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The Story of St. Denis

(When I read this story to my class, I use background music that I taped to fit the mood of the various parts of the story. Generally I used music from Robin Hood.)

The year, 1712. The Louisiana colony has grown very little in the past eight years since the Pelican girls arrived. Less than 50 people live in the area now known as Louisiana. A new governor has been appointed, his name, Antonie Cadillac. He wasted no time in wanting to establish trade with the Spanish in Mexico.

For this important work he chose Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the 11th of 12 children, born near Quebec. He had studied in Paris at the Royal College. Stories abounded concerning his love affairs and duels. Most perhaps just legends. St. Denis' entire life was what legends were made of.

Cadillac could not have made a better choice than St. Denis, commander of Fort de la Boulaye along the Gulf coast. St. Denis was a heroric figure to both the French and the Indians of western Louisiana . He spoke several Indian languages and Spanish fluently. He was greatly respected as a talented salesman and skilled diplomat. It was known that he could talk his way into - an out of - almost any situation.

Governor Cadillac had recently received a letter from the Spanish priest Father Hadalgo working with the Tejas Indians in east Texas. He was asking for the governor to please send some French priests to help him as the Spanish refused to allow more priests to cross the Rio Grande. The governor thought that this could be a great cover and excuse to send someone to explore the possibilities of trade with the Spanish and possible Mexico.

St. Denis set out on the first leg of his journey following the Mississippi to the Red River where he met the Natchitoches Indians. He stopped on his way to the Tejas Territory long enough to sign a treaty with the Natchitoches tribe. The Indians were so impressed with this 6 foot, well built, Frenchman that they called him Chief Pretty Legs. The title partly came because of his preference to bright colored clothes- yellow jackets, red pants, and white silk stockings.

While there he built a storehouse for his extra supplies and left a few men to built a garrison or fort. The fort would become the first permanent settlement in the French colony, Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches.


St. Denis then headed west with 25 men leaving only 10 behind. They crossed the Sabine. They traded goods with the Indians all throughout east Texas. Guns, knives, beads - all traded for furs and livestock. The Indians helped guide St. Denis to Father Hadalgo - of which they never found. All the while, traveling deeper and deeper into Spanish Texas.

St. Denis quickly learned the dialects of the various tribes. After months of travel he neared the Rio Grande along the Mexican border. He was ready to cross, knowing that the Spanish had ordered their troops to shoot anyone crossing. He was heading to the nearest Spanish fort or persideo on the river. St. Denis saw the fort that guarded the border - he was not fazed. Onward he headed.


The fort at San Juan Bautista first got word of the coming of St. Denis from the Indians. Tribes of them kept reporting the advance of pale faced troops. They had killed many Indians they said. The Apache, Commanche and so on. That alone was a feat to inspire Indian talk.

The fort worried - Was this an invasion? A massacre? Change in country ownership? Exaggerated speculation flew wildly throughout the fort. Soldiers at the fort were ready. Then they saw them - approaching from the direction of the Rio Grande. Out over the plains. A small band of men. A soldier adjusted his field glasses again. Was it an advance party? Where were the rest of the troops?

Before the guards could properly challenge him, St. Denis announced in loud, perfect Spanish that he wanted to see the commandant. The soldiers granted his wish.

Inside the fort St. Denis used his polished manners, fresh and beautifully tailored uniform, and forceful Spanish to show that he was not a man to be taken lightly. Any slight blunder by this invader might have changed the history of the southwest forever. Being the salesman that he was, St. Denis soon talked his way into the good graces of fort commandant Captain Don Diego Ramon.

The fort was so far removed from regular visitors, there was a general excitement in the air about this strange Frenchman. Captain Ramon was bewildered at his guest, however, had no choice but to arrest him. Orders were orders. Only two years earlier the viceroy of Mexico issued strict orders to stop all foreigners.

Arrest could mean many things and St. Denis was placed under house arrest and allowed to roam the fort at will. A prisoner yes but also a very distinguished guest. As the days passed, St. Denis dined with Ramon and talked of trade between the two outposts. St. Denis was an expert storyteller and exhibited a wonderful sense of humor. While at San Jaun Baptista he also met and fell in love with the captain's granddaughter, Emanuelle Sanche de Navarro. She was just seventeen. St. Denis was 37.

Manuela was known as the most beautiful girl in all of Northern Mexico. Her fair skin was in sharp contrast to that of the other Spanish. St. Denis was charmed by her exotic lovilness. The stage was set for romance - strangers meeting under dangerous circumtances.

Even more dangerous was the fact that Emanuelle was the sweetheart of the governor of Northern Mexico. If St. Denis was to steal the governor's girl, Spanish heads might come off at the persideo. The family was impressed with St. Denis, yet worried. What if officials in Mexico City found out they were housing a Frenchman?

However, it was easy to see, that this young girl was apt to make her own decision: she was in love with the Frenchman from Louisiana. A firey young Spanish girl in love was not going to be an easy force to control.

It didn't take long before Maneula's former Spanish fiance reported the foreigner at the fort. Maneula was angry. She didn't want to marry the widower Don Gaspardo Anya. "He was so ugly and so fat and more worried about stuffing his face than loving me." she said. I refuse. I won't marry him.

Within days 25 Spanish soldiers rode into San Juan Baptista and put St. Denis in chains and carted him off to Mexico City. The whole city was buzzing, everyone wanted to see this brave Frenchman. Don Gaspardo desended on St. Denis' cell and offered him his freedom if he would just leave the lovely senorita of San Juan Baptista

St. Denis refused.

The governor was furious. He dispatched a message to Emanuelle saying that if she did not consent to marry him her lover would be put to death. St. Denis' calmness and poise bewildered the Spanish. It didn't take long before the smooth talking St. Denis had talked his way out of jail. He convinced the Spanish officials that he was on their side. He wanted to marry and become a Spanish subject. It must have worked. Not only was he set free but placed as second in command to 65 men being sent to regain East Texas and reestablish the Spanish dominance there.

They met with French officials and set up several missions there to reclaim the land. One, San Migual de los Adeas, was built just 15 miles west of Fort St. Jean Baptiste de Natchitoches, St. Denis' first garrison. There is was a Spanish mission right under the noses of the French!

(MUSIC CHANGE) ("only you music")

St. Denis came back to San Juan Baptista a hero. The whole Ramon family was impressed as well as grateful. Time was precious and a wedding was planned. The first international wedding of importance in the new world. It would be a large Catholic wedding and celebrated by everyone. Wedding dresses had to be selected, arrangements made. The shopping tour to the south took over a month. San Juan Baptista became a riot of color.

Never had the frontier witnessed such an impressive occasion.. The entire population turned out, Indians and Spanish alike lined the bridal path. At the alter, seven priests gave up saving lost souls just to officiated the Catholic service that overflowed the chapel. The wedding festivities lasted three days. Church bells rang out. It was all play and no work at the presidio. The marriage was a social affair the frontier would not soon forget.

St. Denis and his bride soon moved back to Natchitoches and set up housekeeping on a small vachiere deep in the woods along the Red River.

(MUSIC CHANGE)(very up tempo)

Within two years war broke out between the French and Spanish in Europe. The French ordered their colonial troops to move against the Spanish in western Louisiana. Seven scouts were selected and sent to report on San Migual los Adeas. When they arrived, they found the gates were open. They rode inside and found - and captured the whole garrison - only a priest and one lone soldier stood between them and victory.

As they began to celebrate their victory and steal goods, they knocked over several chicken cages allowing them to escape. The chickens scared the horses throwing the riders causing several injuries. The seven French scouts had driven the Spanish out of Eastern Texas in what would become known as the "Great Chicken War".

The French had won.

Within two years the Spanish were back claiming the land along the Red River as their boundary. This time there would be no small mission, this time there would be a real fort. Fort los Adeas would come alive with over 100 well supplied and well trained Spanish soldiers. It would become the Spanish Capital of Texas for the next 50 years.

St. Denis was renamed commandant of Fort St. Jean Baptist de Natchitoches and he protested the Spanish fort on French soil. The Spanish wouldn't give in - and neither would St. Denis. Over the years several Spanish commanders came and went, none able to stop St. Denis and the French from trading with the Spanish and Indians to the west of Natchitoches. Trading went on under the cover of darkness and in broad daylight. French and Spanish alike knew it was going on, they just looked the other way.

During all this time the Spanish never found a way to out-scheme St. Denis. As long as he was alive he was a thorn in the flesh of the Spaniards. He outwitted them at every turn. To them and the Indians he was never "commandant", "Indian Agent", "Commander", "friend", or "foe", it was simply St. Denis. To everyone - that was his title. He maintained his magnetic personality with the Indians, the Spanish, and the French. He played all sides for his gain.

To the Indians, when St. Denis died, they lost a God. Their Chief Pretty Legs. And a legend was created.

As the years and wilderness took their toll, St. Denis requested that he be relieved of duty, allowed to retire to Mexico with his wife. The French government, having no one like him to name as a replacement, delayed his request time and time again. The permission never came. "His desire for rest and peace and a few quiet days in private life with Emanuelle ...was never relized. One June 11, 1744, he passed away as quietly as the evening shadows. He died as commandant.
A leader.
Chief Pretty Legs.

The material for this reading comes from:
by Ross Phares
Pelican Publishing Company
Gretna Louisiana


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