Spanish Archives Yields New Insights into History of Virgin Islands National Park

A 1767 agreement between the King of Spain and the King of Denmark related to this history of the Virgin Islands. NPS photo.

The history of any national park includes stories of people, places and even empires that predate the parks themselves. Virgin Islands National Park's history involves international politics from centuries past, and a trip to the Spanish archives by the park historian yielded some important new insights.

Thanks to funds provided by the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park, Park Historian Milagro Flores traveled to Spain last summer to conduct research and compile documentation from the Spanish archives relating to the parks history and cultural resources. Flores served as the principal investigator for the project, assisted by Doris M. Diaz, an intern (history graduate student) from the Friends of VINP intern program.

Why the Spanish archives? Information from the park notes, "After the discovery of the New World by the Europeans in 1492, Spain maintained control over the new possessions until a few decades later when the English and French began to take control of Spain’s Caribbean colonies, including the Danish settlement on the islands of St. John and St. Thomas during 17th century."

"While the Danish history of St. John is currently being studied, limited research has been conducted within these Spanish repositories regarding the numerous Spanish expeditions that mapped and recorded every move by the English, French and Danish voyagers in order to keep any founding colonies from becoming a threat to Spanish territories in the New World. The purpose of the research project was to try to find information about the Spanish impact on the history of St. John."

The trip was a definite success. A park spokesperson says some 27 primary sources were successfully identified, and the park now has copies of several key documents, and several highlight the role of the Caribbean islands in the slave trade. The documents include:

• An agreement between the King of Spain and the King of Denmark, dated July 21, 1767, for the return of fugitive slaves from the islands of Puerto Rico, Saint Croix, Saint Thomas and St. John.

• An account from the governor of Puerto Rico claiming fugitive slaves.

• A treatise on the management of slaves and on the establishment of a warehouse for fugitive slaves, dated March 3, 1765.

• An ordinance, dated 16 April, 1776, about the restitution of fugitive slaves from Spanish territories.

The information has practical as well as scholarly applications. A better understanding of the cultural, social, political and military aspects of the history of St. John will allow new information to be included in the park's interpretive and educational programs and will be valuable in supporting archeological investigations in the area.

There's likely more information to come. Thanks to additional support from the Friends group, trips in 2011 are expected to complete research in Spanish archives and expand the effort to the British archives as well.