St. Croix kicked off 2023 by officially being designated a National Heritage Area, formally recognizing the importance of island’s history, culture and unique landscapes to the history and heritage of the United States. St. Croix’s art, music, dance, food, folklore and culture have been shaped by centuries of people who have lived here and the bounty of natural resources available. St. Croix has bore witness to pre-historic indigenous peoples, the landing of Christopher Columbus followed by European settlers and colonization, slavery and emancipation, and, more recently, the migration and merging of many global cultures. The island is a Caribbean gem, with sub-tropical rainforest, fertile valleys, coastal plains, beaches, desert-like shrublands, rocky hills, and a diverse marine environment rich with coral reefs. Being named a National Heritage Area will not only encourage preservation and appreciation of this history and heritage, but will raise St. Croix’s profile as a destination for cultural tourism.
What is a National Heritage Area?
National Heritage Areas (NHA) are: ‘Areas designated by Congress as places where natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape. Through their resources, NHAs tell important stories that celebrate our nation’s diverse heritage.’ Congress passed the National Heritage Act in 2022, creating a formal system for America’s NHAs and designating seven new ones, including St. Croix, USVI.
‘Our history, complicated as it may be, serves as a rallying point for Americans of different backgrounds and ideologies. This piece of legislation exemplifies what our country can do when we stand together to protect our shared legacy.’Alan Spears, Senior Director for Cultural Resources for National Parks Conservation Association
Benefits of NHAs
As a National Heritage Area St. Croix is now eligible for long-term benefits administered and coordinated by the National Park Service, including: Congressionally-authorized matching funds, technical assistance, and a strong partnership with NPS. Most NHAs are authorized to receive up to $1 million annually over a set period of time (actual annual funds typically range from $150,000 – $750,000). Being a NHA has many more benefits though, ranging from positive impacts on the community to conservation and preservation.
‘NHAs engage community through education, volunteerism, outdoor recreation, the arts, and more. Place-based storytelling and public engagement allows every American to remember, celebrate, and engage with our past while building powerful community bonds. NHAs ensure that future generations may also engage in meaningful relationships with American history, culture and landscapes by preserving these spaces and the stories they represent.’The Alliance of National Heritage Areas
Feasibility Study for a St. Croix National Heritage Area
While St. Croix may be small in land area, it’s rich and diverse in its heritage. In 2010, the Feasibility Study for a St. Croix National Heritage Area was published after years of legislation, research and coordination between federal and territorial government divisions, local non-profit organizations and Crucian culture bearers. You can read the full 218 page study, but here are key factors that contributed to St. Croix being named a NHA:
Natural, Cultural, Historic, and Scenic Resources
‘St. Croix is home to dozens of protected sites, many of which are open to the public to learn about and experience the island’s heritage. These protected sites and areas are important to the people of St. Croix, allowing them to pass on their natural, historical, and cultural heritage from one generation to the next.’ Just a few of these sites include:
- Buck Island Reef National Monument
- Christiansted National Historic Site
- Estate Diamond/Cruzan Rum Factory
- Estate Little Princess/The Nature Conservancy
- Estate Mt. Washington
- Estate Whim Plantation Museum
- Fort Frederik
- Frederiksted National Historic District
- Friedensthal and Other Churches
- Government House
- Green Cay National Wildlife Refuge
- Lawaetz Family Museum Estate at Little La Grange
- Maroon Ridge
- Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve / Columbus Landing Site
- Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge
- Southgate Coastal Reserve
- St. Croix East End Marine Park
- St. George Village Botanical Garden / Estate St. George National Historic District
Traditions, Customs, Beliefs, and Folklife
‘The distinctive mix of traditions, customs, beliefs, and folklife of St. Croix reflect a long history of migration to the island. The island’s first inhabitants are believed to have come from South and Central America. The later Colonial Era brought Europeans and slaves taken from West Africa. Much later, Puerto Ricans from the island of Vieques came to St. Croix in search of agricultural jobs and a new home… This unique diversity of cultural traditions can be experienced through the island’s traditional music, dance, food, and cultural events.’
Opportunities for Conservation
St. Croix provides outstanding opportunities to conserve natural, cultural, historic, and scenic features that are fundamental to the island’s heritage. There are dozens of amazing organizations on the island that are working to conserve the resources of St. Croix, including: Caribbean Museum Center for the Arts, Crucian Heritage and Nature Tourism (CHANT), Farmers in Action, Our Town Frederiksted, The Society of Virgin Islands Historians, St. Croix Environmental Association, St. Croix Friends of Denmark, St. Croix Landmarks Society, Virgin Islands Council on the Arts, and Virgin Islands Farmer’s Cooperative – just to name a few.
Recreational and Educational Opportunities
St. Croix provides a wide range of outstanding recreational and educational opportunities for island residents and visitors to experience and appreciate the remarkable heritage of the Crucian people. These opportunities can include snorkeling at coral reefs, touring colonial sugar plantations, attending a Crucian festival, learning about local farming practices, scuba diving, fishing, hiking, touring museums/nature preserves, visiting local churches, and taking historic walking tours. Each opportunity allows visitors to engage in a distinct aspect of the island’s heritage and become more closely connected to the island’s culture.
It has taken more than 20 years for St. Croix to garner the National Heritage Area designation, beginning in 2002 with then-VI Delegate to Congress Donna Christensen. After years of work, VI Delegate to Congress Stacey Plaskett re-introduced the bill in 2021 and, on January 5, 2023, President Joe Biden signed the legislation into law. You can read more about the bill and its passage in this article.
Thank you to everyone involved in the process for their hard work and dedication to get St. Croix this much deserved status. We look forward to the promotion of St. Croix as a National Heritage Area and hope that it will bring new visitors who will appreciate the Crucian history and culture, as well as encourage the coming generations to preserve and protect our unique island heritage.
-Jennie Ogden, Editor