St. Croix Island: Canada’s modern history

hand drawn map of st croix island nb by champlain

A small island rides the uneasy Fundy tides in the St. Croix estuary between the community of Bayside, New Brunswick and Robbinston, Maine. Rocky and rugged with a sandy bar appearing at low tide, it hardly seems like a likely place to establish a tenuous foothold, let alone a permanent one. Yet, in 1604, that is exactly what was attempted here, at St. Croix Island.

In 2017, Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary as a modern nation. Like all modern countries, however, the roots of Canada twine much deeper into the past. Canada would likely not exist in its current form were in not for the tendrils of root established in this small corner of New Brunswick and Maine by Samuel de Champlain in 1604.

The first French settlement – but not the first settlement

Though we often gauge starting points in North America by the arrival of Europeans (hence the importance of St. Croix Island, as it was the first French settlement in North America and the first attempt at a permanent settlement in what would become Canada) the St. Croix River and estuary are the home of the Passamaquoddy peoples. For them, the island was a convenient place to stop and store goods as they travelled up and down the river. They called the river Schoodic.

The island is beautiful in summer, and the bounty of the local waters and forest, along with the defensive points of the island itself, swayed the explorers to settle there instead of on the mainland. However, their food, fuel, and water sources were all a boat ride across the water, and became inaccessible during the winter months.Without the help of the Passamaquoddy in March 1605, the ill-prepared members of Champlain’s expedition would have all died.¬†Over half of the seventy nine men wintering there died, and the settlement moved to Annapolis Royal the next summer.

The importance of St. Croix Island to modern Canada

If not for that ill-fated attempt at settlement by the French, the modern borders of Canada and the United States might look quite different.

It was partly because of the settlement of the island and Champlain’s records that the St. Croix River was finally agreed as the border following the American Revolution. The British had wanted the Penobscot to mark the boundary; the Americans, the Maguagadavic River. The archaeological remains on the island and a copy of Champlain’s records were the pieces that settled the border as it remains today.

One of the results of that treaty was that this island, so important a piece of Canadian history, become part of the United States. Interpretive sites at Red Beach, Maine and Bayside, NB, mark the first international historic site claimed by both countries. Be sure to plan time to stop at one or both of these sites and consider the role of St. Croix Island in our local, national, and international history.