Updated October 6, 2023
In 1493 Christopher Columbus landed on what would later become St Croix, US Virgin Islands at Salt River Bay changing the course of the island’s history and setting the stage for 7 European Flags to fly over the island. Columbus landing on St Croix is the only place on US soil where he actually set foot. And, notably, it was the location of the first violent altercation between the Old World and the New. Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve marks an area of incredible history not only for the island but for the world in general.
The prehistoric site at Salt River is one of the most significant in the whole of the Virgin Islands and tells an important story of the past.
The Indigenous Peoples of St Croix
For thousands of years, Arawak (Igneri and Taino) and Carib Indians inhabited the area now known as Salt River Bay/Columbus Landing. Archaeological research starting from 1880 shows that the land here was a major religious and cultural area and had long-term permanent settlements. Archeological evidence found dates back at least 4,500 years.
Arawak is a broad term that refers to the indigenous peoples of South America and the Caribbean who spoke a common language and had a shared culture. Taino is more commonly used for the “Island Arawaks” which stretched from the Greater Antilles up through the Lesser Antilles (where St Croix can be found) as opposed to the mainland Arawaks.
These first inhabitants of the Caribbean Islands had a rich culture and history and previous excavations at Salt River revealed the only ceremonial Ball Court found in the Caribbean here on St Croix, lending to its historical significance. The area was thriving with indigenous peoples cultivating manioc, soursop, papaya, guava, sapote, yellow sapote, guava, sapodilla, and avocado and fishing in the locally rich waters.
They were skilled artisans with a pottery-making culture that was used for practical purposes and to represent their views of the three realms of the cosmos: the celestial, Earth, and subterranean land and water. Today, we continue to use their words in our everyday lives. These include hammock, hurricane, tobacco, barbecue, and canoe.
Salt River Bay Historic Park and Ecological Preserve
In 1992, Congress declared the area Salt River Bay National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve as part of the National Park System. The designation works to protect the rich cultural story and the delicate mangrove ecosystem and its threatened and endangered species.
Read more detail about the indigenous peoples of Salt River: Archeological Investigations at Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve
Columbus and the First Battle in the New World
On November 14, 1493, Columbus with his fleet of 17 ships landed on St Croix in search of freshwater and local guides to “help” them along the rest of their journey. A small party ventured onto the island and found a sparsely inhabited village. According to historic records, they found Taino Indians who said they’d been captured by Caribs taking over the island. (note: there is still debate as to who these peoples actually were – Taino vs. Carib),
Columbus and his crew were en route taking the villagers back to their ship when they encountered a canoe with several Carib men and women. A skirmish ensued with Columbus’ men firing on the Indians and the Indians retaliating with arrows. The area where it took place, just outside the bay to the Eastern Point is known as “Cape of the Arrows” to this day. Each side lost a man to the fight. At the time of this encounter, it is estimated that there were 20 Indian villages on St Croix with a total population of approximately 1,200. Columbus “claimed” the island for Spain calling it Santa Cruz.
Indigenous People’s Day
Columbus and his crew wrote detailed accounts of their exploits of the islands’ natural resources and their cruel and brutal treatment of the native peoples. Not the least of which is the description of part of the encounter on St Croix. Written by Columbus’ aristocratic shipmate Michele de CuneoIt, it details the murder of a captured “Cannibal” and then the repeated rape of an indigenous woman kidnapped from St Croix – you can read that here [trigger warning]. For this reason, I personally refuse to refer to the holiday as anything other than Indigenous People’s Day.
For the next 100 years, the Spanish battled the local Taino and Carib Indians close to annihilation. By the early 1600s, the island of Santa Cruz was deserted.
Reclaiming the Past
Nowadays, the Virgin Islands celebrate Virgin Islands/Puerto Rico Friendship Day in lieu of Columbus Day owing to the historic connections between the peoples of St Croix and Puerto Rico that date back to long before European contact.
Salt River National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve is now a part of the US National Park system and is a wonderfully serene spot to explore the natural wonders of our island.
History and nature buffs can book a kayak tour with Virgin Kayak Company to explore the mangrove coves and learn about the history of Columbus Cove. You can also visit Virgin Kayak’s original founder Bryan Updyke’s Facebook page: Caribbean Indigenous Arts & Crafts Museum which features his Taino-inspired artwork along with other resources. Bryan passed away in 2020 but his legacy of honoring the pre-Columbian peoples of St Croix lives on through his inspirational work.
SCUBA divers can explore the underwater canyons in Salt River Bay teeming with life. In recent years, tech divers have explored the canyons to depths of 300 feet+.
Take an evening kayak tour of Salt River and experience the wonders of the Bio Bay – a smaller inlet of Salt River Bay that teems with bioluminescent dinoflagellates that light up the water like Avatar!
Columbus Landing St Croix
The beach at Columbus Landing St Croix is quiet and rarely busy. It offers great swimming and has a reef just offshore for snorkeling. There’s little to no shade and no facilities, so be sure to bring a cooler and some shade, and most importantly, practice “Carry in, Carry out”.
Salt River and Columbus Landing St Croix are just one more reason to get out and explore our beautiful island while you are here!