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 is now
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 and
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.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste
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. (LOC)
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 fort's church yard
became the original
cemetery of Natchitoches,
which is now called the
American Cemetery. After
the 1803 purchase,
Americans used the
cemetery. 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.
The map above is an excerpt from a larger 1760 map of French Louisiana, showing
the location of the original Fort St. Jean along the Red River as well as the many
arms of the river around Natchitoches. Historians at the fort have recreated the map
in a scaled, 3-D model, helping the visitor to visualize the historical "lay of the
land." Map is from Louisiana State University library, Shreveport.
Inside the re-created fort is the church that centered its mission, and a bread
oven that was crucial to its mission. On lucky days, visitors can watch baking
demonstrations.