The islands that comprise the US Virgin Islands have quite an impressive past, most especially Saint Thomas. I wrote this brief history a few years back for a publication I was working on and wanted to share with our guests! Enjoy!
Our majestic island of Saint Thomas is riddled with a turbulent past, beginning with it’s first European settlers, The Danish, in 1671 who settled with permission from King Christian V. Before the Europeans officially settled on Saint Thomas, archaeological evidence shows that the island was inhabited by the Native Ciboney, Arawak, Carib, and Taino Tribes. This evidence was recorded by explorers beginning in the 1500’s, including Christopher Columbus’ short stint in the Virgin Islands before sailing North. By 1680, the Danish Settlement included one fort, one road and approximately 50 plantations, which were run predominately by African slaves. Soon the government realized that the future of our island lay in what is now Charlotte Amalie Harbor, then called Taphus, which translates to beer houses. The government gave permission to build taverns along the waterfront, which attracted seafarers and in turn brought commerce to the local economy. While walking along the waterfront now, you can still see evidence of this in our historic buildings.
With this commerce, the romanticized stories of piracy on Saint Thomas quickly evolved; as legend has it that the 2nd and 3rd governors of the territory traded with freebooters and allowed Saint Thomas to become somewhat of a pirate refuge and safe harbor. Such stories include pirates like the famous Blackbeard, said to be somewhat of a Saint Thomas legend during the infamous Golden Age of Piracy. Blackbeard’s Castle in downtown Saint Thomas is a testament to these stories and a must see for anyone visiting the USVI.
From that time until 1917 when the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, the territory boomed as a slave trading port. In the early 1800’s the English claimed the territory for a short time before becoming a free port for years, sustaining a flourishing shipping trade. Subsequently, trade houses belonging to nations around the globe were established on the island. As the shipping trade increased, plantation work decreased and after a successful slave revolt on Saint Croix in 1848, slavery was officially abolished in the Danish West Indies.
Between 1840 and 1860 steamships became increasing popular making St. Thomas a major stop for ships sailing between South and North America. This short lived economical boost was followed by a boost in coaling ships and finally the increasing need for rebuilding the port was realized. Enter the United States. After years of negotiations, they purchased Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix for a whopping $25 million in gold bars from Denmark. Beginning in the 1950’s with the increase in sea and air travel, America’s Paradise was realized and tourism became the lasting and final industry to drive the US Virgin Islands Economy.