Cruz Bay, St. John: A Quiet Town of Refuge for 250 Years
by Jeff McCord
Seeking refuge from winter, tens of thousands of visitors arrive each year on the U.S. Virgin Island of St. John. Most come on car and passenger ferries from St. Thomas, disembarking at the small, charming port town of Cruz Bay. From there, they travel onward to hotels, vacation villas or the Virgin Islands National Park campground at Cinnamon Bay, among other destinations.
Cruz Bay was founded 250 years ago this year as a rescue station for European sugar plantation owners and managers who feared slave uprisings in St. John’s interior. They wanted a safe place to hurriedly board boats and depart for nearby St. Thomas. Both islands were then in the Danish West Indies and planters and colonial authorities were well aware of the successful (albeit temporary) takeover of St. John by rebellious enslaved Africans in 1733. In that year, a combination of severe drought, a devastating hurricane and “a merciless slave code” led 1,087 enslaved people to rebel against the 208 Europeans scattered among the island’s 109 plantations, St. John author Gerald Singer tells us.
Little wonder that three years later the relative handful of St. John’s remaining European plantation owners and overseers petitioned the Danish authorities “to establish a fortress as a place of refuge and protection on the western side of St. John,” Virgin Islands historian David Knight, Sr. explains in his postings at davidwknightsr.com. It was not until 1765, however, that Danish authorities planned the first official buildings, fortification and street system in the town supposed to be called Christiansbay (to honor Denmark’s King Christian, VII). Ground was broken in 1766.
Today, the most visible buildings from that era are located on a rocky peninsula jutting into Cruz Bay’s harbor that are collectively known as “Cruz Bay Battery.” Danish cannons still sit in the embrasures atop the white walls of this small fort. As explained by Danish Royal Army Lieutenant Peter Lotharius Oxholm in his 1780 report, “the intention [was] to improve the defense and [opportunity for] assistance in the event of future occurrences [of revolt by the enslaved] with an open passage to St. Thomas.”
Originally known as Christiansfort, the picturesque peninsular structures are the product of an 1825 expansion and reconstruction project when a Danish courthouse and jail were added to the battery. For more on the Cruz Bay Battery and an illustrated history of St. John as told by eyewitnesses, see the book “St. John Backtime” available in the Virgin Islands National Park Visitors Center store in Cruz Bay or by contacting the Friends of the VINP at 340-693-7275.
Although outside the original precincts of “Christiansbay”, one of St. John’s most beautiful example’s of Danish colonial architecture may still be found within modern Cruz Bay. The Elaine I. Sprauve Public Library is located on a small hill top. Originally the Enighed Estate plantation great house, this classic yellow-walled masonry building with green window shutters and red-tiled roof was constructed in the mid-1700s.
Although the Danish word “enighed” can be translated as “harmony,”64 enslaved Africans labored on the plantation’s 225 acres to produce sugar cane for export and food for those living on the estate. William Wood, the British owner, died there in 1757 and his grave can be found in the small cemetery next to the library/great house. The building was restored in the 20th century and admitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Ironically, the town founded as a refuge for fleeing plantation owner/operators, became populated mostly by freed people of African descent in the years prior to emancipation in 1848. Until the era of tourism in the 1960s and 70s, Cruz Bay was a small, quiet town populated mostly by people of African descent.
Writing in 1888, St. Thomas physician and author Charles Edwin Taylor in his “Leaflets on the Danish West Indies” described Cruz Bay as “consisting of a few detached houses . . . called a town.” Taylor said that “only a judge and a couple policeman” were based there to “represent the majesty of the law in this peaceful and well-ordered island.”
Twenty years later, Luther K. Zabriskie, the former United States vice-counsel in Danish St. Thomas, described Cruz Bay and St. John at the time of the 1917 purchase of the islands by the U.S. “Reached by sloops [operating] from the East End of St. Thomas,” visitors to St. John would disembark at the Cruz Bay dock and from there walk or hire a horse or boat to enjoy the island’s “always delightful surroundings.” It was an island “where magnificent views are everywhere.” Then as now, “the lover of natural scenery will find much to reward him [or her] on this picturesque island.”
Cruz Bay has grown to a town of 2,866 full-time residents, the 2010 census reports, while St. John has a population 4,170. Though small by any standards, Cruz Bay is St. John’s biggest town and hosts many fine restaurants, bars and stores serving the needs of visitors located in buildings consistent with the island’s Danish and West Indian heritage.
To help preserve that heritage, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ legislature is considering official recognition of the Cruz Bay anniversary in a move that many hope would hasten the town’s addition to the National and Territorial Registries of Historic Places. That would give Cruz Bay the same status as the irreplaceable structures in the historic districts of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, and Christiansted and Frederiksted on St. Croix. In a recent hearing, Sean Krigger, the Virgin Islands’ acting Historic Preservation Office Director, said “Cruz Bay holds substantial historical and cultural significance on both the national and territorial level,” according to St. John Source.
The 250th anniversary of Cruz Bay’s founding is a splendid time to ensure the town’s charm as a quiet refuge is preserved for future generations of residents and visitors.
Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work on international economics and consumer protection has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and Truthout.org, among other publications. For more than 20 years, he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels: “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.