The Strange Story of St. Croix

Beautiful Isle on the breast of the river
With green restful glades and rocks wild and free,
Whence cam'st thou here?
From the deeps of forever?
Tell me thy story, thy strange history.
(from "The Island's Story," a poem by Mrs. Ida Vose Woodbury, of Calais, Maine, read at the 300th anniversary of  St. Croix Island, in 1904.)


As a schoolchild in Saint John, New Brunswick, I thrilled to the story of the horrible winter of 1604, when a group of brave French explorers settled on an island in an untamed wilderness only to lose almost half their men to scurvy and cold. It's the kind of story a child loves, full of impossibly heroic leaders, helpful natives and noble causes.

This summer, Canadians and Americans will be celebrating the 400th anniversary of settlement on the little island known as St. Croix.

Years away from the schoolground, I was shocked to discover that the heroic explorers I'd learned about were in reality a motley crew of tradesmen, vagabonds and mercenaries who were mainly concerned with commerce. Not that the leader, Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, and his cartographer, Samuel de Champlain, weren't admirable men of great accomplishments.

However, like everyone else, they were in Acadia to find gold, jewels and spices, or at least enough fish and furs to turn a profit for King Henry IV of France. De Mons and his men had sailed into a free-for-all, where the Basque, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French, Dutch and seemingly everyone else with a ship had been whaling, fishing and generally plundering for centuries. For the Europeans, the New World was the original Wild West, with ships instead of horses, and cannons instead of six shooters.

In a strange twist of fate, the disastrous winter on St. Croix Island that brought the French death instead of riches, is now famous as the first European settlement north of Florida and the first French habitation in North America. Although it gained them little glory at the time, the island they named St. Croix went on to determine the fate of First Nations, French, British, American and Canadian people, shaping their lives and their nations in what is truly, as Ida Vose Woodbury says, a strange history.

Essentially, St. Croix Island is 2.6 hectares of rock and sand in a wide tidal estuary between land and sea. But aerial photos show it as an emerald gem embedded in the lower half of the cross formed by the Waweig estuary meeting the upper St. Croix River at Oak Bay, the source of Champlain's name for the river and island.

From shore, the island has two distinct identities. The Parks Canada interpretation site at Bayside, near St. Andrews, has a clear view across a deep channel down onto the island's high sandbanks and open fields. The U.S. National Park Service site, at Red Beach, south of Calais, looks over at a low rocky coastline edged by trees that is almost joined to the land at low tide. A third perspective appears from the water, and it belongs to the Passamaquoddy.

Although 1604 marked the first Europeans to stay, the island's First Nations history is much older. Settlement in the Bay of Fundy reaches back close to 11,000 years, just after the last glacial period, and people are thought to have been on St. Croix Island as long as 5,000 years ago. Approximately 2,500 years ago, Passamaquoddy Bay was a busy thriving area where the ancestors of today's Passamaquoddy First Nation enjoyed one of the richest coastlines in the world. They fished for pollock and cod, harvested clams and quahogs, and hunted marine mammals, such as porpoise and seal. A model of a traditional Passamaquoddy porpoise hunting canoe at the New Brunswick Museum shows the seaworthy skin boats that were already in use when Europeans first arrived.

In those days, St. Croix Island was also part of a busy canoe route between the Bay of Fundy and a massive inland river system. Maliseet, Penobscot and other First Nations used the St. Croix River and its headwaters in the Chiputneticook lake system to access portages connected to the St. John River and Penobscot River watersheds. In an 1896 report, the Royal Society of Canada gives the original name of the island as "Mut-an-ag-wes," translated as "a place to leave things going up and down the river."

The story of the area's First Nations continued with the arrival of the Europeans. The French were guided by a people they referred to as the Etechemins, who helped the newcomers find food and medicine, and kept them from becoming hopelessly lost. Nonetheless, the Europeans maintained an attitude of appreciative superiority that is evident in the contemporary records known as the Jesuit Relations.

"We were glad to be back in a country of safety, for among the Etechemins we were no more obliged to be on our guard than among our own servants and, thank God, we have never yet been deceived in them," wrote the Jesuit Priest, Father Biard, in 1616.

Champlain's journals tell how the Etechemins camped on a knoll at the southern end of St. Croix Island and even worked in the settlement's kitchens. Why, one has to wonder, did the Passamaquoddy's ancestors continue to aid their supercilious visitors? Obviously, the entertainment gained by watching the pasty-faced white men blundering about in their bizarre clothing was worth a bit of inconvenience. Then, there were the added incentives of alcohol and weapons.

In hindsight, it's even harder to understand why the French didn't learn from the Etechemins how to survive the winter, and why they chose the tiny island in the first place. Champlain's writings make it clear that there was no good source of fresh water on the island and that most crops had to be grown on the mainland. As well, he notes that the island's thick growth of fir, birch, maple and oak was cut to build shelters, leaving the settlers dependent on the mainland for their firewood.

But the French were more preoccupied with defence than with the climate, and the island was well hidden from enemy vessels. A Portuguese or British ship would have to enter the Bay of Fundy and navigate past Grand Manan, Campobello and Deer Island, before following the western shore of Passamaquoddy Bay to the mouth of the St. Croix River. Then, it would have to travel halfway up the exposed St. Croix estuary, by which time French cannons mounted at the island's southern end would end the threat. However, it was winter that proved to be the real enemy.

The snow began to fall on October 6 and remained waist deep until the end of April. North winds howled across the exposed island and constantly shifting ice in the river kept them from reaching much-needed water and wood on the mainland. Supplies froze in the storehouses until drinking cider was rationed in blocks, and little but salt meat remained to eat. Those who survived the cold were ravaged by scurvy, suffering from loose teeth, bleeding mouths, swollen limbs and intense pain.

"In a word," Champlain wrote, "they were in such a condition that the majority of them could not rise nor move and could not even be raised up on their feet without falling down in a swoon. So that out of seventy-nine, who composed our party, thirty-five died and more than twenty were on the point of death."

So many died on the island that winter that it later became known as Bone Island for the remains eroding from its shore. In the 1960s, 23 skeletons were found in an archaeological dig and, just last summer, two more were found by a team of forensic specialists who were reuniting excavated bones with their skeletons.

Champlain's later accounts attempt to explain how he and de Mons could have been so mistaken in their choice of St. Croix Island.

"It would be very difficult to ascertain the character of this region without spending a winter in it; for, on arriving here in summer, everything is very agreeable, in consequence of the woods, fine country, and many varieties of good fish which are found here," he wrote.

After they left, native people and traders continued to use the island, with one French trader spending a full winter in the remaining buildings. Though there is no record of Champlain returning, de Mons visited with a lawyer named Lescarbot, who later published his own detailed account of the settlement.

However, the enemy Champlain had feared eventually arrived. The English Captain Samuel Argall, of Virginia, burned the settlement to the ground in 1613. Fighting between France and England continued in Acadia for more than a century, reaching a low point in 1755 with the Grand Deportation of the French Acadians. By that point, both cultures had a firm foothold in North America. Although the 1763 Peace of Paris granted what was then Canada and Nova Scotia to Great Britain, more than 16 million Canadians and Americans are of French descent today and more than eight million still speak French as a mother tongue.

The victory was unsure in other ways, too. Not much more than a decade later, Britain once again negotiated for the colonies, this time with a newly independent United States.

Ironically, it was the French settlement on St. Croix Island that finally decided the border in Britain's favour. By 1776, all traces of the French names had vanished from common use. When the authorities back in Europe agreed to draw the boundary line along Champlain's St. Croix River, they had one problem-no one knew its location. Contemporary maps showed only one large river between the St. John River and the southern end of Passamaquoddy Bay, when in fact there are three.

The Americans pushed for a boundary along today's Maguagadavic River, hoping to gain almost one third of today's New Brunswick from the deal. Originally, the British argued for the much more southerly Penobscot River, but, when the treaty ruled it out, they fought for the river known as the Schoodic. It took almost 15 years for an international commission to settle the matter. Fortunately, New Brunswick's agent was Loyalist and scholar Ward Chipman, who located a copy of Champlain's publication in Edinburgh, Scotland, and determined that the Schoodic was Champlain's St. Croix River and the locally known Dochets Island his Isle Ste. Croix.

The final proof came in 1796 with what may be the first recorded archaeological dig in North America, on St. Croix Island. British surveyor, Thomas Wright, and a group of local men led by Robert Pagan uncovered foundations and chimneys on the island that clearly matched Champlain's diagram of the 1604 settlement. Almost one third of New Brunswick was saved, but the island itself became part of the United States.

However, boundaries in the water are hard to see and the island's recent history abounds with stories where inhabitants of both shores meet. One attributes the popular name Dochets Island to a young Bayside girl named Dosia (pronounced Doshay) who frequently rowed to the island to meet her lover from Red Beach. Another story tells how the island became known as Neutral Island during the War of 1812 when the local British and American citizens refused to fight and used the island to conduct business.

Despite all the fighting in the surrounding area, St. Croix Island has never been a source of contention. Instead, its First Nations, French, British, American and Canadian history has brought nations together and has been a means of ending disputes. The tradition continues today, with Saint Croix Island officially becoming the first International Historic Site for both Canada and the United States.

At the 300th anniversary celebrations in 1904, French, American, British, Canadian and American dignitaries gave speeches and the warships of three countries jointly fired a salute. At the 400th anniversary this summer, the island's history will come full circle when Acadian and First Nations representatives join them in the celebrations.

"The St. Croix River doesn't know that it's Canada on one side and the U.S. on the other," says Suzanne Crawford, a volunteer with the 2004 organizing committee. "It belongs to everyone."

Once again, St. Croix Island is in the international limelight. For the residents of the St. Croix region, whether Passamaquoddy, American or Canadian, francophone or anglophone, it is time to celebrate the island and its strange history.