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

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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.

Mental Floss's Three-Day Sale Includes Deals on Apple AirPods, Sony Wireless Headphones, and More

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Apple

During this weekend's three-day sale on the Mental Floss Shop, you'll find deep discounts on products like AirPods, Martha Stewart’s bestselling pressure cooker, and more. Check out the best deals below.

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Apple

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Sony

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Sony

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Martha Stewart

If you’re thinking of taking the plunge and buying a new pressure cooker, this 8-quart model from Martha Stewart comes with 14 presets, a wire rack, a spoon, and a rice measuring cup to make delicious dinners using just one appliance.

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Jashen

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Evachill

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Gourmia

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Townew

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FenSens

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Noerden

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Prices subject to change.

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links. If you haven't received your voucher or have a question about your order, contact the Mental Floss shop here.

14 Facts About International Talk Like A Pirate Day

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Ahoy, me hearties! As many of you know, September 19 is International Talk Like A Pirate Day, an annual phenomenon that’s taken the world by storm, having been observed by every continent, the International Space Station, and even the Oval Office since it first made headlines back in 2002. So let’s hoist the Jolly Roger, break out the rum, and take a look back at the holiday’s timber-shivering history.

1. Talk Like a Pirate Day was originally conceived of on D-Day.

Talk Like a Pirate Day creators John Baur and Mark Summer (who’ve since acquired the nicknames “Ol’ Chumbucket” and “Cap’n Slappy,” respectively) created the holiday while playing racquetball on June 6, 1995—the 51st anniversary of the invasion of Normandy. Out of respect to the battle’s veterans, a new observance date was quickly sought.

2. September 19th also happens to be the birthday of the ex-wife of the holiday's co-creator.

“[September 19th was] the only date we could readily recall that wasn’t already taken up with Christmas or the Super Bowl or something,” the pair later claimed. Summers claims to harbor no ill will toward his former spouse, who has since stated, “I’ve never been prouder to be his ex-wife!

3. Pulitzer Prize-winning humorist Dave Barry is largely responsible for popularizing the holiday.

Dave Barry was so smitten with the holiday after having been introduced to it via email in early 2002 that he dedicated an entire column to its publicity that September, turning an inside joke into a global sensation. He later went on to make a cameo appearance in one of Baur and Summers’s buccaneer-themed music videos in 2011 (look for him in the video above at the 3:25 mark).

4. Real pirates spoke in a wide variety of dialects.

Despite some extensive “English-to-Pirate” dictionaries that have cropped up all over the Internet the idea that all pirates shared a common accent regardless of national origin is historically absurd, as National Geographic pointed out in 2011.

5. Actor Robert Newton is hailed as the "patron saint" of Talk Like a Pirate Day.

So where did the modern “pirate dialect” come from? Summers and Baur credit actor Robert Newton's performance in Treasure Island (1950) and have accordingly dubbed him the “patron saint” of their holiday. Tasked with breathing life into the scheming buccaneer, Newton simply exaggerated his native West Country accent and the rest is history.

6. John Baur's family was featured on a pirate-themed episode of Wife Swap.

The reality show’s highly-anticipated 2006 season premiere pitted the Baurs (in full pillaging regalia) against a family which, according to John’s wife Tori (a.k.a. “Mad Sally”), “behaved as though ‘fun’ was something that had to be pre-packaged for their protection.”

7. John Baur was also on Jeopardy!

Baur was described to the audience as “a writer and pirate from Oregon” in his 2008 appearance. “I didn’t win,” Baur said, “but the introduction made Alex blink.”

8. International Talk Like a Pirate Day has become a cornerstone of the Pastafarian movement.

Bobby Henderson, founder of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, cited Earth’s dwindling pirate population as the clear source of global warming in his 2005 open letter to the Kansas school board which established the religion. Since then, Talk Like A Pirate Day has been observed by devout Pastafarians worldwide. 

9. A Florida mayor once ignited a local controversy for making an official Talk Like a Pirate Day proclamation.

In 2012, Lake Worth, Florida Mayor Pam Triolo lightheartedly urged her constituents to embrace the holiday last year, writing, “The City … is known to possess a spirit of independence, high spirits, and swashbuckling, all traits of a good pirate.” Her actions were criticized by the city’s former commissioner, Jo-Ann Golden, who took offense to the association with murderous seamen.

10. Day of the Ninja was created in response to Talk Like a Pirate Day.

Not to be outdone by their hated rivals, the pro-ninja community was quick to execute the first annual Day of the Ninja on December 5, 2002. For Summers and Baur’s take on the warring factions, see the clip above.

11. Astronauts once celebrated Talk Like a Pirate Day aboard the International Space Station.

In a 2012 interview, Summers recalled being “informed that the astronauts on the International Space Station were awakened to ‘A Pirate’s Life For Me' and joined in the pirate talk from space.”

12. President Obama once celebrated with a costumed buccaneer in the Oval Office.

In 2012, Barack Obama tweeted this image on Talk Like a Pirate Day with the caption “Arr you in?”

13. A congressman later used the holiday to slam President Obama's tax plan.

In 2011, Florida’s 12th congressional district representative Dennis Ross used the festivity as a political punchline after Obama made a speech detailing his tax plan, tweeting, “It is TALK like a pirate day … not ACT like one. Watch ye purses and bury yr loot, the taxman cometh.”

14. It's an official holiday in the state of Michigan.

On June 4, 2013, state senator Roger Kahn’s proposal to grant International Talk Like A Pirate Day official acknowledgement from the Michigan government was formally adopted, to the chagrin of some dissenting landlubbers. 

This story originally ran in 2013.