Historical Bits & Pieces

Sea Salt Was Important Island Product

by Chuck Pishko

Mrs. Idaliha Penn collects salt from Saltpond, circa 1988. Photo Courtesy of the V.I. National Park


On Sunday, September 16, I was privileged to hear a sermon delivered by retired Moravian minister and native St. Johnian, Ralph Prince at the Nazareth Lutheran Church. Reverend Prince recalled St. John in the early 1900s when the island was populated only by Moravians and Lutherans and was a close, supportive community.

Prince discussed the lack of electricity and refrigeration and how people made do with what they had and it drew them together. He talked about the use of salt for food preservation and the gathering of salt by the community at Saltpond.

Prince also explained the references to salt in the Bible. In the Book of Numbers, salt to the ancient Hebrews was a symbol of the eternal nature of God’s covenant with Israel.

“It is the covenant of salt forever before the Lord,” the book reads.

Salt is associated with longevity and permanence as well as loyalty and friendship. When salt is dissolved into liquid, it can be readily evaporated back into square crystals. Its essence does not change. It has been used as a blessing at weddings and new homes.

Salt was also used to break the spell of evil spirits. In the French Caribbean, evil spirits called “soucouyant” were often disguised as women who would shed their skin at dusk, fly through the air as a ball of flame and suck out their victims’ lifeblood, according to folklore.

At dawn the evil spirits would return to their skin, but often were captured when people salted their skin and made it unwearable.

In colonial times, the leading cargo by tonnage carried to North America was salt, not sugar, molasses, or rum. The return cargo to the Caribbean was salt cod used to feed the enslaved Africans.

Sweden originally acquired the Caribbean island of St. Barthelemy to produce salt but it produced only small quantities. The Dutch acquired Sint Maarten which produced large quantities of salt. In 1850 the 1,000 people involved in the industry produced 84,250,000 pounds of salt.

Salt production was discontinued in 1949 after going through a period of stagnation and decline.

Here on St. John the salt pond produced enough salt for local usage. Peter L. Oxholm wrote in 1780 that all of the local planters gathered it after a drought. He further wrote that Peter Hassell lived at Concordia and had a store where he sold salt and lime.

Our island’s salt pond is ideally situated. It’s at least a foot below sea level, gets underground seawater, but pond water doesn’t flow back into the sea. The pond is exposed to strong steady winds to assist in evaporation. The easterly trade winds of 30 mph most of the year evaporate the salt water here for a salt harvest in our dry summers.

The larger salt crystals start forming on rocks while the smaller crystals float in the pond unless blown on shore by the wind. Salt-gatherers lift the salt from the pond with shovels. Then the wet salt is piled on a tarp and allowed to dry. Once it’s dried, you can pick out any foreign matter before storing it.

Salt was used to prevent fish and meat from spoiling. It was a common practice that when fishermen caught, netted, or trapped more fish than they could sell they would leave the excess catch for the rest of the village. After using all the fresh fish they could, people would salt and dry the fish for use later.

Also, when slaughtering large farm animals, the fresh meat not immediately needed would be boned, salted, and packed in oak casks for use later. Salt brine was also used to preserve butter, eggs, and vegetables.

The Virgin Islands National Park allows the collection of sea salt for personal consumption and non-commercial uses.   

Many of our native islanders arrived here by way of Salt Island from which the Queen of England receives a bag of salt every year.

Sea salt has traces of every mineral from gold to uranium. Salt is not only necessary to maintain good health, it’s an important part of our island heritage.