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The 1604 Saint Croix Island Settlement: A Brief Historical Context

Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, located along the U.S.A.- Canada border in Maine, commemorates the founding of one of the earliest sites of European settlement in North America. In 1604, a group of 79 French colonists, led by the Sieur de Mons and cartographer, Samuel Champlain, built a tiny settlement and overwintered on the island. The results were disastrous, with nearly half the colonists dying of scurvy. However, the effort, together with the subsequent relocation of the settlement at Port Royal, marked the beginning of a continuous French presence in North America. The island itself was already known and used by the Wapaponiyik (or Waponahki) First Peoples of the region) who helped the French and taught them how to survive in the unfamiliar climate and territory.

European Exploration and Settlement of the “New World”

The story of Saint Croix Island really begins well before 1604. The First Peoples had inhabited the surrounding area for millennia and had well established and long-lasting cultures which featured the interwoven elements of language, spiritual beliefs, mythology, music, and visual arts and were based on their close relationship to nature. Europeans had been crossing the Atlantic to fish or trade along the North American coast for generations.
Early voyages and contacts

The first known European contact with North America took place when Norse adventurers crossed the North Atlantic and established a settlement at what is now known as L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland (c. 1,000 AD). Once the settlement failed, however, the explorations of the Norse fell into obscurity.

It was not until almost 500 years later that European explorers, backed by the courts of Europe, found their ways to North America’s shores. Driven by the pressures of the spice trade and colonial expansionism, these adventurers hoped to find new routes to the Orient. In 1492, Christopher Columbus, reached what was subsequently described as the “new world” and brought back news to the Spanish court of the tremendous mineral wealth of that region. Five years after the voyages of Columbus, John Cabot landed in either Newfoundland or Cape Breton, claiming that territory for the English and opening up the rich North Atlantic fishery. In 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon explored Florida for the Spanish, and in 1524, Giovanni de Verrazanno sailed from North Carolina to Newfoundland for the French. Ten years later, in 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed up the mighty St. Lawrence River, searching for gold and a passage to Asia for the French. Finally, in 1576, Martin Frobisher, searched west of Greenland for the elusive northwest passage and gave his name to Frobisher Bay.

By the mid-16th century, French and Basque fishers were making annual forays to the waters off Newfoundland and Nova Scotia to satisfy the increasing European demand for fish and whale oil. As well, entrepreneurs were trading axes, knives, and glass beads with the First Peoples for furs, particularly around Tadoussac, where the Saguenay River meets the St. Lawrence. Still, these contacts were fleeting. It was not until later that any concerted attempt at European settlement was undertaken in these northern regions.

Early Settlements

Early European settlement attempts were largely unsuccessful and fraught with danger. As the St. Croix Island experience illustrates, settlers were unfamiliar with the demands of the North American climate and habitat. In their isolation, they easily fell prey to scurvy and starvation. In other cases, poor planning and hostile relations with neighboring First Peoples proved disastrous.

The St. Croix Island settlement is notable for its early date, preceding the arrival of the Pilgrims at Plymouth by more than fifteen years. At the time, the St. Croix settlers were the only Europeans living north of the Spanish colony of St. Augustine in Florida (founded in 1565).

Key motives for the European colonization of North America include: the expansion of imperial power, the search for route to the Orient (spice trade), fishing, whaling, fur trade, settlement, missionary work (spread of Christianity) and the Doctrine of Discovery.

Some key dates in the history of European exploration include:
1000 Leif Ericsson (Norse)
1492 Christopher Columbus (Spain)
1497 John Cabot (England)
1500 Corte Real Brothers (Portugal)
1513 Ponce de Leon (Spanish)
1524 Giovanni de Verrazanno (France)
1534 Jacques Cartier (France)
1539 Hernando de Soto (Spain)
1576 Martin Frobisher (England)
1604 Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons (France)
1608-1635 Samuel de Champlain (France)
1678 René-Robert Cavelier de La Salle (France)
1768-1779 James Cook (England)
1792-1793 Alexander Mackenzie (Scotland)
1791-1795 George Vancouver (England)
1804-1806 William Clark & Meriwether Lewis (United States)

Some key european attempts at colonization include:
Year Location Nationality Outcome
1000 L’ Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland Norse Abandoned
1520s Cape Breton Island,
Nova Scotia
Portuguese
Abandoned
1535
Stadacona, Quebec
French Abandoned after first winter; many colonists died of scurvy
1541 Cap Rouge, Quebec French Abandoned
1550s Red Bay, Labrador Basque Whaling stations abandoned as whale stocks declined
1564 Fort Caroline, Florida French Attacked by Spanish
1565
St. Augustine, Florida
Spanish Sustained
1585 Roanoke Island, North Carolina English Abandoned
1598 Sable Island, Nova Scotia French Abandoned after a few years
1604 St. Croix Island, Maine French After terrible winter, moved to Port Royal
1605 Port Royal, Nova Scotia French Attacked and destroyed by English in 1613
1607 Jamestown, Virginia English Sustained
1608 Quebec City, Quebec French Sustained
1610 Cupids, Newfoundland English Sustained
1614 Manhattan (Nieuw Nederlandt), New York Dutch Sustained
1620 Plymouth, Massachusetts English Sustained

Meeting of Two Worlds

When the French newcomers arrived at St. Croix Island they encountered the Wapaponiyik First Peoples. This was very much a meeting of two worlds--with each group looking at the other through a unique, and very different, cultural lens. The friendly relations between the First Peoples and the St. Croix Island settlers proved key to the ultimate survival of the colony.

The Wapaponiyik (The People of the Early Dawn)

When the French settlers arrived at St. Croix Island, the area had been inhabited by the First Peoples for thousands of years. Four distinct groups of people lived—and still live—in the region: the Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet, and Penobscot. They spoke separate dialects of a common Algonquian language and shared many cultural similarities. They are known collectively as The Wapaponiyik (much the same way English, Irish and Scottish peoples are called British).

St. Croix Island itself, as well as its immediate surroundings, was home to the Passamaquoddy, or people of the Pollock. Sea mammal hunters and fishermen, they lived in small settlements during the winter and large villages in summer. Together they hunted for seals, porpoise, and fish, gathered roots and wild grapes, and made sugar from the maple trees along the shores of Passamaquoddy Bay. Passamaquoddy technology included birch bark homes, canoes, and containers, as well as the snowshoe and toboggan. Education was informal, with children learning the necessary skills by example. Girls and boys were often skilled at maneuvering a canoe by age ten. Passamaquoddy leaders, or sachems, were chosen for their hunting skills and relationship with the supernatural powers. A rich storytelling tradition included tales of the hero and transformer, Kuloskap, as well as other mythological characters representing different aspects of human existence. The Passamaquoddy, like other First Peoples, possessed a well-developed spiritual life based on the unity of all natural phenomena.

The French

The France that the St. Croix settlers left behind in the early 17th century was still largely an agrarian nation, although Paris, with a population of 300,000, was the largest city in Europe. The country as a whole had a population of 20 million. It was a feudal society, with stark contrasts between the rich and poor. The French state itself was almost bankrupt, after years of war with Italy, Spain, and England.

Under the leadership of Henri IV, France had recently emerged from a prolonged period of religious warfare and civil strife, as Catholic and Protestant (Huguenot) forces had fought for control. In 1594, Henri had converted to Catholicism to keep the peace and assume the throne. In 1598, the Edict of Nantes had guaranteed religious tolerance for the Huguenots, a fact of some importance to the St. Croix expedition since a number of its participants, including its leader, Sieur de Mons, were Huguenots.

Last updated: August 15, 2021