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Editor’s Note: This is the first of three stories examining Maine’s historic role in the settling of the New World. The other two parts will run Monday and Tuesday.
ROBBINSTON, Maine — When French settlers set out to claim parts of the New World at the turn of the 17th century, they had a long list of good reasons to settle on St. Croix Island near what is now the Down East town of Robbinston.
Unfortunately for almost half the settlers, who suffered terribly and died from an affliction they didn’t understand, there turned out to be some compelling — but overlooked — reasons to choose the mainland.
The remains of many of those settlers still rest on the rugged island, which is off limits to the public. And today, it’s Meg Scheid’s job to keep visitors off the island and away from the remnants of the colony — one of the earliest European settlements in the New World.
Scheid, a historian and National Park Service ranger posted at the St. Croix Island International Historic Site on Route 1 in Robbinston, said imagining the toils of the colonists is difficult at best and downright haunting at worst.
“It was a severe winter, the coldest winter in decades,” said Scheid, who leads workshops for tourists and students and maintains the park service’s facilities. “Those guys dealt with things they’d never seen before.”
After only a year of extreme weather and disease, the fledgling 1604 colony relocated to Port Royal, Nova Scotia, but St. Croix Island still holds a place in history. Three years before the English settlements of Jamestown in Virginia and the Popham Colony near the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine, and four years before Samuel de Champlain founded the city of Quebec, an expedition led by an explorer named Pierre Dugua came to St. Croix Island to create a permanent settlement and trade with the Native Americans for furs.
To look at St. Croix Island today — a bald spit of rock in the middle of the St. Croix River — the question that immediately pops to mind is, “why would they choose that place?”
Rugged granite bluffs descend from the tiny island’s plateau to the water almost a half-mile distant from the mainland on either side. So far from modern civilization and fending for their survival with little more than ingenuity and whatever supplies they brought across the Atlantic, the Frenchmen had the odds stacked decidedly against them.
But those rugged cliffs and all that water around them were seen by Dugua as protection from possibly hostile Native Americans and the hated English, who were also seeking a foothold in what is now North America. There was only one bit of shoreline on the island that needed fortification and the settlers made that and erecting a cannon among their first tasks. According to the journals of famed explorer Samuel de Champlain, who was one of the settlers, the only assault they ever suffered was from what probably were swarms of pesky Maine black flies having their first taste of white man’s blood.
“All worked so energetically that in a little while [the island] was put in a state of defense, although the mosquitoes (which are little flies) annoyed us excessively in our work,” wrote Champlain shortly after landing at the island in June 1604. “For there were several whose faces were so swollen by their bites that they could scarcely see.”
The 79 members of the expedition quickly erected shelter, though they couldn’t have expected the harsh winter that awaited them. The Down East coast is at the same latitude as warmer climates in southern Europe, but the settlers soon found themselves essentially imprisoned on the island, bare to the elements and surrounded by an ice field that made passage to the mainland impossible.
The lack of vitamin C triggered scurvy — a disease that attacks the body’s collagen and essential disintegrates it from the inside out — in many of the colonists though they didn’t know what it was as they watched each other suffer. Champlain’s accounts of the sickness were unflinching in their ghastly detail.
“Their teeth became very loose, and could be pulled out with the fingers without its causing them pain,” wrote the explorer. “The superfluous flesh was often cut out, which caused them to eject much blood through the mouth. Afterwards, a violent pain seized their arms and legs, which remained swollen and very hard, all spotted as if with flea bites; and they could not walk on account of the contraction of the muscles, so that they were almost without strength and suffered intolerable pains … In a word, they were in such a condition that the majority of them could not rise nor move, and could not even be raised up on their feet without falling down in a swoon. So that out of 79, who composed our party, 35 have died, and more than 20 were on the point of death … We were unable to find any remedy for these maladies.”
In August of 1605, the settlers regrouped and moved to Port Royal, Nova Scotia. A visit back to St. Croix Island in 1606 revealed that its gardens still were producing vegetables, but its days as a French settlement were over. The English burned the remaining structures in 1613 and proceeded to attack Port Royal, as well, commencing decades of skirmishes between the French and English over the riches in the New World.
Scheid, along with countless others, said she wonders how Down East Maine — and by extension Colonial New England — might be different today if the St. Croix settlement had survived.
“I wonder what would have happened if the weather had been different that year,” said Scheid. “Maybe this would be New France and not New England.”
Earle Shettleworth Jr., director of the Maine Historic Preservation Commission, agreed that the course of history could have veered in a different direction with some warmer weather and a source of vitamin C for the 1604 settlers.
“In a sense, [the Maine coast] was the battleground between the English colonies to the south and French Canada,” he said. “It was the fishermen who first really discovered the economic opportunities here, but there’s always the question of leadership and management when you get into establishing a colony.”
French rescue vessels were due at St. Croix Island by April 15, 1605, but they didn’t arrive.
“All began to have an ill-boding, fearing some accident might have befallen them,” wrote Champlain. A month later, the settlers began construction of two small ships in an attempt to rescue themselves, but their savior arrived at about 11 p.m. June 15 when a lookout heard the splashing of oars on the black water.
“God helped us better than we had hoped,” wrote Champlain. “Pont Grave, captain of one of the vessels of Sieur de Monts, arrived in a shallop, informed us that his ship was anchored six leagues from our settlement, and he was welcomed amid great joy by all. The next day the vessel arrived and anchored near our habitation. On the 17th of the month, Sieur de Monts decided to go in quest of a place better adapted for an abode.”
Next: ‘Sacred ground’ of Popham settlement commands archaeologist’s attention.