Danish Crown Surveyor Julius P. B. von Rohr and the Founding of the Town of Cruz Bay on St. John

Commemorating the 250th Anniversary of the Founding of the Town of Cruz Bay in June of 1766

Cruz Bay, c.1916
(Image from The Virgin Islands, Our New Possession, De Booy & Faris [J.B. Lippincott Co.,1918])

Danish Crown Surveyor Julius P. B. von Rohr and the Founding of the Town of Cruz Bay on St. John

In the early hours of Monday, November 23, 1733, a well-planned insurrection carried out by a determined group of enslaved Africans interrupted Danish-colonial rule on the island of St. John. Not only was there great loss of human life, there was also widespread damage to property and infrastructure. Although the combative spark of the revolt was relatively brief, ongoing skirmishes with entrenched rebel factions, and failure on the part of colonial authorities to bring swift closure to the conflict, resulted in a protracted period of uncertainty that lingered well beyond the brutal ending of this episode in August of 1734. [Westergaard, 1917; Caron & Highfield, 1983; Pannet, 1733]

In the wake of hostilities some property owners simply quit St. John and sought fresh opportunities on the island of St. Croix, which had been purchased by the Danes from France in 1733. However, the majority of St. John’s struggling stakeholders lacked sufficient resources or the resolve to relocate. Induced by promises of compensation and security, the Danish-backed settlers cautiously reoccupied their ravaged properties and pressed onward, although insecurity and fear now became their permanent condition. [Westergaard, 1917; Bro-Jørgensen, 1966; Caron & Highfield, 1983; Pannet, 1733; Martfeldt, c1765]

As life on St. John slowly returned to the status quo, in 1736 a concerned group of plantation owners petitioned the Governor and Commandant of St. Thomas and St. John, Frederick Moth, for the establishment a fortress as a place of “refuge and protection” on the western side of the island. The planters argued that while inhabitants on the eastern portion of St. John enjoyed the benefit of security offered by the recently strengthened fort at Coral Bay, the planters to the west were left with no protection against external or internal threats to their lives and property. [Martfeldt, c1765]

In answer to their plea, in 1737 the Danish West India & Guinea Company purchased a parcel of coastal land at Little Cruz Bay from a poor Mulatto cotton planter, Frank Gonsal, with the expressed intent of constructing a fortress. This, however, was where the company’s initiative ended, and it was not until the Danish Crown took over governance of the colony in 1755 that any further action was taken. [LD, 1745; SJLL, 1728-1739; Larsen, 1940; Martfeldt, c1765; von Rohr, 1766]

In 1756 Governor-General von Prock visited St. John to re-investigate the idea of constructing a fortress at Little Cruz Bay. Two years later, formal plans to build a fort and establish a garrison were put into writing and the necessary funds were requested from Denmark. At that time it was also suggested that a small “flat” on the land purchased by the West India & Guinea Company back in 1737 be measured out and divided into plots for houses. [Martfeldt, c1765; Larsen, 1940]

Approval of von Prock’s plan finally came in 1764 and a building commission was established and funded. It was recommended by the commission that along with the construction of a defensive battery and garrison buildings, the remaining land adjoining Little Cruz Bay should be purchased for the establishment of a proper town. Consequently, on August 8 the bankrupt Little Cruz Bay cotton plantation belonging to the widow of deceased planter Leonard Lewis was bought on behalf of the Crown for the sum of 1,900 Rigsdalers – more than twice the land’s appraised value. The new town and the bay that fronted it were to be named Christiansbay, in honor of the Danish King. Clearing of the land commenced in September, and twenty-eight enslaved laborers were provided by local planters each week to man the project. [Hoff, 1986; Martfeldt, c1768; Oxholm, 1780; von Rohr, 1766; SJPP, 1752-1772]

By April of 1765 a five-room barracks, kitchen, and officer’s quarters stood near a convenient landing place at Christiansbay. The cost of project was reportedly between 15,000 and 16,000 Rigsdalers. Earlier that year the old fortress at Coral Bay (Fredericksvaern) was decommissioned and its cannons and ammunition brought to Little Cruz Bay for placement in the new fort. However, due to ongoing indecisiveness over the best location for a battery, construction had not yet begun. As a result, the cannons and ball were temporarily placed in a crude earthwork on the beach where they quickly rusted and became unservaceable. [Martfeldt, 1765; Oxholm, 1780]

The garrison structures at Little Cruz Bay rendered by Peter L. Oxholm in 1780.
L to R: a five-room barracks, bell gallows, kitchen, and officer’s house (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).

In June of 1766, Danish Crown Surveyor Julius Philip Benjamin von Rohr was dispatched to St. John to begin the task of measuring the Crown’s holdings and laying out the streets and plot divisions for the new town of Christiansbay. [von Rohr, 1766]

An accomplished surveyor and avid amateur botanist, Julius von Rohr had been born in Merseburg, Saxony, in 1737. After studying medicine at Halle University, von Rohr immigrated to Denmark at the age of nineteen. On April 13, 1757, he was appointed to the post of municipal buildings inspector and land surveyor on the island of St. Croix in the Danish West Indies. [von Rohr, 1766; Dahl & Licht, 2004; Hopkins, 2013; Global Plants, 2013; Wikipedia, 2013]

Upon arrival on St. John, von Rohr began his survey by establishing the boundaries of the parcel of land purchased by the West India & Guinea Company back in 1737. Once its boundaries were conclusively determined, von Rohr immediately turned his attention to measuring out the broader extent of the Crown’s property, which was now made up of both the 1737 purchase and the adjoining Little Cruz Bay plantation acquired from the Leonard Lewis estate in 1764. After locating a single verifiable boundary marker, a “turpentine tree” situated on the northeast corner of Madam Wood’s plantation (Estate Enighed), von Rohr, using coordinates culled from deed descriptions and an astrolabe, took less than a week to reconcile the broader boundaries of what we know of today as the town of Cruz Bay. [von Rohr, 1766; Hoff,1986]

On July 5 von Rohr began the work of laying out the streets of the proposed town. That day’s entry in his survey journal clearly expresses his approach and attitude towards the process:
“I first began with measuring of the streets as it had rained constantly in the meantime. I also thought it best to focus on the lay out of the streets as the royal buildings were already built, which occupied a place of 200 feet long and 20 feet wide. The buildings are surely in the most inconvenient place, both in prospect of the town itself and its position … As this at the time does not concern me, and as they already are standing, it is best that the streets be aligned according to the buildings. …[I] made each street 40 feet wide, having as my objective the health and comfort of the future inhabitants as well as the respectability of the city itself …” [AOTA, July 5, 1766 (Translated from von Rohr’s original German by Gary T. Horlacher)]

The first street laid out by von Rohr was obligatorily christened Großen Königs Straße (Great King’s Street), which began at the southwest corner of the recently completed officer’s quarters and ran in a southerly direction along the shoreline 700 Danish feet. The second street was named Königins Quer Straße (Queen’s Cross Street), which ran inland from the bay on the south side of the town, intersected and crossed Great King’s Street, and ended near the western boundary of Madam Wood’s plantation. In the process of measuring Queen’s Cross Street, on July 9 von Rohr briefly paused to survey the first privately held parcel within the town:

“[While] I was busy with the adjusting of Queen’s Cross Street I measured also at the same time Madam Lewis’ retained lands that stood there. … Madam Lewis’ place in the town of Little Cruz Bay is south and westward on the Queen’s Cross Street 140 feet long, Southward from the street 100 feet wide, and its length on the [south] side is 190 feet. … Madam Lewis’ is not by the sea; a decent country road must remain between her place and the shore. [AOTA, July 5, 1766 (Translated from von Rohr’s original German by Gary T. Horlacher)]

According to von Rohr, one of the terms of sale of Madam Lewis’ plantation to the Danish Crown was that the widow would retain a piece of land near her former plantation residence. Von Rohr’s final statement regarding the measurement of this property refers to a caveat in Madam Lewis’ agreement, and informs us of the planned creation of another of the town’s streets, which he later named Strand Straße (Beach Street). [von Rohr, 1766]

On July 10 and 11 von Rohr continued with the “clearing, staking out, and measuring” of Queen’s Cross Street. While in the process of dividing the blocks he determined the intersection of the town’s third street, which he initially referred to as Queen’s Street, but later changed to West Street – most likely because it ran roughly parallel to the western boundary of Madam Wood’s plantation. [von Rohr, 1766]

On July 12 von Rohr moved on to completing his measurement of the southern extension of Great King’s Street. At the terminus of this street he found himself at the top of a steep hill overlooking Cruz Bay. Here he envisioned the eventual creation of yet another cross street, which would run along a ridge-line that defined the southern boundary of the town. From this point he first measured a line eastward until, by mid-day, he had reached the western boundary of Madam Wood’s property. Later that afternoon von Rohr returned to the southern terminus of Great King’s Street, where he took up the same line in a westerly direction towards the shore on Gallows Point. Delayed by rain and heavy brush, it was not until July 14 that von Rohr recorded in his journal that he had finally reached the 1,075-foot mark, where he “…came to the place on the point that would have been the most advantageous location for both a battery as well as the royal buildings.” [von Rohr, 1766]

Von Rohr now began the final phase of his survey. Having previously determined the town’s boundaries to the North, East, and South, it was only left to accurately map its western coastline. To this end, on the morning of July 16 he returned to a spot on the shore where on June 23 he had planted a turpentine-tree post to mark the northwest corner of the boundary between the Crown’s land and von Schleu’s plantation (Estate Lindholm), and slowly began to wend his way along the double-arched shore of Little Cruz Bay. [von Rohr, 1766]

Over the next few days von Rohr also took time to measure out and record the ownership of three additional town plots: two on Great King’s Street, taken up by the Moravian Brothers and Torsten Roseweld, and one large shore-front parcel measuring one-and-a-half town lots on the corner of Queen’s Cross Street and Great King’s Street, given over to Peter von Beverhoudt. [von Rohr, 1766]

After a period of persistent rain kept him from the field for the better part of a week, on July 24 von Rohr finally arrived at the southwest corner of the town on Gallows Point, thereby completing his survey. Late that afternoon he received orders to proceed to St. Croix, and so, after hastily preparing for travel, Crown Surveyor Julius von Rohr unceremoniously departed St. John, leaving behind an enduring legacy in the muddy streets of the newly created town of Christiansbay. [von Rohr, 1766]

Von Rohr next returned to St. John in September of 1766 to survey the Carolina plantation in Coral Bay. Although he continued to measure and record new lots at Little Cruz Bay in his journal through 1774 , there is no indication that he carried out any further survey work on the layout of the town. This leaves us with only two maps of Christiansbay that are known to have been rendered by von Rohr during his survey. One of these can be found affixed alongside corresponding field notes in von Rohr’s survey journal labeled, Book A, Maaleprotokol for Øerne St. Thomas og St. Jan fra 1764, which is presently held at the Office of the Tax Assessor on St. Thomas. The other, a rather formal color version, is in the map collection of the Danish National Archives (Rigsarkivet), in Copenhagen, Denmark. [AOTA, 1766-1774; Rigsarkivet Map Collection]

It is a poignant footnote to this history that Julius von Rohr’s long and distinguished career as a Crown Surveyor was to be profoundly impacted by the controversy over the appropriate location for the Cruz Bay Battery. It is well documented that von Rohr was strongly opposed to the fortress being built on the inner point of Little Cruz Bay, where it remains to the present day. Instead, he was of the opinion that the fort should have been placed on Gallows Point, where it could easily observe approaching vessels and be in a better position to defend the entrance of the harbor. In 1769, when a proposal by Governor Peter Clausen finally resulted in the release of funds for the construction of a battery at Cruz Bay, ongoing squabbles over its proper placement once again stalled the initiative. According to a report penned by Lieutenant Peter L. Oxholm in 1780, no action was taken until 1773 or 1774, when von Rohr took matters into his own hands and “…chose the best location [for the battery] according to the outlines of the town on Gallje Pynt (Gallows Point) where ground was broken.” However, after more than 400 Rigsdalers had been expended on the project, the Governor overruled von Rohr’s decision and insisted that the fort be placed on a small rock outcropping within Little Cruz Bay. [Oxholm, 1780; Martfeldt, 1765, von Rohr, 1766]

Not long after this incident von Rohr abruptly retired from survey work to pursue his interests in medicine and science. He soon received a commission from the Danish Crown to conduct an in-depth study of the natural history of the islands, and in June of 1773 von Rohr founded a botanical garden in the south-eastern section of Christiansted, on St. Croix, at the ends of Kirkegade (Church Street) and Dronningens Tværgade (Queen’s Cross Street). [Dahl & Licht, 2004; Global Plants, 2013]

Von Rohr next turned his attentions to the topic of tropical agronomy, particularly cotton cultivation, which became his passion. To this end, he began traveling throughout the West Indies and the Caribbean Coast of South America, collecting botanical samples and corresponding with many of the most noted naturalists of his time. While on a field trips to French Guiana in 1784 he obtained samples from the first nutmeg plants introduced into the Americas – the preserved flowers of which remain housed in the herbarium of the Natural History Museum in London to the present day. In 1786 he traveled to Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, where he collected seeds and plant specimens that were sent back to Copenhagen for further study and cataloging. In all, von Rohr is credited with having described eight new genera. His observations on cotton plants in the West Indies represent the primary source of information on that crop from the eighteenth century. Ultimately, von Rohr’s documentation was used as the basis for naming thirty-eight species and/or varieties of cotton, two of which are named in his honor, G. rohrianum Raf. and G. rohrii Tod. [Dahl & Licht, 2004; Hopkins, 2013; Global Plants, 2013; Wikipedia, 2013]

Today, Julius Philip Benjamin von Rohr is best known in Denmark for his contributions to the fields of botany and horticulture, while his meticulously rendered survey maps and plans of the Danish West Indies languish in obscurity. He is believed to have been lost at sea in 1793, while on a mission to investigate the establishment of cotton plantations in the area of the former Danish slaving stations on the Guinea Coast of Africa. [Oxholm, 1780; Dahl & Licht, 2004; Hopkins, 2013; Global Plants, 2013]

As we commemorate the 250th anniversary of the founding of Cruz Bay in June of 2016 , it is only fitting that Julius von Rohr be recognized for his contributions to the establishment of the town. So enduring is his legacy that if one were to hand a copy of von Rohr’s 1766 Cruz Bay map to modern-day tourists arriving on St. John for the first time, they would easily be able to navigate the town using only this 250-years-old document.

Julius von Rohr’s draft map of Cruz Bay, c.1766
(Rigsarkivet Map Collection, Copenhagen, Denmark)
PRIMARY SOURCES (Alphabetical by abbreviation)
[AOTA] Book A, Maaleprotokol for Øerne St. Thomas og St. Jan fra 1764 (Office of the Tax Assessor, St. Thomas, USVI).
[LD] West India and Guinea Company Archives, Letters and Documents, 1674 – 1754 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[SJA] Central Management Archives, West Indies Audit Registers for St. John, 1755 – 1915 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[SJLL] West India and Guinea Company Archives, St. John Land Lists, 1728 – 1733 & 1736-1739 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[SJLPP] West Indies Local Archives, St. John Landfoged, Probate-protocols, 1741 – 1823 (Rigsarkivet, Denmark).
[STM] St. Thomas / St. John Mortgage & Deed Registers (Office of the Recorder of Deeds, St. Thomas, Virgin Islands).
PRIMARY SOURCE MANUSCRIPTS (alphabetical by author)
Christian Martfeldt, Samlinger om de Danske Vestindiske Öer St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. Jan, (Rigsarkivet, Chamber of Customs’ West India and Guinea Files, Martfeldt Manuscript Collection, 1760-1770).
Peter Lotharius Oxholm, Oxholm Journal, St. John 1780 (Rigsarkivet, Generaltoldkammerets Archive, West India and Guinea Files, Diverse, Pk. II, 1775-1832).
Julius P. B. von Rohr, Survey Journal (Book A, Maaleprotokol for Øerne St. Thomas og St. Jan fra 1764, Office of the Tax Assessor, St. Thomas, USVI).
BIBLIOGRAPHY (alphabetical by author)
J.O. Bro-Jørgensen, Vore Gamle Tropekolonier, Dansk Vestindien Indtil 1755, vol.1 (Fremand, Denmark, 1966).
Thorkel Dahl & Kjeld de Fine Licht, Surveys in 1961 on St. Thomas & St. Croix (Copenhagan, Royal Academy of Fine Arts School of Architecture, 2004).
Daniel Hopkins, Peter Thonning and Denmark’s Guinea Commission: A Study in Nineteenth-Century African Colonial Geography (Leiden & Boston, Brill, 2013).
Kay Larsen, Guvernører Residenter, Kommandanter og Chefer (Copenhagen, Denmark, Arthur Jensen Forlag, 1940).
Peter Lotharius Oxholm, De Dansk Vestindiske Oers Tilstand I Hanseende til Population, Culture og Finance… (Kobenhaven, Johan Frederik Schultz, 1797).
Pierre J. Pannet (Translated and Edited by Aimery Caron and Arnold R. Highfield), Report on the Execrable Conspiracy Carried Out by the Amina Negroes on the Danish Island of St. Jan in America 1733 (U. S. Virgin Islands, Antilles Press, 1984).
Waldemar Westergaard, The Danish West Indies Under Company Rule (New York, The Macmillen Company, 1917).
PERIODICALS (Alphabetical by publication)
Henry B. Hoff, F.A.S.G., C.G., “Some Americans in the Danish West Indies,” National Genealogical Society Quarterly, Vol. 74; #1 [National Genealogical Society, Arlington, VA, March 1986].
Aimery P. Caron & Arnold R. Highfield, “St. John Slave Revolt of 1733-34; Historical Account,” Virgin Islands Education Review, Vol. 1; #8 [Office of Public Information, VI Department of Education, St. Thomas, VI, November 1983].
Global Plants, Julius Philip Benjamin von Rohr: http://plants.jstor.org/person/bm000007121
Wikipedia, Julius von Rohr: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_von_R%C3%B6hr