The Hassells of St. John and Hassell Island
by Chuck Pishko
Confusion reigns supreme when you begin to talk about the Hassell family(ies). First of all, the name is spelled several different ways: Hassell, Hassel, Hazzel, Hazzell, and Hazel to name a few.
The Hassells came to the Virgin Islands from the tiny island of Saba with a current population of 1,200 and the status of a Dutch municipality or city as of July 1, 2006. For the most part, they were English pirates who sought protection from the Dutch in the 1600s.
From these ignoble roots they became masters of the seas, dominating the merchant marine services of many countries including the United States and serving valiantly worldwide.
In the 1700s the Dutch islands St. Eustatia, Saba, and St. Martin were supplying arms and ammunition to George Washington and the American rebels from the beginning of the revolution. The traders reveled in the cause of freedom and the lucrative trade in military contraband. It is generally acknowledged that without this supply route the American Revolution would not have succeeded.
The Dutch salute of the American ship the “Andrew Doria” at St. Eustatia was the first time an American ship and the rising nation were officially recognized. In retaliation, on February 3, 1781, British Admiral Rodney captured and occupied St. Eustatia and halted the American trade.
The admiral not only destroyed 130 merchant ships but also plundered private property in houses, shops, warehouses, and arsenals of goods totaling three million English pounds. The merchants left immediately to find new safe locations from which to trade. They soon found that refuge in the Danish West Indies.
Prior to the Rodney attack, one Saban had already settled on St. John. If you look out the windows of the library at Estate Enighed, you will see the grave of William Wood who was born on Saba in 1692 and died on St. John in 1757. This is the oldest existing tombstone of a Saban anywhere.
In 1791, Wood’s son, Johannes, deeded Enighed to George Hassel who married his daughter Anna Wood. Under G. Hassel’s ownership, Enighed became a major sugar estate on St. John.
George Hassel & Co. also owned Lovango Cay. In 1804 the cay is listed as belonging to his heir, James Hassell and on November 22, 1805, the cay was transferred from James Hassell Jr. to James Hanley.
In 1803 Hassels are registered as owning Estate Par Force and Pasquerau in Reef Bay Quarter. In 1827 Henry and Peter Hassell sold Pasquerau.
The record shows that Henry and Peter Hassell bought Par Force in 1810 and Henry Hassell sold it in 1829.
George Hassell owned parts of Lameshur Estate (100 acres) from 1770 to 1779 and another 150 acres from 1773 to 1776. In 1786
James Hassell owned Concordia Estate, a cotton plantation that was deeded to Peter Hassell in 1790.
On his surveying expeditions to map St. John, Lt. Peter Lotharius Oxholm came upon a store operated by Peter Hassell at Salt Pond (part of Estate Concordia) where he sold salt and lime processed on the property. By 1800, the Hassells were heavily invested in St. John properties.
Meanwhile on St. Thomas, Peter and Hercules Hassell owned Estate Neltjeberg between 1805 and 1820 (280 acres) and Estate Orkanhullet, aka Estate Hurricane Hole, (134 acres) on the large peninsula jutting out into St. Thomas Harbor where they operated a careening wharf and a ships’ chandlery. The sheltered cove provided the safest anchorage within the harbor.
The 1800s brought a flurry of activity to Estate Hurricane Hole. Major fires in Charlotte Amalie in 1804 and 1806 (about 2,000 homes and businesses destroyed) led to extensive reconstruction and fireproofing measures. This is why we see iron doors and shutters and no wooden buildings here today.
Johan Nissen in his 1838 book Reminiscences of a 46 Years Residence in the Island of St. Thomas, Senseman & Co. PA, recalls the fires and the other important events of the 19th century including the fact that the lime for the reconstruction came from St. John. Also in 1801-1802 and 1807-1815, the British occupied the islands in order to eliminate the possibility of the French doing the same. During the second period, the British moved a whole regiment (1,500 men) to the peninsula and built barracks and forts. In all likelihood, rebuilt Charlotte Amalie and the British fortifications are held together by St. John lime courtesy of the Hassells.
The Hassel family retained control of the area until 1943. Most of the commercial development of the island occurred on Hassell’s peninsula — the Marine Railway, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company, the East Asiatic Company, the St. Thomas Dock, Engineering and Coaling Company, and the Hamburg American Line. They were all located on land bought or leased from the Hassell family.
Finally, in order to improve the water flow and eliminate cholera in the harbor, the peninsula was separated from the mainland by a dredged channel creating an island. Hassell Island was the center of an unprecedented economic expansion in the 19th and early 20th century. St. Thomas became the principal transshipment harbor of the Caribbean and Hassell Island was the center of it all.
The U.S. Navy came in 1917 and took over Hassell Island. Soon the island was covered by impenetrable bush that hid its commercial and military treasures. Historian Isidor Paiewonsky fought off commercial development. However, it was an ugly road cut to the top of the island for an ill-conceived communications tower that opened everyone’s eyes. Here was the first part of St. Thomas seen by cruise ship passengers; barren bush with a single vertical slash and hints of old stonework that raised many questions.
Luckily the Virgin Islands National Park and the St. Thomas Historic Trust have already begun to take measures to develop Hassell Island as an accessible area to view the natural and historic resources hidden there. The views of St. Thomas from the long ridge of the island are awesome and soon will be accessible to all visitors and residents.
In 2006 Art Frederick, then-Superintendent of the VINP, stated in the Daily News that Hassell Island is a gem in need of a little dusting off. His successor, Mark Hardgrove, has begun the hard work of making it happen with the able assistance and direction of the Trust which is looking for all civic-minded people to help in this endeavor either through donations or physical labor.
We can all help, both St. John and St. Thomas. Let us assist our visitors to see that we have a gem in our islands that outshines the jewelry stores.