Cane River Creole National Historical Park


Front Street in Natchitoches, Louisiana today

Front Street in Natchitoches, Louisiana today

The Cane River region of Louisiana is home to a unique culture; the Creoles. The nearly 300-year relationship between the Cane River Creoles and their homeland was shaped by the river. This relationship was tested by flood, drought, war, and numerous other obstacles. Luckily, their resilience and resourcefulness have allowed the Creole culture to endure and thrive.

Natchitoches Historic District – National Historic Landmark

In 1690, French explorer Henri de Tonti arrived in the Indian village of Natchitoches. In 1714, three years before New Orleans was founded, another Frenchman, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, ordered the first substantial dwellings to be built in Natchitoches. This established the first permanent settlement in what became the vast Louisiana Purchase Territory.

Henri de Tonti

Henri de Tonti

As the settlement grew, active trade began with the Spanish. When Natchitoches became an outpost for the Spanish government in 1764, there was little concern for the colony’s French Creoles. They had been trading with the Spanish since the founding of the city. This became part of the United States in 1803, and by this time, Creole planters were building more pretentious structures using traditional “bousillage” construction (a building technique that used wood frame, e.g., upright and angular posts, infilled with Spanish moss and mud). The city of Natchitoches continued as an important trading and navigation center on the Red River. In 1825 the Red River began changing course and continued to do so until 1849 when the old river channel was abandoned and Cane River Lake was formed. Steamboat traffic to the city was possible only during periods of high water.

The plan for the city was developed from property lines radiating from the river. In the late 1700s, these property lines became streets and later were intersected by other streets forming rectangular blocks. The area retains the atmosphere of a rural town with well-kept lawns and homes. Pride of ownership in this area is evident, and in recent years restoration work has been undertaken by private individuals. The business and residential areas are clearly defined due to early zoning restrictions. Front Street, which stretches the length of the business district, is brick paved and overlooks Cane River Lake. The bank is terraced down to the river and landscaped with crepe myrtles and oaks. Most of the opposite bank, also landscaped, belongs to the city. The area in the old town section is low density. Old trees dot the landscape in the business district. Buildings that have gone up in recent years have been designed to be compatible with the surroundings. Only those streets that run east and west are straight. Other streets are narrow and crooked, giving the appearance of quaintness since most of the dwellings were built at angles to the street. The historic district has a mixture of architecture from the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. About 60 buildings and places of interest or historical note are located within the district.

Kate Chopin House – National Historic Landmark

This building was originally constructed in the early 1800s. Home of Alexis Cloutier, for whom Cloutierville was named, and later Kate Chopin, American author of Creole stories, it is an example of a raised Louisiana cottage illustrating French construction methods. The structure represents a typical house used in small rural communities by Creoles. The complex includes a restored blacksmith shop, a building that served as a doctor’s office, and other relics of past life in the Cane River area.

Melrose Plantation, Lousiana

Melrose Plantation, Lousiana

Melrose Plantation – National Historic Landmark

Established in 1796 by a former slave who became a wealthy businesswoman, the plantation was developed by Creoles of color over several generations. A number of famous artists, including Clementine Hunter, and writers, including Francois Mignon, spent time at the plantation.

Today the buildings of Melrose Plantation include the big house, the African house behind it, the yucca house, the Ghana house, the writers’ cabin, the weaving house, the bindery, and the barn. The African house, an unusual structure with an umbrella-like roof, and Ghana house contain features that are similar to structures in the Caribbean and Africa. Except for the writers’ cabin, the weaving house, and the bindery, all the buildings are on their original sites. The three exceptions were moved to Melrose by Mrs. Cammie Garrett Henry, the last private owner. They are old buildings from the vicinity but not original to this plantation.

Los Adaes State Commemorative Area – National Historic Landmark

The Spanish founded this presidio in 1721 to check French expansion into east Texas. It played a part in maintaining the international balance of power between Spain and France. This presidio served as an administrative capitol for the province of Texas from 1751 to 1770 before being abandoned in 1773. Los Adaes, or Nuestra Senora del Pilar de los Adaes, is one of the few Spanish presidios in the borderlands that has not been affected by modern agricultural practices or urban expansion. The site of the main presidio and associated buildings is owned by the state; the mission site is located on private land and is currently used as pastureland. The presidio remains are located on a low ridge. The area of the site is an open field surrounded by pine forest. It has never been cultivated, and archeological remains are abundant and in place. Los Adaes provides opportunities to study, research, and interpret life at a Spanish colonial frontier settlement, including European-Indian interdependency.

Fort Jesup State Commemorative Area – National Historic Landmark

Fort Jesup was the most southwesterly military outpost in the United States from its establishment in 1822 until the Mexican War. In March 1845, Texas was offered admission to the Union and Gen. Zachary Taylor’s “Army of Observation,” stationed at Fort Jesup, was ordered to hold its troops ready to march into Texas. After Texas joined the Union, Taylor was ordered to move into the new state.

After the sale of the lots and buildings of Fort Jesup at the auctions of 1850, 1875, 1880, and 1885, the great stone and log garrison structures were torn down, removed, or gradually deteriorated. By 1929 only one building remained the kitchen. The roof and floor were nearly all gone, and the crumbling foundation threatened the collapse of the entire structure.

Local interest in the history of Fort Jesup provided funds for the restoration of this building. In replacing the roof, hand riven cypress boards were used and the original handwrought hinges and nails reused. The old rock chimney was rebuilt, decaying members were replaced with hewn logs, and sills were replaced where needed. A new floor of rough oak boards was laid and the stone foundation was also replaced. The extent of the park around this structure was 3 acres.

In 1957, Fort Jesup State Monument was established, consisting of 20.5 acres. The original restored building was refurnished with period reproductions and authentic pots, pans, and utensils. One of the officers’ quarters has been reconstructed for use as a visitor center and park administrative office, with exhibits designed to tell the story of the fort. The area has also undergone extensive landscaping.

Oakland Plantation Mansion, Natchitoches, Louisiana

Oakland Plantation Mansion, Natchitoches, Louisiana

Oakland Plantation

The plantation house of Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prudhomme was most likely constructed by slaves beginning in 1821. It has been occupied by seven generations of the Prud’homme family. Many of the original outbuildings for this plantation are intact. Many of the surviving structures including the French colonial main house are examples of bousillage construction. Also important is the landscape, which contains an 1835 bottle garden, a formal entranceway, and intact agricultural fields.

The plantation setting is open and flat, and the only change in elevation occurs at the riverbanks, where there is a drop of a few feet. The only intrusion in the area is a small metal truss bridge; however, this is not a major feature in the landscape.

The main house is set at the head of a short alley of live oaks behind a small formal garden. The parterres are outlined in various kinds of bottles – crock bottles from Scotland, square bitters bottles, round bottom beer bottles from Ireland, torpedo-shaped bottles from England, and wine bottles from France. The main house is a large hip roof, raised cottage, with surrounding galleries and 28 chamfered posts. The three dormers on the front are original. Most rooms have double French doors. The interior walls are paneled with random-width boards. Only one of the original mantels remains – a comparatively plain Greek Revival wooden mantel in one of the bedrooms. The finer marble mantels cracked and were replaced with plain wooden mantels in 1915. Most of the transom doors and floorboards are original.

The plantation includes several outbuildings. The old store – a frame, gable-fronted building – dates from the Civil War era. Behind the store is the carriage house, an old but nondescript frame building, which was converted into a machine shop in 1960. There are two frame hip roof pigeonniers at opposite ends of the access lane and a small log carpenter’s shop with half dovetail joints at the corners. Behind the carpenter’s shop is an old frame barn that was once a smokehouse; the smoked and charred beams remain. The overseer’s house is a raised cottage that has been re-sided. The largest residence other than the plantation house is the doctor’s house, a five-bay frame cottage with a pitched roof. Though much reworked, it still contributes to the overall appearance of the plantation.

Magnolia Mansion near Natchitoches, Louisiana

Magnolia Mansion near Natchitoches, Louisiana

Magnolia Plantation

The main plantation house of Ambrose LeComte was most likely constructed by slaves in the 1830s. The large plantation house was burned in 1864 by the army of Union General Banks as they retreated to Alexandria after the battles of Mansfield and Pleasant Hill. Construction of the plantation house was completed in 1899 in an amalgam of Greek Revival and Italianate.

Magnolia Plantation is set along Cane River Lake amid 10 acres of open flat farmland. The big house is surrounded by several 150-year-old live oaks and magnolia trees. The house itself is approached by means of a gravel driveway set on axis with the central front door.

Although the present plantation house dates from 1899, it partially follows the plan of the house that previously occupied the site. The raised plantation house has one principal floor, under a large pitched roof garret. The five-bay plan has a central hall and double parlors with chimneys set between them.

There is also a front gallery and a rear gallery that encompasses not only the house but also a rear wing. The house, traditional in form and plan, is large and plain with square post galleries, transom panel doors, and simple Renaissance Revival mantels. The upstairs walls are entirely sheathed in narrow gauge wainscotting with plain mantels. All doors have four panels and windows are sash mounted. The 2½-story structure contains 27 rooms and an extensive collection of Southern Empire and Louisiana furniture.

The plantation includes a number of important outbuilding and dependencies, such as an overseer’s house, slave quarters cabins, a plantation store, a corn crib, a blacksmith shop, a pigeonnier, and a cotton press-gin building. The cotton press gin building contains a rare cotton press and two types of gins. These remnants of a working plantation are invaluable in understanding southern antebellum agricultural practices. The unusually large overseer’s house is a hip-roof, raised Acadian cottage, which is almost completely surrounded by square post galleries. This structure served as the family residence after the Civil War to the reconstruction of the large plantation house. Modifications to the overseer’s house include the tin roof and the interior, which is much reworked. The transom, doors, windows, and shutters remain.

Of the original slave dwellings, eight remain in a double row in the southeast portion of the plantation. These are brick, two-room, galleried houses with central chimneys and gable parapets – unusually high-quality construction for slave cabins. Each fireplace has an iron lintel. There has been some deterioration, including the loss of several parapets, chimney tops, windows, and doors. In addition, some gallery roofs have collapsed. The cotton press dates back to ca. 1830 and is one of about five or six comparable examples in the South. This building also contains 19th-century ginning equipment. In addition, the landscape of fields and woodlands surrounding the plantation are intact.

Badin-Roque House

Badin-Rogue House, Natchitoches, Louisiana

Badin-Rogue House, Natchitoches, Louisiana

The Badin-Roque House is set on flat farmland adjacent to Cane River Lake, approximately 10 miles south-southeast of the city of Natchitoches. It probably was constructed in the early 19th century as a poteaux en terre (posts in the ground) cottage with two front rooms of unequal size and two rear cabins with a small space between. This structure typified bousillage construction techniques. The house had a single central chimney and a dirt floor. In the 1830s a beaded tongue and groove ceiling were added as was much of the present board and batten fenestration. In about 1850 the present pitched roof and siding were added. In addition, the small rear gallery was enclosed and a 9 over 6 window installed. In the 20th century, the present tin roof covering was installed. The structure is stable, but some of the studs have tilted and the brick fireplaces have partially crumbled.

Cherokee Plantation

The Cherokee Plantation house dates from the 1820s and is named for the Cherokee roses in the front yard. It is typical of early Louisiana plantations and reflects the lifestyles of French planters. South and west of the house are three very old barns, one a “log crib.” Across the road on the riverbank facing the big house is a slave cabin with the original fireplace. This has been restored for caretakers, but the style and flavor have been preserved.

Beau Fort Plantation

Jean Pierre Emmanuel Prud’homme began building this plantation in 1830 for his son, L. Narcisse Prudhomme. It has been modernized with several additions including a patio, a breakfast room, a kitchen, and storage rooms.

Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Commemorative Area

Louis Juchereau de St. Denis supervised the construction of a small structure in 1713 known as Fort St. Jean Baptiste. This post served as the center for French trading activities as well as presenting a challenge to Spanish authority in the area and stands on a rough boundary between French Louisiana and Spanish Texas. The Spanish responded to this by establishing a military post and religious mission among the Adaes Indians approximately 15 miles west of the French fort. The fort was moved from an island in the Red River (now Cane River Lake) to the west bank. After 1803 the fort was abandoned and torn down. The Louisiana Office of State Parks in 1971-72 purchased the site of this post. Construction of a replica fort began in 1980 and was completed in 1981.

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser/Legends of America, updated October 2020.

Also See:

Cane River Settlement

Early History of the Pelican State

Louisiana – The Pelican State

Louisiana Photo Galleries

Source: Cane River Creole National Historic Park