Reflections on Free Gut History

As Virgin Islanders, we are so lucky to receive students, interns, and fellows from all over the world.  Here are the reflections of a recent intern from Minnesota:

Hello Everyone,

I am Louise Edwards, and I am a first year student at Oberlin College in Ohio.  This January, I worked as an intern for the National Park Service on St. Croix.  As an intern, I helped develop soon-to-be tour of the Free Gut area in Frederiksted.

This being my first time to the Virgin Islands, my experience here was phenomenal.  As a Minnesotan, when I stepped off the plane I could hardly believe that it could be eighty degrees anywhere in the middle of January.  However, I quickly learned that St. Croix is much more than a sunny tourist destination.  The diversity in the environments and people of St. Croix, make it truly unique.

As we drove into Frederiksted the first time, I glanced out the window to observe the bright colors and gingerbread trim on the houses.  Soon, we pull up next to the old graveyard on New Street.  This is the Free Gut area.  Free Gut is named after the free colored people who lived there during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the natural guts that used to run alongside the houses.  We wander up and down the streets trying to figure out, “Where did the guts flow?  Who lived here?  Who was their family?  What was their story?”

We stop in front of a small wooden house.  Maybe this was a free colored house.  It has the right dimensions – 30 square feet, the same size of the plots of land given to the free colored.  A few houses down we find what looks like a row house – several doors with steps leading to the building.  Often, the free coloreds built their houses as one building divided into subunits because of the restrictions on size.  Each set of stairs represented each family.  While we are standing in the street, a dog comes running out barking loudly, as if he is trying to scare the ghosts away.

Other days, when not in Frederiksted, I spend time looking through archives, deciphering old curling script on censuses.  Soon I can recite the names of old Frederiksted families: Messer, Buntin, Gordon, Van Brackle, Flanders, Scampion, Smith, Muller – the list goes on.  As we uncover small details of their lives, the cast of characters begins to become alive.  One day, when looking through old deeds in a back room of the government building in Christiansted, the lights flicker out.  Celeste from CHANT, who is researching with me, calls, “Go away jumbies!”  The lights flicker back on and I smile.  The jumbies are listening, stirred up from us sifting through the past.

It has been incredible to learn the history of the slave society that the US Virgin Islands was built on, and it has been equally eye-opening to hear the stories of present day islanders: planting gardens, making homemade soap from beeswax, burying dogs, being held in an old mahogany rocking chair as a baby.  Thank you for sharing your sunny island, rich history and unique stories with me – they are all well worth knowing and preserving.


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