Once a primary channel of the mighty Red River, Cane River has defined the region for centuries. It has been home to various ethnic groups over the years, including the Native Americans, French, Spanish, Africans from various tribes, and Americans. The melding of these various peoples and their cultural traditions has resulted in the distinctive heritage that characterizes the region today and makes Cane river National Heritage Area a unique place to live and visit.
Exploration and Settlement
In 1713, the French established a trading a post in the Natchitoches Indian Village, which was at the time located at the head of navigation on the Red River. In 1716, the French built a military fort to protect French Louisiana from encroachment by the Spanish and a second, more substantial fort in early 1720. Soldiers, settlers, and slaves farmed the fertile river bottoms and traded with the various Indian groups and Spanish settlers at the neighboring Los Adaes community.
French and Spanish settlers, various Native American groups, and individuals from a number of different African tribes that were brought to work in the fields contributed to making the Cane river area a magnificent cultural crossroads. A population of gens de couleur libres — free people of color — emerged
over time, with their descendants eventually establishing the Creole community of Isle Brevelle downriver from Natchitoches. After the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Americans and their slaves began moving into the area, adding their own traditions and customer to an already diverse cultural mix.
Rise of Plantation Agriculture
Many years before Louisiana became a state in 1812, the lands along the Red River had been transformed into plantations. In the late 18th-century, planters mostly grew tobacco and indigo that was used for making dyes, but the invention of the cotton gin in 1793 redirected their attention to cotton. By the 1830s, the planters prosperity was evident as stately plantation homes like Melrose, Cherokee, Oaklawn, Beau Fort, and Oakland rose along the Red River.
Clearing the Log Jam
In 1832, steamboat captain Henry Shreve was appointed by the U.S. government to begin removal of the "Graft Raft", a natural log jam north of Natchitoches which choked 160 miles of the Red River's main channel. The project required years of repeated attempts, but by the 1870s, navigation was opened. An unexpected outcome was the Red River's change of course to the eastern edge of the valley, which drained a number of lakes and made Cane River Natchitoches' new riverfront. In 1915, Cane River was dammed at both ends to become the lake that exists today.
The River Today
Despite changes over time, Cane River is still the focal point of the community, providing visitors and residents with an array of recreational opportunities. In Natchitoches, a vibrant downtown historical district has blossomed along its banks with the riverfront serving as the backdrop for the area's many cultural festivals. This blend of old and new traditions keeps the history of Cane River alive while offering visitors and residents the opportunity to become a part of its modern legacy.
(photo captions left to right)
Commemorative bust of St. Denis, French explorer and founder of Natchitoches. Born in Quebec in 1676, Louis Juchereau de St. Denis established a trading post at Natchitoches in 1713-1714 that developed into the first permanent European settlement in the territory that would later be known as the Louisiana Purchase.
Capt. Henry M. Shreve - Clearing the Graft Raft from Red River, 1833-1838. The clearing of the log jam altered the course of the Red River, making Cane River the new riverfront for Natchitoches.
W.T. Scovell, a Red River Steamer (1870-1880) unloading at Front Street landing.
Clementine Hunter mural depicting a baptism in Cane River. Hunter worked as a cook at Melrose Plantation in the Creole community of Isle Bevelle and went on to become one of the South's foremost primitive artists. Hunter's murals are on display at Melrose Plantation.
A Can River baptism ca. 1926. Cane River has played an important role in religious traditions of the area since the time of the Natchitoches Indians.
Family boating and fishing along Cane River on Fourth of July near Natchitoches in 1940.