If you have a love for history, take a look at our list of things to do in Natchitoches LA and plan your visit now. Natchitoches (pronounced NACK-a-tish) Louisiana grabbed my attention with its grand Christmas Festival, but it truly drew me in with its captivating history. Come see what we mean.
PRE-CIVIL WAR ERA HISTORY
FORT ST. JEAN BAPTISTE STATE HISTORICAL SITE (1714)
Natchitoches was the oldest permanent settlement of Europeans in the region that we know today as the Louisiana purchase. Now, the US didn’t buy that land until 1803. It was originally settled by the French as early as 1699, who made peace with the Natchitoches Indians – yes, that’s how the city got its name. Their intention? Trade with Spanish-controlled Mexico.
Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis (whew that’s a long name!) was the French Canadian in charge of the trade expedition, and he established the first huts, stores, and “town” in 1714. Two years later, he returned with a small garrison of troops to build a fortification to prevent the Spanish from encroaching on French Louisiane.
That fort, Fort St Jean Baptiste, remained a stronghold, trade center and site of peace between natives, French and Spanish until 1762.
The historical site you visit today is only a few hundred yards from the original location, but is a full replica built per the original blueprints of 1716. Nearly 2,000 and roughly 250,000 ft of lumber went into the construction. Even the hinges and latches were handmade at a nearby foundry.
Costumed guides roam the property offering incredible insight into 18th century living. It’s typical to find one or more live demonstrations of skills like weaving, beading, carpentry, musket firing, bousilliage, sewing, knitting or leatherworking.
When we visited, the “French tradespeople” you see in the photo above showed us their animal skins, and how they leathered skins for clothing and paper. We saw their writing kit from the early 1700s and I was even able to hold a rifle from 1699. 1699! Not a reproduction…the real thing!
The French that came to Natchitoches were either a) Creole or b) Catholic – or both. So, it’s no surprise that shortly after the settlement was established, a place of worship was also built.
The building you see today was not the original. Five buildings preceded this one – each destroyed by fire. The building welcoming seekers today was built in 1857.
The interior has been lovingly restored and renovated, with great care given by architectural historians and consultants to retain its authenticity. Even today you will find all the furnishings and fixtures are from France.
If you visit the inside, note the American-made stained-glass windows in the body of the church and the twin stained-glass windows in the rear of the church, which are from Austria.
The main altar, the hand-painted Stations of the Cross, the Statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary over the side altar, and the chandeliers should also catch your eye, as well as the spiral staircase leading to the choir is unique in that it has no center support and the hand-carved wooden Baptismal Font.
The church is today very active as a church community and school. It is also a Minor Basilica because it has “particular importance for the liturgical and pastoral life” in the area.
DOWNTOWN NATCHITOCHES FRONT STREET (1763)
We stayed in the Downtown area, just one block up from Front Street…and I highly recommend it! You’re right in the middle of the heart of Natchitoches Historic District.
Cane River Lake (which looks like a river) runs along Front Street so you catch glimpses of it as you shop. The brick streets are city’s oldest, laid out parallel to the river and giving the Downtown area the rich “French” aesthetic that makes it so charming.
There are also dozens of restaurants in the historic area. Our first dinner was enjoyed on the riverside patio of Magliaeux’s. We picked it for the location and because they offer a Betty Jean burger…my Southern born and raised mother was named Betty Jean. Little did we know it would be our favorite restaurant, with amazing Creole food like etouffee, po boys, and more.
Now you can get Natchitoches famous meat pies almost anywhere, but the place you want to get them is at Lasyone’s! They’ve perfected the recipe for over 40 years now.
Mayeaux’s Steak and Seafood was another favorite. The steaks are cooked to perfection, and there are great veggie options. I had the sea bass, which was buttery and delicious.
NOTE: If you follow us, you’ll notice that in all our Southeastern travels we rarely if ever visit plantations. I have an issue with the way the “big house” has been glorified in Southern travel. In my opinion, the two plantations we visited in Natchitoches have taken a different tone, though. Both properties are on the Louisiana African-American Heritage Trail along with a more well-known site, New Orleans’ Whitney Plantation. The difference? The story at these plantation sites isn’t about the grandiosity of the land owners, but the people on whose backs the wealth was gained. Please consider NOT skipping over the information we share here about Oakland and Melrose, and if you -like us- have been avoiding plantation visits…maybe these are what you’ve been looking for.
OAKLAND PLANTATION (1789)
Oakland Plantation is one of two plantations that have been preserved through the Cane River Creole National Heritage Historical Park. These plantations are two of the most intact Creole cotton plantations in the US, making them ideal for telling the story of how land owners and workers, enslaved peoples and sharecroppers lived together in a single space.
The land on which Oakland sits was granted to a French Creole family from the Spanish. Today you’ll see sharecropper cabins, slave quarters, the cook’s cabin, corn cribs, stables and more – 60 buildings in all in this Cane River National Heritage Area.
Most interesting to me is that a number families of the enslaved peoples who worked here stayed on as tenant or sharecropper families through the 20th century. Many of those families are still part of the culture of Natchitoches today and still live in the city. Be sure to watch the film on the grounds (under the pavilion) to see interviews with those residents.
MELROSE PLANTATION (1796)
Remember the (long) name of the Frenchman who settled Natchitoches? He had slaves, and Marie Thérèse Coincoin was born to a family that was enslaved by him. When she was 26, Marie was sent to work as a housekeeper for another French fellow named Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer.
Marie and Claude Thomas had a 19 year relationship and 10 children together. I have not read about whether the relationship was consentual or not…but he did eventually purchase Marie’s freedom and that of several of their children. (But not all – weird, right?)
One of their sons was deeded 911 acres of land, and he started construction of Melrose Plantation. His only son, Jean Baptiste Louis Metoyer, finished construction in 1832. When he died, the heir poorly managed the estate and lost it.
Melrose would never again come under the ownership of the family who founded it but their legacy lives today as the founding family of the Cane River Isle Brevelle Creole of Color Community. Metoyer decedents who live along Cane River today are a people proud of their heritage and culture. Melrose Plantation
While visiting a French plantation built by freed slaves is an interesting enough history on its own, that’s not an end to the history of Melrose Plantation. It changed ownership several times, eventually to the Henry family where it was maintained as an agricultural behemoth but also a haven for artists, craftsmen, and authors.
A cook named Clementine Hunter worked on the property (an employee.) She found some discarded paints one day, and those trash-to-treasure gems changed her life. She would come to be recognized as one of the most famous African American Folk Artists in the country.
When you visit the plantation, you can tour the building where she resided, see her work, and even her drawing space (pictured above.)
According to the Melrose website, Hunter died in 1988, at 101 yo, after completing thousands of works of art. Her creations, including the African House Murals, are still viewed by over 15,000 visitors annually at Melrose Plantation.
KAFFIE-FREDERICK GENERAL MERCANTILE STORE (1863)
Kaffie-Fredrick is Natchitiches’ oldest business and Louisiana’s oldest general store. It was founded by Jewish immigrants in 1863 and is still run today by third-generation Fredericks.
General textiles and dry goods were sold door-to-door initially, but they created s store front for wares in 1893 – right on Front Street, in the same building you’ll find it today.
Today you can still find PVC pipe, screws of all sizes and other “general store” paraphernalia. But you’ll also find Radio Flyers, posh jewelry, potted plants and designer purses. It’s literally two floors of everything you need. I mean it – if they don’t have it, you simply do not need it.
Gators part of history? Absolutely. Can you imagine moving thousands of miles from French Canada to the Louisiana Delta…then seeing an alligator for the first time?? Woah!
Gator Country is the state’s largest alligator park with over 200 American Alligators! Explore the seven acres for a chance to see the gators, but also pet goats and deer, feed guinea pigs, hold a snake or a lizard, feed the tortoises and so much more.
I think the highlight of our trip was holding a real baby alligator! He was squirmy, but he also felt nothing like I expected!
The staff were so knowledgeable, so friendly…they absolutely MADE our visit.
LOUISIANA SPORTS HALL OF FAME & NORTHWEST LOUISIANA HISTORY MUSEUM
I’ve put these two museums together because they are in the same building, and the same ticket allows you to enjoy them both. But…let’s break them down separately.
The most striking thing about the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame is the building. Designed by New Orleans–based architect Trey Trahan, the interior walls are free of hard edges. The curve and dance like the edges of the Cane River, walking you…floating you…from one room to the next.
Throughout the museum you’ll find momentos of accomplishments by Louisiana athletes, coaches and sports stars, and more.
Some inductees are household names, such as Archie Manning, Willis Reed, Shaquille O’Neal and Chanda Rubin, but others hold equally important spots in the state’s sporting pantheon. New Orleans-born Audrey “Mickey” Patterson, for example, was the first African-American woman to win an Olympic medal. The Hall of Fame includes the USA jersey she wore when she won the bronze medal in the 200-meter dash at the 1948 games in London. Louisiana Hall of Fame
Tucked on the top floor, you’ll also find the Northwest Louisiana History Museum, celebrating the region’s culture and history. You’ll find artifacts from time over 3,000 years past when the Caddo Indians lived here…beautiful works of art by Clementine Hunter (who we mention above), and relics of rural Southern living.
While the history museum is last on our list, and it was my last stop when I visited Natchitoches…consider making it your first. The things I learned here really filled in the history “gaps” for the preceding part of the journey.
MORE INFORMATION FOR YOUR TRIP TO LOUISIANA:
- BATON ROUGE: Baton Rouge: How To Save & Where To Splurge
- ALL THINGS LOUISIANA: 25 Things To Do In Louisiana Everyone Will Love
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