As the U.S. Virgin Islands celebrate 100 years as a United States territory, it’s a great time to look back at the islands’ history before they officially became part of the U.S. in 1917. Here are 13 facts about what the Virgin Islands were like a century ago, when the transfer occurred:
1. THE ISLANDS WERE DANISH-OWNED FOR ALMOST 300 YEARS…
The Danish West Indian Company began settling St. Thomas in 1665, then staked out St. John in the 1680s. The company bought St. Croix—then a French colony—in 1733, creating the three-island Danish West Indies. Except for a few years in the early 1800s when the English briefly seized control, the islands remained a territory of Denmark until 1917, when control of the islands was transferred to the U.S.
2. DANISH, THE OFFICIAL LANGUAGE, WAS NOT WIDELY SPOKEN.
While Denmark technically controlled the islands from the 1600s on, few people spoke Danish, the official state language. Many of the earliest settlers were Dutch, Irish, Scottish, Spanish, French, or English, and speaking Dutch was more common than Danish. Since then, an English Creole has also evolved in colloquial use, and these days, 75 percent of the population speaks English as their main language.
3. SOME PEOPLE SPOKE A LANGUAGE THAT IS NOW EXTINCT.
Negerhollands, a Dutch-based Creole language, emerged around 1700, and was studied by linguists in the 19th century as a unique language derived from Dutch. Many church services were held in Dutch Creole until the mid-19th century. While the language began to die out in the 1830s, it was still spoken by a few people at the turn of the 20th century. The last known fluent speaker died in 1987.
4. THE U.S. WANTED TO MAKE THE ISLANDS A TERRITORY FOR A LONG TIME.
As early as 1863, Denmark and the U.S. started talking about a transfer of the islands. However, the U.S. Senate did not ratify the proposal, and the negotiations halted until 1914, when the United States started to become concerned about Germany getting a foothold in the Caribbean—and access to the Panama Canal—as World War I progressed. The Treaty of the Danish West Indies was signed in 1916, and Denmark and the United States closed the deal in early 1917.
5. IT WAS ONE ISLAND SHORT.
At the time of the transfer, a future U.S. Virgin Island member, Water Island, was privately owned by the East Asiatic Company. Finally, in 1944, the U.S. paid $10,000 for the island, planning to put it to military use. Later, it was leased to a developer and became a beach resort. It finally became the U.S. Virgin Islands’ fourth island in 1966. In 2000, it had 161 residents.
6. IT HAD A VIBRANT JEWISH COMMUNITY.
Jewish traders moved to the Virgin Islands in the 1660s, when it was still Danish territory, and by 1850, half of the white population of the Virgin Islands was Jewish—about 400 people. The island of St. Thomas is home to one of the oldest synagogues in continuous use in North America, founded in 1796. The Virgin Islands’ Jewish population began to decline around 1914, though it has since bounced back.
7. THE ISLANDS WERE IN THE MIDST OF RECOVERING FROM NATURAL DISASTERS.
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands, was ransacked by a series of natural disasters including fires, hurricanes, and tsunamis. Many of the warehouses in the major shipping hub (and once upon a time, a major pirate hangout) were destroyed, and the city had to be rebuilt.
8. LABOR REFORM LAWS WERE IN THE MAKING.
In 1915, a lawyer named David Hamilton Jackson helped establish the first labor union on St. Croix, and later went before the Danish Parliament and successfully argued for higher wages and better working conditions in the islands. The U.S. Virgin Islands now celebrates D. Hamilton Jackson Day every November 1.
9. A FREEDOM OF THE PRESS CAMPAIGN WAS IMPLEMENTED.
When Jackson paid his visit to King Christian X and the Danish Parliament in Europe, he also petitioned authorities to ease up on rigid censorship practices. Since 1779, only newspapers subsidized by the Danish government were allowed on the islands. Jackson had the ban lifted, and later founded an independent newspaper on St. Croix that covered corruption and the concerns of the working class.
10. AFTERSHAVE WAS BIG BUSINESS.
Bay rum, an astringent and perfume made from the bay rum trees of the Virgin Islands, was a major export, especially from St. John. (The essential oil made from the leaves has nothing to do with drinking rum.) During the early 1900s, St. John was producing 4000 quarts per year, but in those years just before the islands’ transfer, St. Thomas outstripped its fellow Virgin Islands members to produce some 720,000 quarts. These were then shipped out internationally, especially to South America, for use in aftershave, colognes, soaps, and more.
11. RUM CULTURE WAS VERY STRONG.
The Virgin Islands’ agricultural efforts were largely focused on sugar, which made up 86 percent of the islands’ exports to Denmark in the 18th century. And since molasses is a byproduct of sugar, there was plenty of rum to go around—especially since the Virgin Islands were a major stop for ships and rowdy sailors. Unfortunately for the islands, just after the territory became American, in 1919, the U.S. ratified the 18th Amendment, beginning the era of Prohibition. But thanks to the Virgin Islands’ inconsistent enforcement and proximity to islands under British, French, and Dutch rule, Prohibition was more of a suggestion than a law there. There were speakeasies, as a local newspaper discussed in a Prohibition retrospective in 1975, but you didn’t have to knock or know what the passcode was. In 1931, there were only nine convictions for violations of Prohibition on the islands. While it did put a damper on the export of rum, the drink made up less than 5 percent of the exports from St. Croix between 1910 and 1915. After Prohibition, meanwhile, the number of distilleries on St. Croix skyrocketed.
12. IT BECAME A TERRITORY JUST AS THE NATIONAL PARK SERVICE CAME INTO BEING.
In the summer of 1916, Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service and transferred all existing national monuments and military sites overseen by the Forest Service and War Department to the National Park Service. The Virgin Islands would have to wait a few more decades for its first National Park, though. In 1956, The Virgin Islands National Park was established on donated land by the Rockefeller family . The park, now expanded to include shorelines, coral reefs, and another small island, takes up much of the landmass of St. John.
13. THE ISLANDS WERE A STRATEGIC LOCATION FOR THE U.S MILITARY.
Because of their location in the middle of the shipping lane leading to the Panama Canal, the Virgin Islands became an important target for the United States. Gaining control over the territory was key to the country’s plans to keep the German navy from gaining a toehold in the Caribbean. It didn’t hurt that the deep-water port at Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas—once a refuge for pirates—was perfect for setting up a navy. The U.S. paid Denmark $25 million for the islands.
If you’re an American history buff, consider a visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands this spring—the 100-year anniversary of the Islands’ transfer to the United States. Click over to VisitUSVI.com for more info about the Islands’ upcoming Centennial Commemoration.