|Louisiana Fort Recreates
Rugged Colonial and Military Life
(from a 1982 Louisiana Tricentennial media guide)
By AL GODOY
Standing in the middle of the compound, surveying the fort's rough-hewn structures and the nine-foot high palisade surrounding them, it's easy to imagine the air filled with voices speaking in French, Indian - even Spanish. You can almost see the commandant, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, tall and imposing, conversing with his friends the Natchitoches Indians, who had long ago adopted him into their tribe. Listen for the sounds of braying mules, tired after their long trek through vast Texas. Feel the breeze drifting in from Bayou Amulet, where traders and trappers argue over who is the prettiest senorita in nearby Los Adaes. Walk through time, into an era when French supremacy in the Mississippi valley was embodied in a wilder- ness bastion, nestled on the edge of an empire - Fort St. Jean Baptiste du Natchitoches.
It was the desire for commerce - not confrontation - that prompted the establishment of a trading post, which was destined to become the oldest permanent European settlement in the Louisiana Territory. Natchitoches, located in the northwest section of present-day Louisiana, was chosen by the veteran voyageur St. Denis as the staging point for his trading activities. Under orders to establish trade with the Spanish via a land route to Mexico, he chose a locale whose geography had much to recommend it: good farmland, bountiful forests, and a river that flowed unobstructed to the Mississippi. At a site that was then the head of navigation on the Red River, construction began late in 1715 on Fort St. Jean Baptiste.
Less than a year later, the Spanish responded by building what was to become the strongest link in their far-flung chain of Texas forts: the presidio at Los Adaes, near pre- sent-day Robeline, La. Only 15 miles of short leaf pine, cypress and oak separated Natchitoches from the settlement at Los Adaes, and this proximity created a strange combination of cooperation and contentiousness between these two remote outposts of rival kingdoms.
Fort St. Jean Baptiste supplied the settlers at Los Adaes with much-needed food staples - in addition to highly prized finished goods. The bounty that flowed east- ward from the presidio was both material and spiritual. For in addition to herds of cattle, mules and horses, the pioneer residents of Catholic Natchitoches depended on Los Adaes for the food of the soul: the holy sacraments. The good Spanish friars took up the ecclesiastical slack caused by the absence of French priests, and many of the baptisms, first communions and marriages were performed with Spanish accents.
Ironically, in addition to the economic and spiritual bonds between the fort and the presidio, a third element was dramatically introduced in 1131. In the fall of that year the Natchez Indians, after their rampage at Fort Rosalie in Natchez, Miss., descended on Natchitoches. The Spanish governor of Texas at Los Adaes provided St. Denis with eleven men, one of whom was killed in action against the hostile natives. By helping to save Fort St. Jean Baptiste from destruction, the Spanish provincial authorities assured the continued presence of French military might at the gateway to east Texas. On the other hand, so dependent were the Spanish on the largess of the French, had Natchitoches fallen, Los Adaes probably could not have survived.
Against this background, the importance of Fort St. Jean Baptiste can easily be seen. It acted as a bulwark for the French crown in the New World, and created the foundation for the economic development of Natchitoches. And, although St. Denis - the flamboyant, fearless explorer who served as commandant for over 20 years - is gone, his fort lives on.
Kirk Carney, assistant secretary, Office of State Parks, says that the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Commemorative Area will portray French colonial military life as it was in the 1730's. "We want to give the visitor a view of history that is alive," Carney said. "It's something you can't get by reading books. The fort has been exactly duplicated as to physical layout and actual construction, and the interpretive program will pro- vide the people with insights as to what went on in the fort on a day- to-day basis."
Details concerning the original fortification have long been known. In 1938, while doing research on early French colonial architecture, Samuel Wilson, Jr. discovered plans of Fort St. Jean Baptiste, which were drawn in 1733. Wilson, a nationally recognized expert on colonial fortifications, also found letters of St. Denis, and other documents of the time describing life in that era. Wilson, whose architectural firm was hired to oversee the reconstruction, has visited many reconstructed forts from Mississippi to Michigan. He noted that many of these other sites have relied heavily on archaeology. "A lot of these places have had a tremendous amount of archaeology done - they can see where the post holes were, for instance. But many of these forts do not have as complete a set of original plans as we do," he said. Wilson said the location of the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Commemorative Area is only approximately where the original fort was. Changing riverbeds make it unlikely that the original site will ever be found.
In the actual reconstruction, every effort was made to give the fort
as authentic a look as possible. Ninety-five percent of all work was done
by hand. All the timbers were hand-milled, and all the logs were hand-peeled
and hand-cut. By avoiding machine finishing, the builders achieved a result
that is rougher in appearance than other reconstruction.