Maine: Saint Croix Island International Historic Site

Bronze statue of Pierre Dugua along the interpretive trail
Bronze statue of Pierre Dugua along the interpretive trail

Courtesy of the National Park Service, Meg Scheid

In April 1604, departing from the European society they knew so well, a group of 120 noblemen, artisans, and soldiers cast backward glances at Havre-de Grace, France as they set sail to cross the Atlantic. With their leader Pierre Dugua, sieur de Mons, they embarked on this voyage to seek new adventures, profits, and settlements in a part of the world completely unknown to them. Upon reaching North America or the “New World" as they called it, Dugua and his company established a settlement on an island they called “Saint Croix.” Today, Saint Croix Island International Historic Site in Maine on the United States/Canada border preserves the stories, history, and legacy of this significant expedition and settlement, the beginning of the French presence in North America. 

In 1603, King Henry IV gave Pierre Dugua the title Lieutenant-General of “New France.” He granted Dugua exclusive trading rights between the 40th and 46th parallels and a ten-year exclusive right to the fur trade. In return for this monopoly on the fur trade, Dugua was “to establish the name, power, and authority of the King of France; to summon the natives to a knowledge of the Christian religion; to people, cultivate, and settle the said lands; and to make explorations -- especially to seek out mines of precious metals.” Some of the main goals of Dugua's expedition were to claim areas of land for France, to find a water route to China, and to generate great profits through trade.

By June 1604, the expedition's five ships sailed into Passamaquoddy Bay. The Frenchmen settled on a small island just downstream of the confluence of two rivers and the bay. They named the island Saint Croix because the confluence of the surrounding water systems looked akin to the shape of a cross, thus “Isle Ste-Croix” (Croix is French for cross). The Frenchmen chose this location for its abundance of natural resources. The bounty included great quantities of fresh fish, clams, mussels, sea-urchins, and snails. Fir, birch, maple, and oak trees provided the settlers with lumber, while local tribes traded the newcomers fresh meat and furs in return for their European tools and goods. Those on the expedition also felt that this location would be easily defensible against any attacks from other foreign powers. 

By the summer of 1604, Dugua and Samuel Champlain (the famous cartographer was also on this expedition), had drawn plans for the settlement on Saint Croix Island. With the natural resources of the surrounding area and with the supplies, bricks, and pre-fabricated frame buildings they brought with them from France, the Frenchmen built fortifications, a storehouse, a public building, multiple dwellings, an oven, a hand mill, a blacksmith shop, a well, a kitchen, and gardens on both the island and mainland. While Dugua’s men had expertise in exploration, farming, medicine, religion, and mining, no one was prepared for the harsh reality of spending winter on an island in the middle of a river.

As the summer months passed and autumn arrived, the ships from the expedition returned to France to tend to business. Seventy-nine men remained on Saint Croix Island. The plan was for the ships to return in the spring with additional men and supplies. Dugua then sent Champlain, two Native American guides, and others to explore, trade, and map westward along the coast. The maps Champlain created on this expedition are extremely significant because not only do they indicate many landmarks of the area, but they also identify many of the different Native American groups living along the New England and eastern Canadian coast in the early 17th century. As autumn passed and the chill air of winter set in on Saint Croix Island, Dugua and his men faced great difficulties. 

Large pieces of ice floated through the river, cutting the settlers off from the mainland and any supplies. Over three feet of snow covered the island from October to April. The island became a natural prison. Cut off from fresh water, game, and the wood on the mainland needed to fuel their fires, the settlers’ diets became very poor, which made them susceptible to weakness and illness. Everything on the island except for the wine froze solid. Salted meats and vegetables were the only available food, and even the cider had to be carefully portioned. 

By February, the settlers’ health began to decay rapidly. Today, researchers agree that the men were likely suffering from scurvy due to a lack of vitamin C. Scurvy produces spots on the skin, bleeding from mucous membranes, severe pain in the limbs, and spongy gums. Thirty-five men ultimately died and were buried on the island during the trying winter, while 20 more came perilously close to the same fate.

By March of 1605, the local Passamaquoddy Indians could finally access the Frenchmen on Saint Croix Island bringing the survivors game in exchange for bread and other goods. By May, the settlers' health had nearly been restored. In June 1605, the French ships returned to the settlement bearing more supplies and more men. Having spent the harsh and disastrous winter on the island, Dugua resolved to move his settlement to a more reliable location.

In August 1605, after exploring as far south as Cape Cod, Dugua decided to move the settlement to Port Royal. The Port Royal settlement was far more successful than the one at Saint Croix. Its location in the Annapolis Valley protected the settlement from many natural elements and provided settlers with places to farm, fish, and gather wood without having to cross treacherous waters. The settlement’s success was also due to the experience Dugua and the settlers gained through their time on Saint Croix Island. The Saint Croix Island settlement marked the beginnings of a continuous French presence in North America.

To experience the legacy of Saint Croix Island, visitors at both the U.S. site and Parks Canada site can take self-guided interpretive walking tours. While visits to the actual island are not encouraged because of its fragile nature, both Parks Canada and the U.S. National Park Service provide visitors with high-quality exhibits and trails on the mainland park sites adjacent to the island.

Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located eight miles south of Calais, ME, on U.S. Route 1, and can be reached by either Route 9 from Bangor or U.S. Route 1, the coastal route from Portland and points south. The site is open daily from sunrise to sunset. For more information, visit the National Park Service Saint Croix Island International Historic Site’s website or call 207-288-3338. For information on Parks Canada’s Saint Croix Island International Historic Site, visit the Parks Canada website

The National Park Service Archeology Program features Saint Croix Island International Historic Site in an online presentation. The Saint Croix Island International Historic Site has also been documented by the Historic American Buildings Survey .

Last updated: August 23, 2017