Fort St. Jean Baptiste:
French Protection
Questions or comments? E-mail me: robin@redriverhistorian.com
Along the Red River behind a high bluff (the Grand Ecore), Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, a French Canadian envoy, encountered the
well-developed Caddoan village of the Natchitoches in 1702. He became friendly with the tribe, and removed them closer to New Orleans
when a flood devastated their village. In 1714, on his way to establish trade and relations further west in New Spain, he and the tribe
returned to the site of the Natchitoches village. There, St. Denis set up a small trading post as the Caddos rebuilt their settlement, thus
establishing permanent trade and dominion. These two huts  became the center of the European version of
Natchitoches.

Two years later, with trade brisk and with constant worry that the Spanish would inch themselves into the Red River Valley, the French
government erected a more substantial installation, christened Fort St. Jean Baptiste, under the leadership of Sieur Charles Claude
Dutisne. St. Denis became the commander in 1722 to keep up friendly relations with the Caddo tribes as well as keep the Spanish at arm's
length, as they had set up their own presidio and mission,
Los Adaes, in 1716 to counter the French claim on the Red River, and which they
named the capital of the province of Texas in 1720. Inside Fort St. Jean Baptiste, the first church congregation (Catholic, of course)
organized.

The fort suffered a severe attack by the Natchez tribe in 1731, which prompted a slight geographic relocation and the erection of
substantially larger stockades and gates on a larger mound a bit further from the shores of the Red River. By 1737, the church inside the
fort had consecrated a cemetery for all of its Catholic citizens (free or slave, Indian or European or African) just outside of its walls;  this
location became known as the American Cemetery in Natchitoches.

After the French defeat in the French-Indian Wars/ Seven Years' War in 1763, Louisiana Territory came under Spanish jurisdiction. The
Royal Road, aka El Camino de Real, was extended from Los Adaes to Natchitoches, and the Spanish government began to supply more
permanent commercial and Catholic institutions. As the official border disputes between France and Spain became moot, so did the
function of Fort St. Jean Baptiste. The city of Natchitoches built around the garrison, with locals most likely harvesting materials from the
fortress. The fort's church vacated the old site as well. The congregation built a more substantial building an consecrated a new cemetery
along the Red River just north of the original fort, where St. Denis was supposedly buried in 1744 (this site is now a commercial structure
at the corner of Front and Church streets) . By the time of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the fort was in utter ruins. This is why the
American government built
Fort Claiborne 1804.

In the late 1970s, local historians, together with the Louisiana Office of State Parks, purchased a site that approximated the original
location of Fort St. Jean Baptiste to resurrect the historic fort for educational purposes. Just a block removed from the Cane River,
historians, archaeologists, archivists, and architects reconstructed the fort using original plans and locally sourced materials.

The result is a wonderful educational center that uses living history demonstrations to explain life in French Louisiana. Military
demonstrations, cooking classes, handwork exhibits and more are offered by exceptionally knowledgeable staff. The fort is listed as a
resource for the
Cane River Creole National Historic Area.
This 1743 map of Louisiana by French cartographer Demarigny denotes the far western reaches of the French North American empire. Fort St.
Jean Baptiste is noted as "Fort Natchitoche." Both names were used historically. Click
here for the full version. (Library of Congress)
The 1858 Basilica of the Immaculate Conception (aka St. Francis) in Natchitoches is of the same founding lineage as the original St. Jean
Baptiste conregation from 1722. Natchitoches, however, is no longer a separate diocese. The area is overseen by the Diocese of Alexandria.
The church founded within the fort also began the original cemetery of Natchitoches, which is now called the American Cemetery (after the
1803 purchase, Americans began using the cemetery so many French-Creoles buried their dead at the Catholic Cemetery instead, hence the
name American Cemetery). Historians believe that the original fort was located within the confines of the space that the cemetery now occupies.
None of the graves from the French period remain, and very few are extant from the Spanish period. One of the site's earliest graves is this iron
cross, which denotes a typical French burial. The grave is that of Marie Anne D'Artigaux who died February 26, 1797.
Re-enactors or ghosts on the premises? The fort has been authentically replicated and sits along the Jefferson Highway in Natchitoches.
Photograph is by Christopher Talbot for the National Park Service.
Learn about the fascinating history of St.Jean Baptiste:

It was the end point of the
Camino de Real!

It is now a
Louisiana State Historic Site!

It constitutes the
oldest French settlement west of the Mississippi River!
How to get
there
The Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site sits between the Cane River (which was once the
Red River before the Great Raft Removal), and Jefferson Street, the historic highway that
connects Winnepeg to New Orleans. Its physical address is 155 Jefferson Street, Natchitoches,
LA 71457. You can also find it on this map: