March 23, 2004 – Historical property records located in the Virgin Islands, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and the Danish National Archives can help settle modern-day land disputes in the territory, St. Croix historian George Tyson said Tuesday at a forum on St. John.
"Without those records, they will not be justly resolved," Tyson told the dozen people who attended the forum on "Danish West Indian Land Records from 1671 to 1917" at the Legislature building in Cruz Bay.
The joint Virgin Islands-Denmark Bilateral Archival Commission is meeting this week in the Virgin Islands. The commission was formed in 1999 to provide Virgin Islanders access to records that were shipped from the islands to Denmark after the 1917 transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States.
A second forum is scheduled for 2 to 4 p.m. Wednesday at Government House on St. Thomas.
Tyson said on Tuesday that by using historical land records he was able to resolve a land dispute in St. John's Estate Carolina that had been before the court for several years.
However, there are pitfalls to relying on such records, both Tyson and St. John historian David Knight said.
According to Knight, a study of St. Thomas's Botany Bay area reported by mainland university researchers indicated there were apes on the property. He said that the Danish text was read incorrectly. Instead of apes, it really read asses. "That's a slip-up!" Knight said.
And in many instances, he said, there are several copies of a record, and they differ. He said that in one case, one copy listed a referenced property as being a half acre, while another said it was 1.5 acres.
Many records are missing. Historian Sven Holsoe, who was hired to evaluate the Danish records in the Virgin Islands, said that in some cases only the translations survived. However, he said, those translations were not always of the entire record.
To help researchers, Poul Olsen of the Danish National Archives has compiled "A Finder's Aid from Denmark 2002." The book lays out what records are available in Denmark. The information is also available online at this Danish Virgin Islands archives Web site.
"It's a listing of every record we hold in the national archives," Olsen said, adding that his organization is willing to help anyone in need of assistance in researching Danish records.
Ivadnia E. Scott-Cora of the National Archives in Washington said that agency has complied records on slavery.
St. John resident Gilbert Sprauve asked what is being done to protect records at the local Recorder of Deeds offices. On St. Thomas, "the office is just too open," he said. "People are in and out. I don't see it under supervision."
Sprauve said this issue needs to be taken seriously because the stakes are high when it comes to land ownership in the territory. He also complained that Virgin Islanders are not being taught the Danish language so they can read the historical records.
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