St. Croix Island

Early St. Croix pottery including well fired stoneware, with colors ranging from reddish brown to bluish black as well as buff colored well fired earthenware.

The sherds pictured above are from the excavations of the French settlement on St. Croix Island, Maine.  The island is in the St. Croix river, which serves as the boundary between the United States and Canada.  In 1604, Pierre Du Gua, Seur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain arrived and claimed the territory for New France under the auspices of King Henry IV.  Champlain’s own account Les Voyages was published in 1613.

Seventy-eight men, including Du Gua and Champlain, settled the island.  Their occupations included: carpenter, joiner, mason, stone carver, locksmith, tailor, surgeon and priest.  Timber was carried over from France for building, and the beginnings of a settlement was constructed.  The first winter was very severe.  Thirty-five men died of scurvy, and another 20 were near death.  Champlain later described their physical deterioration,  “Their teeth became very loose, and could be pulled out with the fingers without its causing them pain” (Les Voyages).

In the summer of 1605, the site was abandoned for a more favorable climate.  Later, in 1613, English explorer Samuel Argall, found the remains of the St. Croix settlement (much of the timber had been carried away by Du Gua’s men) and destroyed what was left.  Today, the historical accounts of Champlain and Argall, as well as the archaeological record, reconstruct this tragic and short-lived occupation.

The illustration above, from Champlain’s publication in 1613, is an idealized depiction of the site which, in reality, included only a few finished dwellings and was comprised mostly of huts.  Archaeological and historical sources indicate that a storehouse stood in the north and a church was built by the southern tip of the island.  Evidence of small Indian encampments lay nearby.  As the rate of sickness and death increased, the church’s cemetery grew in size.  Over time, erosion changed the southern shores of the island.  During the 18th century, reports of bones being washed away led to the local name “Bone Island”.

The St. Croix burials. The shallow depth of the graves, the position of the ankles in situ, as well as the lack of any evidence of clothing (buttons, beads, etc) indicate that the dead were buried in shrouds.

Limited archaeology was conducted in the 1950s and in 1968, Temple professor Jacob Gruber led an excavation for the National Park Service.  Gruber and his team uncovered a closer look at the terrible scourge of 1604 and the lives of the early French colonists.  Twenty-three buried individuals were excavated and forensic evidence revealed that two were young boys between the ages of 10 and 12 years of age.  Artifacts were consistent with the historic accounts and included nails, bone scraps, beads and pottery.

The site is now part of the Acadia National Park, and in 2004 all excavated individuals were reburied as part of a ceremony commemorating the 400th anniversary of the founding of New France.  The ceramic sherds pictured above, formerly part of Temple’s collection, will soon be sent to the Acadia National Park to join the rest of their collections of early St. Croix.


“The French Settlement On St. Croix Island, Maine: Excavations for the National Park Service, 1968-1969” by Jacob W. Gruber (1970)

“Champlain’s Dead: The Cemetery at St. Croix” by Jacob W. Gruber (Department of Anthropology, Temple University, n.d.)

Photographs from the Temple Anthropology Lab archives.

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