Monday, June 7, 2004
Norma Stewart, executive director of the Ste-Croix 2004 Coordinating Committee, stands on the bank of the St. Croix River in Bayside, New Brunswick, with St. Croix Island behind her on Wednesday. Stewart expects at least 10,000 people to gather along the shore in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, on June 26 to watch actors aboard a tall ship and canoes re-enact the first contact between the French settlers and the Passamaquoddy tribe.
ST. CROIX ISLAND Long a footnote to history, this uninhabited island in the St. Croix River that marks the U.S.-Canadian border is poised to become the focal point for a 10-day international celebration. On June 26, when dignitaries from France, Canada and the United States set foot on the 6 1/2-acre grassy outcropping, it will look much as it did when Pierre Dugua, Samuel de Champlain and 77 other men arrived 400 years ago to carve out the first French settlement in the New World.
The ceremony marking the anniversary will include representatives of the Passamaquoddy trib, whose forebears helped the settlers during the cold winter in which nearly half of them died.
The 1604 settlement came three years before English colonists landed in Jamestown and 16 years before the Pilgrims sailed the Mayflower to Plymouth, Mass.
While those settlements are familiar to American schoolchildren, the ill-fated St. Croix settlement has received little mention in history books.
"History is written by the winners," said Deb Wade of the U.S. National Park Service, which administers St. Croix Island as its only international historic site. British military triumphs during the 18th century ended the prospect of French hegemony in North America.
Nonetheless, Dugua, a nobleman known as Sieur de Mons, gets credit for beating the English to establish a settlement in North America.
Dugua sailed with two galleons into Passamaquoddy Bay and up a river to an island that appeared defensible and well-suited to his planned settlement. Armed with a grant from the king of France, he came with a mission to colonize the land and bring Christianity to its inhabitants. Dugua named the island St. Croix because it was near the confluence of rivers resembling the arms of a cross.
The settlers cleared a site, planted gardens and erected dwellings, a kitchen, a storehouse, a blacksmith shop, and a chapel. In early October, not long after Champlain returned from a historic voyage to Mount Desert Island, the first snow fell, setting the stage for an unusually harsh winter.
By Christmas, the river was choked with ice floes, cutting off access to the mainland. The settlers ran low on drinking water, fresh food and firewood. Surviving on preserved food, wine and melted snow, they developed scurvy; 35 of the men died and were buried on the island.
After a ship arrived in June, Dugua dismantled the settlement and moved it to Nova Scotia at a spot Champlain named Port Royal.
"It all started here" is the motto for the anniversary celebration, a reference to the island's place in history as the beginning of a lasting French presence in North America. An estimated 18 million people of French descent now live on the continent, including some who trace their roots to Acadians expelled by the British in 1755.
Norma Stewart, executive director of the Ste-Croix 2004 Coordinating Committee, expects at least 10,000 people to gather along the shore in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, on June 26 to watch actors aboard a tall ship and canoes re-enact the first contact between the French settlers and the Passamaquoddy.
That meeting was the start of what historians view as an amiable relationship between the French and the American Indians.
Yet while they are participating in the ceremony, the Passamaquoddy tribe members view the Europeans' arrival as a watershed event that brought tragedy to the American Indians. After much debate, the tribe agreed to take part in the anniversary.
Passamaquoddy historian Donald Soctomah recounts how the arrival of the Europeans put pressure on the natural resources with which the American Indians had lived in harmony; worst of all were the diseases introduced by the newcomers.
"It's a celebration for them, and we respect that," Soctomah said. "For us, it's a commemoration of remembrance, and a chance to educate."
The windswept island holds no visible traces of the early settlement. The only structures are a small maintenance shed and an old boathouse.
There is a navigational tower and a flagpole, on which Wade plans to display a flag in advance of the anniversary commemoration.
"This is the most historically correct one we could have chosen," she said of the white flag that signified the authority of the king of France. "If (Dugua) were to fly the flag, that would have been the one."
The estuary's 27-foot tides have reduced the island's size by roughly one-third, and erosion continues at a rate of 1 to 2 inches a year, Stewart says.
In fact, St. Croix was known in the 18th century as Bone Island because of its burial site, according to Stewart. "Literally, the island was eroding and the bones were being exposed," she said.
Last year, archaeologists and anthropologists reburied the bones of 23 settlers that were removed in 1969 and taken to Temple University in Philadelphia for analysis.
The settlement's Roman Catholic priest and Huguenot minister were among the 35 buried on the island. Because they were constantly at odds, local lore has it that the two were buried face to face so they could carry on their theological disputes in the hereafter.