By Jeff McCord
One hundred and fifty years ago William H. Seward, Secretary of State under Presidents Lincoln and Andrew Johnson, met with Antonio Lopez d’ Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator of Alamo infamy. Among his crimes, Santa Anna actually ordered the execution of frontiersman and ex-Congressman Davy Crockett and a handful of other Alamo survivors who had been taken prisoner after the battle, Mexican eye-witnesses reported.
The meeting between the murderous, exiled dictator and a U.S. cabinet member took place on St. Thomas, then part of the Danish West Indies and now the U.S. Virgin Islands. Santa Anna was there living the life of a wealthy grandee in stately Charlotte Amalie, the Danish West Indies’ capital. Then one of the busiest steam ship ports in the world, St. Thomas was a cosmopolitan world cross roads where thousands of Europeans first saw the Americas.
January 1, 1866 was foggy and frosty along the Potomac River. The United States Steamer DeSoto, carrying Secretary Seward, his son Frederick and daughter Fanny departed Washington City heading for the West Indies at dawn. Running at eleven knots, it only took moments to pass Alexandria. Frederick noticed the town’s “wharves looked deserted and desolate after the bustle of Civil War.” Further down river, the DeSoto lowered its ensign and fired a gun in tribute as it steamed by Mount Vernon.
“Meeting only a dozen schooners loaded with hay and oysters where recently rode whole fleets of warlike ships and transports, we soon left behind Point Lookout and emerged amid drizzling rain and sleet into Chesapeake Bay,” Frederick continued, writing in his biography of his father.
Secretary Seward and Frederick were still recovering from serious wounds inflicted the night of President Lincoln’s assassination. Confederate veteran Lewis Powell, a tall, powerful former Mosby Ranger who’d been hiding out on a farm near Warrenton, VA, had burst into the Secretary’s Lafayette Square home at 10pm on April 14, 1865. He quickly, savagely assaulted Frederick and his father with a revolver — that fortunately misfired — and a bowie knife.
Nine months later, a cruise in the “genial airs of the tropics” would help Sewards health and enable a visit with the Danish West Indies’ governor. Seward was keen to purchase the islands to establish a U.S. naval base to protect Caribbean interests.
Frederick described first seeing the Danish archipelago. “Out of the blue and tranquil sea were islands rising on every hand of varying size and form.”
The Sewards arrived at St. Thomas on January 9, 1866. They were charmed by the harbor’s “high steep hills covered with verdure, and rows of square yellow houses and red roofs resembling a toy German village.”
Upon disembarking at Charlotte Amalie’s King’s Wharf, Frederick was pleasantly surprised by the mostly Afro-European population happily going about their business “laughing, talking and gesticulating.” No doubt, he noted the contrast with the down-trodden, impoverished African Americans then living in Washington, DC as refugees from the South.
They also noticed a lack of carriages and wagons in the harbor town’s narrow streets and alleys. Instead, a variety of tropical fruits, vegetables and manufactured goods were carried by men riding donkeys, women balancing loads on their heads and simple carts pulled by donkeys or oxen. Like modern tourists, the Sewards loved the flowers and “luxuriant vines and creepers” in residential walled gardens. Inside homes, they enjoyed “cool rooms filled with easy chairs, fans, shades and screens.”
Lavish state dinners were held in Secretary Sewards honor and meetings with leading citizens arranged. He and the family also toured local attractions, including Blackbeard’s and Bluebeard’s Castles that capped two of the three hills commanding the harbor. Both “castles” had been Danish military observation towers built in the late 1600s. Tourists were told they had been used by pirates.
Among the nabobs inviting the Sewards to visit was Santa Anna. Secretary Seward accepted.
Santa Anna had arrived in St. Thomas in 1858, bringing along a treasure valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars by today’s standards. During his years in power, Santa Anna missed no opportunity to profit from his position. He personally pocketed generous portions of the proceeds from Mexican territorial sales to the U.S., for instance. Santa Anna had also hunted and captured Mayan Indians in the Yucatan, selling them as slaves to eager Cuban sugar planters.
“I stopped here to continue my tranquil life,” Santa Anna said upon arrival, according to the newspaper St. Thomas Didende. “The door to discord [in my life] has been closed forever.”
He purchased a villa and several adjacent properties, forming a fortress-like compound near the top of fashionable Denmark Hill. Villa Santa Anna is just below the mansion Catherineberg, then home of the Danish vice governor and now official residence of the United States Virgin Islands’ governor.
A devout womanizer, the retired dictator had several mistresses on-island. He also enjoyed the sporting life of gambling on horse races and cock-fights.
In Sewards’ day, visitors to Villa Santa Anna would ascend stately stone stairs from the street up the embankment to the mansion. Frederick described their meeting in the dictator’s library:
“The General rose from a table covered with papers to bid the American Secretary welcome with Castilian courtesy, and then sat down to chat awhile on the past, present, and future of Mexico. He was a large, fine-looking man of Spanish features and complexion, dark, keen eyes, and dark hair, and showed no signs of bodily infirmity save a slight limp. One would have pronounced him between fifty and sixty instead of being, as he really was, nearly seventy.”
This would be the last meeting with an American statesman in Santa Anna’s long career.
Today, several outbuildings and gardens in Santa Anna’s compound survive, although the main house burned in 1985. Santa Anna’s compound has been restored, modernized and turned into “Villa Santana,” a small hotel providing guests a choice of several quaint suites with magnificent views of Charlotte Amalie’s harbor and islands. Near Santa Anna’s former servant quarters, a pool, bar and surrounding patio overlook the town, which is still identifiably Danish in architecture and European in style.
In my second fact-based mystery novel (Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea), I address the question, “What became of Santa Anna’s vast St. Thomas fortune?” The book, available on Amazon, also covers Civil War-era skullduggery in the Caribbean and provides readers with healthy doses of real and fictional piracy.