A Brief History of the US Virgin Islands

The history of the US Virgin Islands started about 120 million years ago when underwater volcanos spewed them up past sea level. The islands stayed uninhabited for many years as the Earth was shaping itself and life was developing on this planet.

The first inhabitants of the Virgin Islands were the Ciboneys who arrived around 2000 BC on St. Croix and 1700 BC on St. Thomas. The Ciboneys arrived during what is considered now the Pre-Ceramic Culture, as the inhabitats of the Virgin Islands were classified by the quality of their pottery. The Ciboneys preferred sites that were close to the shore where fish was abundant, near bays and near swamps or mud flats. It is believed however that the Ciboneys were just seasonal visitors.

The Early Ceramic Culture marks the arrival of Arawakan peoples. They established site in St. John and St. Croix around 100 AD that lasted until about 1200 AD. It is important to note that while there was a tribe called Arawak, the inhabitants at the time were not all part of the same tribe and were thus classified by the Arawakan language they spoke.

The Late Ceramic Culture marks the arrival of the most well known of the Virgin Islands inhabitants: the Caribs and the Tainos. This period began around the 1300s and lasted until circa 1521. While the Tainos were skilled artisans, craftsmen and farmers, the Caribs were a members of a warrior society. While peaceful, the Tainos could fight using strategic design with everyone working towards a common goal. The Caribs prized individual heroics as they were essential for gaining higher rank in their society.

Christopher Columbus passed the Virgin Islands on his second voyage. He named the islands Las Virgines in honor of St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins. He moved on to Puerto Rico though as he when he was in the neighborhood of St. Croix he stumbled onto Carib Indians who savagely fought off an effort to capture them. The race was on in Europe to settle the Caribbean.

St. Croix was settled well before St. Thomas and St. John. The first colony in the Virgin Islands was formed in 1621 on St. Croix by the English. This colony was deposed by the Spanish. Another colony settled on St. Croix in 1645 as a joint effort by the English and the Dutch. This union did not last long. Political influences moved the Dutch to abandon St. Croix. The English were once again beseiged by the Spanish in 1650. The French who fled in 1645 eventually took the island from the Spanish a year later. For a time the Knights of Malta held controlling interest in St. Croix until after the French Revolution when France took control of the island again. The French held St. Croix until they sold it to Denmark in 1733.

St. Thomas was not settled until 1666. The first colony failed miserably due to raids from privateers, a hurricane and sickness. The settlement was abandoned after just 2 years. Another colonization effort was not attempted again until 1672 by the Danish West India and Guinea Company. This colony thrived under Governor Jorge Iverson who set up the framework for how things would run on the island for many years to come. It was Jorge Iverson who commanded the building of the now famous Fort Christian. The town of Taphus, now called Charlotte Amalie, was built in 1861. The Danish West India and Guinea Company acquired St. John in 1687. St. Croix was bought from the French in 1733 for the price of 750,000 livres.

The Virgin Islands thrived as a major shipping port in the Caribbean and through the cultivation of sugar cane. Unfortunately, this also fueled the slave trade in the Virgin Islands. Over 200,000 African slaves were brought to the Virgin Islands. St. Thomas was the more urban of the three islands so there wasn't much need for field slaves there and thus St. Thomas had a lot of free coloreds. The lives of slaves were hard on the other two islands though. So much so that slaves revolted on the island of St. John in 1733 and held the island for 7 months until it was retaken by the Danish. Freedom was not granted to slaves in the Virgin Islands until July 2, 1848 following a rebellion.

Agriculture declined following the freeing of the slaves. Running a plantation became to expensive now that owners had to pay laborers to work them. The discovery of the sugar beet further declined the need for a sugar industry in the Virgin Islands. Then the industrial revolution, with its powerful steam ships, diminished the need for the Virgin Islands as a shipping port.

Life moved on in the Virgin Islands without much interest from the rest of the world until the first World War. The United States of America coveted the islands for their strategic location in the Caribbean and negotiated to buy the islands from Denmark for $25 million in gold. The islands were offically transferred to the USA in 1917. Two weeks later, the USA went to war. The now US Virgin Islands continued to serve as an important naval port into World War II.

On February 25, 1927, the United States Congress granted US citizenship to all inhabitants of the Virgin Islands. However to this day the people of the US Virgin Islands do not have a vote for President of the United States. The USVI was placed under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior in 1931. In 1936, the Organic Act was instituted by Congress allowing the President of the United States to designate governors for the USVI. Under the Revised Organic Act of 1954, politics in the USVI began to take root as it allowed for the election of senators to represent the people. In 1970, the people of the US Virgin Islands elected their first governor Melvin H. Evans.

Today, the US Virgin Islands is a huge boon for the tourist industry. Tourism has increased steadily since the United States placed an embargo on Cuba in 1959. St. Croix is home to Virgin Islands Rum Industries Limited, producers of Cruzan Rum, and HOVENSA, the largest oil refinery in the Western Hemisphere. St. Thomas is one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in the world. St. John's beauty is protected as most of the island is National Park land. The US Virgin Islands is now more than ever, the United States' Caribbean.

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