Historical Context and Archaeology of the Saint Croix Island Settlement

The sociocultural developments that characterized the European Renaissance began in Italy during the fourteenth century and converged in the 1500s to provide Dugua and Champlain with the political opportunities and technological advances to establish their short-lived settlement at Saint Croix Island (Jardine 1996; Knecht 2001; Salmon 1987). By 1604, when they sailed for the New World, fishing fleets from

France, Spain, and other European countries had been making regular visits to the east coast of North America for more than a century. Although fishing was the primary focus of these voyages, an unorganized trade in furs also arose during this period. Beginning in the early 1500s, French ships regularly visited the coast and inland waterways of modern-day Canada and New England. French colonies were established intermittently throughout the sixteenth century but it was the three voyages of Jacques Cartier (1491-1557) between 1534 and 1542 that most firmly established France’s claim to modern-day Canada (Biggar 1911; Cartier 1924 [1545]). In 1535, Cartier led the first recorded exploration into the interior of Canada through the St. Lawrence River gateway. He and his crew spent the winter of 1535-1536 near modern-day Quebec City where many of the men died from exposure and scurvy. Over the next 60 years, French attempts at colonization were sporadic, with only small trading posts lasting more than several years.

Near the end of the sixteenth century, King Henri IV began to persuade various gentlemen and merchants to establish colonies in Canada in return for official monopolies in the fur trade. Among them was Pierre Dugua, Sieur de Mons, who was granted the royal fur monopoly in 1603. He led his first expedition to New France in 1604 and with Samuel de Champlain as his cartographer built the small settlement at Saint Croix Island in the middle of the Saint Croix River, primarily for defensive purposes. This was Champlain’s third expedition to the New World. He and Dugua’s fleet of five ships left Havre de Grace in March and reached Saint Croix Island on June 25. There the settlers erected about 20 timber buildings and log huts including a chapel and dwellings for a priest, a minister, two surgeons, numerous artisans and workmen, “Swiss soldiers,” and at least ten noblemen (Champlain 1922 [1613]; Lescarbot 1911 [1609]). The ships sailed for France at the end of the summer, leaving 79 men including Dugua and Champlain to brave the oncoming winter. The complement was unprepared for the severe weather that began with the first snow in October.[1] In his report on the events of their time at Saint Croix Island, Champlain (1922 [1613]) wrote:

During this winter our beverages all froze except the Spanish wine. Cider was given out by the pound.. .We were obliged to make use of very bad water and to drink melted snow, since we had neither springs nor brooks; for it was not possible to go to the mainland on account of the great cakes of ice carried by the ebb and flow of the tide.most of us, having poor quarters and suffering from shortage of fuel which we could not procure on account of the ice, had almost no strength; and, again, we ate only salt meat and vegetables during the winter, which produced poor blood. Such in my opinion was in part the cause of these unfortunate maladies [including scurbut] (pp. 306-307).

Champlain later wrote that 35 of the 79 colonists had died during the winter; Marc Lescarbot noted that it was 36 men. They were all presumably buried in the cemetery that Champlain depicted in his plan of the colony published in his 1613 book Les Voyages. The company’s ships returned to relieve the survivors on

June 15, 1605. Later that summer Dugua ordered the settlement dismantled and moved to the opposite side of the Bay of Fundy, establishing a colony at Port Royal (now Annapolis Royal) on the western coast of Nova Scotia that later served as the capital of Acadia until 1710. Due to the failures in effectively colonizing New France under the monopoly system, Dugua lost his royal grant in 1608 but continued to finance trade expeditions until 1622, the most noteworthy of which was Quebec City founded by Champlain in 1608.

Archaeological excavations conducted in the 1950s for the US National Park Service revealed the location of the cemetery that Champlain had included in his drawing of the Saint Croix Island settlement (Hadlock 1950; Harrington and Hadlock 1951). More extensive excavations in 1969 identified 23 individuals in the cemetery (Gruber 1970, n.d.) . With no physical anthropologist assisting them in the field, Gruber’s team exposed but overlooked Burial 10’s autopsied cranium. The best- preserved bones and teeth were transported to Temple University in Philadelphia where over 20 years later Crist (1998) documented lesions indicative of vitamin C deficiency among the crania, mandibles, and long bones. Excavations in 2003 to re-inter the remains in their original graves revealed two additional burials and provided the opportunity for an American-Canadian team of bioarchaeologists to systematically examine all of the individuals’ skeletons (Crist et al. 2012; Crist and Sorg 2014; S.R. Pendery 2012). Although Champlain had recorded 35 deaths at the settlement, the graves of the other 10 men had been lost to subsequent ground disturbance and erosion of the island’s shoreline. It was during the re-excavation of Burial 10’s grave in 2003 that his autopsied cranium was identified and documented.

  • [1] The severity of the winter was exacerbated compared to modern times by what has been termedthe “Little Ice Age,” a period of colder than average temperatures, and longer than average winters(Grove 2001).
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