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SAINT DENIS and Natchitoches, the founding father who established the first permanent French colony in Louisiana

Updated: Jan 15




Louis Antoine Juchereau de St. Denis was my 7th great granduncle on my mother's side--another recent surprise in my research. My 6th great grandfather, Jacques de la Chaise's first marriage (around 1733, she died in 1737) was to St. Denis' daughter, Marie Rose Juchereau de St. Denis, and his second would be to my 6th great grandmother, Marguerite Louise D'Arensbourg (around 1743.) We are not related by blood but to think that part of my family helped settle Louisiana and remained throughout all the turmoil of the earliest days is fascinating.


I visited Natchitoches exactly a year ago to do some research and I was smitten with the place. I visited Melrose Plantation as I have a slight obsession with its history and its later connection to New Orleans through Lyle Saxon and Cammie Henry as well as the artwork of the brilliant Clementine Hunter. I did not know the connection to my family until months after my trip so it made me giggle---because I felt at home in some strange way. Some of my photos from Melrose Plantation.



Melrose Plantation photo by Laura Guccione

Africa House Melrose Plantation photo by Laura Gucccione

Clementine Hunter's House Melrose Plantation photo by Laura Guccione


Natchitoches was indeed already a meeting place and semipermanent settlement for the Native Americans but it would become a trading outpost thanks to St. Denis who would disregard the rules of Spain and France to trade with everyone, whether it was due to his excellent diplomacy skills, survival instincts, or for mere monetary gain we'll never know but one thing is sure: his friendly relations became especially important after his realization that the motherland could not be depended upon for food and other necessities. More localized trade and peaceful exchanges were necessary for the viability of the colony as well as those who lived there.


Bust of Louis Juchereau de St. Denis in Natchitoches by artist Larry Crowder.


St. Denis was a man of contradictions and mystery. He was a proud Frenchman who would spend time amongst the many local Native American tribes as well as the Spanish going as far as to marrying the granddaughter of Captain Diego Ramón, commandant of one of the outposts of colonial Spain, even after being imprisoned in Mexico City.

He was a bit of a dandy impressing both the Native Americans and the Spanish with his meticulous grooming, bright breeches, and flashy coats. From an inventory of his wardrobe we see can surmise that his favorite color might have been scarlet and we know that he was probably over six feet tall. His physical attributes as well as his penchant for few words created a mystique contrasting with the rest of the colonizing white men of the time.

One of his nicknames was "the Beautiful Leg."


Towards the end of his life, France brought old financial debts for St. Denis to settle. This appears to have broken his spirit and he soon requested permission to spend his last days in Mexico along with his Spanish wife but they were denied.


In a 1741 letter to a niece in his hometown of Beaufort, Quebec, he makes a statement that most of us who have lived in Louisiana our whole lives (or even for any prolonged time) could absolutely relate to:


"I can assure you that it is a very worthless country; happy who he can

get out of it and infinitely happier is he who has never come to it."


His feeling about Louisiana might have been mixed but by all accounts his funeral was one of the most spectacular that the French frontier had ever seen. Word spread quickly and many showed up to pay their last respects: from Spanish dignitaries and clerics to his many friends from the various tribes including Chiefs and warriors to French officials and surely the entire town that he helped establish showed up as the buried him in the Natchitoches church.


Sources:

Ross Phares. Cavalier in the Wilderness. Gretna: Pelican Publishing Company, 1976.



Daniel H. User, Jr. Indians, Settlers, and Slaves in a Frontier Exchange Society: The Lower Mississippi Valley Before 1783.

Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina

Press, 1992.




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