Historical Bits and Pieces

Common Misconceptions of St. John 

 by Chuck Pishko
St. John Tradewinds

— People think that St. John was settled in 1718 when Governor Bredal claimed it for the Danish King. 

Settlers started coming to St. John around 1680, harvesting lumber, fishing and growing crops including tobacco. In the late 1600s Dutch merchants approached the King of Denmark to establish a commercial company to settle Denmark’s colonies here. 

The Dutch had a proven record of success in the East Indies where they grew and exported spices and goods to Europe and were the driving force in setting up the Danish West Indian and Guinea Company. 

— There were originally 110 plantations on St. Jan and one would assume more plantations would be added.

It went the other way. Twenty-one plantations were quickly abandoned and the rest were consolidated into 65 plantations, more economically viable units. 

— St. Johnians, as part of the Danish West Indies, spoke Danish as all good Danes do. 

St. John was settled by Dutch farmers who used kidnapped and enslaved West Africans for labor. They did not speak Dutch but rather Dutch Creole which they developed to be used and understood by all. The Dutch started moving towards greener pastures in America in the early 1800s. Then English, the language of international commerce, became the common everyday language.

The last Dutch Creole speaker on St. John, Mrs. Alice Stevens, died in September 1987.  

— Often people envision stone great houses or plantation homes like the ones in the Southern United States.

It didn’t happen here. The owners of the plantations and farms on St. John stayed in their homes on St. Thomas and left the management of their St. John operations to managers, overseers, and trusted enslaved Africans. So we had what are better described as “dwelling houses” which were located close to the production centers.

— Some people don’t realize there were more cotton plantations on St. John than sugar plantations.

Sugar grew well on the well-watered north side of the island. Most of the island was drier and more suitable to cotton production. The cotton produced here was long stranded, fine and required careful processing. We seem to have learned in school that Eli Whitney’s cotton gin started it all, when in fact gins have been around for thousands of years.

— DWI traded exclusively with the mother country, Denmark.

The DWI had a long history of trading with the North American colonies soon to be the United  States. The supply lines to Denmark were too long. The islands needed food such as salted cod, beef, butter, animals and building supplies; barrels for sugar, molasses and rum, and hardwoods like yellow pine, oak, elm, etc. The U.S. needed molasses to make rum and sugar. They also needed gunpowder to fuel the American Revolution which the Danes and Dutch transshipped from Europe. One Dane, Abraham Markoe who was involved in this trade, established a cavalry troop in Philadelphia during the Revolution that is still part of the U.S. Army today. 

— Hurricanes had a major influence on how island history developed.

1733 — Two hurricanes helped ignite the Slave Revolt.

1793 – A devastating hurricane led to the island being rebuilt and facilities updated. The stone and brick buildings we have today date from this hurricane.

1867 – A hurricane and earthquake destroyed plantations and sugar operations for good.

1916 – This hurricane, the worst ever, stymied the entire island.

1989 and 1995 —  Hugo and Marilyn – almost $4 billion in damages. 

— The enslaved Africans came to the islands with nothing. 

The Africans showed the planters how to grow and cook tropical food crops like cassava, yams, and fungee. They knew about herbal medicine and the uses of fruits and plants. They knew how to make pottery and to weave mats, baskets, and sacks.

They kept a lot of the planters alive with the skills they knew and practiced.

— The free labor of the enslaved Africans was a disincentive to modernize agricultural practices. 

West Indian planters were left behind as places like Cuba and Brazil modernized their practices and equipment e.g. central factory systems, steam engines, and vacuum pans.

The mother countries also ended the preference and exclusivity of their West Indian sugar and let the prices be set by the world market.

— When the plantations shut down the workers quit working.  

The former slaves scrambled to make a living that allowed their families to stay here. They traveled to Panama to work on the new United States Canal, to Cuba and Santo Domingo to cut cane, and to the United States with the overall objective of maintaining their life here.

— Finally, the U.S. acquired the islands as part of the military strategy to protect the Panama Canal.

Luckily the threats to the Canal never materialized and the U.S. was left with these beautiful islands, the gems of the Caribbean.