St. John residents were given the opportunity to see old-time St. John through the eyes of those who painted, documented and photographed the island, at a Wednesday evening, April 4, Friends of the V.I. National Park seminar with David Knight.
Knight, who was raised on St. John and is now the president of the St. John Historical Society, spoke about the importance of historical images of the island as he shared his presentation, “Enduring Eloquence.”
“A picture really is worth a thousand words,” said Knight. “You can write pages and pages, but the best way to convey something is with nice pictures.”
The first expressions of the beauty of the island can be found in works of art carved in shell, wood and bone by Ceramic-period peoples, explained Knight.
List of Familiar Names
The first image Knight was able to find of St. John was an elevation drawing circa 1675 which, while somewhat crude, displays prominent points on the island including Bordeaux Mountain.
Another image from St. John’s early history Knight shared in his presentation was a list of early Danish settlers, bearing names still familiar on island today, including Runnels, Groenwald and van Beverhoudt.
“This first compiled list of early settlers on St. John was sent back to the governor in Denmark to let him know who came to St. John from St. Thomas,” said Knight.
A German engraving of the overview of the Moravian settlement and cemetery, and Dutch Reformed Church settlement from approximately 1768 was one of the first images depicting life on St. John.
“This is the first real image of St. John,” said Knight. “The Moravian settlement was a working one, and the cemetery is still there. This is the only known image of the Dutch Reformed Church, whose ruins are still at the mini-golf course (at Pastory Gardens).”
Oxholm Map Kept Track of Settlers
The well-known Oxholm map, created by Peter Oxholm and published in 1800, shows that the island was likely not clear cut as many people think.
“Had I completed the most accurate large-scale survey, a period of many months, perhaps years, would have been demanded as almost the whole land is still in bush,” Oxholm wrote home to Denmark, according to Knight’s presentation.
“This is an extremely important map,” said Knight. “It was made so the Denmark government would keep track of who was where. The map is so good, it continued to be used and was not updated until 1911.”
Denmark considers the 19th cenutry its “Golden Age,” and it was during this time that Frederik von Schulten, brother of Governer-general Peter von Schulten, created several sketches and colorful paintings of St. John.
St. John’s First Tourist
“Although few in number, von Schulten’s images are as important to the documentary record of St. John as any literary description of its time,” said Knight in his presentation. “Finally we can see with vivid clarity. After lingering for millenniums under a shroud of darkness, the island comes alive through the artist’s hand.”
One of von Schulten’s paintings circa 1833 depicts Estates Susannaberg, Adrian and Catherineberg.
“The view is as if you are standing in the parking lot at the Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center looking east,” said Knight. “This was probably the most planted estate outside of Carolina Valley.”
Reverend Harry Morton, who visited the island in a time when people didn’t travel for pleasure, could be considered the island’s first tourist, explained Knight.
“People didn’t travel for pleasure then, when Harry Morton toured St. John with his family in 1844,” he said.
Morton produced several sketches of the island during his travels.
Largest Collection of 1930s Photos
The camera eventually found its way to the island in the early 1900s, when most photos depicted island natives in black and white doing household activities, such as making baskets, explained Knight.
Knight’s father, George Knight, who first came to the island in 1934, took what is probably the largest collection of photos from 1934 to 1940, explained the historian.
“I have thousands of photos that my dad took,” said Knight. “He produced the first color postcards of St. John, and possibly the first color photos.”
Knight shared a few family photos, including a picture of him as a young boy riding with his father in a red jeep the family bought from the Boulons.
“It was the first Jeep ever on St. John,” said Knight. “My dad bought it used from Rafe (Boulon’s) dad.”
Each Photograph Important
Although St. John receives thousands of visitors every year, each photograph taken by each tourist is important to the historical record, Knight explained.
“Since the creation of the National Park and the advent of large scale tourism in the 1950s and 60s, parts of St. John have now become some of the most photographed places on the face of the earth,” Knight concluded in his presentation. “Yet amidst this flurry of snapshots, how many photographers have paused to consider the significance of their actions? For in every flick of a shutter, with each stolen instant, a unique and enduring image is captured.”
A scaled-down version of Knight’s presentation can be viewed at www.stjohnhistoricalsociety.org.