The Fascinating History of the U.S. Virgin Islands

The History of the U.S. Virgin Islands is one of the most fascinating aspects of these fantastic islands. This place practically oozes with the rich history of thousands of years passed.

You'll find lots of opportunities to explore the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

From archaeological sites of the early native people to the old architecture of the early European settlers to the ruins of numerous sugar mills and plantations, there's a wonderful selection of historical attractions for you to explore relating to the history of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Pre-European History of the U.S. Virgin Islands
Long before Europeans got here (Christopher Columbus himself was the first European to "discover" the islands), native peoples had inhabited the islands for thousands of years.

According to archaeologists, the first people to get to the Virgin Islands came from the South American mainland by seagoing canoes or sailboats about 3,500 years ago. These people are now known as the Ciboney (nobody knows what they called themselves).

They lived off of the fish and plants that they found on the islands, and archaeologists believe that they were nomadic, possibly "dropping in" to the islands from time to time, rather than settling permanently there.

The next groups to move into the Virgin Islands, and the first to form definite, permanent settlements, were the Arawaks and Tainos, groups of generally peaceful people who farmed the land and fished the rich waters around the islands.

They reached the islands about 1,000 years ago, probably from Venezuela, and lived on the islands for about 500 years, until they were displaced by the warlike, cannibalistic Carib people (for whom the Caribbean is named) in the 15th century. The powerful Caribs warred on the Arawaks and Tainos, largely wiping them out through cannibalism and slavery.

History of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Early European settlement
In 1493, while on his second voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus stumbled upon the Virgin Islands, which he called Las Once Mil Virgines, after St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyred virgins.

Needing to replenish his drinking water supply, Columbus approached St. Croix at the mouth of the Salt River, where he was promptly attacked by the ferocious Caribs in their war canoes. Disgusted, Columbus sailed on to Puerto Rico, but not before claiming the Virgin Islands for Spain.

In the long run, however, Spain showed little interest in colonizing the Virgin Islands, leaving the door open for other European nations. The French established an outpost on St. Croix, followed by more substantial settlements by the English and Dutch.

Throughout the rest of the 17th century, control of the islands switched hands among the Dutch, English, Spanish, and French.

The Danish West India Company began establishing plantations on the Islands by the latter half of the 17th century. It was in this period that Sir Francis Drake, Blackbeard, Captain Kidd, and many other infamous pirates used St. Thomas as a base of operations. Island officials actually encouraged the pirates since the belief was that they helped to stimulate the economy.

By the early 1700's, a mixture of Europeans inhabited St. Thomas and St. John as well as St. Croix, which was under the official control of France. In 1733 France sold St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix to the Danish West India Company, which ultimately transfered the islands to the government of Denmark.

History of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Slavery and Plantations
By this time use of the Islands for the purpose of agriculture was going on in earnest, and on St. Thomas alone, there were around 100 plantations growing cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane, with nearly an equal number on St. John.

These plantations depended on slaves imported from the Gold Coast of west Africa, and slaves were taken from tribes including the Ibo, Wolof, Mandika, and Asante. The style of slavery practiced on the islands was often exceptionally harsh, even by the standards of the day.

In 1733, there was a major slave rebellion on St. John. The slaves wrested control of the island from their European masters, killing many of them in the process and retaining control of the islands for roughly half a year. The rebellion was finally put down when France sent several hundred heavily armed troops to defeat the slaves.

Tragically, slavery continued and thrived on the Islands for nearly 200 years. It finally ended when St. Croix's slaves marched on Fredericksted in 1848 to demand their freedom, which led the Danish colonial governor to outlaw slavery and emancipate the slaves on the Virgin Islands on July 3rd, 1848.

History of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Post-Slavery
After emancipation in 1848, the government instituted a number of increasingly strict labor laws which led to discontent and riots among the islanders. Planters began abandoning their plantations, and in the latter part of the nineteenth century, a combination of mismanagement, apathy, and natural disasters brought the economy of the Virgin Islands into increasing decline.

As early as the American Civil War the U.S. government expressed an interest in owning what was then still called the Danish West Indies for the purpose of establishing a naval base in the Caribbean. However, it wasn't until World War One that a deal was struck for the purchase of the Islands from Denmark.

In March 1917, for a price of $25 million in gold, the islands were purchased by the United States to become the U.S. Virgin Islands. Unfortunately, there was little improvement seen for some years after the purchase. It was not until reforms brought about in the 1930's through the appointment of a civil administration and the introduction of various New Deal programs that substantial change began.

History of the U.S. Virgin islands After World War Two
Conditions continued to improve after the Second World War as the idyllic beauty of the islands began to attract more and more tourists from the U.S.

In 1956 the multimillionaire Laurence Rockefeller donated nearly two-thirds of St. John to the National Park Service, forever preserving the remarkable natural beauty of this island for future generations of grateful visitors.

After the popular Caribbean destination of Cuba was shut off to American visitors in 1962, the popularity of the Virgin Islands took another leap forward. Tourism has continued to increase in the post-war period, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have become one of the most popular destinations in the Caribbean.

History of the U.S. Virgin Islands: Recent Years
The most significant historical event in recent years was the transfer of Water Island (a small island just off of St. Thomas) from the U.S. Navy to the Government of the Virgin Islands in 1996. Since then, Water Island has been unofficially dubbed "The fourth Virgin Island" and a substantial amount of development of hotels and homes has occurred.

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