A Brief History of the Virgin Islands

A Brief History of the Virgin Islands


Map of St. Thomas, Courtesy of St. Thomas Historical Trust
Map of St. Thomas, Courtesy of St. Thomas Historical Trust

The U.S. Virgin Islands, known as “America’s Paradise” has a long, complicated and quite interesting history. Geologists believe that 100 million years ago, the earth’s crust (tectonic plates) began shifting enough to cause the eruption of the volcano that created St. Thomas. Once the lava cooled (about 22 million years ago) there stood a 13 by 4 mile pile of rock risen from the sea. The “big island” of St. Croix was formed as a coral island, rising up from the sea floor, hence the more moderate terrain and the better soil. The action of the tectonic plates also created an undersea feature known as the Puerto Rico Trench, about 40 miles north of St. Thomas, which has a known depth of over 27,000 feet.


St. Thomas Harbor, Courtesy of St. Thomas Historical Trust
St. Thomas Harbor, Courtesy of St. Thomas Historical Trust

Mountains reaching over 1500 feet above sea level and the perfect shape of what is now known as Charlotte Amalie Harbor made St. Thomas a safe port that was inhabited by humans for thousands of years. The early peoples migrating north from South America found St. Thomas to be either a secure stopover or a location to create a settlement. The Arawak and Caribe Indians made camps there and called it home until the Europeans arrived. Christopher Columbus “discovered” St. Thomas on his second trip to the New World in 1493. He encountered the well-established Caribes who were cannibals and was unsure about their invitation to lunch! He stayed just a few days and sailed off to Puerto Rico, about 40 miles away. It was Columbus who named the islands, more than 100 of them, the “Virgin Islands”, after the legend of St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin followers. 


Pirates Treasure Museum St. Thomas
Image Courtesy of the Pirates Treasure Museum

As the Europeans began to colonize Central America and the islands of the Caribbean the numbers of indigenous people dropped dramatically through migration and disease. In their place came settlers from Denmark, Portugal, Spain, England and more. Though many came to expand their nation’s empire, many came to enrich themselves through piracy and St. Thomas was a Buccaneer’s dream. Greed and corruption were rampant, with governors willing to aid and abet any scallywag with enough loot to pay a bribe. Charlotte Amalie harbor (then known as Taphaus, the Danish word for beer garden) was a fine place to anchor your ship to evade the British Navy. One governor went so far as to hide the French pirate Jean Hamlin within the thick walls of Fort Christian while swearing to the British that he, or his ship had not been seen. The English found La Trompusse tucked in the harbor and burned it to the waterline in 1683. Perhaps the most famous and feared of the pirates was Blackbeard, who came to the island as a British naval officer named Edward Teach. His royal assignment was to capture mostly Spanish ships and send 90 percent of their gold and silver back to London. Once he decided to keep it all for himself the six-foot four-inch sociopath became the scourge of the Caribbean. He commandeered a Danish fortification, now known as Blackbeard’s Tower which became his southern headquarters. It stands today at the top of the famed 99 Steps, on of the many “stair streets” in the downtown area. 


Sugar Mill on St. John

The sugar industry prospered on the backs of the enslaved Africans who for many years outnumbered their European captors and worked the plantations under the blazing sun. It was a dark time in the history of the Virgin Islands, but protests helped to bring an end to the slave trade in 1848, years before it was outlawed in the U.S. On St. Thomas the dissent often took the form of fires in the island’s lucrative warehouse district, where the protesters burned more than 12,000 buildings over the years. This well-organized attack on their pocketbooks persuaded the owners and politicians to end the practice. Due to its fine harbor and fortuitous position on the globe the island boasted over 700 buildings, storing and transshipping finished goods from Europe to the Americas and commodities like sugar everywhere. The industry kept the island prosperous for hundreds of years and established Charlotte Amalie as a critical port for trade as well as ships’ services. 


Transfer Day

As Germany marched across Europe intent on dominating the continent, U.S. allies England and France’s losses were mounting in World War One. Their requests for help from America were not heard by a government not yet feeling like a “superpower” and being led by the pacifist President Woodrow Wilson. However, there was a way that the young nation could offer assistance without sending troops. In 1917, realizing that Denmark would be the German’s next target, the US offered to buy their Caribbean islands, not for the six million dollar asking price but for $25 million. The extra money would be used to prosecute the war. In the end, the U.S. did send troops and lost more than 100,000 Americans. But, the influx of U.S. dollars helped the allies and the new owners of the 52 formerly Danish islands could be assured that whatever happened to the Danes, that protected harbor of Charlotte Amalie could never be used as a German “U-boat” base, just one thousand miles from the mainland. 


Rams Head Trail, St. John

Over the century of U.S. ownership the Virgin Islands has become known as “America’s Paradise”, with a sharp focus on tourism and further building on its long reputation for rum production. Visitors to St. Thomas enjoy scores of activities and beaches from accommodations that range from first-class elegance to tropical hideaways. St. John is a 20-minute boat ride away and offers a spectacular National Park and some of the world’s best snorkeling. St. Croix, known for its laid-back atmosphere is a 20-minute trip south by seaplane, a most enjoyable way to travel. While there, you can tour the Cruzan and Captain Morgan distilleries. Other local rums include Bones and Havensight. Bring your passport if you choose to daytrip to the BVIs, just a few miles to the east. 


Cruz Bay St. Johns
Cruz Bay, St. John, United States Virgin Islands.

The Centennial year of 2017 was brimming with ceremony. Danish and many other country’s dignitaries came to celebrate. Beautiful Fort Christian was a hot spot with events almost every week. The island-wide fun continued through September 6th when an uninvited guest named Irma came calling as a category 5 hurricane, followed weeks later by another cat 5, Maria. Thanks to the resilience of the local population and U.S. disaster relief, the USVI territory came back better than ever. The beaches are more beautiful than before, almost every attraction and restaurant is in full operation and AirBnB operators have filled in for the hotels under repair. Airlines have brought back flights from more cities and the tourism infrastructure has improved and positioning the territory to become the premier destination in the Caribbean once again. We invite you to come and soak in the culture, the water, the food and the fun! 

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