History of St. Croix Island Thrills WCCC Group

By Lura Jackson

 

National Park Services ranger Meg Scheid holds up the French flag of the sixteenth century during a presentation at Washington County Community College. The only permanent ranger of the St. Croix Island site, Scheid is an enthusiastic promoter of its history. (Photo by Lura Jackson).

Students and staff of Washington County Community College enjoyed an informational and entertaining visit from local National Park Services ranger Meg Scheid on Thursday, February 11th. Scheid visited the college as part of the TRIO Lunch and Learn program in an effort to share in the centennial anniversary of the National Park Services (NPS) and to spread awareness of the St. Croix Island site. In honor of her visit, WCCC’s Culinary Arts class prepared one hundred arrow-head shaped cookies for guests to enjoy. 

Scheid welcomed the group of approximately twenty for coming “to learn about something in your backyard that not many people know about.” Scheid described herself as a slow-starter in terms of interest in national parks due to her parents never taking her to one as a child. When she came to Maine and visited her first park, she immediately felt at home. “I found myself in national parks,” Scheid said, adding how the elements of teaching, learning, and being outdoors resounded profoundly for her.

As the only international historic park in North America, the St. Croix Island site offered Scheid the opportunity to do exactly that. The site overlooks the island that was the home of a group of French settlers during the winter of 1604-05, and Native Americans long before that. As the first and only permanent ranger at the St. Croix Island Park, Scheid remembers well the park’s condition upon her arrival around its four-hundred year anniversary. Since the site was unsupervised and the gate—leading to a single toilet and plaque—was always open, the park was a refuge for itinerant people. As a result, it was filled with needles, broken bottles, and other refuse, making it a very unwelcome place.

Now, just over a decade later, the park has been transformed. It features a full visitor’s information center complete with artifacts, maps, and images, several outdoor informational panels, a model of the settlement in its entirety, and six larger-than-life bronze statues depicting settlers on the island as well as the Wabanaki that saved their lives in the spring. “We care for special places saved by the American people so that all may experience our heritage,” Scheid said of the mission of the NPS, reflected in its commitment to the site.

Pointing out that the French settlement was not the first European settlement in North America, Scheid said it retains significance for being the first foothold of the French in the land they called Acadia. She described the experience of the 120 men that accompanied Pierre Dugua for that fateful trip, gathered in part from Samuel de Champlain’s journal.

“They arrived on June 26th in 1604. It was a beautiful day. Birds were singing! Fish were jumping! The beauty was phenomenal,” Scheid said. The island itself was perfectly located to defend against British naval encroachment from the south. In addition, it gave the French the opportunity to open diplomatic channels with the Passamaquoddy rather than settling directly on their lands.

The first few months at the settlement were pleasant and industrious, and several dozen men that had accompanied the settlers to construct buildings and ensure their safety returned home. Trouble soon arrived for the 79 remaining men in the form of a particularly ferocious winter. The first snows began on October 6th, before the storehouse was even completed. By December, ice cakes were appearing in the river. Ice floes would come in at the top of the 26-foot tides, dropping lower and lower as the water descended. At low tide, the floes would cement themselves to the sand, creating a layered effect with the floes arriving with the next tide. “By January, they were trapped,” Scheid said.

Though the settlers had plenty of food in the form of salted meats, bread and vegetables, they lacked hydration. Once trapped, the only water they had to drink was from melted snow, but firewood was in low supply. Chunks of frozen apple cider were distributed as a daily ration, though hypothermia made the concept thoroughly unappealing. “Imagine being so cold and so weak and getting a chunk of cider for your daily ration,” Scheid illuminated. 

The men began getting sick, leaving the physician they’d brought with them stumped. They developed weakness in their joints, and small marks resembling bites appeared all over their arms. As the illness progressed, their gums began to rot, enabling teeth to be pulled out using nothing but one’s fingers. Champlain described the smell of putrefaction in thorough detail.

By February, 35 men had died. 20 more were on their death beds, and few held any hope for recovery. However, somehow, a group of Native Americans reached the island in March, bringing with them fresh game. “The fresh meat revived them,” Scheid said, explaining that it was a hundred years later that scientists learned that the settlers were suffering from scurvy.

Once the ice cleared, Dugua took a vote amongst the remaining men. It was decided that all of the buildings of the site would be moved to a location they’d seen on their way in—what would later become Nova Scotia. “Many Acadians feel that St. Croix was their introduction to the New World,” Scheid said.

“The French weren’t the only ones that died during this time period,” Scheid added. Between the years of 1616-19, as more settlers arrived, approximately 75 percent of the Wabanaki perished due to sickness during a time known as the Great Dying.  

“The site at St. Croix Island is really the story of the meeting of two worlds,” she said. The site is developed in conjunction with input from Passamaquoddy Tribal Historian Donald Soctomah, and it recently integrated the Passamaquoddy language into its interpretive panels. “Our job is to tell the story from both sides.”

 

The story of the island is one that continues to develop as a result of climate change. Scheid said that the entire site is threatened by erosion due to rising water levels and storm surge. A three-day workshop to be held at the college is planned for the summertime, with experts in multiple fields adding their input on how to preserve the historical remnants of the settlement and the aboriginal ones that came before it.