About St. Thomas
    About the U.S. Virgin Islands

St. Thomas

Europeans discovered the island of St. Thomas after it had been inhabited for thousands of years. Scientists believe these inhabitants may have migrated to the Lesser Antilles from the South American coast, but little is known about these earliest of settlers.

Christopher Columbus discovered the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1493. Since then, the flags of Spain, France, England, Holland, Denmark and the United States have flown over these islands. The first successful colonization attempt started officially in 1666, when the Danes took possession of St. Thomas.

The Danes signed a treaty in 1685 with the Duchy of Brandenburg to allow the Brandenburg American Company to establish a slave-trading post on the island. At about the same time, the early governors gave their tacit approval to the use of St. Thomas as a pirate refuge, knowing that the local merchants would benefit from the open sale of pirate booty on the city streets. But while piracy ceased to be a factor in the island's economy in the early 19th century, the slave trade continued until 1848.

From 1700 to 1750, when piracy already was on the wane, legitimate trade was on the upswing and prosperous merchants replaced buccaneers on Dronningens Gade (Main Street) in Charlotte Amalie.

Then in 1764, King Frederick V declared St. Thomas a free port. This action, together with the Danes' non-aggressive, neutral stance, combined to make Charlotte Amalie one of the world's busiest ports and the trading center of the West Indies by 1800. The next few years, however, saw the island's fortunes decline due to a combination of natural and political troubles. Yet through it all, trade somehow continued--and even flourished--until 1848, when Governor-General Peter von Scholten granted freedom to the slaves.

When the slaves where granted freedom it caused an immediate decline in the island's economy. Unfortunately for St. Thomas about the same time the economy was in trouble the world began to switch from sailing ships to steam powered ships. The Virgin Islands, once so necessary as stopover points for sailing vessels, became a backwater.
Magen's Bay, St. Thomas, USVI  

During World War I, in 1917, the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in order to prevent the islands from becoming a German sub base in the Caribbean. After World War II ended, St. Thomas began its rise to the tourist Mecca that it is today. 

Now, the island is on a host of cruise line's list of ports of call and a very popular vacation destination. Although St. Thomas was hard hit by Hurricane Marilyn in September 1995, the island's hotels, shops and attractions have recovered from the storm.

In 1996 St. Thomas added Water Island to the Virgin Islands . Located just off Charlotte Amelia harbor, the island belonged to the U.S. Department of the Interior, who received title from the U.S. Army in 1952. It used to be a strategic military base during World War II. Now the island is very quiet with secluded beaches and resorts, making it a wonderful addition to the Virgin Islands.

United States Virgin Islands

A group of 3 islands and about 50 islets, most of which are uninhabited, in the Lesser Antilles chain of the West Indies, east of Puerto Rico and lying between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The three islands, with their areas, are St. Thomas (83 sq km/32 sq mi), St. John (52 sq km/20 sq mi), and St. Croix (207 sq km/80 sq mi).  Charlotte Amalie Harbor, St. Thomas

The capital is Charlotte Amalie (population, 1990, 12,331), on St. Thomas. Other communities in the group are Christiansted and Frederiksted, both on St. Croix. The total area is 344 sq km (133 sq mi), and the total population (1990) is 101,809.

Land and Resources

The islands are generally hilly to mountainous. Crown Mount (474 m/1556 ft) on St. Thomas is the highest point. The climate is tropical, moderated by prevailing trade winds. The average annual temperature is 26.7° C (80° F). Vegetation is luxuriant and diverse. Mineral resources are lacking, although sand and stone are mined for local construction.


Tourism is vital to the economy of the Virgin Islands. Some 32 percent of all paid employees are engaged in retail sales or in services provided by recreation, motels, hotels, and restaurants. The number of tourists visiting the islands rose from about 200,000 in 1960 and 1961 to some 1.5 million in 1986; in the same period, spending by tourists grew from $26 million to more than $500 million. Products manufactured in the islands include rum, watches, textiles, and pharmaceuticals. The islands also have petroleum and alumina processing plants. The annual budget in the late 1980s exceeded $303.5 million.

The islands form the easternmost outpost of the United States. The United States Marine Corps maintains an air base on St. Thomas and an airfield on St. Croix.

Education and Government

Education is compulsory for all children between the ages of 51 and 16. Free schooling is provided in elementary and secondary schools. In the late 1980s the islands' 70 public elementary and secondary schools had an annual enrollment of about 29,000 pupils. The College of the Virgin Islands (1962), a public institution on Saint Thomas, had an annual enrollment of about 2550 students.

From 1917, when the United States acquired the Virgin Islands, to 1931 the islands were governed by the Department of the Navy. In 1931 jurisdiction was transferred to the Department of the Interior, and a civil governor was appointed by the president. Since 1970 the governor has been popularly elected. The unicameral legislature is elected for two-year terms and is composed of 15 senators, 5 each from Saint Croix and Saint Thomas, 1 from Saint John, and 4 at large. Executive power is vested in an elected governor and lieutenant governor, an attorney general appointed by the governor, and other officials. The government comptroller is appointed by the secretary of the interior, and the judge of the district court is appointed by the president of the United States.


Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands on his second voyage to the Americas in 1493. He named the islands for Saint Ursula and the other virgin martyrs associated with her. Columbus attempted to land at Saint Croix in November 1493 but was driven away by fierce Carib Native Americans who inhabited the island. The Carib Native Americans were annihilated, but no permanent settlements were made. The Virgin Islands remained a Spanish possession throughout the 16th century.

First Settlements

Denmark colonized St. Thomas in 1666. The Danish West Indies Company controlled the group until 1755, when Frederick V, king of Denmark, bought the islands. In 1800, during the Napoleonic Wars, Great Britain blockaded St. Thomas and in 1801 occupied the island. In 1802 Saint Thomas was returned to Denmark. From 1807 to 1815 the British again occupied the Danish West Indies; in 1815 the islands were once more restored to Denmark.

Danish Rule

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the Virgin Islands flourished as a center for the slave trade and as a producer of sugar. To harvest the sugar, the Danes began to depend on slavery and started importing slaves from Africa in 1673. The slave trade was prohibited by the Danish government in 1792. A slave revolt on St. Croix in 1848 led to the slaves' immediate emancipation. The slaves had the tacit support of the Danish governor of the islands, Peter von Scholten, who was opposed to slavery. After the emancipation of the slaves, the economy of the Virgin Islands disintegrated. The population of the islands dwindled. It was not until the 1940s that the economy began to recover.

American Colony

During the American Civil War (1861-1865), the Union began to negotiate with Denmark for the purchase of the Virgin Islands in order to establish naval bases in the Caribbean. Nothing came of the negotiations, however, until World War I (1914-1918). In 1917 the United States bought the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million and built a naval base in order to protect the Panama Canal and to prevent Germany's seizure of the islands.

Virgin Islanders have been U.S. citizens since 1927. After World War II (1939-1945), the Virgin Islands began to prosper again. Federal aid, local industry, and the growth of tourism helped improve the islands' economy. In 1946 William Henry Hastie became the first appointed black governor of the islands. The Organic Act, which was passed in 1954, created a 15-member senate. Then in 1968 the Congress of the United States passed a law granting the people of the Virgin Islands the right to elect their own governor. Melvin Evans, appointed in 1969, was the first native-born black governor of the territory and in 1971 became its first elected governor; he served until 1975. In 1975 Cyril E. King became governor and served until his death in 1978. King was succeeded by his lieutenant governor, Juan Luis. Luis was elected governor in the 1978 and 1982 elections. Alexander Farrelly was elected in 1986 and again in 1990. Roy Schneider became governor after the 1994 elections.

In September 1989, Hurricane Hugo caused at least $500 million in damage, and 1000 U.S. troops were sent in to suppress looting and unrest. The islands were damaged again when Hurricane Marilyn struck St. Thomas and St. John in 1995. The islands were declared a disaster area and the National Guard was called to help.

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