History of the U.S. Virgin Islands
The history of the U.S. Virgin Islands is as rich and colorful as the carnival parades that run the streets of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. From early Indian inhabitants to European discovery and settlement, slavery to emancipation, and eventually to the flourishing tourism industry, the Virgin Islands proudly display their storied history everywhere you look.
Long before Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the islands, Arawak, Carib, Cemic, and Taino Indians made these islands their home. Archeological discoveries reveal that there were inhabitants on the islands as early as 710 BC, whom turned primarily to the sea to hunt and gather their food. The early inhabitants also made villages on sheltered bays where they made pottery and practiced agriculture.
Christopher Columbus named the islands Santa Ursula y las Once Mil Vírgenes, after the legend of Saint Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. The name was later shortened to Las Virgenes, when Columbus was blown off course during his 1493-1496 voyage.
Denmark took formal possession of the islands in 1694, calling them the Danish West Indies and establishing the first permanent European settlement in 1718 which focused on sugarcane cultivation.
The rapid expansion of sugarcane and cotton plantations increased the demand for plantation workers. Low-cost workers that were mostly slaves had to be transported from West Africa and were treated inhumanely by slave owners. A long drought followed by a devastating hurricane in 1733 pushed the slaves in St. John to the breaking point that led to the St. John Slave Revolt, which took six months before Danish authorities were able to quell the revolt with the help of the French.
Although it wasn’t until 1859 that the Danish Crown decreed the abolition of slavery in the Danish West Indies, slaves in the islands enjoyed their freedom as early as 1848 because of a non-violent slave revolution they staged earlier that year. Soon after, the sugar plantations began to decline in production and cattle farming and rum production became the main industries by the early 20th century.
The Danish West Indies ceased and became the US Virgin Islands when the United States purchased the islands from the Danish in 1917. By the 1930’s, a new and more lucrative industry was born which attracted people from all over the world — the tourism industry.
In 1956, Laurence Rockefeller, enchanted by the islands’ beauty and charm, purchased a large portion of St. John and donated it the Federal Government on the condition it would be converted to a national park. Boundaries were later enlarged to include submerged lands, like Trunk Bay’s Underwater Snorkeling Trail.
Today, this island paradise is a melting pot of all its previous influences, and sugar mill ruins, pirate hideouts and cannons from centuries past dot the landscape and influence the feel of the islands. From the food, to the music, to the people and the landscape, the U.S. Virgin Islands are authentic Caribbean.