World-famous for their physical beauty, the U.S. Virgin Islands deserve equal recognition as a historian’s paradise. On this scenic corner of the globe, you’ll find everything from pre-Columbian artwork, to mighty fortresses, to a 220 year-old synagogue. Grab some sunscreen and join us on a virtual tour of the islands, their landmarks, and their truly remarkable past.
1. THE REEF BAY AND PETROGLYPH TRAILS (ST. JOHN)
With its white-sand beaches and vibrant forests, Virgin Islands National Park is a must-see for anyone who loves the outdoors. The park began as a 5000-acre plot on the island of St. John, which was donated to the US government by esteemed philanthropist, Laurance Rockefeller, in 1956. Since then, it’s expanded to encompass around 60 percent of St. John and almost all of neighboring Hassel Island. Snorkelers gravitate towards the immaculate coastlines while hikers can enjoy more than twenty wonderful trails.
One such pathway offers us a glimpse at a bygone age. Near the Reef Bay trail on St. John lies a crystal-clear pool that’s surrounded by basalt boulders, many of which are dotted with man-made etchings known as petroglyphs. These were carved by the indigenous Taino people, who once occupied Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Florida, and—of course—the Virgin Islands. The so-called Reef Bay petroglyphs were most likely created sometime between 1000 and 1490 CE, although the very oldest may date all the way back to 500 CE. The historic markings are mainly located just above the water’s surface. As such, their reflections are clearly visible in the pool, which was probably a place of great spiritual significance. Those interested in checking out the site can reach it by taking Petroglyph trail—a short, 0.3-mile offshoot of the larger Reef Bay trail.
2. THE COLUMBUS LANDING SITE (ST. CROIX)
During his second expedition to the New World, Christopher Columbus and his 17-ship fleet dropped anchor at an island that he named “Santa Cruz” (now called St. Croix) on November 14, 1493. Upon his arrival, the explorer sent a landing party ashore to investigate. Navigating down the Salt River, Columbus’s men made their way to a practically vacant village. Here, they discovered a number of Taino prisoners who’d been captured by a neighboring people known as the Carib. The Spanish rounded up these detainees and started rowing them back to their fleet when a canoe filled with Caribs crossed their path. A violent clash then broke out; in the melee, one Spaniard was fatally wounded by an arrow.
This whole incident is noteworthy for two reasons. To begin with, it is said to be the first documented skirmish between Europeans and Native Americans. Also, it represents the only occasion in which any members of a Christopher Columbus-led voyage actually walked on what is now regarded as U.S. territory. The beach that they landed upon was designated as a national landmark in 1960. Located in northern St. Croix, the site is currently a part of the Salt River Bay National Park and Ecological Preserve.
3. FORT CHRISTIAN (ST. THOMAS)
The oldest extant structure on the U.S. Virgin Islands, Fort Christian was built between 1672 and 1680. Named after Denmark’s King Christian V, its original purpose was to protect the Danish settlers on the island of St. Thomas from marauders. But this was only the first of many roles that Fort Christian would play. Over time, the establishment has been repurposed as an administrative office, a church, and, more recently, the designated prison of Charlotte Amalie, the town in which it stands. In 1976, this grand facility was converted into a museum, with an exhibit hall opening up in the former dungeon. For the past 12 years, Fort Christian has been closed to the public due to extensive renovations. However, that certainly hasn’t stopped passersby from marveling at the iconic, red, brick-walled landmark.
4. CHRISTIANSTED NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE (ST. CROIX)
By 1754, Denmark had acquired the whole of St. Croix, St. John, and St. Thomas. Together, these three landmasses formed the bulk of the Danish West Indies, a territory that was later renamed the U.S. Virgin Islands when Uncle Sam bought it in the 20th century.
Denmark’s influence is still on full display throughout Christiansted—the largest city in St. Croix. On the waterfront lies a seven-acre complex maintained by the National Parks Service. Called the Christiansted National Historic Site, it boasts five of the area’s most historic Danish structures. Let’s begin with Fort Christiansvaern. Finished in 1749, this stronghold was used to keep pirates at bay and to put down potential slave rebellions. Like Fort Christian on St. Thomas, it was eventually demilitarized; in 1878, the building was transformed into a police station and courthouse. At one point, Alexander Hamilton’s mother, Rachel Faucette Buck, was imprisoned there when her first husband accused the woman of infidelity.
Once you’ve explored the fortress, head on over to the Danish West India & Guinea Company warehouse. Chartered by the royal government in Copenhagen, this organization monopolized trade in Denmark’s Caribbean colonies from 1671 to 1755. The company was headquartered at the St. Croix warehouse, which doubled as its main storage space.
Also on-site are a wooden weighing house (wherein imports were measured), the old Danish custom house, and the Steeple Building, which was the first St. Croix church to ever be constructed by the Danes.
5. ST. THOMAS SYNAGOGUE
This is one of the oldest continuously-running synagogues on U.S. soil and the second-oldest in the western hemisphere. During the Charlotte Amalie-based Synagogue’s first seven years, its membership increased from nine to 22 families—with the majority being of Spanish descent. Over the centuries, the St. Thomas congregation has met in several different buildings. Their current venue dates back to 1833 and, although it was restored in 2000, this facility still retains its original interior woodwork. On the very same city block, you can explore 300 years of local Jewish history at the Weibel Museum. Both are open to the general public on every day but Sunday.
6. SHIPLEY’S BATTERY (HASSEL ISLAND)
Denmark’s authority in the West Indies wasn’t uncontested. When the Napoleonic Wars broke out, the Danes allied themselves with France. Naturally, this drew the ire of Great Britain. In retaliation, the UK dispatched 4000 men to occupy all of the Caribbean islands under Danish control. Overwhelmed by these forces, Denmark surrendered St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John in March 1801.
Britain reigned supreme over the West Indies for a ten-month period. A visible reminder of this brief but influential era can be found on Hassel Island. To defend St. Thomas, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Shipley oversaw the construction of a guardhouse on Hassel’s highest point. Nicknamed “Shipley’s Battery,” the structure was a C-shaped stone wall designed to house as many as five seaward-facing cannons. Its remains can still be seen in their original location today.
7. EMANCIPATION GARDEN (ST. THOMAS)
Slavery was formally abolished in the Danish West Indies on July 3, 1848, several years before it was abolished in the continental U.S. To honor the 150th anniversary of that historic day, a commemorative garden opened in downtown Charlotte Amalie in 1998. Visitors are greeted with a Liberty Bell replica and a bronze sculpture that depicts a former slave triumphantly blowing upon a conch shell as he celebrates his newfound freedom.
There’s more to the U.S. Virgin Islands than gorgeous beaches (although they’ve got plenty of those, as well). Rich culture, delicious food, and incredible history await you, too. Click over at VisitUSVI.com for more info about the Islands’ upcoming Centennial Commemoration.