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  • Mikah Meyer

French People Exist in the U.S. Because of this National Park

Unit #47 / 413 - Saint Croix Island International Historic Site

Sometimes this 3+ year journey to all 413 national parks makes me feel like an explorer.

But then I learn about the people who lived in America thousands of years ago, or settled here from across oceans, or surveyed an unknown land, and I feel pretty comfortable given my GPS and van's cruise control.

Using those modern travel luxuries, I made my way across the northern woods of Maine to the easternmost tip of Calais (pronounced like the thing you don't want on your foot).

This border town across the river from New Brunswick is a fitting place to anchor the Saint Croix Island International Historic Site (the only International Historic Site in the NPS system). With eastern Canada being largely French speaking, and the provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, and Quebec once joining Maine to help form the Acadia region, this area is one of the most French in U.S. history.

In the thin watery inlet that separates Maine and New Brunswick, sits an island critical to North America's French influence. It was on this Saint Croix Island that Pierre Dugua, in 1604, attempted to create the first permanent French settlement in North America.

Previous to 1604, there were already French fur traders shipping from the area, but Dugua was granted a monopoly on the industry by the King of France in exchange for the promise of creating a permanent settlement.

So with noted explorer Samuel de Champlain along, Dugua and his men reached present day Nova Scotia on May 8, 1604; sailing around its southwestern shores in search of the perfect place to build this settlement.

Scouting promising locations throughout the month of June, including one bay offering an easily defended thin entrance, Dugua believed he found the perfect spot on June 26: a 6.5 acre island now called Saint Croix.

The location was chosen primarily because of the various angles to fire cannons at British ships trying to enter the Saint Croix River.

Leveling the island's trees to build the settlement, the French became concerned in early October when snow began to fall. For a land on the same latitude as France, it provided another shocking difference when the first week of December saw the river populated with floating ice chunks.

By January and February, those ice chunks became so big they were larger than the men on the island; rendering the .5 mile journey to the mainland impassible. This cut off access to fresh water, game, and wood (all the island's trees were chopped down to build the settlement).

While spirits were low, it was the sailor's health that was even lower. Men began turning ill and dying, and the French couldn't figure out why.

By March, the Passamaquoddy Natives made it to the island with fresh game to trade, and the French swapped their bread. As men began to regain their strength, Champlain wrote that he believed spring's arrival must have cured their bodies.

However, with 35 of the 79 Frenchmen dying that winter, the French of 1604 realized they needed a new settlement and returned the following summer to the bay they'd first found promising, naming it Port-Royal.

While Port-Royal did survive the following winter, the 35 bodies of that initial Saint Croix settlement were left on the island only to be discovered and examined centuries later. Those autopsies determined that they died from scurvy, also known as a Vitamin C deficiency due to lack of fresh fruits and vegetables.

Upon discovering this nearly 400 years later, France awarded the Passamaquoddy tribe its highest medal of honor for their life-saving arrival.

Saint Croix Island is now inaccessible to travelers due to it being a site of archaeological and geological research. Visitors were additionally discouraged after someone was found using a metal detector to take cultural items from the island.

But that doesn't stop the National Park Service from maintaining an educational Visitor Center just across the water, boats from passing near Saint Croix Island's storied shores, or yours truly from heeding the words of local reporter, Amy Jeanroy, who saw my food supply that consisted of primarily dried foods:

"You need to eat more salad on your journey, Mikah! You'll find out why once you finish your tour of this park..."

Saint Croix Island Highlight

1. Visitor Center and Trail toward the Island

Since you can't visit the actual Saint Croix Island, the National Park Service created an informative Visitor Center which explains the above history in more tactile ways. Leaving its front doors, visitors are invited to walk a path of sculptures and info-boards that further explain the story. At the end of the trail, travelers get a view of Saint Croix Island from the mainland beach and can imagine the movements of those early explorers, Natives, and massive ice chunks.

Upcoming Units (COMMENT with recommendations. What should I do at each park? Local interesting detours? Food stops?)

Maine to Massachusetts

-Acadia National Park

-Lowell National Historical Park

-Minute Man National Historical Park

-Salem Maritime National Historic Site

-Saugus Iron Works National Historic Site

-Adams National Historical Park

-Boston African American National Historic Site

-Boston Harbor Islands National Recreation Area

-Boston National Historical Park

-Cape Cod National Seashore

-Frederick Law Olmstead National Historic Site

-John Fitzgerald Kennedy National Historic Site

-Longfellow House-Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site

-New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

-Springfield Armory National Historic Site

The journey thus far:

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