Natchitoches, La., will mark its tercentennial in 2014
When French Canadian Louis Juchereau de St. Denis arrived at what is now Natchitoches, La., he had a talent for making friends. Considering that French Louisiana bordered Spanish Mexico, and the area also was home to Native Americans, his knack at diplomacy came in handy.
This French-Southern hospitality brought nationalities together and formed a vibrant community–the oldest in Louisiana. Today, Natchitoches welcomes visitors with a smile as the city prepares a yearlong celebration of 300 years of history.
In the early 1700s, Spain and France owned large tracts of colonial lands through the center of the United States. St. Denis traveled the Louisiana colony to scout out Spanish locations and investigate trade options. He discovered not only excellent Spanish trade, but also opportunities with the Native Americans. In 1714, St. Denis founded the fort St. Jean Baptiste aux Natchitoches, named for the indigenous people, and French trade prospered.
The key to the fort’s success, said Susan Dollar, associate professor of history at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, was St. Denis’ sensitivity to other cultures, a trait developed from his years as an explorer.
“St. Denis came from Canada and he had that sensitivity from the first day,” Dollar explained. “St. Denis was very good at making friends with the Indians and the Spanish.”
As Natchitoches, the oldest permanent settlement in the Louisiana Purchase Territory, observes its 300th anniversary with themed monthly celebrations, exhibits will put the spotlight on the various cultures that make up the historical town: Spanish, French, Italian, Caddo Indians, African-American, and Chinese.
At its soul, however, Natchitoches remains a French hub, evident in its architecture along Front Street bordering Cane River Lake and the Creole cuisine served in restaurants.
“This was a cultural crossroads from the very beginning,” Dollar said. “But this area stayed astonishingly French in character and Catholic.”
The Creole culture
Ask Louisiana residents to define “Creole” and you’re likely to receive different answers. In Natchitoches, it can mean descendants of racial and cultural mixing that occurred at the colonial outpost, including French, Spanish, Native American, and African.
“Creole is a descendant of someone born in colonial Louisiana,” Dollar explained.
A good example is Marie Thérése Coincoin, born a slave in the St. Denis household. She was leased to Frenchman Pierre Claude Thomas Metoyer and lived with him for more than 20 years. They had 10 children together. He set her and the children free, along with bequeathing her 67 acres of land south of town along the Red River.
Coincoin worked the tobacco fields and acquired more land that became Melrose Plantation. Today, the plantation–part of the Cane River National Heritage Area–is open for tours. Visitors can view the original main house, Yucca (1796); the early 19th-century African House, a rare example of Congo-inspired architecture; and the Louisiana-style plantation house once belonging to Cammie Garrett Henry, a patroness of the arts.
Melrose is most known, however, for its cook Clementine Hunter, who became popular for her folk art.
Coincoin’s son, Nicholas Augustin, founded St. Augustine Catholic Church near Melrose in 1829. The church hosts a Creole celebration every October.
Travelers can view more than 60 historical structures–including Oakland and Magnolia plantations–that represent 200 years of plantation life at the Cane River Creole National Historical Park and Heritage Area.
Downtown Natchitoches is a National Historic Landmark District and includes historical sites such as the 1850 Church of the Immaculate Conception; several antebellum homes; and the Kaffie-Frederick General Merchandise, which is the oldest general store in Louisiana.
Many people remember Natchitoches as the location of Steel Magnolias, written first as a play by Natchitoches native Robert Harling, then later a movie of the same name. Visitors can stroll through town and view where scenes were shot, plus follow the Walk of Honor on St. Denis Street, highlighting stars from other movies shot in Natchitoches, as well as those who have made contributions to local arts and sports.
No visit would be complete without sampling a Natchitoches meat pie, made famous by Lasyone’s Meat Pie Restaurant. It’s a folded pocket of meat and seasonings.
Natchitoches officially kicks off its yearlong 300th anniversary in January.
“Beginning in January, that’s when things really kick off,” said Ron McBride, tercentennial manager. “We currently have about 150 events for the year, but hopefully, that will double.”
January’s theme is “Sacred Faith” and includes a bridal and christening gown exhibit, a church walking tour, and a commemoration of Nicholas Augustin Metoyer.
February will be “Black History,” with the highlight a Black Heritage Parade.
Natchitoches’ colonial heritage is the spotlight for March, focusing on the French Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site in the heart of Natchitoches.
The annual celebration of Mardi Gras takes place the first weekend in March, culminating on Fat Tuesday, March 4. In addition, there will be the annual garden festival, Blooming on the Bricks, and a Cane River Century bike event.
In April, the tercentennial merges with the annual Jazz and R&B Festival, examining the region’s musical heritage. Special events include the Civil War discussions at the Red River Campaign Symposium and Earth Day.
Strong, spirited women made up the history of Natchitoches, from Marie Thérése Coincoin to writer Kate Chopin, who shocked the world with her classic, The Awakening. Women’s history is celebrated in May, which coincides with the annual Melrose Arts and Crafts Festival.
Last year, the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame opened in Natchitoches with sports memorabilia, profiles of famous Louisiana athletes, and more. In addition to the 2014 Hall of Fame inductees in June, there will be the culinary Cookin’ on the Cane event.
Northwestern State University in Natchitoches is home to the Louisiana Folklife Center and offers a Folklife Festival every July with music, craft demonstrations, and more. This year’s festival has a tercentennial theme.
Fall activities include a Founders Day celebration, Meat Pie Festival, and Clementine Hunter Exhibit in September; Creole heritage events in October, including the St. Augustine Church Fair; and Native American events in November, along with an Intertribal Powwow & Celebration and the marking of the 20th anniversaries of Cane River National Heritage Area and Cane River Creole National Historical Park. December marks the 88th annual Festival of Lights and Christmas Tour of Homes.
Natchitoches’ 300th anniversary closes on Jan. 1, 2015, with the New Year’s fireworks spectacular.
Whatever brings you to Natchitoches, your hosts will greet you with a smile. It’s in their nature.
Cheré Coen is a contributor from Lafayette, La.
Jan/Feb 2014 Issue
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