Pop Quiz – What’s the oldest permanent European settlement in all of the Louisiana Purchase? If you guessed Natchitoches, Louisiana, you’re right!
I visited this charming little city this past weekend to attend my niece’s graduation from Northwestern University. Honestly, I didn’t expect to do much more than listen to speeches, give a few hugs, and slip back home. But a road sign reminded me that Nattchitoches was no ordinary town. So after the ceremony I sought out downtown and the Landmark Historic District, a 33-block area filled with wrought iron, stucco and old red brick, and lots and lots of history.
In 1714, French Canadian Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis made his way up the Red River and to the village of the Natchitoches Indians. Prosperous trading followed. By 1716, the French had built Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches on the site to prevent the Spanish from advancing into Louisiana from Texas.
Until 1803, when Louisiana switched hands to the U.S., cotton and tobacco were planted by slaves of French-speaking Creoles, who were mainly from New Orleans. After Louisiana became part of the U.S., a population boom hit, with English-speaking northerners settling in the region and building substantial plantations.
An agriculture boom resulted. And in an attempt to create a short water route to Arkansas, a diversionary project was miscalculated and inadvertently caused the Red River to shift. This engineering blunder cut off the region’s access to the all-important Mississippi River and left behind a 33-mile oxbow lake known as Cane River Lake, which runs parallel to the city’s Main Street.
Then came the Civil War, and Union soldiers set the town on fire. But Confederate cavalry arrived just in time and distinguished the flames before everything was destroyed.
Today, a well-researched replica of Fort St. Jean sits a few hundred yards from the original site. But some of the most interesting architecture is found in the city’s well-preserved mercantile buildings, including the Kaffie-Frederick Hardware Store, that dates back to 1863 and has been operating continually since it was built.
Then, of course, there’s Oakland, Cherokee, and Melrose Plantations, and the Taylor-Cook House, a two-story, red brick charmer built in 1840, and where much of the movie Steel Magnolias was filmed.
Foodwise, Natchitoches is famous for its meat pies, which are made from a recipe that goes back 300 years. This savory little turnover is made of ground beef or pork and onions, peppers, garlic, and spices, and fried in a flour dough crust. Natchitoches meat pies resemble Spain’s empanada, and Chef John Folse believes the original version may have been developed by the Natchitoches Indians and improved by the Spanish (who, in colonial times, illegally traded with the French).
Most folks in Louisiana also know that Natchitoches is famous for its Christmas light festival. But this city offers so much more to see, especially if you’re wowed by American history.