St. Croix Island International Historic Site

Located in the center of the St. Croix River near its mouth at Passamaquoddy Bay and
close to St. Andrew’s by the Sea, New Brunswick and Calais, Maine


When Antoine Cadillac established his settlement on the Detroit River in 1701, he could capitalize upon almost one hundred years of French experience in North America.  That was very important to him.  Columbus arrived in the Caribbean in 1492 and returned to Spain.  Word quickly spread about his discovery and the western European nations quickly sent explorers west across the Atlantic.  It took some time for them to fully understand that Columbus had discovered America, not a quick route to the Orient.  Gradually, Europeans circumnavigated the globe and realized that there was a huge land mass we now know as South and North America that separated Europe from Asia.  Greek astronomers had determined the diameter and circumference for the earth but that information was not well known when Columbus sailed.  The Spanish were the first to establish settlements in the Americas.  They found valuable items including gold and silver.  The British, French and Dutch later tried to explore and establish colonies in the America but they had a very limited knowledge of the New World and faced great challenging just surviving.  Apparently, many of the early settlers believed there were rich veins of gold awaiting discovery.   The Indians who met the Europeans also encouraged that belief in hopes of keeping the newcomers around for trade.  And there were priests from the Catholic countries who sought to teach, civilize and convert the Indians.

Survival was a problem and the mortality rate among the early settlers was extremely high.  St. Croix Island Historic Site commemorates the first attempt of the French to establish a settlement in northern North America.  Previously, there had been French attempts to create settlements in present day Brazil and Florida.  Pierre Dugua was born in the Royan region of France about 1560.   Although a Huguenot, he strongly supported King Henry IV in the religious conflicts that raged throughout France in that era, conflict that led to the deaths of thousands of Protestants and the departure of even more.  For that support, Henry IV gave Dugua a title and a pension.  Dugua, at some point, decided that he wished to establish a French colony in North America presumably for financial reasons.  Alas, he lacked the money necessary for such an expensive endeavor.  Fortunately for Dugua, he married Judith Chesnel in 1596.  She was from a prosperous family and her dowry was sufficient to finance Dugua’s efforts.  Dugua made a trip to North American in 1599 and realized, I assume, that it was relatively straight-forward to trade European products to the Indians for furs that were very highly prized in France, especially for beaver fur that was the ne plus ultra for stylish Parisian hats.

On November 8, 1603, King Henry IV named Dugua Lieutenant General for the New World and granted him a monopoly on fur trading for the largely unexplored North American continent from the fortieth to the forty six latitudes.  Dugua carefully thought about what he needed to establish a settlement and set out from France in 1604 on the Bonne-Renommee with a group of 79 men.  This included artisans, craftsmen, a surgeon and both Catholic and Protestant clerics.   Interestingly, there was also an African Frenchman in their group and he may have been the first black to attempt to settle in North America.  They arrived in the New World, then called L’Arcadia by the French, in June, 1604.  After investigating several opportunities, they decided that the island pictured here would be a great site for their settlement.  Dugua named it St, Croix and used the same name for the river you see.  Frenchman had been trading European goods for furs for some decades so the Indians were not surprised by the new arrivals.  However, previous French fur traders had not established a permanent settlement.  They typically arrived from Europe in the spring and returned in the fall.  Dugua and those who came to St. Croix intended to stay.  Quite likely, they planned to regularly dispatch a ship with furs to go back and forth to France.  Fortunately, the cartographer that Dugua selected was Samuel de Champlain, a man who later explored extensively in the Great Lakes region.  Champlain wrote extensively about the experiences of those who sought to settle St. Croix and provided a day-by-day compilation of what happened on this small island.

Apparently the French successfully traded for furs during the summer of 1604.  Champlain early commentaries were very positive about how well the prospective colony was faring and how easy it was to obtain food.  However, when winter came, great problems arose.  The settlers apparently denuded the island so they had no wood supply and the way the river flowed made it very difficult or impossible for them to reach the mainland to catch much game.  Soon enough they had to survive on the salted meat and salted vegetables. Because of the absence of vegetables or fruits, scurvy broke out and, by December, men were dying.  Indeed, 35 of the 79 men died who arrived in June died in the rough winter of 1604-1605r.  Once spring came, the local Indians from the Passamaquoddy, Maliseet and Mi’kmaq tribes were able to provide the French with fresh food and health conditions improved.

The survivors continued their experiment, but in a new location. They moved their colony to Baie Française in Nova Scotia which became known as Port Royal and figured prominently in the later French-English conflict for control of North America since they based much of their fleet there.   Dugua spent a second winter in North America but then returned to France in 1606 and never came back to North America.  Dugua remained in the good favor of King Henry IV and was appointed governor of the Huguenot city of Pons, a job he held from 1610 to 1617.  Dugua also maintained his interest in establishing a colony for France in North America.  He played some role in getting the King to appoint Samuel de Champlain to establish a settlement at Quebec City.  Champlain successfully accomplished that and is still widely recognized as the father of French settlement in North America.  Frankly, Champlain seemed more interested in exploration than in being a bureaucrat who administered paperwork in Quebec City.  He explored the St. Lawrence River Valley, the Ottawa River Valley and much of the area around Lake Ontario and northern New York State.  The large lake that serves as a border between Vermont and New York bears his name.  His explorations and his many interactions with Native Americans allowed for numerous other French explorers to study the Great Lakes including Detroit.

When I read about the early English and French settlements in North American, I am surprised by how poorly prepared the newcomers were for the winter environment.  I infer that it took them quite a while to learn the strategies that the Indians used to keep themselves warm and well fed such as trapping animals and to use available sources of vitamins and minerals such as seaweed.  I presume that eels were frequently eaten in Europe but the early settlers had to learn from Indians about how to harvest eels from rivers in the winter.  By the time, Antoine Cadillac and his much larger group of about 200 men established the settlement we know as Detroit, a great deal of information had been amassed about how to survive in the very difficult winter environment in frozen North America. 

The St. Croix River now separates Canada from the United States just as the Detroit River does.  After the American Revolution, the northern boundary of the United States in this area was unsettled.  The British wanted to use the Penobscot River but the Revolutionaries who lived in Maine—it was part of the state of Massachusetts until 1819—insisted upon the St. Croix River as the border.  That would give Maine a large stretch of eventually valuable timber land and a much longer Atlantic seacoast.  People in Maine were upset that the federal government in Washington paid very little attention to this issue and seemed unconcerned about Maine’s northern border with the British Empire.  Timber men from both Maine and New Brunswick worked the area between the Penobscot and St. Croix Rivers and both government tried to impose taxes in that remote area.   On February 15, 1839, Maine’s legislature called for establishing an armed force of one thousand men who would impose control in the disputed territory.  They may have been responding to rumors that the British were shifting troops from the Caribbean to defend the area.  So far as I know, this is the closest that any has come to declared war on a foreign power.  Fortunately, the Aroostook War was no bloodier than was Michigan’s Toledo War. 

By April, federal government officials realized that something had to be done to defuse the potentially violent situation in northern Maine or southern New Brunswick.  Negotiations began and, just three years later, August 8, 1842, the United States and Great Britain agreed to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty that settled a variety of disputes about the northern border of the United States in several different states.  The river you see here was established as the boundary in this area. 

This is the only national park in either Canada or the United States administered by both nations; that is, it is the only location that is simultaneously a national park in two countries.

Website U. S. National Park System:
Website Parks Canada System:

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