Today in History

Today in History: March 31

Virgin Islands

On March 31, 1917, the U.S. took formal possession of the Danish West Indies. Renamed the Virgin Islands, this chain consists of St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John and about fifty other small islands, most of which are uninhabited. Lying about sixty-five kilometers east of Puerto Rico at the end of the Greater Antilles, the U.S. purchased the islands from Denmark for $25 million because of their strategic location in relation to the Panama Canal.

St. Thomas
One of the Steep Streets on the Hillsides of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas

St. Croix
Cultivating Sugar Cane on Virgin Islands Company Land near Bethlehem, St. Croix

farmland
Sugar Cane Country, The Virgin Islands

Jack Delano, photographer, December 1941.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1939-1945

The Virgin Islands are known for their delightful tropical climate and a growing season that never ends.

Many different groups have claimed ownership of these islands. When Christopher Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493 the islands were occupied by the native Carib Indians. By the time that Europeans began to settle there in the 1600s, most of the native population had died from diseases introduced by early explorers.

image of fort
Old Fort Built by the French, Frederiksted, Saint Croix, Virgin Islands,
Jack Delano, photographer, December 1941.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Color Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1939-1945

The islands went back and forth between Spanish and French rule. Danish settlers arrived and began growing sugar cane using convicted criminals and, after 1678, African slaves for labor. Over time, St. Thomas became a major Caribbean slave market.

After the French sold the islands to Denmark in 1733, the Danish military took up residence on St. Croix and, using the captured leaders of a local black slave revolt, began work on a fortification. Later they built a permanent masonry fort and named it Fort Christiansvaern ("Christian's Defense") in honor of King Christian VI of Denmark-Norway.

Denmark kept a policy of strict neutrality in foreign affairs during the years of the American Revolution. However, special interests in both Denmark and in the West Indies often circumvented that policy. According to a 1988 report by the Department of the Interior:

One such case involved the smuggling of arms and supplies to the "patriot" side during the American Revolution. This action led to an exchange of salutes — a traditional courtesy — between a merchantman flying the Grand Union flag and Fort Frederik at the west end of St. Croix. This action, albeit unofficial, constituted the first acknowledgment of the American flag from foreign soil.

From Fort Christiansvaern, by Jerome A. Greene and William G. Cissel,
National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, 1988, 4.

Children, Virgin Islands
Children at the Peter's Rest Elementary School near Christiansted, St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Jack Delano, photographer, December 1941.
America from the Great Depression to World War II: Black and White Photographs from the FSA-OWI, 1935-1945

For more about the Virgin Islands of the United States:

St. Thomas, Virgin Islands
St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, copyright 1922.
Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs, 1851-1991