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.

6 Protective Mask Bundles You Can Get On Sale

pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus
pinkomelet/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Daily life has changed immeasurably since the onset of COVID-19, and one of the ways people have had to adjust is by wearing protective masks out in public places, including in parks and supermarkets. These are an essential part of fighting the spread of the virus, and there are plenty of options for you depending on what you need, whether your situation calls for disposable masks to run quick errands or the more long-lasting KN95 model if you're going to work. Check out some options you can pick up on sale right now.

1. Cotton Face Masks; $20 for 4

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This four-pack of washable cotton face masks comes in tie-dye, kids patterns, and even a series of mustache patterns, so you can do your part to mask germs without also covering your personality.

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2. CE- and FDA-Approved KN95 Mask; $50 for 10

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You’ve likely heard about the N95 face mask and its important role in keeping frontline workers safe. Now, you can get a similar model for yourself. The KN95 has a dual particle layer, which can protect you from 99 percent of particles in the air and those around you from 70 percent of the particles you exhale. Nose clips and ear straps provide security and comfort, giving you some much-needed peace of mind.

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3. Three-Ply Masks; $13 for 10

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These three-ply, non-medical, non-woven face masks provide a moisture-proof layer against your face with strong filtering to keep you and everyone around you safe. The middle layer filters non-oily particles in the air and the outer layer works to block visible objects, like droplets.

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4. Disposable masks; $44 for 50

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If the thought of reusing the same mask from one outing to the next makes you feel uneasy, there’s a disposable option that doesn’t compromise quality; in fact, it uses the same three-layered and non-woven protection as other masks to keep you safe from airborne particles. Each mask in this pack of 50 can be worn safely for up to 10 hours. Once you're done, safely dispose of it and start your next outing with a new one.

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6. Mask Protector Cases; $15 for 3

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8 Things to Know About Crispus Attucks

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Crispus Attucks was the first person killed in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770—and became known as the first fatality in the fight for American independence. In a poem memorializing the massacre, poet John Boyle O'Reilly wrote, "Call it riot or revolution, or mob or crowd, as you may, such deaths have been seed of nations." Attucks was America's first seed.

1. Crispus Attucks may have escaped slavery.

We have few facts about Attucks's early life. According to Mitch Kachun, author of First Martyr of Liberty: Crispus Attucks in American Memory, Attucks was born in Framingham, Massachusetts, likely around the year 1723. Newspaper accounts following the Boston Massacre described him as "a Molatto." His father is said to have been an enslaved African man named Prince Yonger, while his mother was likely named Nancy Attucks and was of Natick or Wampanoag heritage.

Attucks may have been enslaved and escaped servitude in 1750. That year the Boston Gazette ran an ad offering 10 pounds to anybody who apprehended "'a Molatto fellow, about 27 Years of Age, named Crispas,' who 'ran away from his Master, William Brown, of Framingham,'" Kachun writes. "Crispas" was also described as being "'6 Feet two Inches high, [with] short curl'd hair, his Knees nearer together than common.'"

2. Crispus Attucks became a whaler.

Attucks is thought to have joined the crew of a Nantucket whaling ship and worked as a harpooner. He went by the alias "Michael Johnson," perhaps to avoid being sent back into slavery. (A newspaper reporting the massacre refers to him as a "mulatto man named Johnson" [PDF].) At the time of the massacre, Attucks had been planning to stay in Massachusetts only briefly. He had just returned from a voyage to the Bahamas and was preparing to set sail for North Carolina.

3. Crispus Attucks arrived in Boston at a tumultuous time.

The Stamp Act of 1765 required that residents pay taxes on paper goods—from playing cards to magazines to stationery—imported to the British colonies. Colonists resented taxation without representation and riots became widespread. The Townshend Acts, which taxed even more types of goods, followed in 1767 and exacerbated the colonists' anger. The Sons of Liberty, a secret group of American businessmen, organized a yearlong boycott of British imports. To quell the uprising, the British government sent several thousand troops into Boston, a city of 15,000 residents. Just days before the Boston Massacre occurred, a brawl broke out between British soldiers and the city's ropemakers.

4. The Boston Massacre was sparked by a dispute over a barber bill.

Boston Massacre print by Paul Revere
Detail of "The Bloody Massacre" by Paul Revere
Paul Revere, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On March 5, 1770, a young boy began complaining that a British officer had failed to pay his barber bill. (The officer denied this.) When a British sentry began harassing the boy, a crowd of colonists—including Attucks—gathered at Boston's Dock Square and began harassing the officer in return. British reinforcements arrived. Tensions escalated. The colonists began tossing snowballs, pebbles, and wood at the soldiers. Suddenly, gunshots rang out. Six colonists were wounded, and another five died. Attucks is believed to have been the first to fall.

5. Nobody knows exactly what Crispus Attucks did during the altercation.

Some witnesses claimed that Attucks was the leading protestor and attacked the soldiers with a piece of wood. Others say he was simply watching, leaning on a stick. Regardless of his actions, two bullets ricocheted and lodged in Attucks's chest, killing him instantly.

6. The funeral for Crispus Attucks attracted thousands of mourners.

Attucks, along with the four other victims—Samuel Gray, James Caldwell, Samuel Maverick, and Patrick Carr—were buried at Boston's Granary Burying Ground. The funeral procession attracted up to 10,000 people. As one contemporary wrote, "A greater number of persons assembled on this occasion, than ever before gathered on this continent for a similar purpose."

7. John Adams called Crispus Attucks the massacre's instigator.

Every British soldier involved faced the prospect of hanging, and John Adams—later America's second president—was tasked with defending them. During his defense, Adams claimed that the soldiers were acting in self-defense and called the protestors "a motley rabble of saucy boys, negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish jack tarrs. And why we should scruple to call such a set of people a mob, I can't conceive, unless the name is too respectable for them." Adams claimed that Attucks was the instigator. The argument worked: nobody was convicted of murder. (Two soldiers were, however, convicted of manslaughter. As punishment, their thumbs were branded with the letter M.)

8. Crispus Attucks was later hailed as a patriotic hero.

Boston Massacre monument
The Boston Massacre monument commemorates Crispus Attucks and four other victims.

The public outcry after the massacre forced the British troops to temporarily withdraw from the city and caused Adams to lose half of his law practice. Three weeks after the massacre, Paul Revere made and distributed a print depicting the event; today, the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History calls the illustration "probably the most effective piece of war propaganda in American history." In Boston, March 5 became a day of remembrance. According to abolitionist and historian William Wells Brown, "The anniversary of this event was publicly commemorated in Boston, by an oration and other exercises, every year until after our national independence was achieved, when the Fourth of July was substituted for the fifth of March." More than a century after the event, in 1888, a massive monument was erected at Boston Common to commemorate Crispus Attucks and the four other men who died. It, and the location of the massacre, are now prominent locations on Boston's Freedom Trail.