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Cultural Contributions to the Island of St. John, United States Virgin Islands; Underwater Historical Archaeology at Cruz Bay

Carmen M. Marquez
Thesis: May 1995
Chair: van Doorninck
Nautical Archaeology Program

The United States Virgin Islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John, in the Lesser Antilles, were discovered by Christopher Columbus in November, 1493, on his second voyage. The islands were not revisited by the Spanish for over 57 years.

During the seventeenth century, the French, English and Dutch contested the Virgin Islands, realizing their strategic and commercial importance, and Denmark attempted to settle St. Thomas in 1672. The first permanent Danish colony was established in 1717 at Coral Bay on the eastern side of St. John.

Coral Bay was the principal port of St. John until 1733, when a major slave insurrection occurred, and the population moved west toward Cruz Bay, a primary anchorage for interisland and transoceanic vessels during the 18th and 19th centuries. After St. John became a free port in 1764, ships of various nations periodically called at Cruz Bay to trade with the sugar and cotton plantations.

The area studied was the navigational channel of Cruz Bay, especially the shallower area, where the historical wharf structures were assumed to be located. Permission to work underwater was granted for a period of not more than three weeks. The plan for archaeological data collection involved a reconnaissance, which consisted of a magnetometer survey and visual inspection, and a site examination phase, which consisted of subsurface probing and trenching excavation.

A systematic effort was made to find the remains of the historical wharf structure, but it could not be located. Two trenches were excavated. Glass bottles, ceramic pipes and plates were found in the bottom-most cultural stratum uncovered. The majority of the artifacts seem to be of English origin from the 18th and 19th centuries, which tends to indicate that Cruz Bay went through an economic transition during the 19th century from a practically abandoned bay to a small, principal port of St. John. Although the island was under the direct control of Denmark, it seems to be that the English controlled its commerce and everyday life.

The study demonstrated that in heavily used bays and harbors of the Caribbean, archaeological data can still be found.

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