Buck Island Reef National Monument

Buck Island Reef National Monument

History

HISTORY & CULTURE

Buck Island Reef National Monument was established by Presidential proclamation in 1961, and expanded in 2001, in order to preserve "one of the finest marine gardens in the Caribbean Sea." The park is now one of only a few fully marine protected areas in the National Park System. The 176-acre island and surrounding coral reef ecosystem support a large variety of native flora and fauna, including several endangered and threatened species such as hawksbill turtles and brown pelicans. The elkhorn coral barrier reef that surrounds two-thirds of the island has extraordinary coral formations, deep grottoes, abundant reef fishes, sea fans and gorgonians. Although mainly known for its coral reef and nesting sites for turtles and birds, Buck Island has a rich cultural history as well.

Places

How Buck Island Got Its Name

The first maps of St. Croix to name its off-lying cay and island date from the period of French ownership. Maps by Francois Blondel (1667) and Francois Lapointe (1671) both refer to what we now know as Green Cay as Isle a Cabrits (“Goat Island”) and Buck Island as Isle Vert (“Green Island”). Isle Vert was so called because it was originally forested with lignum vitae trees, which have very dark green leaves; from a distance, the island would have a dark green appearance.

In 1750, the first map of St. Croix under Danish ownership was drawn by two surveyors by the names of Jaegersborg and Cronenborg. Isle Vert was now called Pocken-Eyland, but the meaning was the same. Until the mid-1700s, German was the language of educated Danes. The German word for lignum vitae is Pockholz, so Pocken-Eyland literally meant “Lignum Vitae Island.”

Jens Mikkelsen Beck (1754) and Paul Kueffner (1767) printed early maps of St. Croix. Kueffner labeled the former Isle a Cabrits as Gruenkey (German for “Green Cay”), which has continued in its English form to this day; Pocken-Eyland became Bockeneyland. These changes may be explained as follows: It seems likely that the name of the cay and the name of the island were accidentally switched by the engraver.

In the 1700s, maps and illustrations were printed from engraved copper plates. Everything was engraved in reverse (like a negative) so that it would print positive on the paper. One can see how mistakes could occasionally happen. The change from Pocken-Eyland to Bockeneyland simply involved changing the “P” to a “B.”

By the time of Kueffner’s map (1767), Pocken-Eyland had either been leased to or purchased by a Dane with the last name of Diedrich, who was the Town Clerk (recorder of deeds) at Christiansted, which was capital of the “Danish Islands in America.” Contrary to popular legend, Diedrich was not a pirate or a privateer, nor did he live on the island! He established a small settlement of slaves there to cut down the lignum vitae trees for export. This ecological disaster was made worse when goats were introduced to the island in the last quarter of the 1700s. It was the presence of goats that caused subsequent mapmakers to assume that the name Bock was the Dutch word for ram-goat, instead of a misspelling. It was a simple step to convert Bock to the English “Buck” in maps beginning in 1824. Place names on Buck Island, such as “West Beach,” “Turtle Bay,” and “Diedrich’s Point” were invented for the benefit of tourists within the last 40 years!

People

The first people to set foot on buck Island were probably Saladoid, Ostionoid, and/or Taino peoples who used the island as a temporary camp while fishing, hunting manatees and sea turtles, and gathering eggs and conch. These people left behind pottery most attributable to the early Ostioniod styles ca. A.D. 600 and later. They also left behind large quantities of conch shells with holes punched in their apexes – evidence of meat extraction. It has been hypothesized that the home village for these peoples may have been Coakley Bay. Due to a lack of fresh water in Buck Island, it is unlikely that permanent settlements were maintained there. 

The first European known to be associated with Buck Island was Johann Diedrich, the town clerk for Christiansted. Diedrich reportedly built a house “on top the island which provided an unparallel view of the shipping lanes.” There were between 6 and 12 slaves living on the island at any time during his tenure; in 1772, three slave were listed as living on the island. These slaves probably harvested lignumvitae trees, land-crabs, and lobsters, and survived on the island by fishing, gathering shellfish, planting sweet potatoes, and catching rainwater in above ground cisterns.

In 1789, the Danish government constructed a signal station on Buck Island, on the 329-foot elevation Point. The signal keeper and his family would have lived nearby, along with their slaves.

In 1822, Buck Island became the official passion of the Danish Crown through the practice of landskassen (land treasury), or, the appropriation of rural lands by the government for their protection. These lands were then leased to various individuals for appropriate uses, as so determined by the Danish government.

Census data throughout the nineteenth century note that small groups of people we riving on Buck Island. For example, in 1841, six people were living on the island; two fishermen, a housekeeper, and “three professional drunks.”

Comments

There's a problem in this story:

The 1764 IM Beck map can be found in the Library of Congress website (search for St Croix maps). Beck's map clearly labels Buck Island as "Bochen" eyland and not "Pochen". Pochen in German is "pox", as in smallpox.  On the other hand, "Pockholz" in German is Lignum Vitae, a dense wood prized by shipbuilders for things like block and tackle. But it is a long and dubious way to get from Bochen to Pockholz. In linguistic terms, this would be called a "folk etymology."

To complicate things, the 1767 map label "Bochen" appears to be a variant spelling. "Bocken" with a 'k' in German/Dutch does translates as: BUCK, refuse, play, or jib. 

So Bochen = Bocken = Buck. 

Some have suggested "buck" as in "male goats". But I find it highly unlikely that a small island with ZERO fresh water could support a goat herd, much less become known as a goat island, especially as early at the 1700 when there was so much better grazing land onshore right across from Buck Island. Indeed, there's still a goat farm directly across from the island, and the hills east of there are called The Goat Hills. Thus, why anyone would raise goats on that dry island is unfathomable.

Therefore, the better guess is Bocken/Buck as in "refuse" (as in "I refuse") or "play" island?  Indeed, people play on Buck Island every weekend. 

One captain I know suggested it was where sailors were put off if they refused to obey. So that possibility is still alive as well.

To further muddy the water, the Arawak people of the Caribbean and St Croix used the word "buccan" for their meat smoking racks, which many assume is the etymology for the french word "boucanier" ...from which is derived "Buccaneer" or "pirate."  One old Danish map on display in Ft. Christian in Christiansted St Croix labels Buck Island as "Buckeney" island. Buckeney = Buccaneer?  The mystery deepens.