Hike to Estate Retreat

On Saturday February 16th, David Knight and Eleanor Gibney led a wonderful hike to one of St. John’s least documented 18th century sites. About thirty hikers got double-teamed– with historical, social and political information about Estate Retreat from David, and with the enriching view of history that Eleanor’s knowledge of the flora imparts to us.


David introduces us to Estate Retreat as we stand at the foot of Mt. Pleasant–“Retreat is a site intriguingly remote and obscure, even by St John standards.” How did this Estate come to be, and why is its history so obscure? By 1725 or so, all the good lands had been parceled out and taken up, but because of its arid nature, the East end was considered marginal. After the 1733 slave revolt, it was even more difficult to make a living here. Many plantations were failing; and as they did, an immigration opportunity presented itself. These hardy souls, David reminds us, were accustomed to eking out a living on arid islands such as Peter Island, Spanishtown (aka Virgin Gorda), or Anguilla, and they were seeking the refuge of religious and social freedom for their creolized families. These young, growing, mostly-British families needed land; they were comfortable with a seafaring life and with hustling for a modest living, and so they immigrated to the challenging east end of St John, then called the “French Quarter.” Families with names such as Richardson, Moore, Brown, and Coakley, eventually displaced the earlier French Huguenot settlers in this area during the 1760’s through c1800.

Retreat’s directly documented history is obscure partly because of its location outside the mainstream of the Danish system. It sits between the seafaring East End community and the plantation-based Coral Bay community. It was a large estate, though not one necessarily viable from the point of view of the structured economy of the time, which planted and paid taxes in sugar and cotton. Rather, it was a property which found a niche, and with its neighbors, contrived to live passably well. It is also obscure because of its intermittent habitation and serial mergers with other properties. (See the Retreat Timeline accompanying this article on the Society’s web site.) Because of its changing ownership, Retreat’s documentation is fragmented, located in far-flung probate proceedings, or as part of other estates’ tax documents, as it merged through marriage or sale; records are both in English and in Gothic-scripted Danish.

Retreat was granted to the Dane Niles Anderson
in 1728. It was briefly merged with Hermitage
by Dederich Kervink between 1770 and 1782.
The owner of Mt Pleasant, Joseph Coakley,
acquired Retreat in 1805, merging it into
his property. They remained merged thereafter,
minus a few in-holding sales, until their 1910
sale to A.H. Lockhart from St. Thomas, who
speculated that Germany’s intent to build a
naval base in Coral Bay would increase the
value of his investment.
(1780 Oxholm Map showing Hurricane Hole area)

Armed with historical background, we ascend the steep slope east of Mt. Pleasant from Princess Bay. As Eleanor has pre-flagged our route, it is an easy walk up through a well-recovered area of 100% native forest. Where cattle have grazed, Eleanor tells us, plants such as casha, catch and keep and maran bush flourish (as the cattle ate everything else); we find those in small measure near the top of the hill.

Those of us in sandals also find “suckers,’ (finger sized opuntia cacti), additional signs of grazing. Here and there are remnants of pinguin, (wild pine) “fences’, which would have met the Danish government’s requirement for a vegetative barricade to supplement a wood post fence. (Prickley Pear, also called Blyden Bush, was also used as barricade, as was catch’ n’ keep, our “country policeman.’) There are a few trees that would have been field trees. There is Amarat (Acacia muricata), a dark green twice-pinnate spineless acacia tree good for soil building, used for charcoal and as building material. A “white cedar’ (Tabebuia heterophylla), which is neither white nor cedar, was sporting its pale pink trumpet-vine like flowers. Its wood was excellent boat building material. Eleanor also points out a few young multi-trunked lignum vitae (Guaiacum officinale); as a self-lubricating wood used for bearings and blocks it would also have been a welcome planted resource. We also spot Maubi, or snake bark (Colubrina eliptica). No doubt every tree, vine, bush or weed was used for something!!

Also on our path is a tree once thought extinct from its original narrow range of the East end of St John–the Solanum conocarpum. “It is so rare it doesn’t have a common name,” Eleanor informs.

Everyone asks the ages of trees, but Eleanor reminds us that tree rings do not represent annual growth in our environment–and there are no postcards or photos of Retreat to help the dating process.

There is less of a carpet of artifacts, David tells us, than in his youthful island meanderings. One hiker finds a black glass “English port’ bottle dating to the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, a utilitarian bottle that would have been used, reused, and possibly transported, so that finding just one is not a good clue for pinpointing occupation of the site. A single piece of chaynee (blue and white porcelain pottery, aka chanee or chinee) is found. Conchs, possibly once adornments of graves, are scattered. Being good Park guests and historians, we are careful to leave everything in situ as we find it.

It would have been a simple life. David read from an “Evaluation of Retreat’s land and buildings’ belonging to John Richard Richardson, found in his wife’s Probate dated July 9, 1800. It says in part “a plantage lies in this island in the East End quarter, planted with a little cotton and provisions. Hereon is a new dwelling house of American shingles and a little magazine and a few Negro houses. ” This description is in keeping with the modest footprint of this and other plantages in the area that are not involved in large-scale sugaring or cotton raising; it was valued at 5,512 rigsdallers.

Pedro Acevedo, botanist author of The Flora of St. John,
found a rare example of Solanum conocarpum; through
various generations of cuttings, it now appears quite happy to
flower and reproduce in crowed captivity. There is a stand
on Estate Concordia Beach next to Nany point, but it
remains a curiosity why it is such a rare plant in the wild.

We walk past large fruiting tamarinds (Tamarindus indicus), which may have been planted near the cleared ground as social meeting trees. We also pass small stands of torchwood, Amyrus elemifera, a citrus-y plant whose common name is ascribed to this and other plants that will burn when green and can be used as disposable flashlights. Then at the crest of the hill, we come upon the magazine, the storehouse or barn used to keep cotton and any “Indian provisions’ (cassava and corn) dry. The roots of a huge loblolly, or water mampoo (Pisonia subcordata), sprawl on the north side of the magazine.

The foundations of the house, possibly a 2 story structure with two rooms up and two down, sit on the crest of the hill collecting breeze from the north and east. The foundations slope away from the wood-post and daub and wattle walls, keeping the house dry. David notes that there is no evidence of a water storage facility; there may have been large earthenware jars to collect rain from the roof, although wells in the valley below were most likely the primary source. We do not find all the buildings we would expect from a “standard’ footprint. There must have been nearby outbuildings for slaves. The kitchen, whose remains are in the debris field on the north slope, would have been accompanied by an oven, now only rubble. In keeping with the estate’s merger history, the house was probably lived in only a short time; after Mr. Richardson’s death, his wife probably relocated to her much grander family home at Brown Bay.

East of the site, Mennebeck Bay would have been the north landing spot for Retreat’s boats. Major shipping, however, would have transpired through the Hurricane Hole, where, David recalls, he once snorkeled over a sunken lighter; the water is deep enough along the shore there that cattle could easily have walked from a sandspit onto the lighter for transport.

Homesteaders on Retreat and nearby estates lived in times of increasing interaction and “cross migration’ as social and political circumstances evolved. David notes that they did business mostly with their British “cousins’ in nearby Tortola’s communities, avoiding, or perhaps evading, the longer “required’ Danish trading routes through St Thomas. With the passage of the British slave Act of 1783, significant cross migration between Tortola and St. John began; British restrictions on “free-coloured’s’ rights led to much relocation to St. John. Then the British colonies abolished slavery; the Foreign Slave Act of 1825 stated “any persons arriving in any of his Majesty’s Colonies from any foreign island or state where they were lawfully held in slavery, are not to be sent back thither as slaves, or to be dealt with as slaves.” Any enslaved person reaching Tortola could declare himself free. With this Act, there was a sharp upturn in attempted escape from St John.

David read an excerpt from Reminiscences of the West India Islands, a collection of stories of the Methodist Missionaries, wherein a regular shopping foray from St. John to Tortola and one of these attempted escapes by two slaves is recounted; one is named Harry. When we turn to an excerpt from Hester Coakley’s Probate, which lists the land and slaves of Estates Hermitage and Mount Pleaseant c1799, there is the highly valued Harry!!! (The full account of this caper and a look at raising turtles in kraals, (another niche-y approach to survival), follows this hike summary.

Our short (200 year) hike over, we turn back toward Princess Bay. A few turpentine trees (Bursera simaruba) have dropped zillions of seeds and as we crush the seedlings, they flavor the air. We thank Eleanor and David for giving us an appreciation of how homesteaders made a unique living here, and alerting us of our need to learn at least two dead languages–Latin and Gothic-scripted old Danish.

See the related items:


Resource Title Attributes
Article Bay Rum: A Niche of Distinction in VI History Schulterbrandt, L.D.N., Gail
Article Forest Island Gibney, Eleanor
Article Soldier Crab Saga Boulon, Rafe
Article Quicklime – An Essential Material of the Colonial Period Knight, David
Article St. John’s Indigo Years Near, Don
Article Exploring Lieven Marche Bay Estate Ruins Knight, David
Article Nineteenth Century Ornithologist at Estate Adrian Ober, Frederick
Article Report of the Earthquake of 1867 Housel, Louis van
Article November Rain Gibney, Eleanor
Article Of Waterfalls and Rock Carvings deBooy, Theodoor and Faris, John T.
Article Earth Day 2008 on the SJHS Provisions Grounds Schoonover, Bruce & Swank, Robin
Article Hike to Estate Retreat Swank, Robin
Article Estate Sieben-Mollendal Hike Knight, David
Article Creque Marine Railway, Hassel Island, a Walking Tour Swank, Robin
Article Earthquakes & Tsunamis: Prospects for the Virgin Islands Watlington, Roy and Lincoln, Shirley
Article Lignum vitae: Beauty, Strength, and the Fallibility of Medicine Gibney, Eleanor
Article Fever Gibney, Eleanor
Article Historical Society Installs Plant Signs at Annaberg Schoonover, Bruce
Article A Banker in the Danish West Indian Islands Hoist, Olav (in Danish), Translation courtesy of Nina York
Article Brief History of Sugar and Sugar Production in the West Indies Knight, David
Article How Sugar Was Made on St. John during the Danish Colonial Period Knight, David
Article Hassel Island Chronology Gjessing, Fredrick
Article Estate Retreat Chronology Knight, David
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/St John Scenes/Thumbnails/500210.jpg Bay Rum Factory in Coral Bay, 1919
Creator: Tyge Hvass
Owner: Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/hogsheads.jpg Barrels of Sugar on the way to port
Creator: na
Owner: Private collection
Post Card
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/Ox Mill.jpg A working sugar mill somewhere in the West Indies
Creator: na
Owner: Private collection
Post Card
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/DrawingFishPots.jpg Drawing Fish Pots
Creator: J. Lightbourn
Owner: Private collection
Post Card
thumbnail for Galleries/Documents/Thumbnails/Congo-Rocks-2.jpg Rocks from Congo Key in place at San Juan Harbor, circa 1920
Owner: photo and text from U.S. National Archives
thumbnail for Galleries/Documents/Thumbnails/Congo-Rocks.jpg Loading rock at Congo Key, circa 1920
Owner: photo and text from U.S. National Archives
Estate Bordeaux Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Braithwaithe, Thomas. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Calabashboom Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Reich, Mathias’s widow. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Caroline Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Schimmelmann’s heirs. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Concordia Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Moll, Christian. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Emmaus Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Moravian Brothers. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Fortsberg Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Zimmermann, Johannes. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Freeman’s Ground #1 Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Johnston, Wm.. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Freeman’s Ground #2 Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Johnston, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Friis + Merche Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Merche & Johnston. Crop=Cotton.
Estate John’s Folly Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Vanderpool, John. Crop=Cotton.
Browns Bay
Hurricane Hole
Estate Lambrech de Cooning Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Weyle, J.S. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Little Plantation Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Braithwaithe, Thomas. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Mollendahl Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Moll, Christian with Wm. Runnels. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Quacco Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Johnston, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Runnal’s Gut Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Parrett, John. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Saunder’s Gut Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Parrett, J.P. & S. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Usher’s Cay Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Zimmermann, Johannes. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Windy Hill Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Cameron & Hassard. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Zootenval Qtr=Coral Bay. Owner=Sewer, Abraham’s heirs. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Adrian Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=McBean, Wm. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Belview Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Turnbull, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Bethany Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Moravian Brothers. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Beverhoudtsberg Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=van Beverhoudt’s heirs. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Catherineberg (AKA Cathrineberg) Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Heyliger, N.S. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Contant Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=McBean, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Denis Bay Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Knevels’ heirs. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Enighed Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Wood, Joh. (Agent). Crop=Sugar.
Estate Gift Hill #1 Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Zytzema, Johannes. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Gift Hill #2 Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Zytzema, Betty. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Glucksberg Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=van Beverhoudt. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Great Cruz Bay + Chocolate Hole Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Heyliger, N.S. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Guinea Gut Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Turnbull, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Jochumsdahl Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Heyliger, N.S. Crop=Sugar.
Estate John Salomans Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Ruan. Crop=Sugar.
Estate L’ Esperance Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Vriehuis, D.J. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Lindholm Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Massman J. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Little Caneel Bay Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Ruan, James. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Lovango Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Hazzell, George. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Pastory/Groenwald Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Dutch Reformed Church. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Rondesvous + Ditlef Point Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=de Bretton, Baronesse. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Sans Souci Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Turnbull, Wm. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Susannaberg Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=Knevels’ heirs. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Trunk Bay Qtr=Cruz Bay. Owner=McBean, Wm. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Hansen #1 Qtr=East End. Owner=Lind. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Hansen #2 Qtr=East End. Owner=Johnston, Wm. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Haulover Qtr=East End. Owner=Smith, Seth. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Hermitage Qtr=East End. Owner=Coakley, Joseph. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Mount Pleasant + Retreat Qtr=East End. Owner=Coakley, Joseph. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Newfound Bay #1 Qtr=East End. Owner=George, Andreas. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Newfound Bay #2 Qtr=East End. Owner=George, Abrah.’s widow. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Annaberg Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Murphy, James. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Brownsbay Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Murphy, James. Crop=Sugar.
Estate deWintberg Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Cameron & Hassard. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Fridrichsdahl + Fridrichsberg Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Dick, Quintin. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Great Caneel Bay Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Cronenberg, Hans. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Mariadahl Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Cameron & Hassard. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Maria’s Hope Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Weyle, J.S. Crop=Coffee.
Estate Mary’s Point Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=”Murphy, James. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Rustenberg + Adventure Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=”Turnbull, Wm. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Water Lemon Cay (AKA: Leinster Bay) Qtr=Maho Bay. Owner=Murphy, James. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Cabrithorn Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Braithwaite, Thomas. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Fish Bay #1 Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Knevels’ heirs. Crop=Mixed.
Estate Fish Bay #2 Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Knevels’ heirs. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Great Lamesure Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Braithwaite, Thomas. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Hope Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Michell, L. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Little Lamesure Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Braithwaite, Thomas. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Little Reef Bay Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Knevels. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Misgunst Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Michell, L. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Mollendal Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Vriehuis, D.J. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Paquerau Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Weyle, J.S. Crop=Cotton.
Estate Par Force Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Vriehuis, D.J. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Reef Bay Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Vriehuis, D.J. Crop=Sugar.
Estate Sieben Qtr=Reef Bay. Owner=Vriehuis, D.J. Crop=Sugar.

Robin Swank

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