Symposium Speakers Survey a Wide Swath of Crucian History, Culture and Nature

July 19, 2007 — Archaeologists, biologist, park rangers and historians spoke about Taino archeology at Salt River, the history of the Estate Bethlehem sugar factory, coral bleaching and preserving the St. Croix Lizard at a symposium held by the V.I. National Guard Thursday at UVI’s Great Hall.
Estate Bethlehem, the audience learned, was a very old community before the sugar mill came.
“We found probably 100 house posts during our survey,” said David Hayes, an archaeologist with the St. Croix Archaeological Society. “These are from old, handmade houses. When Africans were first brought here, they built themselves wattle-and-daub structures to live in, a traditional housing form found all around the world. They buried the posts into the ground, where we are finding their remains today.”
Many graves were also found.
“All these rectangles you see are graves,” Hayes said, pointing to a map projected onto the wall during his PowerPoint display. “As you can see, there are a lot of them.” The graves were first discovered during initial excavations by the National Guard to build a helicopter landing pad, Hayes said. The graves are those of enslaved and free blacks.
Major Clifford Crooke of the V.I. National Guard said the graves are “treated as a sacred site within our compound.”
While most of the buildings at Estate Bethlehem are relatively newer sugar-mill buildings, two 18th Century buildings still stand.
“Look at the brick work here,” Hayes said, displaying a photo. “Remember, these finely done European-style 18th Century structures were built either by slave labor or free black tradesmen, not by Europeans.”
Sugar was a rich business at the end of the 18th century, Hayes said.
“Not as rich as 100 years earlier,” he said. “But still very lucrative. … St. Croix or Santa Cruz sugar was particularly prized. There is a statement in historic records: ‘As English merchants, we prefer to ship from Santa Cruz with Danish merchants.’ Records are inaccurate. Going by the official records, in one year, 1804, the sugar crop tripled. I’d like to see that in the real world.”
Hayes touched on more recent history, too.
“If you look at this brick, it says ‘Ortiz’ on it,” Hayes said. “The Ortiz family owned the house that once stood there. We know they extensively modernized it by 1965. But a year later, the federal government forced everyone off the land. Many of the former homeowners wound up in the territory’s first housing projects.”
Kendall Petersen of Farmers in Action spoke briefly about that organization’s work to restore parts of the property and its importance to the history of St. Croix.
“My grandfather and mother were born on that property,” Petersen said. “St. Croix’s history is not just Whim plantation. … To us, Bethlehem is a treasure because of our families and our history.”
Petersen asked the archaeologists to sit down with his group and advise them on how to proceed. He envisions a museum on the site at some point.
Park Ranger Zandy Hillis-Starr spoke about St. Croix’s parks and environmental resources.
“Buck Island is the first and only fully protected marine area in the national park system,” she said. “Over 50,000 tourists visit the park every year. … The coral reef you see there now began growing eight to ten thousand years ago.”
Prolonged warm water damages the coral reef through coral bleaching, Hillis-Starr explained.
“Coral is actually a symbiote between the coral polyps and certain algae,” she said. “When you see red and purple coral, that color comes from the algae. If the water is too warm for too long, the coral tries to cool itself by expelling out the algae, whose metabolism adds to the local heat. Doing that turns the coral bright white, showing it is under stress. If the water continues to stay too warm, the coral begins to die off.”
She wants to spread the message of St. Croix’s unique resources.
“We already have three national parks, and there are two feasibility studies going on right now. One is at Castle Nugent Farms, preserving ruins and the history of the development of Senepol cattle. The other, in Estate La Grange, is for a memorial to Alexander Hamilton. There is presently no national monument to the first secretary of the Treasury. Finally, Delegate Donna M. Christensen has a bill before Congress to look at designating the whole of St. Croix as a heritage destination.”
Meredith D. Hardy, an archaeologist with the National Park Service, talked about the big island’s earliest inhabitants, showing slides and displaying ancient pottery shards found on St. Croix.
“The oldest settlements on St. Croix that we know about date to around 400 B.C.,” Hardy said. “This was what we call the Saladoid period. At first, they had very fine, well-painted pottery. Later pottery from the same peoples is cruder and of lower quality.”
The Taino came later, Hardy said, and with them more ornate, highly decorated pieces appear again.
The Taino left behind ball courts lined with ornately decorated stone pieces. Salt River is home to one of these culturally unique ball courts. The stones that once lined the Salt River ball court are in Denmark. The Danes will not let these or other archaeological finds return to the territory until there is a secure, hurricane-proof repository or museum to house them, she said.
One woman brought in her own piece of pottery that a student found on the ground on the South Shore. “It’s what they call an owl bowl, because it bears the face of an owl,” Hardy said, identifying the piece. “It is probably 1,200 to 1,600 years old.”
The National Guard held the symposium to promote public awareness of St. Croix’s culture, history and archaeological and natural resources.
Back Talk Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email