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HISTORY OF CANE RIVER                          

A dark ribbon of water winds lazily through fertile farmlands, its path lined with red soil, lush stands of river cane, and majestic live oak and pecan trees. The waterway meanders from town to town, and plantations, homes, and churches mark life’s stopping points along its banks. Cane River, an oxbow lake that once was the primary channel of the mighty Red River, defines the region today, just as it has for centuries. The stories of Cane River’s people are brimming with the juxtapositions that comprise our nation’s history—conquest and colonialism, militarism and peace, wealth and poverty, slavery and freedom.

The landscape of Cane River has been the focal point for American Indian settlements, colonial forts, and Creole plantations. The river itself was a major trade thoroughfare, one that was crossed by overland trade routes. It was at this crossroads that the Natchitoches band of Caddo Indians dwelled. The prospect of trade and alliance with American Indians brought European colonial powers to the area, and this region soon became the intersection between French and Spanish realms in the New World. The French established Fort Saint Jean Baptiste in 1714. Shortly thereafter, the Spanish responded by building the presidio known as Los Adaes fifteen miles to the west. Settlement spread from these early outposts, and the town of Natchitoches grew up around Fort Saint Jean Baptiste to become the most prosperous town in the region.

As countries came together in this place, so did cultures. American Indians were joined by European settlers, who imported large numbers of enslaved Africans to farm the land. The interaction of these groups led to the development of a distinctive Creole culture, a culture that cut across racial categories and drew from many traditions but remained grounded in French colonialism and Catholicism.

A thriving agricultural economy had developed along the banks of the river by the time the region was joined to the United States in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches, the oldest permanent European settlement in the Louisiana Purchase territory, was the region’s commercial center. Downriver from the town, in the areas known as Côte Joyeuse (‘Joyous Coast’) and Isle Brevelle, large and small plantations produced indigo, tobacco, and later cotton.

The Civil War and its aftermath brought great economic devastation and cultural change for the residents of the Cane River region. Tenant farming and sharecropping replaced slavery, exchanging one labor-intensive system for another. After World War II, mechanized farming permanently supplanted the old agricultural practices that depended on human labor in the fields. As a result, many people migrated to urban centers, leaving the fields behind.

Carnahan StoreThis is the complex past that is etched indelibly on the landscape, in the architecture, and in the myriad cultural traditions that have been passed down through generations. In 1994, Congress established the Cane River National Heritage Area in recognition of the history and culture of this unique region. The heritage area is a nationally significant cultural landscape, a place in which the river and the people who have dwelt along its banks through time come together in a history that contributes to the American experience.