Open Forum: It’s Time to Reclaim Maroon Country

This is the northwest of Maroon Country where lands were exchanged hundred of times since the middle 1600s. (Photo courtesy of Olasee Davis)
The Maroon Country of northwest St. Croix, where lands were exchanged hundred of times since the middle 1600s. (Photo courtesy of Olasee Davis)

In 1983, I became a social activist to protect the GREAT northwest of St. Croix, Maroon Country. Brother Mario Moorhead, one of our local historians, started educating the public on his radio talk show about the 17 estates of the northwest and how the land is threatened by major development. That same year of 1983, the late Commissioner of Agriculture Rudolph Shulterbrandt held a meeting for the public at the then College of the Virgin Islands to discuss how to protect at least 2,000 acres of the historic landscape of the northwest on St. Croix.

Olasee Davis
Olasee Davis (Submitted photo)

This is the eighth article in a series regarding the preservation and protection necessary to create a Maroon Territorial Park in the northwest corner of St. Croix. I will focus on the land and the buying of land and its history and how the land relates to Maroon Country.

For a brief history of the northwest, I will begin from the 1870s to the 1980s for you to get an understanding of the struggle to preserve Maroon Country. In 1879, a year after “Fireburn,” Hallensen brought Estate Annaly. In 1902, he sold Annaly estate to Capt. A.J. Blackwood, a powerful businessman or agent on St. Croix for the Rartram Brothers, a New York-based company. Annaly became part of a 11-estate empire on the northwest of St. Croix.

Capt. Blackwood had no great experience in operating a sugar plantation. However, he kept his empire afloat at a time when most of St. Croix plantations were going under financially. In 1926, Blackwood died, and Estate Annaly was passed onto his heirs. In November 1936, his grandson, A.J. Blackwood III, sold Estate Annaly to Ward M. Canady. It is here that the history of the northwest Maroon Country land began.

Ward M. Canady (1885-1976) of Toledo, Ohio, was a wealthy, successful businessman and advisor and great friend of President Franklin Roosevelt. According to the late Frits E. Lawaetz, “Canady may have been part of an investigative team sent down by President Franklin Roosevelt under his Public Works Project Administration, one of the New Deal programs.” While on the islands, Canady fell in love with St. Croix. As he began to integrate into Crucian culture, he became interested in buying land.

At that time, there were some 2,000 acres in the northwest hills and mountains of St. Croix up for sale comprising some 13 estates offering prime agricultural land. To make a long story short, in 1946, Canady brought Estate Parasol, Solitude, Mt. Eagle, Hermitage, Blue Mountain, Prosperity, and the Estate River Foundation complex. This brought the total he owned up to 4,200 acres, the largest private landowner in the Virgin Islands. He also owned Mt. Victory, Wills Bay, Sweet Bottom, Mt. Stewart, Rose Hill, and Oxford with a total of 5,900 acres.

Canady became one of the biggest Senepol cattle ranchers on St. Croix. In 1976, he passed away, and the Rockefeller brothers acquired his estates on the Northwest Quarter of St. Croix in the 1970s, from the mountaintops to the Caribbean Sea coastline. In the latter part of the 1970s, Laurance and David Rockefeller attempted to donate the 4,000 acres of the northwest land with more than 17 estates to the U.S. National Park Service. For whatever reason, the land transfer of Maroon Country to the National Park Service didn’t materialize.

Water can be rough at Annaly Bay coastline evening on a clam day. (Photo by Olasee Davis)
The water can be rough along St. Croix’s Annaly Bay coast, even on a calm day. (Photo by Olasee Davis)

In the 1980s, Jake Jacobus, a developer, tried to purchase the 4,000 acres from the Rockefellers. He was opposed by a few people who knew what was going on as an outsider developer trying to own all that primary agricultural land on the northwest side of St. Croix. His intention was to make “big money” off the land by rezoning agricultural land to commercial and other uses such as hotel development, stores, residential dwellings, etc. As a result of the opposition, Jacobus decided to leave the island. However, the late Gov. Juan F. Luis called a special session and gave himself a raise and other lawmakers, according to the word on the street, and voted to rezone the entire northwest Maroon Country. The late native naturalist George A. Seaman said it best: “History and time have taught men nothing; he will still sell his birthright.”

Believe me, these politicians either didn’t know their history or they didn’t care to know. So, they decided to rezone Maroon Country that was once a refuge for Maroons, runaway slaves, and a burial ground for the free and unfree slaves of the Danish West Indies. Thus, Bill 15-0676 No. 488 was approved on Dec. 27, 1983. The Virgin Islands Legislature amended the official zoning district maps of St. Croix for an outsider developer: Be it enacted by the Legislature of the Virgin Islands; Section 1. Pursuant to the provisions of Title 29, chapter 3, Virgin Islands Code, the District Zoning Maps for the Island of St. Croix are hereby amended in the following instances.

“Section 3, The approval conferred by section 2 of this act is expressly subject to the condition that Delray Land, Inc., its successors and assigns, shall establish ‘open space’ in an amount not less than 50% of the total area consisting of 4,140 acres, more or less, more particularly described in Table 7 of the ‘Zoning Amendment Application’ filed by Delray Land, Inc., and approved by the Virgin Islands Planning Office on October 27, 1983, in the ‘Report on Proposed Amendment to Official Zoning Map No.SCZ 4&5,’ of which not less than 1,000 acres shall be dedicated to a perpetual scenic and preservation easement.”

I am happy that Gov. Albert Bryan, Jr. and his administration stepped in to force the current landowner or owners’ hands to set aside what was agreed upon over 30 years ago. I will reinforce again the significant natural and cultural resources that must be included in the park if we are talking about creating a Maroon Territorial Park. The government must be good negotiators and not get the end of the deal of what took place over 30 years ago when we sold our birthright, not in the best interest of the people of these islands, but to politicians and developers.

 – Olasee Davis is bush professor who lectures and writes about the culture, history, ecology and environment of the Virgin Islands when he is not leading hiking tours of the wild places and spaces of St. Croix and beyond.

Editor’s Note: Previous columns in this series include “Join the Call for a Maroon Territorial Park,” on June 17; “St. Croix’s Northwest Quarter Worthy of World Heritage Status,” on July 6; “Our Maroon Ancestors Deserve A Sanctuary on St. Croix,” on July 18; “St. Croix’s Maroons Set the Stage For Freedom in the Danish West Indies” on July 27; “A Maroon Territorial Park is Not an Option But a Must,” on Aug. 2; and “Puerto Rico Shares Some of St. Croix’s Rich Maroon History,” on Aug. 11.