The Salt River Basin In Prehistoric Times
The prehistoric complex at Salt River, is one of the most important archaeological sites in the Virgin Islands. It has been the focus of every major archaeological investigation on St. Croix since 1880:
Through artifact evidence and/or early historical accounts, we know that the area was inhabited by all three major pottery-making cultures found in the Virgin Islands in prehistoric times (Igneri, AD 50-650; TAINO, 650-1450; and Kalina or Carib, AD 1425-1590). There is good reason to believe that the Salt River site was a major religious and cultural center as well as a long lived permanent settlement. The only Tainan ceremonial ball court or plaza (Batey) found so far in the Lesser Antilles was excavated there by a Danish archaeologist,
The last, and the most notorious, of the Native American cultures to inhabited St. Croix was the Carib. Originating in the Guiana / Orinoco region of South America, the Caribs had wrested control of St. Croix from the Tainos ca. AD 1425. It would be the westernmost limit of Carib control in the Antilles. The male-dominated Carib social order was in one sense more egalitarian than the Taino, since their chiefs were not hereditary but were elected on the basis of leadership or prowess in warfare. Irregular (guerilla) warfare for the purpose of obtaining captives and certain natural resources was an important facet of the Carib culture.
Women, unlike male preoccupations with warfare and hunting, usually performed domestic chores and engaged in agricultural cultivation. Although the Spanish linked the Carib name infamously and forever with the practice of cannibalism, it should be noted that the hereditary TAINO aristocracy also engaged in that ritual practice. Furthermore, different cultural perceptions are worth noting. The Carib name, Kalina, implied that they alone were “people” or “human”. To the Caribs, therefore, it is possible that the ritual eating of flesh of “non-people” had an entirely different meaning than the great offense it gave to Europeans.
On November 14, 1493, on his second voyage to the New World,
The Colonial Era
Sixteen years after
A few months later,
Renewed Carib resistance to Spanish imperialism culminated in their active participation in the general TANIO uprising on Puerto Rico in 1511. For these efforts, the Spanish Crown decreed that Caribs of St. Croix – the term, “CARIB” was soon interpreted to include all recalcitrant Native Americans – were to be done away with. Thus, a series of tragic events which began on St. Croix in 1493 served as the pretext for the “legalized” extermination of thousands of Native American peoples in the Antilles. In the face of ongoing military pressure from the Spanish in Puerto Rico, the Caribs permanently abandoned St. Croix by 1590.
The European Presence at Salt River
Salt River was the focal point of several attempts to colonize St. Croix in the mid-1600s. The frequent change of ownership by force of arms was typical of the European struggles for dominance in the New World, in which the West Indies was regarded as pivotal: the English, 1641; the Dutch, 1642-45; the English again, 1645-50; the French, 1650-96, with the French Chapter of the Knights of Malta 1655 -1665. The settlement there, small and primitive, was built over part of the prehistoric site and extended along the western shore of the bay. It served a system of fledgling plantations growing cotton, indigo, tobacco, sugar, and a variety of food staples.
The only surviving structural evidence of this turbulent period in Virgin Islands history is the triangular earthwork fortification at Salt River begun by the Dutch the following year. The French referred to it initially as Fort Flamand (“the Flemish Fort”) and later as Fort Sale. This feature is the only one of its type, dating from this period, that has survived in the West Indies, and possibly in North America. After the mid-1660s, the village at Salt River was relocated to another harbor on the northeast coast of St. Croix known as Bassin, later to become the town of Christiansted under the Danes in 1735.
From the Mid-1700s to the early 1870s, the Salt River area continued to play an important role in the agricultural economy of St. Croix. When surrounding sugar plantations used the bay as an “unofficial” port for the shipment of sugar, rum, and molasses, the Danish West Indian government deemed it necessary to build a small gun battery and a custom house along the west shore of the bay in the 1780s in order to control smuggling. Agriculture in the area effectively ended by the 1870s.