Virgin Islands National Park
St. John is abound with hiking trails through its gorgeous and expansive National Park. The Reef Bay trail is one of our favorites as it taks you through an expansive valley or “gut.” While we reference this amazing trail often, we rarely get the opportunity to talk aobut the history of the Reef Bay Valley. This month we are talking about history of the Virgin Islands and Reef Bay is a great spot to start!
One of our favorite resources for St. John history is from Gerald Singer and his incredible book, St. John Off the Beaten Track. It is a fun read with a plethora of knowledge about the history of St. John, the best beaches, trails and more. In his book, Gerald also tells us about the history of Reef Bay Valley:
“The first human inhabitants of Reef Bay were hunter-gatherers who arrived in St. John almost 3,000 years ago. These primitive peoples were conquered or replaced by a farming-oriented society who were the biological ancestors of the Tainos, the people who Columbus encountered on his voyage across the Atlantic. The farmers, like the hunter-gatherers, migrated from the South American mainland and up the island chain of the Lesser Antilles arriving in St. John about 2,000 years ago.
When Columbus sailed past St. John in 1493, he reported the island to be uninhabited. The Tainos that lived on St. John may have already fled the island in the wake of Carib raids or they may have gone into hiding at the approach of Columbus’ fleet, later to fall victim to the depredations visited upon them by the Spanish colonizers.
In the early sixteenth century, St. John was reported to be re-inhabited by Amerindians feeling Spanish persecution in St. Croix and Puerto Rico. By 1550, the island appeared to have been totally uninhabited, and it remained that way for about 100 years.
Between 1671 and 1717, St. John was intermittently occupied by small groups of woodcutters, sailors, fisherman and farmers.
St. John was officially colonized and settled by the Danes in 1718. By 1726, all of the land in the Reef Bay Valley had been parceled out to form 12 plantations. At first, these estates were devoted to a variety of agricultural provisions such as cotton, cocoa, coffee, ground provisions (yams, yucca, sweet potato, taro, corn, etc.) and the raising of stock animals as well as to to the productions of sugarcane.
By the later part of the eighteenth century, the 12 plantations were consolidated into five, and sugar became the dominant crop in the valley. Only Little Reef Bay never switched to sugar, growing some cotton but primarily concentrating on ground provisions and animals that were sold to the neighboring plantations.
By the end of the eighteenth century, when sugar productions was at its peak, and the population of the valley was at its greatest (300), about half of Reef Bay Valley was classified as woodland.
In the nineteenth century, agriculture in the Reef Bay Valley began to decline. By 1915, only Par Force and Little Reef Bay in the lower valley were still active, but with only ten acres planted in sugar. Otherwise the plantations were devoted to cattle and other livestock, coconuts, fruit trees and ground provisions.” (excerpt from St. John Off the Beaten Track by Gerald Singer, Copyright 2006).
When hiking the Reef Bay Trail, one can take the quick trail to the Petroglyphs to stop and see carvings that were likely created by the Tainos prior to Columbus’ arrival. (look closely, you may see the familiar Caneel Bay logo carved in stone).
You will also see the remains of the Par Force plantation, the ruins of Josie Gut Sugar Estate, the Reef Bay Sugar Mill (which is still in great condition) and more. It’s a stunning hike through some of St. John’s rich history as well as an opportunity to learn more about the trees and plants of St. John.
We highly suggest picking up a copy of this book prior to a trip to St. John, or even as a resident, as there is so much rich history and so many incredible stories about St. John that even locals may not know! You can also learn a bit here as well!
We’ve talked a lot this month about the Virgin Islands National Parks – after all, it’s part of what makes our islands so special! The VI National Park not only protects and preserves our beautiful islands, beaches and coastal waters, but it also serves as a platform for learning! There are some fun ways to experience the VI National Parks!
The Friends of the VI National Park (which we talk more about, here), offers a slew of seminars, hikes, coastal cleanups and events where you can get involved and learn more about the history, ecology, archaeology and more of our islands. Whether it’s a snorkel tour, a guided hike or a tropical ecology lecture and tour, there is something interesting and exciting for everyone. Through the Friends of the VI National Park seminar series, you can even learn how to make hot pepper sauce or shoot underwater photography! A few of our favorite upcoming activities can be found below, or check here for the full schedule of events.
The Beach to Beach Power Swim is also coming up in May, so sign up and find more information on the Friends website here. Get involved, learn something new and experience more of the VI!
The Virgin Islands National Park is a United States National Park covering approximately 60% of the island of St. John in the United States Virgin Islands
Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the natural and cultural resources of Virgin Islands National Park and promotes the responsible enjoyment of this unique national treasure. The organizations main goals are to Preserve, Protect and Educate.
Friends of Virgin Islands National Park is only as strong as its members and donors make it. Your support is essential to ensure the protection and preservation of the Park for future generations CLICK HERE to donate! Or you can visit our online store and support our efforts by purchasing your own Friends of Virgin Islands National Park apparel and gifts.
The Friends of Virgin Islands National Park website explains “Virgin Islands National Park, renowned throughout the world for its breathtaking beauty, covers approximately 3/5 of St. John, and nearly all of Hassel Island in the Charlotte Amalie harbor on St. Thomas. Within its borders lie protected bays of crystal blue-green waters teeming with coral reef life, white sandy beaches shaded by seagrape trees, coconut palms, and tropical forests providing habitat for over 800 species of plants. To these amazing natural resources, add relics from the Pre-Colombian Amerindian Civilization, remains of the Danish Colonial Sugar Plantations, and reminders of African Slavery and the Subsistence Culture that followed during the 100 years after Emancipation – all part of the rich cultural history of the Park and its island home.”
Help us keep our island beautiful by protecting our National Park CLICK HERE to stay updated and read The Friends of Virgin Islands National Park news letter.
To honor the Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park and the 11th annual gala being held tomorrow, this month we are covering all things National Parks in the Virgin Islands!
For those that are not very familiar with the Virgin Islands, you might be surprised to hear that St. John is approximately 60% national park!
Here is a quick history and facts about the St. John National Park:
In 1917 the United States bought St. John from Denmark. By the 1930’s, news of the beautiful American island had spread to the United States mainland and the beginning of what was to become a tourism boom on St. John was established.
Laurence Rockefeller in 1956 donated land to the Federal Government to establish a National Park. The 5000 acres became the nation’s twenty-ninth National Park. The land was presented to Fred Seaton, who was the Secretary of the Interior, he promised the government would ‘take good and proper care of these precious acres and verdant hills and valleys and miles of sunny, sandy shores’. Since then other donations have been made and presently the Virgin Islands National Park includes 7200 acres of land and 5600 acres of underwater lands.
Today St. John thrives as a favored tourist destination. A construction boom in the past couple of years is changing St. John from a quiet, sleepy island to one with a little more traffic and development.
Note: The information contained in this brief history was gathered from St. John Backtime Eyewitness Accounts from 1718 to 1956, compiled by Ruth Hull Low and Rafael Valls, printed in 1985 and John Lonzo Anderson’s Random Notes on the History of St. John printed in 1970.
You can also read more on the park at National Geographic by clicking here
Look out for our post next week overviewing what the Friends of National Park is, and the following week a more in-depth post including more specific information on St. John’s National Park!