Behind the crumbled plantation ruins which can be found throughout the island of St. John are the personal stories of those who owned and lived on the plantations, and of those who were enslaved there.
V.I. National Park (VINP) Archaeologist Ken Wild last week welcomed two interns from Denmark, whose goal during their four-week stay on St. John is to piece together those personal stories based on the thousands of records they have researched, and perhaps to even find undiscovered plantations on the island.
The journey of Danish students Jonas Møller Pedersen and Laura Thatt to the U.S. Virgin Islands began nearly a year ago, explained Wild.
Large Cooperative Group Effort
“It took about a year of correspondence between professors at the University of Copenhagen — which is where the records are — the Friends of the VINP, the Office of International Affairs in Washington, D.C. and the VINP,” he said. “It took a large cooperative group to make this come about.”
The University of Copenhagen and Denmark’s government are funding the students’ research, while the Friends of the VINP paid for their travel, insurance and extra spending money, explained Wild.
The interns are staying at the Cinnamon Bay campground.
Pedersen and Thatt are each working toward earning a master’s degree in history, with Pedersen focusing on colonial history, he explained.
State Archive Research
“I’m specializing in colonial history, so to be able to come here and do research is really nice,” said Pedersen. “It’s hard to explain why I find it fascinating. I think most people in Denmark forget that we were one of the slave nations.”
The Danish students, who researched state archives in Denmark for three months before coming to St. John, will return to Denmark after four weeks on island and spend one more month researching archives.
The students’ on-island re-search will focus on Lameshur, where the V.I. Environmental Resource Station plans to construct a museum.
“This is our first study like this, examining one particular area,” said Wild.
Many Danish records from 1665 to 1804 have been destroyed, explained Wild.
“You get past 1804, and there are good records, but before then, a lot of the documents were destroyed,” he said. “These guys had a big challenge.”
1722 Plantation Owners List
Despite the challenge, bits of information are being found, explained Thatt.
“We still found a lot of small pieces of information and stories,” she said.
The students recently discovered one very important document — a listing of all St. John plantation owners from 1722.
“This document is pretty exciting,” said Wild. “It’s a central piece to the island’s early history.”
While the Danish students have discovered many official documents, such as deeds and tax records, they hope to find records documenting more personal experiences, explained Pedersen.
“We’ve been through 150 boxes at least,” he said. “We’re hoping to find things like personal testaments.”
In addition to discovering personal stories behind the island’s plantations, Thatt and Pedersen hope to discover new plantations on St. John, explained Wild.
Three Plantations Recently Discovered
“Looking at the records, the land was parceled out to people who wanted to farm it,” said Wild. “We want to try to take that information to see if there is a plantation out there which is not on the records.”
Wild and VINP interns discovered three plantations in the Park within the past month, he added.
Pedersen and Thatt will benefit from studying St. John in person, explained Wild.
“We thought it was important for them to physically be on site and look at the terrain,” he said. “Being in the geographic setting helps to write that final paper.”
Thatt is excited to be on the island she has read about for months, she explained.
“We’ve been reading so much about it,” said Thatt. “It’s good to be here and see it all.”
The students spent their first few days exploring the island, where they recognized several estate names, including Enighed, which means “unity” in Danish, they explained.
Pedersen and Thatt To Share Research
“Some of the estate names are in Dutch, which is very strange to us,” said Pedersen. “Dutch and Danish are very different.”
Despite being covered in mosquito bites, Pedersen and Thatt enjoyed their first week on island, Thatt explained.
“We don’t like the mosquitoes, but this is a beautiful island with great people,” she said.
Pedersen noted the friendliness of the people of St. John, and the difference between the island and Denmark.
“It’s so different from Europe and Denmark in every way,” said Pedersen. “Denmark is flat and cold, and the people are much more open here. We feel very welcome.”
Wild hopes to arrange for Pedersen and Thatt to give a talk to the community near the end of their stay on island to share what they’ve discovered, he explained.