Saturday's event was the culmination of seven years effort, meticulously transcribing thousands of records from the Danish colonial period of St. Croix. Tax records, slave lists, census reports, church and school records, vaccination records – brittle paper documents that have sat for years and centuries unread on shelves in the Danish National Archive, the U.S. Archives, and on St. Croix – have been organized online in a way that can bring the people of the past to life for the people of today and the future.
The result is a searchable database of more than 1.8 million entries that will help both professional researchers, educators, and – perhaps most importantly – average Crucians learn about the people who lived on and built St. Croix from 1734 until the territory was transferred to the United States in 1917.
The project will be on display at the fort in Frederiksted Sunday. A public presentation of the St. Croix Population Database will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. at the fort. Visitors can view stories from the database, watch demonstrations of how it can be used to track family histories, and hear presentations on family histories discovered through the project.
George Tyson, president of Virgin Islands Social History Associates, said the collection allows "travel back through time."
The collection is unique, he said, in that a person on St. Croix can use it not just to find a distant relative, but to learn exactly where that person worked, and often what slave ship brought him or her to St. Croix, and from what specific place in Africa he originated.
"This has all been possible because the Danes were – what's the word I want? – inveterate record keepers," he said.
According to Poul E. Olsen from the Danish National Archive, St. Croix got lucky that so much of its documentary history was preserved. The tropical weather is hard on such records and few islands have such a rich written history to draw from. When the territory passed into American control, Danish officials wanted to send the old records back to Copenhagen.
"The American naval officers who were in charge said, 'We want the space, you want the records. We should be able to work something out.'"
The result, he said, is more than one mile of shelf space reserved for these records. The project also drew on another set of records taking up a quarter mile of shelf space in the U.S. Archives, and many records that were preserved on the islands.
While these are, for the most part, dry government documents seeking to record property transactions, local head counts and slave ownership so that the Danish king was assured of getting his share of the taxes, they tell a story of the life on the islands and the people who worked here.
Mary Roebuck, one of the data entry specialists who painstakingly transcribed the information from the records to the database, described how difficult and often emotional the process was.
Most of the records are in Danish, she said, and some in Latin. They were handwritten documents and often the writing was barely legible. Sometimes it would take two or three people poring over the document to decipher a name or place. After a while, she said, they got to be able to recognize what clerk a hundred or more years ago had recorded a particular document just from his penmanship.
One particularly troubling document, when she'd spent hours trying to figure out the name of a slave scrawled on a document, she finally put it aside and went to sleep. But she felt as if she wasn't alone.
"I felt that person standing next tio my bed, whispering, 'This is how you spell my name.' But maybe when I jumped up he got scared and ran away, because I still couldn't read it."
The task was a "rollercoaster of emotions," she said.
"You'd go through anger, empathy, and sometimes you'd laugh ... It gives you a sense of who you really are."
Roebuck became particularly drawn to a slave known in the records only as "Nanny." I just got this connection with a lady called Nanny. I first found her as a little girl working in the fields," she said. Following her through the years, Roebuck found a record that Nanny gave birth to a baby, but also found that "Nanny's baby," the only record of the child, had died the same year.
In the next year's records Nanny wasn't listed with the slaves of Solitude. Then Roebuck found her – listed among the people who had died. Roebuck checked the dates and realized that Nanny had died just a short time after her baby did.
Telling the story, Roebuck became overcome with emotion and had to pause for a moment, then continued.
"I was really upset. She had become a real person to me. I looked out my window and saw my cousins playing in the yard, right where Nanny had lived, but she wasn't playing."
Another record surprised her, she said, when she learned that a female ancestor of her had been a slave – owned by a black man. Then she realized that the owner had been the father of all that woman's children, making him Roebuck's ancestor as well.
"That's a whole other set of issues," she said.
The database will be available for people on St. Croix to use at the Landmark Society's office at the Whim Museum, and at the Florence Williams Library in Christiansted.
It is also available online through an arranegment with ancestry.com, the largest genealogical site on the Web. Brian Peterson, content manager of ancestry.com, was at Saturday's launch ceremony. The project's records will be available on ancestry.com for free through the rest of July.