Natchitoches was established in 1714 by French explorer Louis Juchereau de St. Denis. It is the oldest permanent European settlement within the borders of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Natchitoches was founded as a French outpost on the Red River for trade with Spanish-controlled Mexico; French traders settled there as early as 1699. The post was established near a village of Natchitoches Indians, after whom the city was named. Early settlers were French Catholic immigrants and creoles (originally meaning those ethnic French born in the colony). French creoles acquired lands that were developed in the antebellum years as cotton-producing Magnolia Plantation and Oakland Plantation. Each has been preserved and is designated as a National Historic Landmark.
After the United States' Louisiana Purchase of 1803, migration into the territory increased from the US. Natchitoches grew along with the population in the parish. Initially, the Americans were primarily of English and Scots-Irish ancestry and of Protestant faith. They developed several cotton plantations along the Red River. Numerous enslaved African Americans were brought to the area through the domestic slave trade to work the cotton, and provide all other skills on these plantations, generating the revenues for the wealthy planters before the Civil War.
In the 1820s and early 1830s, Natchitoches also served as a freight transfer point for cotton shipped from parts of east Texas. Cotton shippers used a land route crossing the Sabine River to Natchitoches, where the freight was transferred to boats, and floated down the Red River to New Orleans.
When the course of the Red River shifted, it bypassed Natchitoches and cut off its lucrative connection with the Mississippi River. A 33-mile (53 km) oxbow lake was left in the river's previous location. This became known as Cane River Lake.
During the Civil War, Natchitoches was set on fire by Union soldiers who retreated through the town after their failed attempt to capture Shreveport. Confederate cavalry pursued the fleeing soldiers and arrived in time to help extinguish the flames before the town was destroyed. Alexandria was destroyed by Union troops in 1864, but both Union and Confederate troops were responsible for severely damaging plantations along the river during the war, including Magnolia and Oakland.
In the spring of 1863, Confederate General Richard Taylor and his men passed through Natchitoches en route to Shreveport. Andrew W. Hyatt, one of Taylor's line officers, wrote in his diary: "reaching the banks of Cane River. ... We are now on a regular race from the enemy, and are bound for Grand Ecore. ..." Three days later on May 11, 1863, Hyatt penned: "We have now retreated 280 miles. Natchitoches is quite a 'town,' and the galleries were crowded with pretty women, who waved us a kind reception as we passed through town."
Around Natchitoches and its environs, 12,556 bales of Confederate cotton were stored. A match factory also opened in the city during the war. The residents of Natchitoches often engaged in fund-raising activities to relieve the destitute during the war. Historian John D. Winters observed, "Eggnog parties and other social affairs during the Christmas holiday season lifted the morale of civilians as well as that of the soldiers."
As the parish seat, Natchitoches suffered from the decline in agricultural population through the mid-20th century, and grew at a markedly lower rate after 1960. The mechanization of agriculture had reduced the number of workers needed, and many moved to cities for jobs. By the early 1970s, the town's businesses were declining, along with many area farms, and buildings were boarded up.
In the mid-1970s, Mayor
Bobby DeBlieux and other preservationists believed that attracting tourists to the area, based on its historic assets of nearly intact plantations and numerous historic buildings, could be a key to attracting visitors, reviving the town, and stimulating new businesses. Over the years, he worked with a variety of landowners and local people to gain support for designating an historic district in the city. He also supported making a national park out of the working area of Magnolia Plantation, which had many surviving outbuildings from the 19th century, and from Oakland Plantation, both downriver in the parish.
By the end of the 20th century, the mile-long French colonial area of downtown, which lies along Cane Lake, was designated as a National Historic District. Many buildings were adapted as antique shops, restaurants and souvenir emporiums. To accommodate tourists, the town had 32 bed-and-breakfasts, the most in the state. By 2018, that number had increased to 50.
The plantation country surrounds Cane River Lake. The markedly intact downriver Magnolia and Oakland plantations were designated as National Historic Landmarks, and are part of what has been developed as the Cane River Creole National Historical Park, which was authorized in 1994, with the support of US Senator J. Bennett Johnston. He was a cousin by marriage of Betty Hertzog, the last of the family to live in the great house at Magnolia.
Tours and interpretive programs at both sites continue to attract visitors, especially as they grapple with telling the difficult history of slavery and its aftermath at the plantations. They also cover the contributions of blacks and Creoles of color to the community.
Since the late 20th century, the 35-mile oxbow lake has served as the spring-break training location for numerous university crew teams, from schools such as the University of St. Thomas, Kansas State University, University of Kansas, Wichita State University, Murray State University, University of Central Oklahoma, and Washington University, as well as Northwestern State University. In the spring of 2018, LSU, Alabama, Texas and Georgia were also represented. Tourists interested in sports often visit in this period to watch the sports teams.
Over the years, the city and parish have improved conditions with a riverbank stabilization project and a water pump project to improve water levels in the lake. This directs water from Hampton Lake into Bayou Possiant, which feeds Cane River Lake.
Natchitoches was the site of the 1973 plane crash that claimed the life of singer-songwriter Jim Croce. Croce had performed a concert on campus for Northwestern State University students at Prather Coliseum, but was killed less than an hour later in a plane headed to Sherman, Texas. The crash may have been a result of the pilot suffering a fatal heart attack.
In 2005, the cartoonist and historian Pap Dean published Historic Natchitoches: Beauty of the Cane, a study of the history, people, and attractions of the historic city. It is one of the oldest in the state. Harrisonburg, the seat of Catahoula Parish, is the other earliest French settlement in the state.
Natchitoches is the home of the oldest general store in Louisiana, the still operating Kaffie-Frederick, Inc., General Mercantile, located on Front Street. The store was co-founded in 1863 by ancestors of Alexandria businessman and former city commissioner
Arnold Jack Rosenthal (1923–2010). It has been featured in several nationally televised reality shows such as Duck Dynasty and Cajun Pawn, with the words "If you can't find it anywhere else, you can probably find it at Kaffie-Fredrick."