The Cane River National Heritage Trail

Sunday, February 10, 2019

The weather has been a bit nasty. Every conversation with the locals confirms that the cold weather is not what would be considered normal February weather. The nights have been around freezing and the days have been overcast with a cold breeze blowing. Temps never reached the mid-40’s. Howsomeever, this morning dawned with warmer temperatures. It’s already 40 degrees as the sun rises. Yeah! The high today is forcast to be 20 degrees warmer than the last three.

Ceiling Vaults- Chandeliers from 1856

The first order of business is to attend Mass at the Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception downtown. This is the sixth continuous Catholic Church in Natchitoches. The first Mass was celebrated in 1717 by a Spanish Franciscan Monk who traveled by foot the fifteen miles from the Spanish Mission in Los Areas. The first church was in Fort St. Jean Baptiste. Five churches later this one was built in 1909. The chandeliers came from France in 1856 and the hand carved wooden altar dates from the 1890’s. The Mass was one of the best on the trip thus far.

It’s a good morning to cruise. Serving first as a French outpost and later as a Spanish one, Natchitoches was a crossroads for many cultural groups. Spanish and French soldiers, traders and farmers crossed paths with African slaves and American Indians on a daily basis. The beginnings of Creole Natchitoches lie with the descendants of these early colonial groups.

As the area’s earliest families, the Creoles of Natchitoches Parish had first choice of farmland and wisely settled in the rich Red River Valley, where the largest plantations flourished through the antebellum period. In southern Natchitoches Parish, the Creole descendants of Marie Thérèse Coincoin, an enslaved woman, and Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer, a French soldier stationed at the Natchitoches Post, established the community of Isle Brevelle. Today’s Cane River Creoles form the basis of the Isle Brevelle settlement, which has continued as a Creole community since its late 18th-century beginnings.

Americans, who were latecomers to the area, tended to settle in the piney uplands away from the Creoles. Arriving with the English language, Protestant religion and a new form of representative government, Americans were foreign in almost every way to the Creoles of Natchitoches. Creoles maintained a dominant influence in local society despite the influx of Americans into the area.

This is Creole country. so we head off for the Cane River National Heritage Trail. There are a total of 32 heritage sites on the trail. Ann at the visitors center stated that many are on private property and some are not marked. OK then! We’ll do the best we can to find them.

Main House Oaklawn Plantation

The we stop at the first plantation that was easiest to find, the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. Back in the day eating squab was a sign of wealth. This place had two pigeon houses! The collection of over 27 buildings tells the story of a plantation from 1789 to 1960. The plantation survived the Civil War. The slaves were freed but many remained and worked as freemen.

Pigeon House
Mule Barn
Complete with Mule!
The Store
Cane Syrup Made in this Humongous Pot
Overseer’s House
Slave Home. After Civil War it was Freeman’s Home.
Corn Crib

We stop at one of only 10 post in ground constructed buildings that are known to exist.

Badin-Roque House

We’ve passed a lot of places and plantations listed in the brochure. It becomes obvious that even though of historical significance they are privately owned and not open to the public. One such place is Oaklawn Plantation which was purchased and restored by playwright Robert Harling, best known for his play and movie, Steel Magnolias.

The chapel represents the only known instance of a white mission congregation
sponsored by a church whose members were primarily people of color.

St. Augustine Catholic Church was founded in 1803, established by and for people of color. Today the church symbolizes the heart of the Cane River culture. It was the first traditional cultural property to be added to the National Register of Historical Places in Louisiana.

Everyone was attending Mass when we arrived.

Our last place to visit is Melrose Plantation. Here’s an abbreviated version of the history of this great place. It’s long, but so is the history of Melrose!

Melrose Plantation- The Big House
Back of the Big House

In 1742 Marie Therese Coincoin was born a slave into the household of Natchitoches’ found Louis de St. Denis. He later leased her as a housekeeper to French merchant Metoyer. They had 10 kids together. He purchased her and several of their children, giving them freedom. With her yearly allowance, and parcel of land given by Metoyer she began raising tobacco, cattle and harvesting bear grease.

Yucca House

Her fortunes grew by virtue of receiving land grants and purchasing slaves. They became the leading family of a community called Isle Brevelle, populated by free people of color who thrived as a business people, plantation owners and slave owners.

African House

The neighboring Hertzog family bought the property. for $8340 (estimated value at its peak was $100,000). The Magnolia big house was destroyed in the Civil War and not rebuilt until the 1890’s. The Hertzog’s farmed the land until 1881 when it was sold to Joseph Henry.

Her son Louis Metoyer was deeded a large parcel of land on the east bank but development of the current Melrose property began in 1810 with the construction of Yucca House. Big House construction began in 1832. The property passed through several generations and ended in near bankruptcy in 1847.

More of the Big House

The property passed to Henry’s heirs where the big house was expanded and historic log cabins from all around the parish were brought to Melrose. Cammie Henry also collected Cane River art, weaving techniques and Louisiana lore that was at risk of being forgotten. Melrose became a retreat for visiting artists and a center of creativity.

Can You See Jil Under That Big Oak Tree?

Among Cammie’s employ was a cook named Clementine Hunter. Clementine began as a field hand at Melrose when she was twelve years old. Originally born at Hidden Hill Plantation in 1887, her family moved to Melrose as sharecroppers for the Henry family. Later she became a house keeper but it was while she was a cook that she found some discarded paints left behind by an artist at Melrose. Those discarded paints changed her life and continue to touch those who view and admire her work each day.

Clementine is a self-taught, primitive artist. She never completed any formal education and did not learn to read or write. She expressed herself, told her story, through paint. Her unique African-American perspective, considered “insider art”, tells stories that historians overlooked while documenting plantation life. Plantations are far more than the big house and the crop produced. Clementine captured the community of workers, the life of the “gears” that make plantations successful and prosperous.

Clementine Hunter’s Home

In 1986, two years before her death, Clementine Hunter received an Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree from Northwestern State University of Louisiana. A University that, in the 1960s, had previously not allowed Hunter on campus to view an exhibit of her work, due to the segregation laws of the time. Today, Hunter is recognized as one of the most famous African American Folk Artists in the United States. She died in 1988, at 101 years of age, after completing thousands of works of art. Her creations, including the African House Murals, are still viewed by over 15,000 visitors annually at Melrose Plantation.

And the legacy goes on and on and on. Today the property is owned by the Association for the Preservation of Historic Natchitoches. It operates Melrose Plantation as a historic house museum fo the public. Melrose has been named as a National Historic Landmark.

I’ll conclude with an interesting story. During the Civil War the Union Army was about to plunder a Plantation near to Melrose Plantation. The owners raised the French Flag- and the plantation was spared!

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