15 Things You Might Not Know About the U.S. Virgin Islands

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iStock

There’s a lot more to these Caribbean islands than cruise ships and gorgeous beaches. Read on to learn more about the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history, customs, and a thing or two about pirates.

1. THE U.S. PAID $25 MILLION IN GOLD FOR THEM.

The islands of St. John, St. Thomas and St. Croix fell under a rotating cast of European rulers in the span of three hundred years, including Holland, Spain, France, the Knights of Malta, Britain, and Denmark. After negotiating for 50 years, in 1917 the United States—seeing the islands’ strategic positioning, and worried that Germany might scoop them up first—officially bought in, purchasing what was then known as the Danish West Indies for $25 million in gold.

2. A FOURTH ISLAND RECENTLY JOINED THE PARTY.

Most visitors know the USVI’s three main islands, but many don’t know there’s a recently added fourth: tiny Water Island, located off the south coast of St. Thomas. Covering just 492 acres, and so named for its collection of fresh water ponds, Water Island fell under private ownership until 1944, when the U.S. bought it for a cool $10,000. In 1996, the U.S. transferred the island to local jurisdiction, making it what locals playfully call “The Last Virgin.” 

3. THE CAPITAL’S ORIGINAL NAME MEANT “TAP HOUSE.”

Settled by the Danish in 1666, the capital city today known as Charlotte Amalie, located on St. Thomas, was home to so many taverns that it was originally given the name Taphus, or “Tap House”. After nearly 30 years and much merriment, the Danes changed the name to honor King Christian V’s wife, Charlotte Amalie.

4. SUGAR AND RUM PRODUCTION MOVED THE CAPITAL.

After the Danish crown took control of the islands in 1754, it moved the capital 40 miles south, from Charlotte Amalie to Christiansted, located on St. Croix. The island was the main economic force in the region, with thriving rum and sugar industries that were driven by slave labor. After slavery was abolished in 1848, production declined steeply, and the crown moved the Danish West Indies capital back to Charlotte Amalie.

5. CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS GAVE THE ISLANDS THEIR NAME.

The famed explorer landed at St. Croix on November 14, 1493, and was promptly chased off by the Caribs, an indigenous tribe. Sailing north, Columbus surveyed the islands that today include St. Thomas and St. John. In admiration of their beauty, he named them “Las Once Mil Virgenes,” for the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula—soon shortened to “Las Virgenes.”

6. A SLIPPERY GOVERNOR MADE THEM A PIRATES’ REFUGE.

In the late 17th century the Virgin Islands, and particularly St. Thomas, were known as a haven for pirates. Adolph Esmit, an early governor of St. Thomas, helped establish this reputation by offering safe harbor in exchange for favorable trade. In 1683, he helped the infamous Jean Hamlin escape capture by English forces, and even secured a getaway boat for the French pirate. After word of his misdeeds reached Denmark, Esmit was recalled—then reinstalled just three years later, after he promised authorities he knew the location of a sunken treasure.

7. IT HAS AN OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK.

Quelbe, a style of folk music that originated in the Virgin Islands, developed as a way for islanders to preserve their rich storytelling traditions. Also called “scratch band music,” Quelbe players have been known to turn all kinds of random household objects into instruments—from car mufflers to plywood, anything they can “scratch off” is considered fair game. In 2003, the U.S. Virgin Islands legislature passed a bill making Quelbe the official music of the Islands.

8. A FATEFUL CRUISE LED TO THE FOUNDING OF VIRGIN ISLANDS NATIONAL PARK.

One of America’s first venture capitalists (and the son of John D. Rockefeller) stopped off in St. John while cruising around the Caribbean. Struck by the island’s natural beauty, he began looking for ways to ensure its preservation. He came across an obscure report from the National Park Service concluding that the area was ideal for a national park, and so in 1956 he bought 5000 acres on St. John that became Virgin Islands National Park. Today, the park takes up more than two thirds of the island.

9. ST. JOHN WAS THE SITE OF A FAMOUS SLAVE REBELLION.

Slavery was a major industry in the Virgin Islands for more than two hundred years. For a brief period, though, the brutal institution was turned on its head. In 1733, enslaved individuals belonging to the Amina peoples of Ghana’s Ashanti empire, including several tribal leaders, defeated a garrison of Danish soldiers stationed at a fort on Coral Bay. The action sparked an uprising, and for six months St. John’s slaves controlled the island. In May 1734, French troops arrived and regained control. It would be more than a century before slavery was outlawed in the Virgin Islands. 

10. BLACKBEARD NEVER SET FOOT IN BLACKBEARD’S CASTLE.

One of the most popular tourist attractions in Charlotte Amalie is a cylindrical stone fort known as Blackbeard’s Castle. Despite its name and local lore, there’s no evidence that Blackbeard, a.k.a. Edward Teach, ever used the structure. Danish soldiers built the fort in 1679 and called it Skytsborg Tower (“Sky Tower”). Name confusion aside, tourists flock to the structure for its 360-degree views of the city, and for access to the nearby swimming pools.

11. TWO WORDS: BIOLUMINESCENT BAY.

At a couple spots throughout the Virgin Islands, the water lights up at night as if electrified. Known as bioluminescence, this rare phenomenon is caused by the blooming of millions of tiny plankton called dinoflagellate. Conditions have to be just right, and one of the best places in the world to find them is Salt River Bay, located on St. Croix. There, outfitters offer night tours, often in glass bottom boats so tourists can get a close look at the light show.

12. CHARLOTTE AMALIE IS HOME TO ONE OF THE OLDEST SYNAGOGUES IN THE WESTERN HEMISPHERE.

Built in 1833, the Synagogue of St. Thomas is the second-oldest synagogue in the Western hemisphere, and the longest continuously run congregation amongst American states and territories. Perched on a hill in the center of town, it features sand floors and walls made from a mortar comprised of lime, sand, and molasses.

13. ALEXANDER HAMILTON SPENT PART OF HIS YOUTH IN CHRISTIANSTED.

The founding father and Broadway inspiration moved to the island of St. Croix with his family in 1765. In 1768, Alexander and his mother, Rachael, came down with a tropical fever that killed her, and nearly claimed his life, as well. Orphaned, Hamilton began working as a clerk at an import-export firm in Christiansted, where he quickly gained a reputation for being competent and highly literate. After publishing an essay in the Royal Danish-American Gazette about the experience of living through a hurricane, Hamilton gained local funding to further his education in New Jersey.

14. THE CUBAN EMBARGO SPURRED TOURISM TO THE ISLANDS.

After the U.S. instituted its embargo of Cuba in 1960, American tourists flocked to the Virgin Islands as a tropical alternative. Today, tourism is the USVI’s number one industry.

15. THERE’S A NATIONAL HOLIDAY CALLED ‘TRANSFER DAY.’

Every March 31st, the U.S. Virgin Islands commemorate their transfer from Danish to American authority. Transfer Day festivities typically include a ceremonial lowering of the Danish flag and raising of the U.S. flag, along with the serving of Red Grout, a Danish-inspired pudding made from guavas and tapioca. Next year’s centennial will be observed with festivals, concerts and parades throughout the islands.

What better way to explore the U.S. Virgin Islands’ rich history than in the Islands themselves? Learn more about the upcoming Centennial at VisitUSVI.com.

The New Apple Watch SE Is Now Available on Amazon

Apple/Amazon
Apple/Amazon

Apple products are notorious for their high price tags. From AirPods to iPads to MacBooks, it can be difficult to find the perfect piece of tech on sale when you are ready to buy. Luckily, for those who have had their eye on a new Apple Watch, the Apple Watch SE is designed with all the features users want but at a lower starting price of $279— and they're available on Amazon right now.

The SE exists as a more affordable option when compared to Apple's new Series 6 line of watches. This less expensive version has many of the same functions of its pricier brethren, except for certain features like the blood oxygen sensor and electrical heart sensor. To make up for the truncated bells and whistles, the SE comes in at least $120 cheaper than the Series 6, which starts at $400 and goes up to $800. The SE comes with technical improvements on previous models as well, such as the fall detection, a faster processor, a larger screen, water resistance, and more.

Now available in 40mm ($279) and 44mm ($309), both SE models offer a variety of colors to choose from, such as sliver, space gray, and pink. If you want cellular connection, you’ll have to pay a bit more for the 40mm ($329) and the 44mm ($359).

For more, head to Amazon to see the full list of offerings from Apple.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

12 Fascinating Facts About Elephants

Photo by David Heiling on Unsplash

Known for their strong family bonds and intelligence, elephants have fascinated humans across time and cultures. As the largest living land mammal, a male African bush elephant typically stands more than 10 feet tall and weighs an incredible 6.6 tons. Although poachers still kill approximately 100 African elephants every day, conservation groups are working to save elephant populations from extinction. Read on for a dozen things you might not know about elephants, from their long history as a political symbol to their legit firefighting skills.

1. Contrary to popular belief, elephants are not exactly scared of mice.

Baby elephant looks startled.
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Cartoonists have long depicted the funny juxtaposition of a giant elephant terrified of a tiny mouse. Zoologists and elephant trainers have conducted experiments to test whether elephants are truly afraid of rodents, and it seems to be a myth. Mice themselves don't frighten elephants, but the pachyderms have poor vision and can get extremely startled when anything suddenly scurries by. Elephants are probably more afraid of a mouse's sudden movement than the mouse itself.

2. Wild elephants could have populated the U.S., but abraham Lincoln nixed the idea.

A mother and baby elephant taking a walk.
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In 1861, President Lincoln received gifts, including elephant tusks and a handmade sword, from Siam's King Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongkut. The king of present-day Thailand also made an interesting offer: Mongkut proposed that Siam would send pairs of male and female elephants to the U.S. to breed in the forests. Americans could then tame the wild elephants and put them to work for the economic benefit of the country. William Seward, Lincoln's secretary of state, replied to Mongkut in 1862, graciously declining his offer. He told the king that since the U.S. already used steam power to efficiently transport goods within the country, elephants simply wouldn't be practical.

3. Trunk-sucking is the elephant equivalent of thumb-sucking.

Baby elephant sucking its trunk.
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When baby elephants want to comfort themselves, they instinctively start sucking their trunks. Trunk-sucking is also a way that a baby elephant can learn how to use her trunk (which contains between 40,000 and 50,000 muscles). Although most elephants, like human babies, grow out of sucking behavior, some adult elephants also suck their trunks when they feel anxious.

4. Elephants have been the symbol of the Republican Party since 1874.

Elephant symbol for the Republican party.
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Although elephants had been occasionally used as a symbol for Republicans during the Civil War, cartoonist Thomas Nast, who drew an elephant in an 1874 issue of Harper's Weekly, gets the credit for linking the animal with the political party. In later cartoons, Nast continued to draw an elephant to portray the Republican Party, and other cartoonists adopted it, establishing the animal as the GOP symbol.

5. Barnum & Bailey once trained elephants to play baseball.

U.S. stamp with a circus elephant on it.
iStock.com/Valerie Loiseleux

Baseball is America's pastime, so why not teach elephants how to play the game? In 1912, thanks to the work of Barnum & Bailey's elephant trainer, Harry L. Mooney, the intelligent animals played their first ballgame. Although playing baseball was just one of many tricks that circus elephants learned, Barnum & Bailey capitalized on the concept of elephant baseball by using the image on posters to sell tickets for shows.

6. Some elephants have been convicted of murder.

Elephant foot in chains.
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Although elephants are typically viewed as gentle giants, they are capable of attacking and killing humans. Male elephants undergo musth, a hormonal change that makes them temporarily produce tons of testosterone, resulting in aggression. But even female elephants can kill. In 1916, a town in Tennessee charged an elephant named Big Mary with first-degree murder for killing her handler. Big Mary, who worked for the Sparks Circus, attacked her handler, possibly after he struck her with a bullhook as she was trying to eat a watermelon rind. Big Mary was convicted and sentenced to execution. Some 2500 residents of the town gathered to watch Big Mary's dramatic hanging, which featured a 100-ton crane and a chain that broke under her weight.

7. Elephants grieve death.

Elephants mourning the death of a baby elephant.
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Although we can't know exactly what elephants feel and how they process death, they seem to show signs that they experience grief when a member of their family (or another elephant) dies. When they see a dead elephant, they may vocalize, use their trunks to "hug" the dead animal, or stay with the carcass for hours. Some elephants have also tried to bury the dead body by covering it in leaves and soil.

8. Trained elephants fight fires in Indonesia.

Elephant with water spewing out of its trunk.
Ishara S.KODIKARA, AFP/GettyImages

You probably won't see an elephant riding on a fire truck anytime soon, but elephants in Indonesia are a vital part of fighting fires. In 2015, East Sumatra was plagued with multiple fires over a period of several months, so 23 trained elephants from a conservation center went to work. Carrying water pumps and hoses, the elephants helped patrol the land and made sure that new fires weren't ignited.

9. If you're in Zambia, you might see some elephants strolling through your hotel lobby.

An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
An elephant walks into the lobby of the Mfuwe Lodge in Zambia.
Lars Plougmann, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Some guests at Mfuwe Lodge in the African country of Zambia get an unusual animal sighting before they even leave the lobby. Each year between October and December, families of elephants walk through the lodge's reception area to eat wild mango from a tree in the courtyard. The elephants' giant size and seeming indifference to their hotel lobby surroundings make for quite a striking sight.

10. In 2015, scientists recorded elephants yawning for the first time.

An elephant's open mouth.
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Although scientists speculated that elephants probably yawn, scientists from the University of California, Davis captured the first video of an elephant yawning. If you enjoy watching sleepy animals stretching and yawning, this is for you. Warning: extreme cuteness ahead.

11. Elephants starred in YouTube's first-ever video.

Man taking a photo of an elephant on his phone.
iStock.com/iudmylaSupynska

On April 23, 2005, Jawed Karim made internet history when he uploaded the first video to a certain nascent video-sharing website. Karim, one of YouTube's founders, posted an 18-second scene of himself standing in front of elephants at a zoo. In the video, he speaks about how cool the elephants' long trunks are. As of August 2019, the video has more than 74 million views.

12. Elephants love to snack on old Christmas trees.

Two elephants snacking on pine trees.
VADIM KRAMER, AFP/Getty Images

Zookeepers at Tierpark Berlin, a zoo in Germany, feed unsold Christmas trees to their elephants in early January. The trees are certified pesticide-free, and the elephants seem to enjoy their special snack. Berlin isn't the only place where elephants eat Christmas trees, though. Zoos in Prague also treat their elephants to the tasty conifers.