Bangor Daily News
By Beurmond Banville,
Monday, June 28, 2004

Ste-Croix - Festival-goers gather for island tribute

Setting foot on L'Isle Sainte Croix in the middle of the St. Croix River, 125 invited visitors arrived Saturday morning at a sandy beach on the south end, speaking in hushed tones amid what has become sacred ground.

The 6.5-acre island is U.S. territory now, run by the National Park Service, and few people are allowed to walk around the site, which is the burial ground for 35 of the French explorers who died their first winter in North America 400 years ago.

A 35-step stairway leads to the upper island, where the explorers developed gardens and a settlement.

"You are standing in the footprints of those men, many of [whom] are interred here, the original settlers who arrived here 400 years ago," said Park Service staffer Mike Furmari in French and English shortly after 7 a.m. Saturday. "Bienvenue a [welcome to] Sainte Croix."

Saturday's visitors seemed aware they were in a special place. The burial ground, located on a small, grassed-over area on the southern end of the island, is nearly the only evidence of the colony.

As the morning mist turned to rain during Saturday's ceremonies, the solemnity of the commemoration was clear: No one left until the ceremonies were completed.

The settlers' French descendants consider the settlement the beginning of their lives in North America.

The island is visible off Red Beach, from U.S. Route 1, about eight miles south of Calais. The National Park Service has created an onshore interpretive park to tell the story of the settlement.

The expedition, led by Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons and explorer Samuel de Champlain, landed on the island on June 26, 1604. They were aboard two galleons and three smaller ships. The resulting settlement included 12 to 15 buildings.

During the winter, one of the harshest on record, nearly half of the 79-man expedition died of scurvy, malnutrition and exposure. The first snowstorm struck on Oct. 6, and they were in snow until April 1605. The colony moved that June to Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

The St. Croix settlement existed three years before the English colony at Jamestown, Va., in 1607 and well before the Plymouth colony in Massachusetts.

A white flag signifying the Bourbon monarchy of 17th century France flies on the northern end of the island where the buildings were located. Several memorials with information on the settlement can be found scattered about the island.

On Saturday, members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and officials of the United States, Canada and France exchanged gifts, took part in Indian purification rites and presented a short history of the settlement during the meeting of two worlds, 400 years later. The one-hour ceremony was conducted in French, English and Indian languages.

The island was chosen because of good anchorage, its environment and because it could be easily fortified against expected English or Spanish expeditions.

When Francois Gravier du Pont, a fur merchant and ship captain, left the expedition on the island in August 1604, his ship loaded with fish and furs, he was the only European at the time who knew the location of the settlement.

"When I returned the following spring with supplies, I found death, 35 of my friends had died," said Furmari, who appeared as Gravier. "It had been very cold, and they had suffered a lack of food and wood.

"Their way to the mainland had been cut off by dangerous river ice," he said. "More may have died had it not been for the Indians on the mainland who brought them food and wood."

The Passamaquoddy were thanked for the efforts of their ancestors. Mark Altaveter, lieutenant governor of the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy, Robert Newell, governor of Indian Township, both in Maine, and Hugh Akagi, chief of the St. Andrews, New Brunswick, Passamaquoddy, received the medal of France's Legion of Honor and swords from Xavier Darcos, minister delegate of cooperation, development and francophony, France's representative to the commemoration.

The American Indians, in turn, presented gifts. They also presented a resolution, printed on birch bark, to France to continue the Treaty of Friendship approved years ago.

Blanche Sockabasin, a drummer and singer, and Joan Dana, spiritual mother of the Passamaquoddy, both from Peter Dana Point, burned sage and performed purification rites on the island before dignitaries arrived.

They also performed the purification on many who attended the ceremony.

"The Passamaquoddys were already here for thousands of years, and their action possibly saved many of the French who survived here," noted U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-Maine. "This is an event of special meaning," he said at the ceremony. "St. Croix has not received its place in history."

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