Historical Geography of St. Croix

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The Eighteenth-Century Cartography of
St. Croix, Danish West Indies

Daniel Hopkins


The Kingdom of Denmark maintained a colony in the Lesser Antilles for two and a half centuries, until 1917, when the islands were sold to the United States. The group is now known as the United States Virgin Islands.

The Danish foothold was first established on St. Thomas in the 1670s. It was a mixed and lawless little society of Danes, Dutchmen, and Englishmen, based partly on plantation cultivation of sugar and cotton but more especially on commerce, which can be taken to have included more than just a dash of piracy. The excellent harbor of St. Thomas quickly developed into an important Antillean entrepôt. St. Thomas is rocky and steep, and what land was available is thought to have been exhausted within a few decades, and in 1717, the Danes occupied St. John, the next island to the east.

In 1733, the Danes were able to expand the scope of the colony, now under the administration of the Danish West India and Guinea Company, by purchasing the island of St. Croix from France. St. Croix, which lies forty miles or so south of St. Thomas, had been evacuated by the French at the end of the seventeenth century, and was occupied by a small number of English squatters from the Leeward Islands, some of them planters but most of them more or less itinerant lumbermen.

It is apparent from the records of the deliberations for the purchase and the planning for the settlement of St. Croix that the extent and character of the island were, to a surprising degree, unknown to the Danes. The Company administrators in Copenhagen appear to have placed a great deal of faith in a French Map that had been published sixty years before, in 1671. A number of estimates of the number of plantations that could be carved out of St. Croix were in circulation before the purchase, and some of these were presumably based on this map. The old map represented a major flaw in the Danes' plans, because it exaggerates the area of the island by perhaps as much as a hundred per cent, and, whereas in the case of St. Thomas and St. John land had been granted outright to settlers, it was intended to sell plantation lots on St. Croix for fairly high prices. The expected proceeds from land sales, estimates of the tax base and of customs revenues on sugar exports-indeed, the whole scope of this major national undertaking-were thus overestimated.

A hand-drawn copy of a map of St. Croix, presumably this old French engraving, was sent to St. Thomas in 1733 with the original orders for the occupation of the island. There are at least three manuscript copies of the French map in Danish archival collections, including one intriguing example known to have been fetched home to Denmark from the Virgin Islands after the islands were sold to the United States. This map is now pasted down on card-stock, but it shows signs of having been folded and refolded, and it is tempting to speculate that it might have been carried about in a pocket in the early days of the Danish reconnaissance and settlement of St. Croix. The French names for coastal features have been translated on this map into a strange mixture of Danish and English. The map bears the date 1734 and the name of Captain Friderich Moth, who had been assigned to govern the new Danish establishment. It was years before attempts to reconcile the reality on the ground with the old French map were abandoned.

The Company administrators were not completely naive, however, in their reliance on the old French map. The original orders of 1733 called for the construction of a new map of the island, and a military surveyor was sent out from Denmark to undertake this task. The administrators expressed interest in information about harbors and terrain, but most particularly in the developing layout of plantation properties.

The financial arrangements for the new venture on St. Croix had lasting implications not only for the cartography but for the cultural landscape of the island. The stockholders were forced to re-invest in the company or lose their interest. In order to make this arrangement at least somewhat palatable, the stockholders were promised sugar plantation lots on the as yet unexplored island, and it was decreed that these lots should all be surveyed, in advance of conveyance and settlement, into three hundred lots, each two thousand by three thousand feet. Such a practice was unheard of in this region. Although it was not necessarily so envisioned originally, this requirement was in the event translated into a fairly regular grid of rectangular properties covering the entire island, which is today strikingly expressed in the road network. This survey system was thus in its origins quite a different proposition from the grand and self-consciously rationalistic rectangular survey system imposed upon most of the western part of the United States beginning half a century later.

The stockholders in the Danish West India and Guinea Company included some of the most prominent figures in the society-the King himself, his family, and many of his ministers. These investors provided a core of confidence in the venture. Such a map as they ordered made would be a very important advertisement for the new colonial enterprise, and the survey and mapping of the stockholders' properties on St. Croix was assigned a high priority. The survey was expected to take a few months-the island is only twenty-three miles long and four or five at the widest-but the work dragged on for years. The main obstacles were not technical but administrative and economic. Insufficient resources and personnel were committed to the project. The first engineer sent out to St. Croix lived long enough to make a rough map of the harbor at Bassin, later named Christiansted, and to draw up plans for a fort, but he made no progress towards a map of any substantial area of the island. In fact a series of engineers were sent out in the first years, but none of them lived long, and the early survey and mapping of St. Croix were undertaken for the most part by untrained colonial officials. There is also more than one mention in the records of "compass slaves". The work proceeded very slowly.

The Company Directors were surprised and annoyed by their inability to extract informative maps from the island administrators. The official correspondence is full of increasingly indignant demands for reports of progress and of excuses, recriminations, and delaying tactics from the colony. Maps were repeatedly promised "with the next ship." It was in fact fifteen years before a Danish map of the whole island was produced. In the meantime, the Company had to be content with a series of preliminary cadastral maps of various quarters of the island. Because the grid survey system was so easy to visualize and to draw, the earliest maps were little more than arrangements of rectangles. Most of those that have survived from this first period are large-scale maps of the king's and the Company's own plantations.

Finally, in 1750, a map of the whole island was completed and forwarded to Copenhagen. This is quite an extraordinary piece of work, especially by comparison with what had gone before. It is a new map, the result of fresh survey and compilation from the St. Croix land registers, and thus has no relationship at all to the old French map. The map is signed by Johan Cronenberg and by Johan Jaegersberg, the former the surveyor for the islands and the latter a no-account nobleman who assisted with the survey for a short time. It is drawn at a scale of about one to thirty thousand, which permits the depiction of a great deal of detail. There is one glaring flaw in the map, namely the very poorly rendered northwest coast. The error may be attributed to the fact that Cronenberg was expelled from St. Croix for a time for an adulterous affair, just when the map was nearing completion. It is likely that Jaegersberg, who took over the project but who lacked Cronenberg's dedication and diligence, gave up on the mapping of the very rough North Side mountains, drew in an extremely rough approximation of the coastline, and arranged for the map to be sent home to Copenhagen; he died shortly thereafter. This one line can be taken as evidence that the map was constructed form the inside out, on the framework of the plantation grid; at that time, no plantations had been taken up in the mountains of the North Side, there were no lines of access, no available traverses, no standard blocks to work with. The North Side could not yet be mapped.

Aside from this failing on the North Side, the Cronenberg map is really quite accurate and amazingly informative. The topography, depicted with the hachure marks typical of the period, is remarkably well drawn. Roads and streams appear to be accurately depicted, and there are a tremendous number of coastal place names, for which there would otherwise be no contemporary documentary evidence. But the map is most significant for its depiction of the patterns of settlement and land use on the island. It appears to show every major structure in the rural areas of the island, including slave houses. The map shows the actual outlines of individual fields of sugar cane and cotton, as well as pasture and provision grounds. Here again, it appears that the mappers avoided generalization and stylization; the variety in the patterns of occupation is very convincing. The map absolutely exudes integrity.

What reaction this extraordinarily rich and vivid image of the island may have elicited has proved impossible to reconstruct. We have the letter recording the fact that the map was being sent to Copenhagen, but no acknowledgment of its receipt appears. Here was a completely new and marvelously detailed map of the island, such as the Company directors had been stridently demanding for fifteen years, which fundamentally affected their conception of their colony, but no comment is recorded in the correspondence, What then was the use and meaning of the map? We have no idea of how this practically photographic image from across the sea struck them. Were they encouraged by the advance of cultivation? Did the depiction jibe with the impressions they had been receiving from prose reports and land registers? Were they perhaps dismayed by the extent of the area still in woods and bush? There is no indication. It may be that the administrators had grown complacent. The progress of development was satisfactory, and perhaps cartographic confirmation of this central fact was after all superfluous. Furthermore, the map, because of its very detailed rendering of the harbor approaches and reefs, was probably quickly classified as a military secret by the Danish admiralty, as was common in Denmark at this period. It appears that the map was then literally forgotten.

By contrast, a map made within a few more years by Jens Michelsen Beck, which is inferior to the older map in almost all respects, was engraved and published in Copenhagen in 1754. This map is derived essentially from Cronenberg's work. Beck, serving temporarily as surveyor, presided over the sale of much of the land on the North Side, which began to attract a market when other, more accessible properties on the island had been sold. Four working sketches preserved from the 1750s give an idea of how the cadastral work proceeded. Beck improved the outline of the north coast and added an inset map of Christiansted and a design for the town of Frederiksted, which did not yet exist.

Perhaps the main advantage of Beck's map was that it was a clean and sharp line drawing. There was no attempt to depict relief, and, unlike Cronenberg's map, it did not depend on color for its meaning. It was therefore suitable for engraving. Beck's map became and remained for decades a standard reference map. A series of hand-colored exemplars of the map depict the changing patterns of land ownership, but nothing quite as ambitious as the depiction of agricultural use shown on Cronenberg's map has ever been attempted since.

Cronenberg's and Beck's maps taken together seem to represent a cartographic plateau. For more than thirty years, a German doctor and botanist named Julius von Rohr was in charge of surveys on all three Danish West Indian islands. His cartographic production was undistinguished; he made a few business-like plantation maps in connection with major land transfers and a few maps of defensive positions in the 1760s, in the atmosphere of insecurity of the Seven Years War. He also made a number of excellent watercolor landscapes.

The threat of an encompassing war again stimulated concern about the defense of the Danish West Indies during the American War of Independence. In the late 1770s, the Danish colonial authorities sought advice on the fortifications of the islands from a high ranking Danish general who was himself responsible for the mapping of Norway, which was then part of the Danish kingdom. General Huth recommended a young officer named Peter Lotharius Oxholm, who was dispatched to the West Indies in 1778 with rather an ambitious commission.

He was to map and draw all the fortifications in the islands, and their immediate surroundings. He was to make recommendations for the improvement of the defensive works, with estimates of the likely expense. He was to prepare new topographic maps of the islands of St. Thomas and St. John. In the case of St. Croix, he was to determine whether Beck's map required revision or replacement. The orders made no mention at all of Cronenberg's great map, which apparently was lost to the colonial bureaucracy by this time.

Oxholm embarked on this assignment with such energy as to almost immediately antagonize the local West Indian authorities. Within days of his arrival on St. Croix he was dispensing urgent advice about the government's disposition of valuable building lots close to the fort. He surveyed the roadstead at the West End of St. Croix and the area round the harbor at Christiansted quite meticulously and reported that Beck's map of the island was perfectly serviceable for a map of its kind. One's impression is that the young engineer was dismayed by the difficulty of survey in this difficult terrain and climate. He more than once asked and was denied permission to forgo the mapping of St. Thomas and St. John, but when the unforeseen expense of his mission mounted up, he was called home, having mapped only St. John. His maps and drawing-30 in all-met with approbation at court, and he was rewarded with a handsome bonus. Having married into a prominent St. Croix family, he returned to the islands and settled down as a sugar planter.

In 1789, the threat of war and slave rebellion stimulated a great deal of military building in the Danish West Indies. There is in the of the Queen of Denmark's personal reference library a military map of St. Croix drawn by an officer named Balthazar Muhlenfels in 1789. The map focuses almost exclusively on defensive works and communications, showing a net of roads on the island such as had never before been depicted. What is surprising is that the map is obviously based on Cronenberg's map, done forty years before. It is not known how or where Muhlenfels obtained access to a copy of the old map, but he fell into the trap of reproducing Cronenberg's seriously flawed north coast. The following year, Muhlenfels, who was also for a time in charge of the islands' cadastral records, drew a topographic and cadastral map of St. Croix, on which he drew the North coast properly. Although Muhlenfels's name comes up prominently in letters of recommendation at this periods, no mention of his maps have been found.

In 1794, working privately, Peter Oxholm completed yet another large-scale topographic and cadastral map of St. Croix. He sent this map to the Royal Danish Academy of Sciences and Letters, which was at this time entrusted with the first organized topographic survey of Denmark, hoping that the Academy would publish his map in its series. The Academy declined to publish Oxholm's map on the grounds that it was altogether too finely detailed and of excessively large scale and thus too expensive to engrave. Five years later, Oxholm published it at his own expense. The press run is unknown, but Oxholm is known to have sent copies to the West Indian administration and to the Royal Academy; there are many exemplars in public Danish repositories.

Oxholm's map of St. Croix, like Beck's map half a century before, became a standard reference map, and remained so until the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey mapped the island between 1919 and 1921. It is still in use in cadastral connections in the St. Croix department of public works. It is quite clear, however, that Oxholm, too, relied heavily on the theoretical framework provided by the plantation survey, except in the areas he surveyed around the two towns. In certain respects Muhlenfels's cadastral map was more accurate. It is interesting that Muhlenfels, like Cronenberg, provided the names of the owners of the various plantations, while Oxholm, in a complete departure, immortalized the use of whimsical plantation names like Prosperity, Hope, and Adventure, abruptly altering some of the social and political emphasis of the map. Oxholm's map of the island can be considered a gentleman's intellectual exercise, an engineer's fancy, and its primary audience was perhaps this society of wealthy planters who applied frivolous names to their great agricultural factories built upon slave labor.

There are simple pen and ink diagrams scattered through the official surveyors' books for the three islands, but property plats had no official place in the land registers. In boundary disputes, however, maps were found to be very useful, if only for their rhetorical impact, even on St. Croix, where it had been thought that the regularity of the survey system would preclude such disputes. Five different maps of the Company's plantation Princess were brought to bear in a difficult boundary dispute in the 1740s. In the 1790s, the St. Croix administration was unable to mediate a compromise in a troublesome dispute in the rough country on the North Side of St. Croix. In this case we have an elaborate key to a map made of boundaries in question, referring to a bewildering assortment of colored lines and points, but the map is known, from an old annotation in the official records, to have been missing for a century. A government surveyor named Meley surveyed disputed boundaries on the East End of St. Croix, and the depositions of virtually all of the witnesses in the case refer to a map he made, but the map is lost.

In the face of considerable administrative indifference, Meley strove to institutionalize the functions and standards of official surveys. He was capable of very fine work. Two of his maps survive: one a town plan of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas, made when the town was rebuilding itself after a couple of devastating fires early in the 1800s, the other a map of the very large estate Bethlehem on St. Croix, done in 1779. This estate plan provides an incomparable view of the layout of a large sugar plantation. Did it have any real practical utility in 1779? Did it enter into any decisions about cropping or the allocation of slave gangs? Or was it a purely proprietary statement, celebrating the success, acumen, the very life of the planter?

Maps are crucial to the historical study of the progress of exploration and settlement and of patterns of land use and economic development. The Cronenberg map of St. Croix provides a picture of the extent and distribution of the cultivation of sugar cane and cotton around 1750 that cannot be extracted from any other contemporary historical documents whatsoever: not land registers, tax rolls, shipping lists, or inventories. The map is a unique record.

However, it is not easy to pin down the significance of the maps at the time they were made. Just as today, people appear to have taken maps quite for granted. The archived correspondence is by no means full of expansive critical commentary on maps. Large-scale plans like Oxholm's maps of fortifications had an obvious utility in planning: fields of fire, for example, could be sketched out. It is the smaller-scale maps of whole islands that remain problematic. The message that such a map as Cronenberg's may have conveyed to administrators, politicians, or investors can easily enough be imagined but not so easily documented. Certainly Cronenberg and Oxholm and Meley understood the power of their maps as they took shape on their desks, but very little has yet been learned about their contemporaries' reactions to the maps. We don't really know with any certainty who looked at them, or when, or why.

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