Rene Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle in 1682, claimed Louisiana for France. Near the end of the 17th century, King Louis XIV considered another venture in the New World. In 1698 he commissioned Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, and Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville II, to implement La Salle’s original colonization plan for Louisiana. Iberville readied an expedition force and departed from Brest, France, on October 24, 1698. The expedition reached the vicinity of Dauphin Island on the Gulf of Mexico on January 31, 1699. Eventually it settled near Biloxi, Mississippi, and later New Orleans, Louisiana. Iberville resolved to erect a number of forts and trading posts along the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
In order to carry out this decision the next year, Bienville led an exploration of the Red River to open trade with local tribes. Accompanied by Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, Bienville’s group reached the vicinity of Natchitoches and established friendly contacts with the Caddo tribes. In 1702 Iberville returned to France to obtain more settlers, supplies, and military equipment for the colony.
Settlement of Natchitoches
The disappointing progress of the colony of Natchitoches convinced King XIV to extricate himself from an unprofitable venture, an action accomplished by transferring Louisiana to the rich merchant Antoine Crozat, Marquis de Chatel. On September 14, 1712, the king officially granted Crozat exclusive trading rights and governing rights in Louisiana for 15 years. Under terms of the royal charter, the French government accepted part of the colonial expenditures for nine years. Crozat planned to more fully exploit the agricultural and commercial potential of the colony.
In 1713, Crozat sent agents to revitalize trade with the Indians and to more efficiently administer colonial affairs. Among the agents dispatched was the new governor, Antoine de la Mothe, Cadillac. Cadillac, in 1714, requested that St. Denis, a leader of the earlier French exploration to the Red River Valley, return to that area for the purpose of establishing a French settlement. St. Denis chose the site that became the city of Natchitoches to construct Fort St. Jean Baptiste. Thus began the oldest permanent settlement in the present state of Louisiana (New Orleans was established in 1718). For many years this post served as an important strategic and trade center on the Red River. St. Denis was well suited for this task as he had both courage and tact and was well acquainted with the ways of the Indian frontier. During his tenure, St. Denis developed into a key figure in colonial affairs.
Cadillac’s administration succeeded in attracting new settlers to the colony, which resulted in the need to develop a well-defined land-grant system. The king in 1716 adopted a series of colonial land regulations, which stipulated that a land grant had to be cleared within two years or else revert back to the crown. In addition, the land was to be two-thirds cleared before the original grantee could sell it.
These land concessions were categorized as being either general or special. A general concession designated any portion of the vacant lands for development while a special concession provided fixed boundaries for land grants. Early grantees received between 50 and 100 arpents (approximately 190 feet to the arpent) facing the Red River. The decree of 1716 ordered unimproved land divided into sections of from two to four arpents, each in front and extending back from the river a distance of 40 arpents. This system allowed each landholder to have some of the good natural levee lands along with backswamp.
The river provided the focal point for settlement as it served as a transportation route upon which commerce and communication reached all parts of the colony. The presence of natural levees along the river led to the adoption of a linear settlement pattern, possibly based on European models, wherein the main structures of the plantations were found nearest the river, while the rear portions of the grants contained fields followed by swamps or woods. At river bends, this type of settlement pattern led to the formation of pie-shaped land holdings rather than the usual rectangular sections. These land patterns can still be seen in the Cane River area.
French Louisiana’s commercial activities centered around the Indian trade. Because of the proximity to Spanish Texas and the Indian nations, Natchitoches was ideally suited to a frontier market economy. Because a giant logjam called the Great Raft blocked Red River navigation above the settlement, Natchitoches was the northern terminus for traffic to and from downriver ports. In addition, the city’s location near the Spanish Camino Real, a major east-west overland route, further enhanced its growth as a trade center.
The French expansion in the Red River Valley caused concern among Spanish authorities in east Texas, and in 1717, they countered the French settlement with one of their own: the mission post of Los Adaes. Located 14 miles southwest of Natchitoches, this outpost eventually became the capital of Spanish Texas. Proximity, necessity, and mutual profit resulted in a lively contraband trade relationship between those two communities, despite the opposing mercantile policies of both governments. The Spanish needed tobacco, medicine, liquor, firearms, salt, and other goods obtained through the Red River trade, while the French provided a ready market for Spanish silver and cattle.
The Seven Years’ War, known in America as the French and Indian War, concluded in 1763 with the expulsion of France from North America. In 1762 during the course of the war, Spain was induced to enter on the side of France. The price for Spanish participation was the cession to Spain of Louisiana lands on the west bank of the Mississippi River, including Natchitoches and those lands on the east bank below Bayou Manchac. This agreement was formalized by the Treaty of Fontainebleau in 1762. The Treaty of Paris in 1763 further clarified the military and diplomatic results of the war.