Archeologists and representatives of the National Park Service have spent two summers exploring what early life was like on St. Croix. Thursday evening they talked about their findings in the park adjacent to Fort Christianvaern in downtown Christiansted.
The Christiansted National Historic Site was a warehouse compound as early as 1749 and housed Danish military personnel as well as the enslaved and free black men and women. Slaves from Africa were sold to Europe, America and the Caribbean, as well as sugar and timber. The area under excavation included the grassy park west of the fort.
Under the Slave Wrecks Project Community Archeology Program, archeologists from the NPS Southeast Archeological Center and the University of Tulsa led an excavation, first launched last July, with a group of interns from the University of the Virgin Islands, the University of Tulsa and Aarhus, Denmark.
“The vital aspect of all this is it is telling us what it was like living here,” Michelle Gray, of the Southeast Archeological Center, said.
This summer’s work focused on plots of ground close to Hospital Street that, under surveillance by ground radar, appeared to contain materials other than soil. After digging, sifting and even washing dirt, one location contained a conch shell floor and another, unearthed just last week, disclosed a brick chimney base in what could have been a bake house.
Doctoral candidate Alicia Odewale of the University of Tulsa, who has documented the findings for the last two summers, talked to an audience Thursday at the NPS Danish West India Guinea Company Warehouse about her findings and conclusions. The artifacts included housewares, building materials, European and Afto-Crucian ceramics, glass shards, metal pieces and bone fragments. More than 1,000 such pieces of history were uncovered this summer alone, she said.
After last summer’s dig, Odewale concluded that slaves worked as seamstresses, stevedores, carriage drivers, interpreters, porters and carpenters. She added agricultural and baking skills based on excavation of a brick oven just last week and a hoe.
Based on the animal bones located during the excavations, Odewale said she believes the slave population stewed their meat and extracted the marrow from the bones while the military households roasted larger animals, such as beef.
The Slave Wrecks Project was started in 2010 and is an international collaboration of researchers working in locations from Africa and Mozambique to St. Croix, Senegal, Brazil and Cuba to highlight the history of slave trade and understand the role of the African slave trade in shaping global history.
Locally the Slave Wrecks Project was started in 2015 with underwater exploration for two sunken vessels – the Mary and the General Abercrombie – around Buck Island National Monument. The Mary sank in 1797 with 266 slaves on board – 244 survived. The General Abercrombie sank in 1803. There were 377 aboard and 339 survivors.
Eight and a half square miles has been surveyed underwater around Buck Island and several anchors – including one that may belong to the General Abercrombie – have been located.
Archeologist Meredith Hardy with the Southeast Archeological Center, said the undersea research being done in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institute, George Washington University and the National Association of Black Scuba Divers, is 90 percent complete and will continue.
Hardy explained that the tie between the African slave market, slaver shipwrecks and St. Croix is the NPS Danish West India Guinea Company Warehouse, where the enslaved were bought and sold. The goal of the Slave Wreck Project is to share research, training and knowledge between the sponsoring organizations.
“We’re beginning to uncover the stories and put a face to the people living here,” she said.