Although the city of Natchitoches did not incorporate until 1819, it was established as a trading post one hundred years earlier in 1714 by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis during the French colonial period. Named after the native Natchitoches people, the settlement was situated in territory acquired by the United States in 1803 as part of the Louisiana Purchase.
French architectural influence rarely seen outside of New Orleans is evident in the storefronts that line the brick-paved Front Street in the historic district.
As the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase, a 33-block section of Natchitoches has been named a National Historic Landmark District.
Visitors can relive 300 years of history through self-guided walking and driving tours. Free guided walking tours are available most days, as well. Download a historic district map and tour route by clicking the map above, or consult the Cane River NHA website for the complimentary guided tour schedule.
Beau Jardin and Rogue House Gardens is a newly-developed area in the historic district nestled between Front Street and the riverfront. The water features, bridges, and landscaping make it an ideal location, not just for scenic walks, but for weddings and other events, as well.
The Roque House, moved here from its Down River location in 1967, occupies a prominent spot on the Natchitoches riverfront.
Historians believe this example of Creole “bousillage” architecture, carefully joined without nails, was built by a freedman of color named Yves. The house is named for its final resident, Madame Aubert Roque, a granddaughter of Augustin Metoyer, patriarch of the Cane River Creole community. Both surnames are common in the area to this day, and I encountered them frequently during my visit.
The oldest cemetery in the Louisiana Purchase was established in association with Fort St. Jean Baptiste in 1737. Along with other local settlers, Natchitoches founder Juchereau St. Denis and his wife Manuela are buried here in the American Cemetery.
The Cook-Taylor House, made famous as a location in the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias,” is now a bed and breakfast. Visitors can download a Steel Magnolias Movie Locations map and itinerary for self-guided tours of this and other sites featured in the motion picture.
The current Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception is the sixth building to house the parish since its founding in 1728. Construction began in 1857, but it was not completed until the early 1900s. Any church that demonstrates “antiquity, dignity, historical value, architectural worth, and is a significant center of worship” may be elevated to the status of a basilica.
Entering the doors of Kaffie-Frederick General Mercantile on Front Street is like taking a step back in time. I could have spent hours exploring the inventory of the oldest general store in Louisiana, where the original 1892 freight elevator still works and the 1917 cash register still rings up every sale.
Held annually on the first Saturday in December since 1927, the Natchitoches Christmas Festival is legendary! The event which draws an estimated 100,000 visitors to town is celebrated with food, music, a parade, fireworks, and more than 100 lighted riverbank set pieces. If you plan to attend, be sure to make your lodging reservations early.
For visitors who want to view historic Natchitoches from a different perspective, Cane River Paddle & Pedal Sports offers kayak, stand-up paddle board, and various other watercraft rentals to the public. Cane River is the perfect location for first-timers who don’t want to be concerned with water currents, as you are about to see.
Touring historical Natchitoches was just the beginning of my visit to Central Louisiana. With an abundance of scenic and historical destinations in outlying areas, I soon learned that Natchitoches was a classic hub-and-spoke city, perfect for travelers like me who enjoy history with a side of outdoor adventure.
I know it sounds like a contradiction, but Cane River is really a lake. Although its creation, both natural and manmade, was explained to me by a heritage ranger, I’m still a bit fuzzy. Even so, I will explain it the way I understand it. Here goes . . . .
Cane River Lake was originally a channel of the Red River, but in the mid-1800s the Red River began to meander (change course) to a new channel. In order to preserve the previous waterway, earthen dams were built at either end of the 33-mile channel in the early 1900s. Today the body of water is a lake, yet with the winding characteristics of a river.
Within the national heritage area and situated along the heritage trail, the Cane River Creole National Historical Park features two historical plantations that authentically preserve the French Creole cultural landscape. Both properties have also been named National Bicentennial Farms because they were owned by the same families for more than 200 years, and they are the only such farms situated west of the Mississippi River.
Oakland Plantation founder Jean Pierre Emanuel Prud’homme began farming this land in 1785 and was awarded a Spanish land grant in 1789. Eight generations of his family would continue farming tobacco, indigo, and eventually cotton on a large scale.
After the Civil War, the family opened a general store that also operated the Bermuda post office. The store would remain in operation until 1983.
Today the store houses exhibits and the park gift shop.
Cane River Creole NHP participates in the NPS Civil War to Civil Rights trading card initiative, a program “offering more than 500 trading cards to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War and the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.” Kids of all ages can view “the cards online and discover stories from nearly 90 national parks in 31 states and the District of Columbia.”
If you are a John Wayne fan, you might recognize the 1826 oak alley and front entrance to the Oakland Plantation main house as a scene from the 1959 motion picture “The Horse Soldiers.”
Located halfway between Oakland and Magnolia Plantations you will find the most storied plantation along the trail. Founded in 1795, Melrose Plantation, now privately owned and run by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches (APHN), would become one of the largest plantations owned by free people of color.
Nine historical structures situated on the plantation grounds tell a 200-year history that begins with the legendary Marie Thérèse Coin-Coin, former slave of Nachitoches founder St. Denis, who became a powerful landowner, businesswoman, and ultimately a slaveowner herself.
Coin-Coin’s son Louis Metoyer was deeded the 911 acres that would become Melrose in a 1796 land grant, and he began construction on the main house in 1832. His son Jean Baptiste Louis Metoyer completed construction in 1833.
The interior of the main house tells stories of it own. It houses the famous Louisiana library of Cammie Henrywho acquired the property in 1899, worked tirelessly as a preservationist, and created a retreat for artists and writers who were welcome to stay as long as they remained productive. Visiting writers included Lyle Saxon, William Faulkner, Erskine Caldwell, and Rachel Field.
The most prominent artist to emerge from Melrose itself was former field hand and Cammie’s cook, Clementine Hunter, who found some discarded paints on the property and began painting for the first time while in her 50s. Hunter’s most famous work, the African House Murals, are displayed on the second floor of that structure on the Melrose grounds. Destined to become one of America’s most celebrated folk artists, Clementine Hunters’s work is displayed today in pretigious galleries across the country.
St. Augustine is the first Roman Catholic church in the United States established by and for people of color. The church’s founder was Nicolas Augustin Metoyer, a freed slave and son of Isle Brevelle matriarch Marie Thérèse Coin-Coin.