May 31, 2008 — After spending three months deep in the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen, two Danish graduate students have spent the last two weeks deep in the environs of Hassel Island, putting their academic research to the test by digging with their bare hands.
The St. Thomas-St. John Friends of Denmark and the St. Thomas Historical Society hosted a discussion by Vibe Maria Martens and Andreas Latif on their discoveries in the past two weeks of digging on Hassel Island.
The local research was done under the auspices of the University of Copenhagen, the V.I. National Park Service and Friends of the V.I. National Park. The students spoke before a gathering of the St. Thomas-St. John Friends of Denmark and the St. Thomas Historical Trust at the Holiday Inn Windward Passage Hotel Friday evening.
"Our goal was to uncover who lived and owned land on Hassel Island from the earliest possible time, 1688, until the British invasion in 1801," Martens said. "We went through maps trying to see where the houses were. We knew there were houses, but we weren't quite sure where they were."
Hassel Island was an atypical farming community, Martens said, "because the soil was too low in quality to grow crops like sugar and cotton, which were grown on St. Thomas, itself. Consequently, slave labor is shown to be almost non-existent for many years."
Latif said, with a knowing smile, that the research can be a "dangerous process, because you want to take what you have read, and make it fit what you have found, put it together so it fits."
John Hatch, possibly English or Irish descent, owned property from 1703, Latif said. "We think he may have been an innkeeper on St. Thomas at the time. Many people owned land on the island, but made their living in Charlotte Amalie," Latif said.
The island's history revealed a cross-section of human nature, not all of it admirable. During this time period, slaves, called saltwater slaves, came to the Charlotte Amalie shores in the transatlantic slave trade, typically arriving half-dead and suffering from malnutrition and injuries. One enterprising Hassel Island property owner, the students discovered, took them in, nursed them back to health for six months or so, and sold them.
The two detectives came across a mysterious double-murder. It turns out that Magens Bay was named for a murder victime. "Jacob Magens Sr., and his wife were found 'murdered in a most horrible way,' according to a document we found," Martens said. "Speculation at the time blamed the murder on Puerto Ricans, but we think it possibly may have been their son, who wanted their property."
St. Thomas was a commercial hub of the Caribbean, the distributing center for goods from Europe or the U.S. destined to any of the islands or to the northern ports of South America. And Hassel Island protected the harbor.
Before the marine railway was built in the mid-1800's, careening hauling boats out of the water for cleaning and repair was the primary business on the island, Latif said."They would tie the bowsprit to a tree and haul the boat out." Hence the name Careening Cove, and the original name of Frenchtown, Carenage. The protected slipway called Careening Wharf was owned by the Hazzel family before being purchased by Henry Creque in 1910.
After digging for almost two weeks, "we came up with very little in the way of physical evidence," Latif said. "No native artifacts. Then, just when we thought we'd come up with nothing, at the 11th hour Ken's nephew, Justin, discovered pottery that must have been brought over from Europe." Ken Wilds is the NPS archeologist. "So we won't go home empty-handed."
Marten said, "We have no information at all about the cost of propert because there was no taxation then, so no tax records. In the research, it's all about money, not about personal histories."
The cultural resources division of the National Park maintains an ongoing archeological program with the University of Copenhagen, researching St. John as well as Hassel Island, where a restoration project continues. (See: "Hassel Island's Makeover Uncovers Historical Riches.")
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