The Maison Louisiane Bed & Breakfast.
The enchanting 33-block downtown district of Natchitoches is a classic show-and-tell of nearly 300 years of Louisiana Creole settler history. It encompasses more than 50 restored homes and buildings, as well as unique spots like the American Cemetery.
Both in the downtown core and elsewhere in the Natchitoches Parish, many museum-quality homes and plantations are open for viewing, and even staying in. With over 40 bed & breakfast accommodations in the area, visitors may experience the gracious living that upper class plantation and city residents took for granted. Original mission churches and chapels and a full-scale recreation of the 1732 site of Fort St. Jean Baptiste are all within easy browsing distance.
Payne Williams, author of the book, The American Cemetery, shares his research on people buried in Natchitoches’ American Cemetery.
The meaning of the word “Creole” has changed over time. Once it meant offspring of French aristocrats born in the New World. However, Louisianians have broadened the definition to include individuals of European descent, particularly descendants of the French and Spanish settlers. There are also Creoles of Color — Louisianians of mixed French, African, Spanish, and Native American heritage. This combination of cultures is all the richer for the mix.
Creole architecture reflects the concept of mixture which defines the Creoles themselves. Of America’s six colonial building traditions, Creole architecture is the only one actually to have evolved in America. The Swedes, Dutch, Flemish, Spanish, and British all imported building types from the mother country instead of developing their own native colonial styles.
To get my bearings, I started with the Historic District Streetcar tour. Casey, our driver, was a great story teller whether he was pointing out the restored homes and buildings used as a backdrop for Steel Magnolias, or recounting tales of real life heroines of Natchitoches. Clattering his streetcar over the original brick streets, Casey declared up front that there were women he’d never tangle with in Natchitoches-namely, the members of the Historical Society. Years earlier a number of them lay down on the bricks in front of heavy equipment intent on ripping up the streets to make way for asphalt paving. They made their point and the bricks are still there. These same women felt equally strongly about preserving homes and other buildings.
Prominent features of most houses were clearly the lofty ceilings and enormous windows. With walls from 10 to 14 feet high, the feeling of luxurious spaciousness they produced, even with dark-hued walls and heavy furniture, was a southern specialty. And these were just the town houses. The plantations were still to come.
Brick streets worth fighting for.
In the company of knowledgeable guides, I learned a lot about Creole architecture and the beautiful structures on several plantations. Most buildings were built up on brick pillars or piles; in the days before air conditioning, this allowed the air to circulate underneath. In many parts of Louisiana, then and now, basements are just not feasible due to high groundwater levels. For the same reason, many Louisiana graveyards feature above ground tombs and mausoleums.
Pioneer church at the Fort St. Jean Baptiste State Historic Site.
The Prudhomme-Roquier House is the only 2 ½ story structure of cypress timbers and bousillage in the area.
Centuries ago, bricks were a sign of wealth. They were all hand-made and sun-dried from local sources of clay. However, even more popular than brick was bousillage, a kind of Creole structural masonry made of clay or mud, animal hair, and treated Spanish moss packed onto narrow sticks called rabets. Both the interiors and exteriors were covered with this paintable surface. Another key feature of Creole homes was the wide verandahs that encircled them, inviting guests to sit awhile and maybe share a cool drink.
But for me, the most interesting part of old buildings is imagining the lives of those who have lived in them. Indeed, if walls could talk, I’m sure I could spend the next decade just listening at Melrose Plantation.
One of my guides, Betty Metoyer, was descended from an early matriarch of Melrose, Marie Therese Cioncoin. She was born a slave in 1742, but was eventually freed by Thomas Pierre Metoyer, who was the father of 10 of her 14 children. Along with her sons who were Creoles of Color [gens de colour libre], she received a number of land grants recorded as Melrose Plantation.
Marie Therese was only the first of several incredible women to live at Melrose. Some time after the Civil War, Cammie Garrett Henry made Melrose into a cultural center. Ah, if I could only have been born a century or two earlier! Providing a workplace and home for such creative geniuses as Alexander Woollcott, Alberta Kinsey, Lyle Saxon, and numerous others, Miss Cammie was a true patron of the arts.
Melrose Plantation Big House constructed around 1833.
Clementine (pronounced Clementeen) Hunter, an illiterate black field worker and later Melrose cook, received encouragement there in the late 1930s to take up serious painting She was in her mid 50s in a life that would span more than a century. Thousands of pieces of her art tell the story of rural life in Louisiana. Raising animals. Picking cotton and pecan gathering. Taking her children with her to the fields. Going to church. Fifteen years after her death at 101, she is considered Louisiana’s most famous folk artist.
On my visit to Natchitoches I didn’t really encounter the South portrayed in those romantic pre-Civil War movies. Instead, I stepped into a real culture and a real history that pulled me into its depths, revealing the sincerity and passion of the Creole people.
Clementine Hunter folk art
For Natchitoches visitor information, go to www.natchitoches.net. To plan a vacation in the area, consult www.louisianatravel.com.
Established in 1714 as a trading post, Natchitoches is the oldest permanent settlement in what later became known as the Louisiana Purchase. The Louisiana Territory was a huge region of North America first ruled by Spain for 40 years, then given to France in 1762 with Natchitoches serving as its colonial center. To help finance Napoleon’s wars with Britain, France sold 900,000 square miles west of the Mississippi River and east of the Rocky Mountains to the United States in 1803 for $15 million. This new addition nearly doubled the size of the United States, making it one of the largest geographic nations in the world and adding land that would eventually become all or part of 15 new states.
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Linda Aksomitis is a book author, journalist, editor, adult educator, web-course developer and adventurer. Her experiences range from professionally racing snowmobiles, to gymkhana with her family’s appaloosa horses, to traveling North America. Contributing to numerous periodicals and electronic markets, Linda is also managing editor of online magazine, SnowRiderMag.com. Her website is http://aksomitis.com/home.