Unless we’ve made a deliberate effort, most of us have trouble tracing our ancestry back much beyond our grandparents or, perhaps, great-grandparents.
Valerie Sims, however, has spent a lifetime absorbing family stories about her ancestors, including the Creque family, who became major landowners and figures of influence in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands.
Sims has researched her family’s ties to St. John through seven generations including her own children, and in February she published what she’s discovered about them in her new book “Vintage St. John.”
It is the first of what she hopes will be a series of books that present the history of the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, seen through the eyes of a family whose lives were deeply woven in the business, social, and political fabric of the islands.
Sims spent years researching her book, delving into the Danish Archives that became available online several years ago. She waded through diaries, letters, photo albums, and business documents.
The Creque family owned the railway on Hassell Island that serviced the steamers that fanned out throughout the Caribbean in the late 19th century, and Sims has access to records that document the length of each boat, the type and quantity of paint sold, and the cost of each repair.
At one point, Sims realized that she couldn’t rely on future generations to curate all the material she had collected; that’s when she decided she‘d have to manage all she had learned. She tackled the material by spending two solid years writing “Vintage St. John.”
When Sims needed inspiration, she went back to stories she learned at her grandmother’s knee.
“My grandmother, Valerie Creque Mawson, was the historian in the family,” Sims said, “and a poet and storyteller. Entire poems came to her in her sleep, so she slept with a notebook beside her. She was spiritually connected to her ancestors who had passed away. I wouldn’t say she was ‘psychic,’ but I would say she was an ‘intuitive.’”
Sims said every house her grandmother lived in was haunted.
“I don’t know whether the spirits moved in before she did, or her spirit family followed her.”
Inspired by a dream, her grandmother bought property near Frank Bay on St. John which Sims’ mother and stepfather – Marlene and Bob Malacarne – now manage as Star Villas vacation rentals.
Sims’ ties to St. John go back three generations preceding her grandmother’s residency.
“My third great grandfather, Louis Eugène de Lagarde, fell in love with the island and bought his first property in 1897,” she said. “He was a prominent consul representing Haiti at the time, but he was born on St. Thomas in 1835. He was also on the Colonial Council representing St. John from 1871 to 1874. Twenty years later, he purchased Leinster Bay, Annaberg Estate and Abraham’s Fancy, and ever since, his lineage has shared a kinship with the island, living, working and vacationing among the historic ruins and beautiful beaches.”
Sims’ mother, who was born on St. Thomas, spent her summers at the family home in Francis Bay. The ruins of this home are still visible from the trail that begins at the old Danish warehouse near the Francis Bay parking lot. The book tells tales of family members hunting for deer, catching crabs, and cooking kingfish over a coal pot.
In 1953 and 1954, the family property on St. John – more than 2,500 acres – was sold to Frank Stick, an agent for Laurance Rockefeller, who then donated the land to the Virgin Islands National Park. Unlike some St. Johnians, Sims declines to discuss her thoughts about that transaction, saying only that she loves the park, that she spent summers in the 1960’s camping at Cinnamon Bay, and her first job after college was working at Rockefeller’s Caneel Bay Resort.
Sims now lives in the Cayman Islands with her husband and two teenage children. She met David Sims when she was working on her master’s degree at the University of the Virgin Islands. When he accepted a job in the BVI’s offshore corporate management industry, the couple moved to Tortola where they lived for the next 20 years. She still owns a home there, with a new roof since Hurricane Irma, and says, “I very much feel like I belong in the BVI, too.” She recently attained Belonger status there.
From 1997- 2002, Sims managed Billy Bones, a restaurant and bar once located at the Bight on Norman Island. That island figures in the Creque family history as well. Her great-great-grandfather, Henry Osmond Creque, bought Norman Island in 1896.
It has long been rumored that Henry O. Creque found treasure on Norman Island, and Sims says there may be some truth to the stories.
Henry O. Creque was one of seven children born to a Methodist minister and his wife on Anegada.
“When he was 15, he started buying property –30 acres of Carrot Bay, Tortola. At 16 , he had his father bid at an auction house for him – since he was still a minor– to purchase land that was forfeited for non-payment of taxes – on 300 acres of Cane Garden Bay, Tortola,” she said.
Sims still wonders how a teenager would acquire the funds to make purchases such as this without the good fortune of finding buried treasure.
Certainly, Henry was a natural entrepreneur. As a teen, he became apprenticed to Israel Levin, a Lithuanian-born merchant on St. Thomas, from whom he learned to run a dry goods store. In 1884, Henry opened his own store on Main Street which sold food, household goods, hardware, notions, and shipping supplies.
Later, Henry became a shareholder in the St. Thomas & St. John Plantation Company, which purchased several estates on St. John including Cinnamon Bay. One of the delights of reading Sims’ book is picking up small bits of information, like the fact that the plantation at Cinnamon Bay produced up to 10,000 pounds of onions.
Another delight in “Vintage St. John” is perusing the 200 photos that illustrate the book.
“Our family always had cameras,” Sims said.
It was the discovery of photos of her mother as a teenager posing with school friends and a handsome man that inspired Sims to start a blog several years ago. The handsome man turned out to be the actor Dana Andrews, who was on St. Thomas in 1951 making a film, “The Frogmen.” Sims said the girls searched the shops of Main Street when they heard he was around, and followed him for two blocks before they got up the nerve to ask him for a photo.
Softcover editions of “Vintage St. John” are available for sale at Bajo El Sol Gallery, St. John Spice, Chelsea Drug Store, Pink Papaya, Papaya Café, Skinny Legs and the two shops operated by the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park on St. John. She hopes to soon produce hardcover and online editions of the book as well.
Sims will sell books from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Thursday at the National Park’s Folklife Festival in Cruz Bay. She will sign books at from 4 to 7 p.m. Friday at Skinny Legs in Coral Bay.