As Delta’s flight 561 descends and approaches the runway, passengers peer through the windows for their first glimpse of Bermuda. Those on the right side of the plane see a wooded hillside and a lighthouse. If they look very carefully, they will just see the chimney of Dolly Pitcher’s abandoned cottage through the trees. Passengers on the left will have a view of the creamy sands of Clearwater Beach and, if they are observant, may notice that the coastline seems unnaturally straight, compared with that of the beaches they might glimpse further to the left. But few will know that once a thriving, proud community lived in a beautiful coastal area which is now buried, Atlantis like, under the very runway upon which they are about to land. And that  for 54 years during the twentieth century this part of Bermuda was actually a slice of America, a base tiny yet crucial to the Allies during the Second World War. What these airline passengers are looking at is St. David’s Island.

The true story of Atlantis is still a mystery, but thanks to a number of writers, most notably E.A. McCallan, author of Life in Old St. David’s, as well as St. David’s Islanders themselves whose memories have been chronicled in books and magazines, we have records and pictures allowing us to imagine what life was like before the bulldozers smashed the coastline and desecrated the picturesque islands on the southern rim of Castle Harbour.  We can also visit the Carter House museum, which mercifully escaped the fate of other cottages in the area and is lovingly cared for by the St. David’s Historical Society, headed by Rick Spurling.  The Society’s 2004 film St. David’s: An Island Near Bermuda, co-produced by Lucinda Spurling, who directed the film, and Rick Spurling, who wrote the script, includes invaluable interviews with senior islanders who vividly recall how their livelihoods depended on what they grew on land and what they took from the sea.

In this two-part article we will look at how St. David’s cultural heritage has a unique flavour, thanks to the many strong and colourful characters of its past and present. Known for their story telling, wit and distinctive turn of phrase, as well as for their fierce independence, resilience and hardiness, St. David’s Islanders have a character all their own, perhaps because families such as the Foggos, Milletts, Pitchers, Burchalls, Minors, Foxes and Lambs have lived there for generations. As quoted in the Spurling’s film, St. David’s is the only place where the Fox lies beside the Lamb.

Early Inhabitants of St. David’s

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. In his narrative True Reportary, Strachey recorded the story of the wreck and the months the crew and passengers spent in Bermuda. He explains that 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. So who were the first inhabitants of Bermuda? When Matthew Somers took the body of his uncle, Sir George Somers, and the remaining shipwrecked passengers and crew 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. According to McCallan, he eventually became caretaker of Pembroke Fort when it was built on Cooper’s Island and for some time was commissioner or deputy governor of Bermuda. He had many children who would become ancestors of some Bermudian families today.

Sixty settlers from Britain arrived on the Plough, some of whom probably settled in St. David’s, while over the years more arrived on a succession of ships. Perhaps the island was named St. David’s by early Welsh settlers for their patron saint. No one is sure.

When Richard Norwood divided Bermuda into tribes, three-fifths of the eastern land of St. David’s was designated common land while the remainder became part of Bedford or Hamilton Tribe on the western side. Inhabitants mostly paid rent for land with the tobacco they grew. But one early St. David’s settler, John Grigge, was given land in return for being an executioner. We know this because records show he and his wife Anne were brought before the court in July 1627 as “notorious cursers and swearers” and were threatened with the loss of their land. One year later, Grigge asked to be relieved of his grisly office and to pay rent instead. It was agreed that he would pay 50 pounds of tobacco a year. Nobody knows whether the couple’s language improved as a result.

Early settlers also included indentured servants from Ireland, the West Indies and America—by the 1620s the term “life servitude” was used instead of “indenture”—in other words, slavery.

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.  In fact, Dennis Lamb, well known for his seafood restaurant, Dennis’s Hideaway, during the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, recalled with love his father of Irish descent. “He was called Red Benny because he was a red man. He had red hair, a red house, red clothes and he had red furniture. He liked red…You could never forget Red Benny.”

But 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. Many islanders of Native American descent grew up thinking they were Mohawk. Indeed, the word “Mohawk” was often used as an insult, as Dolly Pitcher remembers in an incident concerning her sister:  “My sister Amalina went to St. George’s School. She was in the bathroom and when she came out, a St. George’s girl kept pulling her braids and calling her a Mohawk. So my sister clenched up her fists and punched the girl and bust her mouth.” That episode marked the end of Amalina’s schooling.

Ronnie Chameau, a St. David’s Islander famous for her palmetto and banana leaf traditional craft, explains that as a child she knew about her Native American ancestry, which on her mother’s side dates back t
o Jacob Minors and on her father’s through the Burchalls and the Foxes. But she was never encouraged to speak or ask about it. Simon, also related to Jacob Minors, agrees. “The name Mohawk was not a respectful name given to the early St. David’s Islanders, it was meant for them not to know their true lineage.”

McCallan records a story about an ancestor of Jacob “who was driven from the coast of North America in a canoe in which were his wife and three children; picked up by a Captain Fox, master of a privateer, they were brought to Bermuda, and remained his slaves.” McCallan surmised Jacob was of the Pequot Clan.

When during the 1990s Simon began to research her family history, she discovered her kinship with Jacob and was able to confirm the Pequot connection. “I then discovered that one of my ancestors, was a native Bermudian of strongly marked Indian features, reputed to be of Indian descent, and probably descending from one of the Pequot captives,” she explains. “Jacob married Ruth Fox, a half-Irish/half-Native woman.  A good many of their children were born before they married.  They had more children after they married.  There was also a girl child born before Jacob and Ruth married, whose mother was a Burchall. Their own children carried both the Fox and Minors surnames, but were blood brothers and sisters. These were the surnames of some of the families who lived on St. David’s Island, including my own family.

“The Pequots,” she goes on to explain, “were a strong and powerful tribe residing in Connecticut during the invasion of the pilgrims who competed for territory.” In 1637 many were slaughtered by the British and their Indian allies in Mystic. “The following year about 180 survivors were given as slaves to the area tribes, a few were given as slaves to the colonists, and a few more were sold as slaves to Bermuda to help finance the war. The Pequot nation was effectively erased forever.  Or was it?

“By 1655,” she says, “the slaves of Connecticut were being treated so badly that they had to be removed from the tribes and settled into two villages of their own, where their descendants still reside today. The Pequot slaves that went to Bermuda not only survived, but they actually blossomed under the worst possible conditions. Today, nearly all the residents of St. David’s Island descend from these New England Indian slaves and are held together by a strong sense of community. They also have an uncanny resemblance to the New England Indians.”

Actually Red Benny, according to his son, predicted the reconnection: “He used to say, ‘One day the tribes are going to come and look for their lost tribe.’”

Happily, the people of St. David’s now celebrate their Native American heritage openly. In 2002, the first St. David’s Island Indian Reconnection Festival was held at the St. David’s Cricket Club and was a huge success. New Englander Tall Oak Weeden, a Pequot Wampanoag activist and historian, was amazed to see the physical similarities between New England Native Americans and St. David’s Islanders. Since then, as Chameau explains, the people from St. David’s  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. She herself went to Mashpee, Cape Cod, to receive her Native American name: Morning Star.

St. David’s in Isolation

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 (first known as Southampton Harbour) and St. George’s Harbour or Town 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.  Since their roads were for centuries narrow and rough, islanders did not on the whole travel by horse and carriage, or later even by bicycle.

As McCallan puts it, in St. David’s “having a boat was almost as essential as a kitchen table. Boats,” he says, “were stolen the way bikes are today,” and he cites punishments given for theft during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: fines of 20 pounds of tobacco, one month’s labour in public works, a whipping on the back until the blood came. Shopping, then, meant sailing or rowing a boat the mile across Town Harbour to St. George’s where people would buy staple foods in bulk in case Saturday, the popular day to shop, was too stormy to row. Tea, for instance was often bought in a chest. Back in St. David’s, the islanders would often land at Ship Point Wharf or Church Wharf. This dependency on boats meant neighbours shared groceries, as well as the vegetables they grew and the livestock they raised. Nobody in St. David’s starved.

Isolation also affected the mail. The first government-paid letter carrier and receiving housekeeper was H.T. Hayward, always addressed by his middle name, Tucker. Appointed in in the early 1800s, he owned a boat and a general store centrally located in St. David’s. He was also one of the few islanders to own horses. Every day, according to McCallan’s Life in Old St. David’s, Hayward would carry his mailbags aboard his skiff, the Mignonette and “seldom fail to make the crossing.” If there was a strong north-westerly wind, he would borrow “my father’s American-built skiff Britannia, for she was an excellent sea boat, and our place was to windward.” Back in St. David’s, he would deliver the mail on one of his two horses, Prince and Silvertail. The trip across was not always easy as Julia Dorr points out. In her Bermuda: An Idyll of the Summers Islands in 1883, she explains that when she and her son returned from St. David’s to St. George’s two rowers ferried them. “It was just as well; for as we steered to westward, skirting the narrows, we met the strong ocean swell, that tossed the light boat as if it had been but a soap-bubble.”

By 1895 a steam ferry service was established by Charles B. Christenson and George F. Christenson from St. George’s. The ferry named the Daisy was brought down from New York on the Orinoco steam ship.

The Daisy made her first run from Market Wharf, St. George’s, to St. David’s on October 15, 1895. Businessmen from St. George’s chartered her and crossed the harbour to have fish chowder at postman Tucker Hayward’s house. He could thereafter carry the mail on the ferry. At the East End of St. David’s a concert was held in John Benjamin Fox’s barn. However, despite the coming of the ferry, St. David’s Islanders continued to row or sail their way across the harbour.

Perhaps the relative isolation of St. David’s made women there even more independent and resilient than women in other parts of Bermuda. It’s interesting that 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. In any case, as McCallan points out, women were just as proficient at rowing boats as were men. Scott Stallard in his book Bermuda 1899 mentions his grandmother’s rowing boat, the Iris, which was lovingly restored by Mark Hitchcock. Hitchcock explains the boat was given to Emily Hayward as a wedding
present by her husband to be, Vaughan Pugh. She used it countless times to row across the harbour to St. George’s.

In his book In the Eye of All Trade Michael Jarvis points out that there was a high ratio of unmarried women to unmarried men, and that in 1748 “of the 38 households in St. David’s, 20 were headed by women, 15 widows and 5 single women.” One such woman was Martha Hayward (nee Carter and a descendent of Christopher). It is possible she and her husband, John, built Carter House where they lived from the 1720s until their deaths. Martha outlived her husband by many years and died on May 19, 1791, at 114 years of age. According to the Bermuda Gazette, she “retained her faculties to the last, had been a regular liver, and knew very little sickness until a few days previous to her death.” Her remarkable memory was mentioned as was her excellent eyesight. She plaited hats for a living and it was she who apparently started the rage for Bermuda palmetto plaited hats in England because she sent one to Queen Anne.

Another well-known woman was Catherine Trott who lived in St. David’s Lodge, which subsequently became the Pilot Station and is now a part of St. David’s Primary School. According to Jarvis, she was engaged to a Trimingham sea captain. On the eve of her wedding, her dress, trousseau and wedding preparations all completed, she sighted his ship on the horizon and saw it being blown onto the reef. There were no survivors. She never married, but managed the house and the surrounding farmland, where arrowroot was grown and prepared, until her death at the age of 84 in 1895. According to William Zuill’s Bermuda Journey, she had the first donkey introduced to Bermuda. Zuill records an old fisherman’s description of it: “It’s got four downstanders, two outriggers and a thing to brush de flies away with. An’ we’re tried it on mussels an’ we’re tried it on bait, and it won’t tech neither—but it ate up Catty Trott’s or’root like a hawg.”

Perhaps Dorr was thinking about Trott when she wrote in her Idyl: “It is said that a few years ago that many of the inhabitants had never seen a horse. A fabulous story is afloat, however, to the effect that there are now two horses on the island—one of which is a donkey.”

Trott apparently was known for introducing “things new and strange to St. David’s. When she brought in an harmonium she got this reaction: “’It looks like a chist, but when you open de lid, she’s got a  row of big white teeth and eef you put yer hand in her mouth she roars like de sou’wester breaker in a hurricane.”

After she died, Ronnie Chameau explains, she left land to the McCallans in Cashew City. Annie Foggo who is commemorated in the name of the Lamb Foggo Urgent Care Centre in St. David’s, explained during an interview for Bermuda Recollections that her mother, a Carlington, was also left land by Trott, as were many of her relatives who had worked for Trott. “She really loved my family, she really did.”

Annie Foggo herself was a resilient, compassionate woman who spent her whole life helping the sick although she never had a formal education. At the age of 12 or 13 she delivered her baby brother because the midwife appointed was too sick to come. As she recounts in Bermuda Recollections published in 1993, “He was named Arthur. And so that’s why I always said, ‘This is my child because I had him from a baby!’ And I’ve been doing it, delivering babies ever since!” She also nursed many, many people, including her nephew and baby brother, whom she saved from pneumonia by treating them with onion poultices, and her mother, who eventually died from cancer.