Pub. Date:
Colonial Natchitoches: A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier

Colonial Natchitoches: A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier

by Helen Sophie Burton, F. Todd Smith

NOOK Book(eBook)

$8.99 $9.99 Save 10% Current price is $8.99, Original price is $9.99. You Save 10%.

Available on Compatible NOOK Devices and the free NOOK Apps.
WANT A NOOK?  Explore Now
LEND ME® See Details


Strategically located at the western edge of the Atlantic World, the French post of Natchitoches thrived during the eighteenth century as a trade hub between the well-supplied settlers and the isolated Spaniards and Indians of Texas. Its critical economic and diplomatic role made it the most important community on the Louisiana-Texas frontier during the colonial era.

Despite the community’s critical role under French and then Spanish rule, Colonial Natchitoches is the first thorough study of its society and economy. Founded in 1714, four years before New Orleans, Natchitoches developed a creole (American-born of French descent) society that dominated the Louisiana-Texas frontier.

H. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith carefully demonstrate not only the persistence of this creole dominance but also how it was maintained. They examine, as well, the other ethnic cultures present in the town and relations with Indians in the surrounding area.

Through statistical analyses of birth and baptismal records, census figures, and appropriate French and Spanish archives, Burton and Smith reach surprising conclusions about the nature of society and commerce in colonial Natchitoches.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781603444378
Publisher: Texas A&M University Press
Publication date: 01/22/2008
Series: Elma Dill Russell Spencer Series in the West and Southwest , #29
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 232
File size: 6 MB

About the Author

H. SOPHIE BURTON earned her doctorate in Latin American history from Texas Christian University.F. TODD SMITH, a professor of history at the University of North Texas, is author of four books on the Indians of the Louisiana-Texas frontier. They both live in Dallas, Texas

Read an Excerpt

Colonial Natchitoches

A Creole Community on the Louisiana-Texas Frontier

By H. Sophie Burton, F. Todd Smith

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2008 H. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-62349-206-9


An Overview of Colonial Natchitoches

THE ESTABLISHMENT of Natchitoches in 1714 grew out of a three-decade struggle between France, Spain, and Great Britain for control of the Mississippi River Valley. In the late seventeenth century, France, with colonies in the West Indies and Canada, began to challenge Spanish control over productive American possessions, especially New Spain. In the 1680s, the French Crown decided to colonize the Mississippi Valley to discourage English occupation of the region and to serve as a base of attack on New Spain's rich silver mines. French policy makers also hoped to profit by trading with the region's Indians for furs and by establishing some type of cash crop. René Robert Cavalier, Sieur de la Salle, headed the first colonization effort that left France in the summer of 1684. La Salle, however, accidentally sailed past the mouth of the Mississippi River, and his expedition instead landed on the Texas coast near Matagorda Bay. Within five years, all but a handful of the two hundred or so French settlers had perished, including La Salle, terminating this initial colonization attempt.

During this short period, however, Frenchmen from La Salle's colony were able to establish friendly relations with the Caddo Indians, one of the most important tribes in the region. The Caddos lived on the western edge of the Eastern Woodlands in permanent villages and had originally occupied the vast region from the Trinity River in Texas north to the Arkansas River. Their forest homeland encouraged these Caddoan speakers to become the most productive farmers in Texas, and the surplus food they raised in the fields allowed them to develop a hereditary elite that dominated a sophisticated political and religious society. Though men and women planted corn, beans, squash, and watermelon together in the spring, during the summer Caddo men hunted for deer, bear, and small game in the surrounding forest, while women collected wild fruits and nuts. Following the fall harvest, the men went on extensive winter hunts, sometimes heading west to stalk buffalo. Skilled craftsmen fashioned quality bows made of the pliable wood of the Osage orange tree and formed some of the finest pottery in North America. The Caddos exchanged these items, in addition to salt and food products, with the great mound-building chiefdom and population center at Cahokia to the north and to the west with the Pueblo villages of New Mexico. Residing at the crossroads of four major trails where the Eastern Woodlands met the Great Plains, the Caddos profited from extensive trade.

An extreme drought, which began around 1350, and the introduction of European diseases two centuries later, combined to reduce the Caddo population and drive them to abandon the Arkansas River Valley in favor of relocation to the south. By the late seventeenth century, the Caddo population dropped from perhaps as many as 250,000 to as low as 15,000 people. In consequence, the remaining Caddos formed three loose confederacies, ruled as before by a political religious elite. The Kadohadacho confederacy, located near the bend of the Red River, consisted of four tribes. Further downstream, three tribes composed the least populous of the confederacies, called the Natchitoches. To the west, along the upper reaches of the Neches and Angelina rivers in East Texas, the Hasinais were the largest confederacy, consisting of nine major tribes. Two independent Caddoan-speaking tribes, the Ais and the Adaes, lived between the Hasinais and the Natchitoches.

All three confederacies, desirous of obtaining access to European metal goods, warmly welcomed the Frenchmen from La Salle's colony into their villages. Caddos needed arms and ammunition to defend themselves against neighboring tribes who already had European suppliers. Earlier in the century, the Lipan Apaches had established trade ties with the Hispanics settled in New Mexico. Supplied with Spanish horses and weapons, the Lipans continually raided the Texas Indian tribes, including the Caddos, capturing slaves to sell in the illegal underground market Spanish smugglers established in New Mexico. The Caddos, who also routinely obtained horses, were able to provide the French with mounts and furs in return for metal goods and weapons in order to defend themselves from the Apaches. Despite the failure of La Salle's colonization effort, the Caddos and the French established the basis of a mutually beneficial relationship that would solidify a few decades later.

In the meantime, news of the La Salle colony reached Spanish royal officials who planned a series of large-scale searches to seek and destroy the Gallic intruders. Beginning in 1686, officials in New Spain sent out five maritime expeditions and five overland searches. The fifth overland expedition of Alonso de León, governor of Coahuila, finally pinpointed the traces of the former French colony in April 1689. In an effort to block further Gallic expansion, the Spanish established two Franciscan missions among the Hasinais in the new province of Texas. Unlike French bureaucrats, who wanted to trade with the Indians of the Mississippi Valley, Spanish officials desired to convert the Texas tribes to Christianity. Using Franciscan missionaries, the Spaniards hoped to convince the Indians to congregate around a mission in order to bring them into mission life. A presidio manned by Spanish soldiers nearby aimed at protecting priests and the local tribe from any enemies even as no use of force was legal on those wishing to convert. The Spaniards only distributed items useful for a settled and civilized way of life, with the explicit exception of guns or other tools of war because the missionaries sought to promote a Hispanic lifestyle in which natives would become productive subjects of the Spanish Crown and would serve as a loyal population against foreign invasion.

The divergent aims of the Spaniards and the Caddos strained relations from the beginning. Though well intentioned, the Spanish prohibition on weapon sales to their prospective converts undermined Hasinai motivations for permitting the establishment of missions nearby. Moreover, their tenuous ties deteriorated further when the natives suffered from an epidemic and endured the callous efforts of a few impolitic and overly zealous Franciscans who ridiculed Caddoan religion as part of their conversion efforts. Finally, in October 1693 the Hasinais expelled the Spanish priests and soldiers from their villages. Spanish officials, in spite of the disastrous results of this attempt, remained interested in establishing settlements among the Caddos for diplomatic and religious reasons.

Colonists from France and Spain were finally able to settle in Louisiana and Texas in the early eighteenth century. Whereas the two countries had previously been enemies, in 1700 Philip V—the Bourbon grandson of Louis XIV, king of France—ascended the throne of Spain, and the two nations became cautious allies for the greater part of the century. France and Spain each warily allowed the other to colonize Louisiana and Texas, respectively, without military threat. At this time, British penetration into the interior of North America redoubled France's interest in the Mississippi Valley, and the French hastened their efforts to found the colony of Louisiana. In October 1698, an expedition under the direction of Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d'Iberville, left France and established a beachhead at Biloxi on the Gulf Coast in the spring of 1699. Three years later, the French moved their base of operations eastward to Mobile, a location better suited to farming and closer to their allies, the five hundred inhabitants of the Mobile Indian villages. This settlement near native villages helped accustom both peoples to an interdependency in which the Indians provided foodstuffs and furs in exchange for European manufactured goods. It established a pattern of urbanization for Louisiana settlers.

In the meantime, the French sent out various reconnaissance voyages throughout the region to explore and establish trade relations with Indian groups. In March 1700, Iberville's brother, Jean Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville, traveled up the Red River and renewed ties with the Caddos. Bienville met with representatives of the three Natchitoches tribes—Doustionis, Yatasis, and Natchitoches—as well as with members of the Kadohadacho and Hasinai confederacies. Bienville's group, including Louis Juchereau de St. Denis, the twenty-six-year-old Canadian who was to become the founder of Natchitoches, inaugurated peaceful relations by smoking a peace pipe with the Natchitoches leader, Chief Blanc, at his Red River village. Soon after Bienville's return to the Gulf Coast, Iberville ordered St. Denis to return to the Natchitoches Indian town to consolidate relations with Chief Blanc and report on Spanish activities. Over the next few years, St. Denis reinforced the friendly alliance with the three Caddo confederacies by providing the tribes with some weapons and metal goods in return for horses and furs.

Even as commercial relations increased between the French and the Indians of Louisiana, the Caddos suffered more frequent attacks from well-armed Chickasaws, based east of the Mississippi River, who kidnapped women and children to sell as slaves to British traders in South Carolina. The Natchitoches Indians, following St. Denis's advice, sought protection by moving southward to the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain to reside with another French ally, the Acolapissas. The allies reaffirmed their alliance a few years later when Natchitoches warriors joined a force led by St. Denis in a campaign against the Chitimachas, a Louisiana tribe that had recently gone to war against the French. In succeeding years, ties between the French and the Natchitoches grew after Chief Blanc fed and housed a group of Frenchmen who wintered at his village.

Despite consistent French efforts to maintain a friendship with the Caddos and other tribes, the Louisiana colony floundered in its earliest years. Experiencing financial difficulties at home and overextended in other parts of the world, Louis XIV was unable to provide the colony with adequate supplies and reinforcements. Therefore, in September 1712 the king relinquished control of Louisiana and named Antoine Crozat as proprietor, giving him commercial control of the colony through a monopoly on imports and exports. Crozat furthermore held title to unoccupied land, a right to supervise relations with the Indians, to exploit raw materials, and to choose local governing officials. Preferring to remain in Paris, Crozat appointed Antoine de la Mothe, Sieur de Cadillac, as governor with the explicit goal of making Louisiana more economically productive.

Cadillac hoped to reach this aim by encouraging exploration and settlement of frontier areas away from the Gulf Coast and by stimulating commerce with the Indian tribes of the interior. Cadillac also hoped to develop trade with the Spaniards in New Spain, even though he knew that Spanish law prohibited any trade with foreigners. The French governor seized on a possibility of opening trade in 1713 after receipt of a letter from a Spanish missionary, Father Francisco Hidalgo, who had been at the failed Hasinai missions of East Texas in the 1690s. Hidalgo, who was a committed Franciscan, addressed the French as fellow Catholics, asking them to help him save Hasinai souls either directly through missions of their own or indirectly by inspiring Spanish planners to rebuild their stations to prevent French occupation. Interpreting the Franciscan's religious invitation as an opening to create a market for French goods in East Texas, Cadillac ordered St. Denis, who had recently become the commandant of the Biloxi Post, to establish a trading post on the western boundary of Louisiana along the Red River.

St. Denis eagerly responded, immediately dispatching a messenger to the Natchitoches Indians on Lake Pontchartrain. He proposed to them that they return to their former village site and help the French construct a fort in exchange for a steady supply of Gallic goods and weapons. The Natchitoches Indians readily embraced the offer and in late 1713 accompanied St. Denis, twenty-four Frenchmen, and five boatloads of merchandise up the Red River. When the party reached the old Natchitoches homesite in early 1714, they found it already occupied by remaining members of the Doustioni tribe. St. Denis successfully convinced the two groups to settle together and resume the planting of fields. The natives assisted St. Denis in constructing living quarters for the Frenchmen and two warehouses for the safekeeping of merchandise on an island in the middle of the Red River. Two years later, a group of Yatasis joined the Doustionis and Natchitoches Indians near the Gallic post known as Fort St. Jean Baptiste des Natchitoches. This French post and three nearby Indian settlements together formed the rudimentary beginning of the French village called Natchitoches.

Having laid the town's foundations, St. Denis sought to initiate a trading avenue with New Spain by encouraging the Spanish resettlement of East Texas. He, along with three Frenchmen and a few Hasinai warriors, traveled several hundred miles southwestward to the nearest Spanish establishment at Presidio San Juan Bautista, just west of the Rio Grande. St. Denis explained to the commandant, Diego Ramón, that he was responding to Father Hidalgo's letter and sought only to assist the Spaniards in rebuilding missions among the Hasinais. Ramón placed St. Denis and his party under house arrest while awaiting instructions from the viceroy in Mexico City. In the interim, the forty-year-old St. Denis courted Ramón's seventeen-year-old stepgranddaughter Manuela Sánchez Navarro, who he married soon thereafter. In the spring of 1715, Spanish officials sent St. Denis to Mexico City for interrogation. In the end, Spanish bureaucrats answered Hidalgo's prayers by deciding to reoccupy East Texas in order to continue their conversion efforts among the Hasinais, but they thwarted St. Denis's commercial schemes by continuing to declare French trade with New Spain illegal.

St. Denis, realizing that the Franciscans and soldiers in East Texas would most likely be dependent on French trade in spite of the law, agreed to assist the Spaniards in reestablishing missions among the Hasinais. In April 1716, the Canadian led Capt. Domingo Ramón (Diego's son), twenty-five Spanish soldiers, and two groups of Franciscan priests—one from the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Querétaro and the other from the Colegio de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de Zacatecas—back to the Hasinai country. When they entered East Texas in late June, the Hasinais, in conformity with St. Denis's desires, allowed the Spaniards to establish four missions and one presidio in the midst of their villages. In order to halt the French at the Red River, Ramón established a mission approximately fifteen miles west of Natchitoches at the Adaes Indian village. The Franciscans founded another mission at the Ais Indian village, just west of the Sabine River. All in all, Spaniards placed six missions—split equally between the Franciscans from Querétaro and Zacatecas—in an attempt to instruct the natives in Christianity and Hispanic civilization while securing the frontier from the French. Though the Hispanic presence in East Texas checked the establishment of legal trade with New Spain, the few Frenchmen in Natchitoches were still able to employ their new post as a center from which to develop small-scale illegal trade with the ill-equipped Spaniards, as well as commerce with the three Caddo confederacies. In the fall of 1716, St. Denis formed a commercial partnership with six other Frenchmen and acquired 60,000 livres (12,000 piastres) worth of trade goods at Mobile, which he transported to the French post at Natchitoches.

In 1717, Crozat relinquished his monopoly, and a new colonial trust called the Company of the Indies took charge of Louisiana. The experienced Bienville was named governor, and in 1718 he moved the capital from Mobile to newly established New Orleans. In the meantime, Gallic efforts to secure the Red River region intensified. Bienville ordered Philippe Blondel to take command of the fort at Natchitoches and provided him with a small increase in military personnel, including a sergeant and six soldiers. The new governor also granted a trading concession to the Brossaut brothers, merchants from Lyon, that increased the volume of French supplied commerce in the region. In 1719, Bénard de la Harpe, another recipient of a trading concession, established the "Nassonite Post" at the Kadohadacho villages, two hundred miles up the Red River from Natchitoches. From there, la Harpe cultivated contacts with the Caddoan-speaking Wichita tribes—Kichais, Tawakonis, and Taovayas—who lived in the Arkansas River Valley. He induced these sedentary agriculturalists to trade with Frenchmen working out of Natchitoches. On July 1, 1719, St. Denis succeeded Blondel as commandant of the Natchitoches post and gained jurisdiction of the entire Red River Valley once La Harpe's concession at the Kadohadacho villages lapsed a few years later. Within half a decade of the founding of Natchitoches, the French settlement, driven by St. Denis's entrepreneurial cartel, had succeeded in making the post the center of exchange and diplomacy between the European newcomers and the natives of the Louisiana-Texas frontier.

French trade from Natchitoches continued to undermine the Spanish effort to convert the natives of East Texas to Christianity. Over time the Spaniards became painfully aware that the East Texas missions, while designed to block Gallic expansion, only existed at the mercy of the French. The Hasinais neither congregated close to the Franciscan missions nor provided the priests with food after the livestock they brought with them from Mexico died from heat. St. Denis had to support the priests by convincing the Natchitoches Indians to sell him corn that he, in turn, donated to the Franciscans. After a second Spanish expedition resupplied the Franciscan missions in 1718, the Spaniards were never again able to attract steady supplies from the south, and the French at Natchitoches gained the trade ascendancy along the Louisiana-Texas frontier through their better supply lines. What is more, St. Denis was not only a skillful diplomat but a shrewd propagandist who successfully cultivated the impression among both the Spaniards and the Indians that the French would be willing to "take their shirts off to give them to the Indians."


Excerpted from Colonial Natchitoches by H. Sophie Burton, F. Todd Smith. Copyright © 2008 H. Sophie Burton and F. Todd Smith. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1. An Overview of Colonial Natchitoches,
2. Creating Hegemony in Colonial Natchitoches: The French Creole Community,
3. Slavery in Colonial Natchitoches: The African Creole Community,
4. Free People of Color: A Dependent Segment of Colonial Natchitoches,
5. The Indian Trade in Colonial Natchitoches,
6. Plantation Agriculture in Colonial Natchitoches,
7. The Ranching Industry in Colonial Natchitoches,

Customer Reviews