of the French outpost. In 1716, the French colonial government ordered the building of Fort St. Jean Baptiste and deployed a sergeant and six soldiers to the area. Settlers soon followed the military, bringing with them the first documented African slaves to the region. In 1722, enslaved Africans comprised a substantial percentage of the total population of Natchitoches, creating the foundation for the large African American community that has existed throughout the region’s history.
As Natchitoches grew, its strategic location made it an ideal place to farm and trade. Access to the Red River allowed farmers in the area to ship products to New Orleans and other downriver settlements. Trade with American Indian tribes and illegal smuggling into Texas also provided a market close to home. St. Denis’ diplomatic skills turned these trading relationships into a strong, unofficial, international alliance.
This complex alliance was best displayed during the Natchez War of 1731. Two years earlier, the Natchez tribe had massacred the French settlement of Fort Rosalie, at present day Natchez, Mississippi and had begun moving towards Natchitoches. At the time, Fort St. Jean Baptiste was in poor condition and could not withstand an enemy force. The settlement was saved, however, by St. Denis’ network of allies. Spanish, Natchitoches, and other American Indian reinforcements joined St. Denis’ forces in the defense of the fort. St. Denis then led the coalition in a charge that routed their enemy. St. Denis continued to lead the region in prosperity until his death in 1744.
The Spanish Period
As a result of the French and Indian War, France was forced to cede Louisiana to Spain in 1763. This radical change could have thrown Natchitoches into unrest. However, Spain understood the volatile situation in Louisiana and appointed St. Denis’ son-in-law, a Frenchman named Christophe Athanase Fortunat de Mézières, Commandant of Natchitoches. Spain allowed de Mézières to govern Natchitoches generally in accordance with French customs, smoothing the political transition.
One disruption that was unavoidable however, was the disappearance of the Spanish border. Under Spanish authority, the fort served as a trade center and a link in Spain’s colonial communications network. But since its original purpose of protecting a territorial boundary no longer applied, the Spanish eventually abandoned the fort. The fort was in such ruins by the time the United States acquired the area in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 that the Americans could no longer use it, so they built Fort Claiborne nearby.
Although the original fort is now gone, Ft. St. Jean Baptiste continues to play a vital role in the economy of Natchitoches and Central Louisiana. Ft. St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site sits on Cane River Lake and is part of the Cane River National Heritage Area. The fort replication was based upon period drawings and on extensive archival research in Louisiana, Canada and France. Construction began in 1979 under the direction of the late Samuel Wilson, Jr. and the Louisiana Office of State Parks. Building materials were obtained locally, and many 18th-century techniques were employed in the replication.
Commerce, in the form of heritage tourism, has become the mission of Ft. St. Jean Baptiste SHS and Cane River National Heritage Area. The fort welcomes guests from all over the world giving visitors an opportunity to discover more about the people and cultures that initially shaped Central Louisiana. In October, the Louisiana Office of State Parks, Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site and Cane River National Heritage Area, Inc. hosted a Tri-Centennial Celebration of the founding of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The day-long open house began with a Celebration of Mass in the Fort Chapel, followed by the Tri-Centennial Ceremony, featuring Natchitoches Mayor Lee Posey and keynote address by Grégor Trumel, Consul General of France. The celebration also included demonstrations by living historians, children’s activities and research presentations covering a range of topics.
Fort St. Jean provides year-round programs that showcase the history and culture of the area including the upcoming Féte de Hiver, a family friendly 18th century Christmas celebration. Scheduled for December 2nd, visitors are invited to experience a traditional Christmas with historians, re-enactors, and period merchants. Visitors interested in other heritage and history-based programs can find activities year round throughout the Cane River National Heritage Area. Visit www.CaneRiverNHA.org to plan your next adventure.