Jan 21, 2006 – A conference of historians isn't something one would imagine drawing a large crowd, but the 18th Annual Conference of the Society of V.I. Historians drew more than 100 people to the University of the Virgin Islands on Saturday morning.
The draw also may have been the subject of the discussion — Salt River Bay. The five speakers in the program took a look toward the future of the Salt River area as well as its past.
Wilfredo Geigel, an attorney and historian, could not dampen all the enthusiasm even when he answered the question in his talk titled, "Is Salt River Columbus' Landing Site on St. Croix?" with a "no." He posits that the beach near Frederiksted was the actual site where Columbus landed on his second voyage to the New World. He said the fact that Columbus had 17 ships made Salt River a bad landing spot. He said Columbus would have sought a more protected landing where seas are generally calmer.
John Farchette, vice president of the St. Croix Archaeological Society, disagreed with Geigel. Farchette said one of the four men who accompanied Columbus and chronicled the trip wrote that as the ships were leaving St. Croix, they saw many small islands to the north. You can't see the other Virgin Islands from the west coast of St. Croix, but you can see them from Salt River.
Geigel said what Farchette is referring to could have been written after Columbus ships were out to sea.
Geigel also disagrees with the common lore of the landing. This lore has Columbus' men coming to shore at Salt River and meeting Taino people who were slaves of Carib Indians. Columbus' men put the Tainos in their skiff and started heading back to their ship when they were spotted by the Caribs, who then pursued them in canoes. In the ensuing skirmish a Spaniard and a couple Indians were killed in the first violent confrontation between members of the Old World and those of the New World.
Geigel's version is that Columbus was off the beach on the west end and saw a canoe. He wanted translators so he had the canoe rammed and sunk. A skirmish ensued and one Spaniard killed. He goes on to say that an Indian woman was captured and the first rape of a New World Indian occurred.
On the brighter side was the discussion by Dr. Janne Jorgensen Liburd, a historian at Southern Denmark University. In her speech on "Sustainable Tourism, Contested Heritage and National Park Development in the Salt River National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve of St. Croix," she gave pointers about how to make it all come together on St. Croix. She emphasized that the colonial experience of the islands should not always been seen negatively as "them versus us." She said it should be accepted for what it was – an experience in the past.
In an interview she mentioned that discussions were going on in Denmark about returning artifacts that are in Danish museums to the Virgin Islands. She said the V.I. government would have to guarantee that they could be housed securely.
Salt River is the site of what was a Taino ball court. The artifacts from that ball court are in Copenhagen.
"This Transfer Day coming up is the ninetieth," Jorgensen Liburd said. "What a wonderful birthday present to the Virgin Island would be some of those artifacts."
Bryan Updyke, who with his wife Jill runs Virgin Kayak and Canoe Outfitters and has been very active in the cleanup of Salt River, said he is interested in making replicas of the ball court wall. He is skilled at making replicas of early Indian artifacts. Virgin Kayak recently had Carib Indians make a canoe of the type the Indians would have been using around Columbus' time. The canoe is docked at Salt River.
In closing remarks, Joel Tutein, superintendent of the National Parks on St. Croix, gave credit for much that has been happening at Salt River to Sen. Lorraine Berry.
"She has forged a relationship between the National Parks and the community that the National Parks had been seeking for years," he said.
Berry said she had formed a task force to get things moving at Salt River after hearing from cruise officials that St. Croix needed something to call attention to itself to become a regular port of call for cruise ships again.
She said in the last year the task force has been able to remove a trash bin from the area, remove abandoned vehicles, have signs designed and obtain funds to remove half sunk ships from the bay.
The Salt River Park area is being co-managed by the National Park and the V.I. government. The National Park Service last week opened a visitor center on the hill overlooking the bay.
Other speakers Saturday were:
– Meredith Hardy, National Park Service archaeologist, "Archaeology and Prehistory at Salt River."
– Dr. Eric Klingelhofer, historian at Mercer University, "Salt River in Historical Times."
– Dr. David Edgell, professor at East Carolina University, "The U.S. Virgin Islands Newest Sustainable Tourism Product: St. Croix-Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve."
Books by the historians were on sale during the event. Also on sale was a book recently released called Island Peak to Coral Reef, published through the cooperation of several St. Croix organizations. Eva Maddox, science librarian at UVI and one of the book editors, was representing the editors and writers at this first public appearance of the field guide to the plant and marine communities of the Virgin Islands.
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