Quiet, sleepy St. David’s is one of two large islands that make up St. George’s parish on the far eastern end of Bermuda. Long isolated, it eventually connected to Stoke’s Point in 1934 thanks to the Severn Bridge. In 1941 the U.S. military set up its base there, taking up more than half of St. David’s 650 acres. After 54 years the military finally left the island in 1995, opening St David’s up again to the rest of Bermuda. Here are some historical facts about St. David’s you may not already know.
- The first character in St. David’s history was most likely William Strachey, a passenger on the shipwrecked Sea Venture which, blown off course by a hurricane during its voyage to Virginia, arrived in Bermuda in July 1609. Early in their stay it was decided Henry Raven, the master’s mate, and eight other men should set out in a long boat to get help from Virginia. Strachey may have been responsible for keeping a bonfire going on top of a high promontory to guide them to safety on their return. That promontory, once known as Strachey’s Watch, is now called Great Head in St. David’s. Strachey kept watch for two months, but unfortunately Raven and his men were never seen again. Strachey did not stay in Bermuda—he left on the Deliverance with Sir Thomas Gates to take up his post as secretary-elect of Virginia.
- When the remaining shipwrecked passengers and crew went back to England in 1610, three men opted to stay behind: Edward Chard, Robert Waters and Christopher Carter. Dubbed the “Three Kings of Bermuda,” they lived on Smith’s Island for two years, starting the St. David’s tradition of farming the land, building a boat, harvesting the sea, and salting bacon and fish. When the first official settlers arrived aboard the Plough in 1612, Carter was the only one of the three who chose to stay behind, probably because he was given land as a reward for revealing to Bermuda’s first governor, Richard Moore, that he and his cohorts had discovered ambergris. Offered St. David’s Island, he chose instead Cooper’s Island in the mistaken belief he would find treasure there.
- It has long been known that over the centuries St. David’s Islanders derived from a variety of ancestors, a fact that is reflected in their colouring and features. Red hair, for example, is quite common. And as St. David’s Islander and genealogy researcher Jean Foggo Simon points out, dark hair and fair hair, as well as green eyes, blue eyes and dark eyes are common as well. And often islanders have reddish skin, thanks to their Native American ancestry dating back to the seventeenth century. Today, nearly all the residents of St. David’s Island descend from New England Indian slaves and are held together by a strong sense of community. Many who have had their DNA analysed can claim between 6 and 10 percent Native American blood and some have discovered connections with Wampanoag and Mohican tribes as well as the Pequots.
- At the start of Bermuda’s colonisation, St. David’s was less isolated than other parts of the island—Somerset, for example—since it lay between Castle Harbour and St. George’s Harbour. Smith’s Island was technically the first seat of government but was quickly replaced by St. George’s. Since all the settlers depended on boats as the primary means of transportation, St. David’s was not at a disadvantage. But as the colony developed and bridges were built to join St. George’s and Long Bird Island in the east and Somerset Island, Watford Island, Boaz and Ireland Islands in the west, the St. David’s community became more and more isolated. No bridge connected them to the rest of Bermuda until 1934 when the Severn Bridge was opened.
- Perhaps the relative isolation of St. David’s made women there even more independent and resilient than women in other parts of Bermuda. In fact, many of the bays are named after women—Emily’s Bay, Dolly’s Bay, Miss Annie’s Bay, Ruth’s Bay and before the bulldozers, Gracie’s Bay and Deborah’s Bay
- St. David’s Lighthouse was built of Bermuda limestone between 1876 and 1879. Gibbs Hill Lighthouse had been built in 1844, but St. David’s did not benefit since its view of the beams was partially impeded by hills. Between 1873 and 1878 as many as 42 ships were wrecked off St. David’s.
- The Causeway and Swing Bridge did little to change life for St. David’s Islanders since they still had to sail or row to Long Bird Island or to St. George’s. It was the Severn Bridge built between Stocks Point in St. David’s and Stokes Point in St. George’s in 1934 that made the whole difference and was cause for celebration. St. David’s oldest inhabitant, Miss Patty Hayward, aged 94, drove over the bridge by horse and carriage with the governor. The Severn, which could be raised to allow a 78-foot clearance for marine traffic, was eventually dismantled in 1971. Today all that’s left is the straight line of pylons, some half-hidden by sprouting foliage.