St. Croix Island

St. Croix Island

St. Croix Island

King Henry IV
King Henry IV

On the 8th of November, 1603, King Henry IV of France authorized Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, to exclusively manage the fur trade and appointed him as the lieutenant-governor of the region stretching from the 40th to 46th parallels, named La Cadie. This arrangement required De Mons to both establish settlements and attempt to convert the local First Peoples to Christianity. The official documentation of this grant depicted the native inhabitants as uncivilized and irreligious. However, contrary to these descriptions, the Passamaquoddy and other First Peoples possessed a deeply-rooted and complex spiritual system that profoundly influenced their daily life and interaction with nature.

To secure his monopoly, De Mons issued prohibitions against unauthorized trade in his territory at every French port. He assembled a group of 120 individuals comprising nobles, craftsmen, and soldiers, and prepared five ships for their voyage. Notable figures in this venture included the explorer and cartographer Samuel Champlain, the Sieur de Poutrincourt, an enthusiast in agriculture, and François Pontgravé, a veteran of previous explorations in the St. Lawrence area. The team also included specialists like a surgeon, a miner, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Protestant minister to cater to the spiritual needs of the settlers, including a significant number of Huguenots.

In March 1604, the expedition embarked from Havre de Grâce (presently Le Havre), France. Landing at Sable Island on May 1st, they split; three ships went to the St. Lawrence for trading, Pontgravé set off for Canso, while De Mons, Champlain, and Poutrincourt surveyed the Nova Scotia coast and the Bay of Fundy. During the summer, De Mons sought a suitable location for settlement as Champlain meticulously charted the area’s inlets and harbors. This coastline, including parts of Nova Scotia, Maine, and New Brunswick, still retains many of the names given by Champlain. While the Annapolis Basin, with its secure harbor and fertile land, attracted Champlain’s attention, the expedition continued to explore other options. Poutrincourt, recognizing the potential, requested De Mons for rights to eventually establish his colony at the site, which Champlain had named Port Royal.

Subsequently, the men began clearing the island and nearby mainland. In a short time, they established a modest village featuring a storehouse, gardens, an oven, a hand mill for milling wheat, and a collection of houses.

As the settlement progressed, Sieur De Mons dispatched Champlain to explore further south, towards the mouth of what was then called the Norumbega River, now known as the Penobscot River in Maine. Champlain journeyed past and named Mount Desert Island and traveled up the Norumbega, fostering amicable ties with the local First Peoples.

Samuel de Champlain
Samuel de Champlain

Champlain returned to St. Croix Island around late September. Shortly after, an early and particularly harsh winter set in, disrupting the settlers’ preparations. The river became impassable due to dangerous ice floes, isolating them from the mainland. This led to shortages of essentials like drinking water and firewood. The settlers endured severe conditions; even their cider froze, requiring distribution by weight. They resorted to drinking Spanish wine and melted snow. The absence of fresh produce led to an outbreak of scurvy, which Champlain vividly describes in his writings, detailing the gruesome effects of the disease on the settlers’ health.

Out of the 79 men who wintered at St. Croix, 35 perished, and another 20 nearly met the same fate. The settlement’s surgeon conducted autopsies to ascertain the causes of death, which Champlain recorded in his journal with stark detail. It became evident that choosing St. Croix Island for settlement was a grave error. The exposed location worsened the severity of the winter, making survival challenging. Reflecting on this, Champlain noted that the country’s true nature was concealed in summer by its lush woods, beautiful scenery, and abundant fishing, concluding that the region endured six months of winter.

With the arrival of spring in May, the settlement’s health improved. On June 15, 1605, Pontgravé brought much-needed supplies, his arrival bringing immense joy and relief.

De Mons had already resolved to relocate the settlement. The summer was spent scouting for an appropriate new site. During this exploration, which extended from St. Croix to Cape Cod, De Mons and Champlain were accompanied by an Amerindian, Panounias, and his wife. Their assistance ensured peaceful interactions with the First Peoples encountered along the way. However, upon reaching Cape Cod, they ventured beyond the linguistic understanding of their Amerindian guides and faced hostility. A violent encounter at Nauset Bay resulted in the death of a baker from the crew. After this incident and facing dwindling supplies without having found a new settlement site, De Mons decided to return home.

In early August, upon their return to St. Croix, De Mons issued the directive to relocate the settlement to Port Royal. Despite the challenge of moving before the onset of winter, the settlers efficiently dismantled their existing structures, loaded their ships, and embarked towards their new location. Upon arrival at Port Royal, they promptly began clearing land and constructing new dwellings. They also put significant effort into establishing gardens, aiming for agricultural self-sufficiency. 

St. Croix Island
St. Croix Island

The relocation to Port Royal proved successful. The settlers experienced a much less severe winter compared to the previous year. Although scurvy resurfaced as a health concern, the colony suffered significantly fewer losses, with only five individuals succumbing to the disease. Resources like water and game were abundant, and the local Mi’kmaq people often visited the settlement to exchange fresh meat for French bread.

To lift their morale during the extended winter, the colony’s gentlemen founded “The Order of Good Cheer,” the first social club of its kind in North America. The club’s rules stipulated that each member took turns hunting and providing food for the entire group, ensuring a consistent supply of fresh meat. Membertou, a Mi’kmaq sachem, was a regular guest at their gatherings.

In the meantime, De Mons returned to Europe to secure additional support for the endeavor. During his absence, he entrusted Pontgravé with the leadership of the colony. Champlain stayed in Acadia, continuing his exploration efforts and planning an expedition as far south as Florida in the upcoming year. 

Tourism to St. Croix Island is discouraged to protect its delicate ecosystem. No remnants of the early settlement remain visible on the island. In 1605, when the settlers relocated to Port Royal, they dismantled many structures, transported them by ship, and reassembled them at the new location.

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