History of Caneel Bay

Over the centuries, Caneel Bay has been occupied by people of diverse cultures and from far away places. From the religious and spiritually oriented culture of indigenous Americans, it passed to the slavery-based plantation system of Europeans and enslaved Africans, then to the subsistence economy of freed slaves and peasant farmers and from there to a series of vacation resorts, starting out as basic cottages and developing into the super-luxurious Caneel Bay Resort of today catering to the well-heeled from North America and beyond.

The first inhabitants of Caneel Bay were the ancestors of the Tainos, who established a village in the coastal section of the valley around 600 AD. For many years, they lived peacefully, planting yucca, fishing, gathering wild fruit, fabricating ceramic pottery, tools and ceremonial objects and conducting their social and religious ceremonies.

This peaceful existence lasted until sometime in the fifteenth century, when Caribs from the Lesser Antilles began a series of devastating raids that apparently depopulated the island, shortly before Europeans ever arrived in the Caribbean. When part of Columbus' fleet sailed past the northern coast of St. John in 1493, the crew, as well as their Taino captives, reported St. John to be uninhabited.

For the next two centuries, St. John remained only sparsely and intermittently inhabited by small groups of Native Americans fleeing persecution, pirates, fugitives of all sorts and colors, fishermen and woodcutters. Meanwhile Denmark colonized St. Thomas, and in the early eighteenth century, gave permission to a group of Dutch planters to set up plantations on St. John.

A Dutchman from the island of Statia, Peter Durloe was one of these original planters. His first claim was what is now called Cinnamon Bay, which he named for the many cinnamon trees, (bay rum) found there. Of course, being Dutch he used the Dutch word for "cinnamon" which is "caneel." Thus, the first Caneel Bay was actually Cinnamon Bay.

What we now call Caneel Bay also had a magnificent stand of bay rum trees for which that bay was similarly named. To distinguish this Caneel Bay from the original Caneel Bay, the former was called Klein Caneel or Little Caneel, and Cinnamon Bay was called Store Caneel or Big Caneel.

When English became the predominant language in the Danish West Indies (now the U.S. Virgin Islands), Store Caneel Bay became know as Cinnamon Bay and Klein Caneel Bay, no longer needing the distinction "little," became, and has remained, Caneel Bay.

In 1733, slaves from the Amina tribe rebelled and took over most of St. John, with the exception of Caneel Bay, where surviving white planters and enslaved Africans from other African tribes with their own long standing animosities against the Aminas, regrouped after the rebellion. With the help of two cannons guarding the entrance to the estate, the small force was able to maintain control of the plantation until the rebellion was put down by French troops from Martinique.

After the rebellion, Caneel Bay continued on as a thriving plantation with sugarcane grown in the mountain valley being refined at the plantation's own sugar works near the beach.

Restored ruins of Caneel Bay sugar mill, Caneel Bay, St. John USVI

After slavery was abolished, the estate declined and reverted to cattle grazing and subsistence farming, until it was purchased by the West India Company of St. Thomas. Appreciating the natural beauty of the bay, the company began to operate a modest resort building three cottages, a small commissary and a narrow wooden dock. Five additional cottages were gradually constructed by the West India Company. In the 1940s when the property was acquired by the Trigo brothers from Puerto Rico, four more cottages were built bringing the total to twelve.

The Caneel Bay commissary was described in the 1960 book, Some True Tales and Legends about Caneel Bay, by Charlotte Dean Stark:

"In the thirties and forties, the housekeeping cottages were for rent, all except #8, which was the manager's cottage. Everything but food was included - electricity from the Caneel Bay Power Plant, all furnishings, and a St. John maid. Food was bought at the commissary by the maid, or by the lady if she felt like choosing her own groceries. The commissary was described by one visiting cottager as a little country store. Natives from all over the island, as well as the dozen or more cottage guests, bought there, as did the half dozen continental families then living on St. John.

"There would sometimes be as many as twenty-five people all trying to buy at once. That was a crowd in those days."

The Trigo Brothers listed the 500 acre property, along with its seven beautiful beaches and the profitable cottage colony for $75,000. Until Laurence Rockefeller obtained the estate in 1952, rumors abounded as to the ultimate fate of the parcel, some of which were prophetic.

In Desmond Holdridge's 1937 account of life on St. John, Escape to the Tropics, he wrote:

"Agnes (Agnes Sewer) said that some 'Dane men' had bought Caneel Bay, a beautiful abandoned estate a couple of miles farther west, and were going to run it for tourists.

"'Bout sixty thousand people comin', I expect,' said Agnes, happy thinking of the money, but sad thinking of the strangers and the changes they will make.

"I reassured her.

"'Not very many are coming, Agnes. Hjalmar Bang is doing it, and he is just going to build a few houses where white folks that enjoy privacy can live. No hotel, no hot dog stands, no nonsense. It won't change very much.'"

More Canel Bay History from the St John Historical Society

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