On occasion, a few critical details do change the course of history

As I detail in Quaking Dover, my history of New England’s third-oldest permanent settlement, the odds against success for early European settlers were nearly overwhelming.

It wasn’t just the English, either.

The French made their first attempt just up the coast from Eastport, where Samuel de Champlain selected an island in what’s now called the St. Croix River at the western edge of the Bay of Fundy or, more specifically, its smaller Passamaquoddy Bay.

St. Croix Island, site of the ill-fated settlement, sits in the river separating the U.S. and Canada today.

The famed explorer was working for Pierre Dugua de Mons, a noble and Protestant merchant who had been given a fur trading monopoly in New France by the king.

Pierre Duguay had some big dreams.

In 1604 the expedition set about establishing a fortified trading post on the security of St. Croix Island and its tidal currents.

Here’s how the settlement on the island was designed. I’d say it was quite ambitious, especially compared to the small settlement that resulted in Dover, New Hampshire.
The enterprise required many skills.
Many of the workers were mere boys.

And then they settled in for the winter, ill prepared for harsh conditions that buried their compound under three feet of snow and iced in the river, cutting them off from fresh water and game.

The lack of fresh water, especially, was a fatal flaw in their plan.

By the time spring arrived, 35 of the French expedition’s 79 men and boys had died, many from scurvy. The remainder survived largely because the thawing river allowed Native Passamaquoddy to arrive and trade nutritious food in exchange for any remaining bread and other goods.

After the colonists’ health improved and ships brought new supplies and more men from France, they abandoned the island and relocated to what would become Port-Royal, Nova Scotia, soon the center of L’Acadie, or Acadia, a large and contested province of New France.

In 1607 the English then made two attempts of their own in the New World. Their Popham colony at the mouth of the Kennebec River in Maine fared no better, while the Jamestown settlement in Virginia managed to hang on.

In 1608, Samuel de Champlain successfully founded Quebec City along the St. Lawrence River. What we know of the St. Croix Island experience comes largely through his journaling.

Quite simply, we could have been speaking French here, had someone thought about drinking water earlier in the game. Or perhaps simply been listened to and respected.


Sculptures at the St. Croix Island International Historic Site, Red Beach in Calais, Maine, are by Ivan Schwartz, Studio EIS.

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