9 Historic Figures With Ties to the U.S. Virgin Islands

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iStock

With their golden beaches and crystal clear waters, the U.S. Virgin Islands rank among the Caribbean’s top tourist destinations. But there’s more to the islands than just sun and fun. Many historic figures have visited or lived in the region (Alexander Hamilton, anyone?), which, over the centuries, was seized by warring European powers, consolidated and ruled over by Denmark, and formally purchased by the United States in 1917. Today, the scenic U.S. territory consists of four main islands—St. Croix, St. John, St. Thomas, and Water Island—and around 50 smaller islets and cays. Here are nine notable people with ties to their sunny shores.

1. ALEXANDER HAMILTON

In case you haven’t been paying attention to the hubbub surrounding the Founding Father (it’s OK: we couldn’t get tickets either), the Virgin Islands played an integral role in Hamilton’s coming-of-age story. As a young man, Hamilton moved to St. Croix, where, at the age of 17, he penned a moving account of the devastation caused by a recent hurricane. This letter, published in the Royal Danish-American Gazette, inspired the community to raise the funds needed to send him to North America, where they felt he could receive a proper education.

2. CAMILLE PISSARRO

Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) was an Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist artist whose realistic, open-air paintings depicted the everyday lives of French peasants. But long before he moved to Paris, befriended (and influenced) up-and-coming figures like Paul Gauguin and Paul Cézanne, and became commonly regarded as the “father” of an artistic movement that bucked the European establishment, Pissarro grew up on the island of St. Thomas.

The son of a French-Jewish father and a Dominican-born mother, Pissarro lived in St. Thomas until his family sent him to boarding school in Paris. There, Pissarro developed his interest in French art. After six years, Pissarro returned to St. Thomas and worked in his parents’ general store, taking every spare moment to practice his drawing.

When Pissarro was in his early 20s, he moved again, this time to Caracas, Venezuela. Pissarro spent two years studying with Danish artist Fritz Melbye, and then briefly returned home to St. Thomas before leaving once more—this time for good—to pursue an art career in Paris.

3. WILLIAM ALEXANDER LEIDESDORFF JR.

William Alexander Leidesdorff Jr. (likely 1810-1848), a prominent 19th century San Francisco entrepreneur who’s today remembered as the “African Founding Father of California,” was born on the island of Saint Croix. Leidesdorff’s father was a Danish sugar planter, and his mother was of African descent. As a young man, Leidesdorff left the Virgin Islands for New Orleans to seek his fortune in maritime trade. He became a successful cotton broker, and later worked in New York, but the West’s siren call proved to much for him to resist: In 1841, Leidesdorff moved to a tiny port city in Mexican-ruled California called Yerba Buena. Eventually, the sleepy settlement would grow into San Francisco.

Leidesdorff quickly became one of early San Francisco’s movers and shakers. He opened the city’s first hotel, “the City Hotel,” established a general store and a lumberyard, built a cargo warehouse, and ran the Bay Area’s first steamboat.

Eventually, Leidesdorff—who became a Mexican citizen in 1844 and received a massive, 35,500-acre land grant from the government—made a foray into politics. He served as president of San Francisco’s school board and City Treasurer, and in 1845 the ambitious businessman was even named U.S. Vice Consul to Mexico under President James Polk’s administration.

By the time he passed away in 1848, Leidesdorff was San Francisco’s wealthiest man, with a fortune worth more than $30 million in today’s money. Historians remember Leidesdorff as one of the founding members of a great American city, and as the nation’s first African-American diplomat and millionaire.

4. SIR FRANCIS DRAKE

Nobody knows if Sir Francis Drake (1540 or 1544-1596)—the Elizabethan-era privateer, sea captain, and explorer who became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the Earth—ever truly stepped foot on the Virgin Islands. But if you travel to the north coast of St. Thomas, you can hike to the top of a lookout point that looms high above the island’s most beautiful beach, Magens Bay. There sits a bench called Drake’s Seat, installed in 1933. It’s said that Drake anchored his ships in the waters below, and climbed this hill to scan the horizon for ships to plunder. The tale is most likely a myth—but with such a stunning view, who’s complaining?

5. THE JAMESTOWN SETTLERS

In 1607, England established Jamestown—the country’s first permanent settlement in the Americas—in Virginia. But before Captain John Smith and his band of colonists arrived in the New World, they first made a pit stop on the island of St. Thomas. They stayed there three days before finally embarking on the final leg of their voyage to America.

6. BLACKBEARD

Edward Teach (1680-1718)—better known as the infamous pirate Blackbeard—plundered ships across the Caribbean and North America’s southern coasts. There’s no official record that he also terrorized the U.S. Virgin Islands. But according to local lore, Blackbeard once used the island of St. Thomas as a base. There, he set up shop in a military watchtower perched high atop a hill in the city of Charlotte Amalie.

Built by Danish colonists in 1679, the structure was originally called Skytsborg Tower, which means “protection tower” in Danish. But over time, locals took to calling it Blackbeard’s Castle. Today, it’s a popular tourist destination.

7. JEAN HAMLIN

Blackbeard may have never set foot on the U.S. Virgin Islands, but the territory was frequented by another historic 17th-century pirate: Jean Hamlin. Hamlin was a French buccaneer whose ship, La Trompeuse (French for “deception”), preyed on British merchant ships in the Caribbean.

During the late 1600s, St. Thomas’s Danish governor, Adolph Esmit, was lenient toward pirates. He even purchased the swashbuckling seafarers’ loot, and provided them with assistance and protection. Aware of Esmit’s loyalties, Hamlin came to St. Thomas to escape British authorities—but in 1683, his ship was discovered by Captain Charles Carlile and the English warship HMS Francis.

A brief skirmish ensued, and Danish troops helped Hamlin fend off his British foes. In a second battle, the British set fire to Hamlin’s ship—but the pirate and his crew escaped, and hid in Charlotte Amalie with Esmit’s help.

Hamlin hijacked a frigate, sailed it to Brazil, and assembled another pirate crew. Esmit’s support for the pirate, however, got him into trouble with other islands’ governors and the Danish crown. As for the sunken La Trompeuse, it’s reportedly never been located—and some people believe it holds treasure.

8. EDWARD WILMOT BLYDEN

Edward Wilmot Blyden, best known as the father of Pan-Africanism, was a prominent intellectual, writer, and politician. Blyden was born on Saint Thomas in 1832; his parents were both free and literate, and put a premium on their son’s education. A local clergyman took the young Blyden under his wing, and encouraged him to apply to a theological college in New Jersey. Blyden, however, was turned away due to his race. In 1851, Blyden accepted a teaching position in the newly-independent Liberia, where he quickly rose to international prominence, publishing a variety of books and treatises on the subject of racial equality. Blyden’s work would serve as a foundation for other great thinkers as well, including W.E.B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey.

9. PETER BENTZON

Peter Bentzon (born around 1781 or 1783) was such a skilled Colonial silversmith that he became the first craftsman of African descent to be identified by his own maker's mark. He was born on the island of Saint Thomas to a European father and a free African-Caribbean mother. At the age of 8, Bentzon left the Virgin Islands to study in Philadelphia. In his mid-to-late teens, he served as a silversmith’s apprentice, and by the age of 23 Bentzon had established his own business in Saint Croix.

Bentzon spent most of his living and working in either the Virgin Islands or Philadelphia. Today, historians have identified nine pieces of silver marked P. BENTZON and PB—and further cementing his legacy, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture recently acquired a silver-and-wood teapot forged by Bentzon for its collections.

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 to VisitUSVI.com for more info about the Islands’ upcoming Centennial Commemoration.

Wednesday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Computer Monitors, Plant-Based Protein Powder, and Blu-ray Sets

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 2. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Perfect Gifts for The Pop Culture Connoisseur in Your Life

Funko/Pinsantiy/Lil Cinephile/Amazon
Funko/Pinsantiy/Lil Cinephile/Amazon

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

Over the past year, most everyone has been marinating in all kinds of pop culture. More than any other era, this moment in time has revealed how much we as a society should value our creators and artists. From cinematic comfort food to walks down nostalgia lane, the holiday season is a perfect time to celebrate the pop culture moments and icons that have kept us happy, engaged, and awed.

Here are 10 perfect gifts the pop culture connoisseur in your life is sure to love.

1. A is for Auteur; $30

Lil Cinephile/Amazon

The same team that put out the delightful, surprisingly adaptable Cinephile card game ($18) last year is out with a new book perfect for the cineastes in your life who love Agnès Varda. This alphabet book goes from A (Paul Thomas Anderson) to Z (Fred Zinnemann) and celebrates the unique elements of more than two dozen filmmakers’ careers. It’s a tongue-in-cheek delight, and if you don’t actually want your child to know about Quentin Tarantino just yet, it makes a gorgeous addition to any adult’s coffee table.

Buy It: Amazon

2. Schitt’s Creek Funkos; 4 for $77

Funko/Amazon

Eww, David! This set is ideal for fans of the Rose family who’d love Moira, Johnny, David, and Alexis peering down on them as they work or sleep or fold in the cheese. If you’re going the extra mile, grab the Amish David edition with hoodie, sunglasses, and rake. Individual figures run from $9-$30, and they all pair perfectly with a banana rosé.

Buy Them: Amazon

3. The Bruce Lee Criterion Collection; $68

Criterion Collection/Amazon

This is a stunning collection showcasing the best of the best of a true master alongside Criterion’s usual insightful commentary. Enter the Dragon has never been released as part of a collection before, and it stands as the crown jewel among The Big Boss, Fist of Fury, The Way of the Dragon, and the infamous Game of Death—all digitally restored in either 2K or 4K. The collection also features documentaries about Lee; an interview with his widow, Linda Lee Caldwell; and a conversation about the “Bruceploitation” subgenre that blossomed following Lee's untimely death.

Buy It: Amazon

4. NES Cartridge Coasters; $11

Paladone Products Ltd./Amazon

For the entertainer happy to have guests place their IPAs on SM3. These stylish coasters will protect your tables from coffee rings, wine stains, and barrels thrown by kidnapping apes. Plus, you won’t have to blow into these if they’re not loading correctly.

Buy Them: Amazon

5. Van Buren Boys Tee; $16

Underground Printing/Amazon

Deep into its eighth season, Seinfeld was still making iconic, quote-worthy moments. With this pre-shrunk, 100 percent cotton T, your favorite fan of the show about nothing can celebrate the comical street gang named for the 8th president (and the first president hailing from New York). It’s a handsome, comfortable shirt that comes in four colors and goes great with a Lorenzo’s pizza.

Buy It: Amazon

6. This Television History Puzzle; $49

White Mountain Puzzle/Amazon

This pop collage of more than 250 stars and scenes from TV’s past is a 1000-piece puzzle from acclaimed artist James Mellett. It’s probably the only image in existence where Kunta Kinte is between Superman, Gumby, and Norm and Cliff from Cheers. A gorgeous walk down memory lane, it’s also a healthy challenge that, at 24x30, would make a fine wall hanging if you don’t want to toss it back into the box.

Buy It: Amazon

7. Pictures at a Revolution; $17

Penguin Books/Amazon

Entertainment Weekly veteran Mark Harris is one of the most respected film historians of this generation, and this book, which goes deep on five pivotal films, is a must-have for serious cinephiles. Exploring Bonnie and Clyde, The Graduate, Look Who’s Coming to Dinner, In the Heat of the Night, and the surprise box office bomb Doctor Doolittle, Harris explores how 1967 marked a tectonic shift in American cultural preferences. Pair it with Five Came Back for bonus gifting points (and a book you can watch together on Netflix).

Buy It: Amazon

8. The Art of Mondo; $44

Insight Editions/Amazon

This is high on the list of gifts you’ll end up keeping for yourself. This sublime book boasts 356 pages of gorgeous prints from everyone’s favorite films. Cult, classics, blockbusters, and buried gems, the Austin-based Mondo is world-renowned for limited release posters from the best artists on the planet. One sheets typically sell for hundreds of dollars, so this book is the cheapest way to get them all. For your friend, of course. Right?

Buy It: Amazon

9. A Princess Bride Enamel Pin; $10

Pinsanity/Amazon

I do not think this pin means what you think it means. This playful piece features Vizzini’s shouting face above a stately “Inconceivable!” banner. It’s made of quality metal with vibrant enamel colors, and buying it should also send you down a rabbit hole looking for dozens of other pop culture pins.

Buy It: Amazon

10. Marvel’s Greatest Comics; $23

DK/Amazon

Someone in your life is bound to want three pounds of Marvel comics. This definitive tome showcases 100 issues that changed the world and built a powerhouse pop culture company, from Marvel #1 in 1939 to Avengers #6 in 2018. The eye-popping artwork is accompanied by smart commentary from industry trailblazers and experts, which makes it as informative as it is entertaining. Just remember to say “Pow!” when you gift it.

Buy Them: Amazon

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