St. Denys and Natchitoches

"In 1714, four years before the founding of New Orleans, Cadillac, the governor during the administration of the Company, sent Juchereau St. Denys with thirty Canadians and a number of Indians to establish a trading post at Natchitoches, which is the oldest town in Louisiana, in order to discourage Spain's effort to establish settlements on French territory and to extend the trade of the colony with the Indians of Texas. The French had reasons for apprehension of the occupancy of their territory by the Spaniards. During the preceding fifty years, and as early as 1694, Spain had settled a colony of Canary Islanders at Adayes, in the vicinity of the present town of Robeline (Natchitoches Parish). They had also planted missions on the Rio Grande and were establishing several in the neighborhood of Nacogdoches, Texas. The mission and post at Adayes was finally destroyed by fire and the settlement subsequently abandoned.

St. Denys, after planning for the establishment of the post, left a few Canadians there and went westward on a trading expedition in Texas. Governor Cadillac endeavored to open up commerce between the French and the Indians of Texas, but Spain had rejected the proposition, as she had established a rule forbidding any country to trade with her colonies. Notwithstanding this rule, Father Hidalgo, who had undertaken to establish missions among the Indians of East Texas, made a secret agreement with the French to assist them in carrying on commerce if in turn they would give aid to the Spanish missions.

St. Denys carried a large stock of merchandise on his Texas expedition. His party marched across the great province to a mission on the Rio Grande at a point near Eagle Pass. Here St. Denys was received kindly, but was promptly informed that he must answer to the charge of trading in Spanish territory. While he submitted plausible excuses for leading an expedition to the Rio Grande, he was detained and carried to the City of Mexico for trial, the details of which are not recorded. In 1716 he returned to Texas as an officer in a Spanish expedition in command of Captain Diego Ramon. The action of St. Denys in accepting a commission from the Spanish while he was still in the Service of the governor of Louisiana, is a topic for the speculative historians. It is sufficient to relate that while Captain Ramon was occupied with the temporal affairs of his government at the missions, St. Denys was busy making love to the captain's pretty and accomplished granddaughter, Senorita Manuella de Navarre, who later became his wife.

St. Denys returned to Natchitoches and assumed command of the post, which position he retained for many years. The establishment of the Spanish missions in Texas, five of which were located in the vicinity of Nacogdoches, practically marked the end of French influence west of the Sabine River. While the policy of St. Denys was, in a measure, responsible for the loss of Texas to the French, his astute diplomacy kept the Spaniards west of the Sabine, and while some of his official acts were apparently queer, he was withal a peacemaker. He was a shrewd trader and it was to his personal interest that peace should prevail between his people and the Spaniards and various Indian tribes. When he learned that Marquis de Grallio, the Spanish governor of Texas, was preparing to build a fort east of Sabine River, he arranged a conference with the governor and induced him to abandon his plans. And when the Spaniards returned to their East Texas missions, after having left them through fear of a French invasion, St. Denys went to greet the commander and assure him of his good v, ill. However, he was as brave as he was shrewd. During the war with the Natchez the warriors of that tribe marched against the fort under his command. By employment of diplomacy he endeavored to dissuade them from making an attack. He had won and retained the friendship of the Tejas, Avoyelles, Natchitoches, Attakapas and all other tribes with which he came in contact, but the bloodthirsty Natchez refused to listen to his Overtures, The limit of his patience was reached when the savages approached and burned a French woman in sight of the fort. The real fighting spirit of St. Denys was aroused and he was determined to avenge the inhuman outrage which the Natchez had perpetrated, and with forty French soldiers, a score of settlers and a few warriors of the Natchitoches tribe, he rushed from the stockade and attacked the savages, killing sixty and wounding as many more of their number. The remainder were put to flight. Refugees of this rapidly vanishing tribe again attacked the poet the following year (1731), but were so effectually repulsed that they never returned to molest the settlers.

As previously stated, the French encountered little difficulty in keeping on f friendly terms with the many small Indian tribes. These included the Yattasees, Caddos and other minor tribes to the north and the Attakapas and other tribes to the south of Natchitoches. On his first trip to Texas, St. Denys won for the French the friendship of the Texas tribes. The idea of setting aside a reservation for the Indians does not appear to have occurred to the French settlers, nor to their Latin cousins across the Sabine, even after they had secured a foothold. The word segregation had not yet appeared in the lexicon of American political economy, and there were no sociologic upstarts who cultivate a desire to live in an exclusive atmosphere. While the French dispossessed the Indians of their country, they evidently had a lofty purpose in doing so. They were not altogether inspired by the spirit of self-aggrandizement. It was the rule to pay the natives for their lands, and the early missionaries zealously labored to Christianize them and instruct them in the ways of civilization. Before the advent of the missions many of the tribes often suffered from scarcity of food and lack of proper clothing and shelter. The missionaries, primarily, taught them the luxury and propriety of the use of clothing for their bodies and of living in houses and producing more wholesome food by tilling the soil. They had wild meat, but there was often a famine of other necessary foods. A report of the method of feeding the natives in the era of the missions says: "The corn crop is consumed by giving the Indians what they need for all purposes ; and they are also furnished beans, pumpkins, watermelons, pepper, salt, and sugar, which is made from the cane which they take care to plant at each mission annually, because this is the best way to regale the Indians and the most pleasing to their appetites In the missions cotton and wool are used by making them into mantas, terlingas, rebozas, coarse cloths and blankets for their protection and covering. The Indians are assisted, when they are sick, with medicines which this country furnishes, and some which are brought in for that purpose."*

Many of the early settlers of Natchitoches purchased their lands from the Indians and the terms of the transfers are to be found in the real estate records of the parish. In 1769, while the inhabitants of the town did not number above half a thousand, it was the chief trading and distributing point for a vast territory. The population embraced some splendid French families whose descendants have rendered valuable services to their country, as citizens, soldiers and in public position. Many of the pioneers constructed beautiful homes and opened up large and fertile plantations. African slaves, which had been brought to Louisiana under the regime of the Mississippi Company, were employed in the cultivation of crops on the plantations. Trade with New Orleans was facilitated by small boats on Red River, as well as by carts overland, and with Texas by the opening up of a road from Natchitoches via the present town of Many to Nacogdoches and San Antonio. St. Denys was the prime mover in the establishment of this road, which was known in Texas as the King's Highway, and was designated by the people of Louisiana as the San Antonio Road or Mexican Trail. In 1762 the colony at Natchitoches was enjoying a splendid measure of peace and prosperity. The forty-seven years of work and struggles of the indomitable pioneers had begun to bear fruit. Without aid from the home government, the colony had not only become self-supporting but was a producer of surplus wealth, which made for the comfort and contentment of the people. The fertile lands yielded nearly all of their necessities in the way of food, and the cultivation of the cotton plant had already become the source of surplus wealth. But the star of hope often becomes visible only to be immediately dimmed by many vicissitudes and resultant discouragements for her people, whose deeds are marked in the early history of Sabine parish, and whose posterity are still prominent in the public and private life of our state.

St. Denys was for many years the faithful commandant at Natchitoches and his body found its last resting place there. Many stories of his long and active life are to be found in the more voluminous chronicles of Louisiana. Notable among the events of his early life was a duel which he fought with a minor officer in the army while in France. He left the field of combat, believing that he had killed his opponent, and hastened to America. Several years later, while he was commandant at Natchitoches, an Attakapas Indian came to the post and offered for trade a small box which the commandant discerned had been the property of a white man. St. Denys bought the box and found that it contained the commission of an officer in the French army, and his surprise was increased when he saw that it bore the name of the man whom he thought he had killed in a duel. On being assured that his former antagonist was living a prisoner of the Indians, he at once planned to go to his rescue. The man had been among the Indians several years. It is related that while his ship was anchored on the Gulf coast, he had gone on land and was captured by the savages. His companions, believing him dead or lost, set sail. The man was deprived of his clothing and compelled to follow their savage life. The Attakapas are said to have been cannibals and endeavored to induce their prisoner to eat human flesh. He was finally rescued by St. Denys, and the meeting of the men who had formerly faced each other in a duel is described as a most happy one.

St. Denys, owing to his remarkable influence with the Indians, was often called upon to settle disturbances among the minor tribes. It is said that on one occasion he sent a detachment of soldiers to quell an Indian not in the vicinity of the present town of Many. After a parley the chief informed the petty officer that he would treat with no one except the crippled white chief of Natchitoches, St. Denys and peace was not arranged until he arrived at the village.

In conclusion, it is proper to note that descendants of the Father of Natchitoches have occupied some of the most important public positions in the state.

Sabine Parish | AHGP Louisiana


* Dr. Garrison's "Texas."

Source: History of Sabine Parish, Louisiana, by John G. Belisle, Sabine Banner Press, 1913.


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