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Salt River Bay National Historical Park
and Ecological Preserve
St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Witness to every period of human settlement in St. Croix, the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve is one of the most important archeological and natural sites in the U.S Virgin Islands. Beginning in 1880, archeological finds in Salt River Bay revealed insights into the lives and traditions of aboriginal peoples and the overall impact of the Spanish, English, Dutch, French, and Danes on the history of St. Croix. Today, Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve helps preserve the history and heritage of three pre-Colombian cultures, their encounters with the Spanish, and the history of the European peoples who colonized the Virgin Islands in the race to conquer the New World. The Columbus Landing Site at Salt River Bay is the only known place where members of Christopher Columbus' Spanish expedition set foot on what is now U.S. territory, and was the site of the first armed clash between Europeans and American natives.
The Igneri people settled in St. Croix 2,000 years ago. Believed to have descended from the Arawak Indians who migrated from South America to the Virgin Islands in 100 AD, the Igneri were the first of three pottery-making peoples living at Salt River Bay. In addition to their pottery making abilities, the Igneri were also skilled farmers and fishermen who built large canoes that could carry up to 100 people. The Igneri of the Salt River Bay dominated St. Croix until a second wave of Arawak Indians from South America migrated to the region in 700 AD and began to absorb their society gradually.
Known for developing a universal language, the Taino Indians were the second of the three pottery-making societies who lived at Salt River Bay. Although they were a more advanced society than the Igneri, the Taino were also a subgroup of the Arawak Indians and shared similar traits. Both the Igneri and the Taino were skilled in agriculture, fishing, and canoe making and navigation. They grew cotton, harvested cassava, and hunted small animals. The Taino men and single women traditionally painted their bodies for warfare and ceremonies. They did not wear clothes, except for married women who wore small skirts of woven cotton. Both cultures believed in a powerful spiritual presence at Salt River Bay and worshiped similar, if not the same, gods.
According to their religious beliefs, a hierarchy of gods controlled the skies. They worshiped Yocahu, the supreme creator, and believed in good and bad spirits called Zemis and Maboyas. To ward off evil spirits and protect them from disease, hurricanes, and war, they wore clay figurines around their necks that represented the Zemis, and performed sacrifices to please the Maboyas who, if angered, could destroy their crops. The Taino performed these ceremonies in a Ceremonial Ball Court or batey, which was a playing field lined with upright stones that the Taino carved with symbols. The ceremony consisted of playing a ball game, where opposing teams moved a rubber ball through the air to the other goal using their heads, shoulders, arms, and hips, but not their feet or hands. The Taino Ball Court of Salt River Bay that archeologists unearthed in 1923 is the only one known to exist in the Virgin Islands.
The Taino also established a political hierarchy of chieftaincies. They had three social classes: the naborias or working class, the nitainos or noblemen that included priests, and at the top of the political structure the caciques or chiefs. During the ceremonial ball game, the caciques traditionally sat at the head of the court on low wooden or stone seats known as duhos, which many Amazonian tribes continue to use today to demonstrate a person’s authority over a village. Like the Igneri, the Tainos’ rule did not last. In 1425, after the third wave of Arawak Indians migrated to Salt River Bay, the Taino chiefs lost control of their village in St. Croix.
The Carib or Kalina people were the last of the three pottery-making societies and the most notorious South American Indian tribe to settle in St. Croix. Following their arrival, the Carib enslaved the Taino and replaced their hierarchy of chiefdoms with the Carib’s political structure. Unlike the Taino whose caciques’ inherited their position, the Carib defined their political leadership by electing those who proved themselves worthy in warfare. Like the Igneri and Taino, the Carib were skilled farmers, fishermen, sailors, and canoe makers. They also expressed their religious beliefs through carved objects, similar to those crafted by the Taino to ward off evil spirits. Both cultures practiced cannibalism, which made them infamous among the colonizing European powers.
Upon landing at Salt River Bay on November 14, 1493, Columbus sent his longboat to explore the village where the Carib and enslaved Taino lived. Columbus’ men obtained fresh water and food to bring back to the flagship, but upon their return, the men encountered several Caribs in a canoe with bows and arrows ready to attack the Spanish who had liberated some Taino slaves. Following the attack, Columbus named the site of the skirmish “Cape of the Arrows.” This event would become the first documented armed resistance by natives to the European colonization of their lands. In 1512, the Spanish issued a royal decree that led to the massacre of all Caribs who resisted the Europeans. By 1590, whether because of the royal decree or the European diseases that contributed to their depopulation, the Carib permanently abandoned St. Croix.
The English gained control from the Spanish in 1641, and immediately began to build a triangular shaped fort. They had to halt construction in 1642, when the Dutch forced them off the island. That same year, the Dutch completed Fort Flamand, later called Sale (Salt), the only structure that remains today from the colonial period. The French took over in 1650. Five years later, the Knights of Malta established the main settlement on Salt River Bay’s western shore, where part of the Igneri, Taino, and Carib villages once stood. In 1665, the French returned, but the Danes replaced them in 1733. During Denmark’s rule, St. Croix became a major sugar-producing island and remained under Danish rule until the United States took possession of the islands in 1917.
Begin a visit to Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve at the visitor center. An exhibit of Igneri, Taino, and Carib religious charms and other artifacts archeologists discovered at Salt River Bay tells the story of the Virgin Islands' aboriginal peoples and demonstrates their advanced carving and pottery-making skills. Scuba diving, snorkeling, kayaking, and hiking are also popular. On days when the visitor center is closed, tourists can obtain information at Christiansted National Historic Site, where park staff may be available for scheduled tours of Salt River Bay.