One island, two nations

Maine's St. Croix, a site of history and tragedy, is watched over by the US and Canada

Email|Print| Text size + By Bill Porter
Globe Staff / October 12, 2003

''. . . we entered a river almost half a league in breadth at its mouth, sailing up which a league or two found two islands: one very small near the western bank and the other [Saint Croix Island] in the middle, having a circumference of perhaps eight or nine hundred paces . . . where there is a sandy point and clayey earth adapted for making brick and other useful articles."


With summer fading late in August 1604, Pierre Dugua, the French nobleman and explorer, stood on the tiny island and watched the ships disappear down the river. They had carried him and others, including his cartographer, Samuel Champlain, to North America to establish a settlement and trading post. Now the vessels were on their way to the open ocean back to France.

Having spent more than a month on the island, Dugua could feel the first nip of a hard winter approaching. It was enough to make him shudder.

Snow started falling the first week in October. The wind howled and supplies froze. Soon the 79 men became trapped on the island, hemmed in by giant cakes of ice that were kept continuously churning by extreme tides. When the ships returned in the spring, 35 men had died, probably of scurvy, and were buried on the island.

Dugua, granted oversight of Acadia by King Henry IV, moved on to establish a settlement at Port Royal, Nova Scotia, in 1605, joined by the expedition's other survivors, including its chronicler, Champlain.

But the short-lived settlement on the 6.5-acre island in the Saint Croix River is considered by the National Park Service to be the beginning of the lasting French presence in North America.

Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, so designated in 1984 because of its significance to the United States and Canada, lies near the boundary between the two countries in Washington County, Maine. The section of the site on the US side that welcomes visitors is located between downtown Calais and Eastport off Route 1 and overlooks the island. A more elevated view of the island is afforded from the Canadian side of the river at Bayside, New Brunswick.

''I had never heard of it," said Helen Flanagan of Brockton, who had stopped in Bayside to view the island on her way home from Prince Edward Island. Flanagan and a traveling companion had spotted the Saint Croix site on a road map.

While the public is invited to view the island from the mainland on both sides of the border, trips to the island itself are not encouraged. ''There's no public access," said Deb Wade, a US park ranger and chief interpreter for the Saint Croix site and also for Acadia National Park. ''You're not supposed to hire anybody to take you out there. If you have your own boat, you can ride out there. But nobody's supposed to be making money out of taking people there."

The only objects that remain on the island are a Coast Guard light tower, a boathouse, and a flagpole, which will fly a flag believed commonly used for French fortresses at the time of the settlement. ''We want to keep people from thinking there's this need to go and start digging around," Wade said. ''It's not like an Egyptian burial where there's a lot of jewelry buried with the corpses. These guys didn't have anything."

The site offers a history lesson that can be absorbed as part of a trip along the Maine coast, and is near Canada's Campobello Island, where Franklin D. Roosevelt had his summer home.Saint Croix is the first, and so far the only, international historic site in the United States. It is managed by the National Park Service in cooperation with Canada. The Park Service is completing a $660,000 renovation of Saint Croix's mainland site at Red Beach, which had consisted of a short walking trail leading to an open shelter overlooking the island, one educational panel, and some brochures.

Six panels have been installed along the 300-foot trail, each accompanied by a larger-than-life-size bronze cast figure, to tell the story of the French colonists and the Native Americans who met them. ''We wanted to get across the meeting of two cultures, that there were native people that had lived here for thousands of years," Wade said.

''This place was named by [Dugua] the Island of St. Croix. Here seemed to be a paradise, for the weather was warm, fish and deer were plentiful, and the location was convenient for shipping."Five ships sailed for North America from Havre-de-Grace, France, in March or April 1604. Henry IV had granted Dugua a trading monopoly in exchange for bringing Christianity to the native people, establishing the name and authority of the king, exploring the area, and seeking mines of precious metals. Dugua and others also sought to make money in the fur trade, and Champlain hoped to find a passage to the Orient. The explorers included ''noblemen, artisans, soldiers, a surgeon, a Roman Catholic priest, and a Huguenot minister," according to the website for the Ste-Croix 2004 Coordinating Committee, which is helping plan events for the 400thanniversary of the settlement next year.

Three of the ships split off and sailed toward the Saint Lawrence River. The other two sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay and continued upriver about 7 miles until they spotted a configuration in the landscape that resembled a cross. ''There are three arms north of the island that form the arms of the holy cross, three tributaries," Wade said. "But they also realized that those are nice navigable rivers for canoes that would probably bring trade to them from the inland."

The men landed in June and went to work building a fortification, a storehouse, dwellings, a blacksmith shop, and a chapel. They placed a ship's cannon at the southern end of the island. They also planted gardens for vegetables and grains on the island and mainland. ''Things were pretty well built by August," Wade said.

Away from the coast, they felt secure and saw the island surrounded by deep water as being easily defended. But even as the French sought protection from rival English and Spanish explorers, as well as native inhabitants with whom they were not well acquainted, they underestimated a more deadly foe: the New England winter.

''A lot of people, when they hear the story of the winter and how harsh it was and how many people died, they say, 'How could the French be so stupid?' " Wade said. ''But they weren't stupid; they got all the way here from France, and knew what they were doing. It's just that their choices were made based on the information that they had. At this latitude in France, the climate is nice, it's warm. It's different than here."

''Winter came upon us sooner than we expected. . . . The snows began on the 6th of October. . . . The cold was sharp, more severe than in France, and of much longer duration.''

Thomas Crist, a forensic anthropologist, completed his doctorate at Temple University in 1998 on vitamin C deficiency using partial human remains that were excavated from Saint Croix Island in 1969 by Temple under contract to the Park Service.

''Scurvy took its toll, as did probably severe weather," said Crist, a member of an international team of scientists that in June returned the bone fragments to the graves. ''They had salted dried meat, but they were missing fresh vegetables and fruit. All of their food froze except for the Spanish wine. They couldn't get off the island, and there was no water supply."

The research continues. Scientists took DNA samples and performed CAT scans in hopes that eventually they might determine ethnicity and ancestry of the victims; ''it is believed that there were Swiss soldiers in the expedition," Crist said. "But the primary goal was to re-inter the remains in their original positions. We felt it was the best way to show respect."

In a further show of respect, according to the Park Service, a ''private, quiet, dignified" 17th-century committal service in Latin and French was conducted on Saint Croix Island on June 2.

Bill Porter can be reached at

more stories like this

  • Email
  • Email
  • Print
  • Print
  • Single page
  • Single page
  • Reprints
  • Reprints
  • Share
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Comment
  • Share on DiggShare on Digg
  • Tag with Save this article
  • powered by
Your Name Your e-mail address (for return address purposes) E-mail address of recipients (separate multiple addresses with commas) Name and both e-mail fields are required.
Message (optional)
Disclaimer: does not share this information or keep it permanently, as it is for the sole purpose of sending this one time e-mail.