In 1714, traveling up the Red River on his way from present-day Alabama to Mexico, French-Canadian trader Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis came upon a massive, impenetrable logjam that stopped him from advancing further. St. Denis had two huts hastily constructed, which also happened to be in a Natchitoches Indian village, and thus established the first permanent European settlement in the territory later called the Louisiana Purchase.
A more substantial fort was constructed two years later to serve as a means of preventing Spanish soldiers from entering what was then French territory. The newly named Fort St. Jean Baptiste grew, becoming one of the most important trading centers in the Lower Mississippi Valley. Three Caddo Indian tribe were instrumental in ensuring France’s success at the fort, located in the center of present-day Natchitoches, because they formed communication networks between the French and Spanish settlers, plus other Native American groups.
In the aftermath of the French and Indian War, France ceded the Louisiana colony to Spain. Spain maintained Fort St. Jean Baptiste as a trading post, but because there was no longer need to protect a territorial boundary, the fort was neglected, eventually abandoned and, by the time the United States acquired it with the Louisiana Purchase, it was in ruins.
Today, Fort St. Jean Baptiste has been reconstructed, just a few hundred yards from where it once stood. Take a guided tour of the fort, situated along the Cane River, and hear stories of how this once-remote outpost became one of the most important trading sites in the land that eventually became Louisiana.
Attractions near Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site include Natchitoches, a city bursting with historical architecture and reputable restaurants. To learn more about Louisiana’s military history, visit Fort Jesup, Mansfield, Rebel and Los Adaes state historic sites. Toledo Bend Reservoir, west of town, is an outdoorsmen’s paradise, and you can also get plenty of fresh air at nearby North Toledo Bend State Park.
Entrance fees: $4 per person, free for seniors age 62 and older, and children age 3 and under.