This post was written by Robin Butterhof, a Digital Conversion Specialist in the Library’s Serial and Government Publications Division.
This month Chronicling America added newspapers from its 50th contributor – the University of the Virgin Islands! This first newspaper from the U.S. Virgin Islands, the St. Croix Avis, provides a deep dive into a particularly tumultuous time in the U.S. Virgin Islands. In 1867, the islands were on the cusp of being sold to the United States when a hurricane, earthquake, and tsunami struck within a month. Covering the events of 1867 was the St. Croix Avis.
1867 in the US Virgin Islands
On October 24, 1867, the Danish government signed a treaty that the then-Danish West Indies would be transferred to the United States, pending ratification by both governments. Behind the treaty was U.S. Secretary of State William Seward, known for his involvement in the purchase of Alaska, which had just transferred from Russia to the United States on October 18, 1867. Well before the Danish treaty, the St. Croix Avis covered Seward’s visit to the islands in January 1866, ostensibly to recover from an assassination attempt, “making a short excursion with his son General Seward for the benefit of their health, both still suffering from the dreadful wounds of the assassin’s dagger.”
After the visit and as the story developed, the Avis published rumors of the impending sale of the islands to the U.S.: “The journals of Denmark are discussing the reported proposition of the United States for the purchase of the island of St. Thomas . . .There was something almost ludicrous in the diplomatic mystery with which these Seward-like preliminaries were conducted.”
Then, Hurricane San Narciso devastated St. Thomas on October 29, and the publishing office of the local newspaper on St. Thomas, the St. Thomas Tidende, was destroyed.
The Avis, approx. 43 miles away on St. Croix and spared the brunt of the storm, published accounts of the hurricane sent in by survivors on St. Thomas: “By mere chance I am alive, at this moment, to pen you these few lines; giving you a brief detail of the sad calamity that has befallen us.”
The Avis also encouraged charity for its “Sister-Island” of St. Thomas: “The number of lives lost cannot as yet be fully ascertained—reports, however, fix the number at 300 persons, principally sea-faring men . . . We trust, and sincerely hope, that the influential part of this community will hasten to circulate a subscription-list, to aid the sufferers of this dire calamity.”
While islanders were still reeling from the hurricane, a devastating earthquake and subsequent tsunami hit in November 1867. “Two very severe shocks of Earthquake, one immediately after the other occurred . . . The frightened people rushed out of their houses, quickly after the occurrence, and then beheld the troubled seas, which had receded soon after the shocks, coming furiously, mountain-high, and dashing on the shore . . .” (St. Croix Avis, November 18, 1867). The 1867 tsunami was one of the largest in recorded history in the Caribbean, and aftershocks from the earthquake continued throughout the month.
By December 1867, the treaty for the sale of the Islands was still in limbo as the United States had not ratified the treaty. During this time, the Avis published editorials about the potential sale and concerns about the reintroduction of slavery, “As to the folly, that if the Americans were to purchase this Island, that Slavery would ever be re-established here. No! The Americans are too honorable, too just, and too generous ever to be guilty of such a crime.” The following year, treaty ratification fizzled in the United States, putting the sale on hold for another fifty years.
The St. Croix Avis Printing Office
Amidst the eventful fall of 1867, news about the St. Croix Avis printing office and its staff also appeared in its pages. Hatchetts were editors and publishers of the St. Croix Avis and its predecessor the Dansk Vestindisk Regierings Avis for at least 30 years, starting with Richard Hatchett in the 1840s. On November 22, 1867, a cryptic notice appeared: “The Undersigned finds it necessary to state that, since the 24th of July last year, he ceased to have any connection with either the editing of the St. Croix Avis or management of the Printing Office. –Hans Hatchett.” Hans Hatchett was listed as the editor from 1865-1866 and returned to the masthead in April 1868, remaining there until 1872. The reasons for Hans’s short-lived departure are unclear, but in 1867, the newspaper was “edited by Peter B. Hatchett and published every Tuesday and Friday for the Proprietress [Harriet Hatchett]” in 1867.
Also in late November, the newspaper apologized for the delay in news from St. Thomas, noting difficulties due “to sickness among the small staff we possess. More than that, necessity compels us at present to paste two sheets of paper together, in order to have one large enough to print on” as the usual paper supplies could not be obtained from St. Thomas.
Tips for Genealogists and Researchers
The Avis published articles and advertisements in a mix of Danish and English. For researchers curious about the Virgin Islands but not fluent in Danish, here are two tips.
TIP 1: Public notices were often published in both languages. If you see an interesting notice but can’t read the Danish, keep reading down the column. The notice would often be translated into English. Here’s an example:
TIP 2: If the notice or article isn’t translated, you can copy or type the text into an online translation tool to get a rough idea of the meaning. Here’s a rough translation from Danish to English for the notice above:
“Official Announcement. Under the current circumstances—The Government has notified the licensees of the exclusive right for sale . . .”
You can access the optical character recognition text (OCR) text in Chronicling America via the “text” link directly above the page image to make it easier to copy and paste the text into a translation tool. However, be aware that there are often typos in the OCR text that can hinder automated translation. You may want to rekey certain words to get a better translation.
Other Non-English Titles in Chronicling America
Beyond the St. Croix Avis, there are numerous newspapers in Chronicling America in languages other than English. If you are researching an ancestor or community but are not fluent in that language, the translation tips for Danish above might be helpful as well. Copying and pasting the OCR text directly into a translation tool can be particularly helpful for newspapers in Fraktur, an ornate font used by earlier German and Scandinavian newspapers that can be difficult to read.
For more information on multilingual titles in Chronicling America,* check out our interactive visualizations with links to titles in specific languages!
* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.