The Origin of the Massacre Name for the Dajabon River

The northern frontier between between the Dominican Republic and Haiti is marked by the Dajabon River. Its name originates in the Taino language, but its significance is currently unknown. This river currently has two names, Dajabon River and Massacre River. Contrary to popular belief, the reason for why this river is also called Massacre is hidden in events that took place over 320 years ago.

The Founding of San Joaquín de Dajabón

In 1776 the Spanish government decides to establish a new town right on the border line in the nothern frontier. The founding was made with many Spanish families from the Canary Islands. The new town was christened with San Joaquín de Dajabón (Saint Joachim of Dajabon) as its name, in honor of the Catholic Saint Joachim and the name of the river that marks the northern border between Spain and France on the island of Santo Domingo. From its foundation days Dajabon specialized as a commercial center where products from the Spanish (Dominican) side and French (Haitian) side were exchanged.

Parallel to Dajabon, but on the opposite side of the river, the French founded a new town that they named Ouanaminthe (Juana Méndez in Spanish).

Dajabon for the Spaniards, Massacre for the French

An interesting detail that tends to appear in many maps of the northern frontier is change of name of the Dajabon River. In maps published in Spanish during the colonial era the river always appears with its original Taino name of Dajabon. Thus, it is very interesting to notice that in maps published in French before 1691 the river always appears with the name of Dajabon, but from 1691 onwards French maps name it the Massacre River. To understand why 1691 is a pivot year for the French, we must understand what took place before, during, and after that year.

The French Invasion of 1690

In 1690 the governor of the French part of the island, Mr Pierre Paul Tarin De Cussy, decides to invade the Cibao region of the Spanish part of the island. This invasion was particularly brutal with widespread pillaging, burning of entire towns, and senseless killings of townspeople and country people found along the way. On June 6, 1690 the French troops arrived at Santiago de los Caballeros, the most important town of the Cibao region. Fortunately, the inhabitants received a warning several days later of the looming threat and deserted the town before the troops arrived. This allowed the French troops to pillage the entire town and afterwards set it on fire. From Santiago to the frontier the French left a spectacle of widespread destruction and horror.

The Spanish Retaliation between 1691 and 1695

Once the news of the events that took place in the Cibao region reached the city of Santo Domingo, the governor of the Spanish part of the island, Mr. Ignacio Pérez Caro, immediately begins to prepare for a retaliatory assault on the French. At the beginning of 1691 the Spanish troops cross the Dajabon River and enter French territory and immediately begin to pillage all the towns and settlements found along the way. The main battle against the French troops took place in La Sabana Real de la Limonada (The Royal Plain of the Lemonade), a short distance of Guarico, the main French settlement at that time. The defeat of the French was so complete that even the French governor Mr De Cussy lost his life in the battle. After the victory, the Spanish troops continued marching towards Guarico and entirely pillaged and burned the town.

The Spanish invasion of 1691 gave way to several devastating invasions that the Spanish authorities did against the French. These invasions were done through the northern and southern frontiers. The English, who at that time were enemies of France, allied with the Spaniards by blockading all the ports and sea routes of the French part while the Spaniards invaded and attacked by land. The purpose of these invasions was not only to teach the French a lesson, but also as an attempt at expelling the French from the island of Santo Domingo. The last invasion took place in 1695.

The Origin of the Massacre Name

During the various invasions made against the French, the Spanish troops committed many massacres of French citizens. This is the reason why the French rename the Dajabon River as the Massacre River, and it also explains why maps originally published in Spanish always presents the river as Dajabon River.

The Northern Frontier Map of 1776

In 1776, as part of the conclusion of the negotiations between Spain and France on settling the final border between both nations on the island of Santo Domingo, in the town of San Miguel de la Atalaya (at that time this was a Spanish town near the border with the French part of the island) the governors of both territories signed the Treaty of Atalaya. In 1777 in the Madrid suburb of Aranjuez, representatives of the King Charles III of Spain and King Louis XVI of France signed the Treaty of Aranjuez, which made official the established border between the two nations on the island of Santo Domingo.

As part of the agreements made in 1776 by the governments of Spain and France, the French drew up a map detailing the entire border. The Spanish authorities accepted the map made by the French and made absolutely no modifications, not even in translating the names from French to Spanish. Only the headings of the map was published in Spanish.

This allows us to show as evidence the usage of the Massacre name for the Dajabon River in 1776, which is 28 years before the creation of Haiti and 68 years before the surgance of the Dominican Republic as an independent country.

The map enconpasses the entirety of the established border starting at Manzanillo Bay in the north and ending at the mouth of the Pedernales River in the south. However, below we only show two sections of the border which pertains to our topic, one focusing on the mouth of the Dajabon River on Manzanillo Bay (Atlantic Ocean) and another one focusing an area slightly south from there where the two border towns of Dajabon and Ouanaminthe are visible.

The left side of the first page of the border map. Notice that the map is sideways, in other words the east is up and the west is down, while north is on the left and south on the right. As a consequence, the Spanish (Dominican) side is on top, the French (Haitian) side is on the bottom. The border is marked by the Dajabon River with a pink highlight on the Spanish side and a yellow highlight on the French side. Also notice that everything on the actual map is in French (Espagne instead of España and France instead of Francia). The headings are in Spanish (Plano General de los Límites de la isla de Santo Domingo; General Plan of the Frontiers of the Island of Santo Domingo).
Zoom in of the mouth of the Dajabon River, which marks the most northern point of the Spanish – French border. Notice that the river is named Massacre on the map, along with everything else which is in French. This is a tale tell sign that the map was originally made by the French.
The right side of the first page of the border map. Notice that the locations of the towns of Dajabon and Ouanaminthe are clearly depicted. Dajabon appears as Daxabon, the typical French spelling. Also, the French side of the border show the demarcation lines between the different properties with the name of the owning French families while the Spanish part is devoid of this detail. Once again, the tell tale signs that the map was made by the French are hard to miss.
Zoom in on the area where the Spanish town of Dajabon and the French town of Ouanaminthe are depicted.
French drawing from the late 1600’s of the invasion they made on the Cibao region of the Spanish part of the island in 1690. At the foot it says “Battle of Santiago when Mr. De Cussy defeats the Spaniards.” It is very ironic that the French drew this event, but somehow they forgot to draw anything of the retaliation and victories of the Spaniards.
Satellite image of the northern frontier between the Dominican Republic (previously Spain) and Haiti (previously France). To make the comparison easier, we made sure the top of the image is the east (the Dominican side) and the bottom the west (the Haitian side). Manzanillo Bay is on the left while the cities of Dajabon and Ouanaminthe are on the right. Aside from the much larger urban footprint of Dajabon and Ouanaminthe, the border itself and the Dajabon River are exactly as they were in the 1600’s.