NATCHITOCHES, LA– The imaginations of both American and foreign travelers to our region continue, after 300 years, to be challenged by the distinctiveness of Natchitoches and it's place in the history and folklore of the old South. Here visitors still ramble the paths of the centuries old river road that winds plantation to plantation and offers a seldom seen glimpse of a bygone place and time. From serene and scenic live oak and magnolia framed Creole mansions to the dour and dismal realities of a common Creole/African slave quarter, the myths and realities here can be imagined, explored, and embraced. Despite a unique heritage that differs from any other Southern State and even some parts of Louisiana, the Cane River region evolved to embody the common antebellum agrarian culture of the deep South.
Antebellum, Latin for ‘pre-war’, is the historic period in America that covers the first part of the 19th century through the beginning of the War Between the States. Natchitoches parish was formed in the Louisiana Territory in 1805, in preparation for annexation and statehood. The antebellum period began on April 30, 1812, when Louisiana entered the Union as the 18th state and ended on March 21, 1861, when Louisiana seceded from the Union and joined the Confederate States of America. The period gave birth to a re-capitalist agricultural economy built largely by slave-labor that left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of the historic Cane River Country. Traces of these marks can still be seen today.
The transitional period from American territory into statehood involved cementing a mixture of Native American, French, Spanish, African, Anglo, and Creole plus social, political,
economic and religious contrasts into an established American community. Advances and inventions in agricultural technology were responsible for elevating the sparsely grown fiber-bearing cotton plant to the status of king in the Southern states and Louisiana was crowned queen as New Orleans grew into one of the largest ports of export in the United States. Natchitoches was instrumental in that growth, with each segment of its society playing a part in the rise and fall of the era.
Native Americans, whose numbers had diminished since French establishment in 1714, became a casualty of statehood transition when, as in other Southern States, the small number of families remaining in the Natchitoches and Caddo tribes were relocated under President Andrew Jackson's US Indian Removal Act of 1830 to the newly designated Indian Lands in the Oklahoma territory with their Eastern counterparts the Cherokee and Choctaw.
Descendants of the distinctive French Catholic colonists expanded their 18th century holdings and worked to integrate French and Spanish legal codes with the American use of English common law to form a collaborative Napoleonic based legal system still unique in the United States today. Striving to retain their identity, the colonial French language continued to be spoken alongside common American English in antebellum Natchitoches.
Spanish families who had been responsible for the architectural development, relocation of Natchitoches' town center, strengthening of the Catholic church and a ‘creolization’ of the slave population, remained instrumental in the community. During the late 18th century Spanish administration was responsible for rebuilding the church and town along with creating a foundation of Creole slaves that accounted for most of the growth in slave population and left African slaves in the minority in 1812.
Spanish Natchitoches would leave it’s mark on a foundation for the early antebellum period and the American settlers that would soon follow.