The Ciboney people inhabit the islands during the Stone Age. They construct tools out of flint but leave few other artifacts behind.
The Arawak migrate to the Virgin Islands from the Amazon River Valley and Orinoco region of Venezuela and Brazil. They grow cotton, tobacco, maize, yucca, and guava. Their civilization flourishes for several hundred years until the Carib invade the region.
Originally from the Guiana region of South America, the Carib people come to the islands, destroying numerous Arawak villages and murdering villagers. By the mid-15th century, the Arawak population has been reduced to a few thousand from a high of several million. It is the Carib who greet Christopher Columbus on his second voyage through the islands.
1493–1699 EARLY EUROPEAN EXPLORATION
While sailing for Spain, Italian explorer Christopher Columbus becomes the first documented European to visit the Virgin Islands during his second voyage to the New World. He christens his discovery Las Once Mil Virgenes, in memory of St. Ursula and her 11,000 martyr virgins slaughtered by the Huns at Cologne in the 5th century. He also gives individual islands their Spanish names (Santa Cruz, San Tomas, and San Juan).
The Carib join with the Tainos of Puerto Rico against the Spanish after Spain attempt to seize villagers as slaves. In retaliation for their uprising, the Spanish Crown sentences them to death. With legalized extermination and military action imminent, the Carib permanently abandon St. Croix.
Two territorial units are formed from the archipelago of the Virgin Islands, one English and one Danish.
England and the Netherlands colonize and jointly inhabit St. Croix, the largest of the future U.S. Virgin Islands. The co-habitation ends when the island’s Dutch governor kills his English counterpart. The English retaliate, leaving the Dutch governor dead.
The neighboring Spanish on Puerto Rico invade the small colony of St Croix and retake the island, destroying the English settlement. However, the French immediately move in and seize control from the Spanish. St. Croix remains a French colony until 1733, when the Danish West India Company buys the island from France.
The Danish West India Company receives its charter from King Christian V to occupy and take possession of St. Thomas and surrounding islands that might be suitable for plantations.
(February 26) The Danish West India and Guinea Company successfully establish a settlement on St. Thomas. Part of their charter indicates that the Danish government will supply the company with as many male convicts as necessary for working the plantations and as many arrested women as needed. At the time, the settlement consists of 116 men and 61 convicts. However, officials soon learn that convicts do not make the best laborers and begin to rely on African slaves for labor.
Trans-Atlantic slave trade to the islands begins. Slaves on the islands mainly labor on sugar plantations.
The population on St. Thomas is 156 white settlers and 175 African slaves, with 46 working plantations. Neighboring islands, like Buck Island and Water Island, are used as pastures for goats and sheep that feed the settlers.
The Danish West Indian Company expands to St. John in 1683. However, hostility from the neighboring British on Tortola prevents the Danes from establishing a settlement.
The Danish government signs a treaty with the Dutch of Brandenburg. The treaty allows the Brandenburg American Company to establish a slave-trading post on St. Thomas, where some of the largest slave auctions in the world are soon held.
By the late 17th century, disease, murder, and slavery take a heavy toll on both the Arawak and Carib populations. The Arawak are completely exterminated, and few Carib remain.
1700–1799 PLANTATION PERIOD
The early 1700s are a boom period for St. Thomas, as sugar becomes a popular crop and slave trading grows. Many traders from other islands came to St. Thomas to buy slaves.
(March 25) In order to maintain hospitable relations with Denmark, the British cease their opposition of Dutch settlement in St. John. The Danish West India and Guinea Company successfully settle the island and give it its name ("Sankt Jan" in Danish). The first permanent settlement is established at Estate Carolina in Coral Bay. Plantation agriculture develops rapidly.
Moravian missionaries from Saxony arrive in St. Thomas in December. They live among the slaves and gain their confidence.
The Danish West India Company purchases Saint Croix from the French and brings together Saint Thomas, Saint Croix, and Saint John as the Danish West Indies. Danish trading posts are set up throughout the islands, trading in sugar, slaves, and other goods.
(November 23) Members of the Akwamu tribe from modern Ghana stage a massive slave rebellion, seizing control of St. John for seven months. The Danish enlist the help of French authorities from Martinique to regain control. The slave revolt is one of the earliest and longest in the Americas, leaving almost a quarter of the island’s population killed and large plantations destroyed.
Plantation owners on St. Croix become frustrated with Danish West India Company rule and petition the Danish king to buy out the company. As a result, St. Croix is given its own government, separate from St. Thomas and St. John.
The islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix are sold to the Danish king, Frederick V of Denmark, becoming royal Danish colonies. At this time, the population of St. Croix is growing rapidly, nearly doubling St. Thomas’ and St. John’s combined. The capital of island group is moved from St. Thomas to Christiansted, St. Croix.
1800–1899 ERA OF UNREST
(March) During the Napoleonic Wars, the British occupy the Virgin Islands. The UK's first occupation lasts a year.
The population of St. Croix is now 30,000, with 26,500 being slaves engaged in planting and processing sugar cane. In the mid-1800s, beet sugar prices begin to cause a sharp decline in the profitability of cultivating sugarcane.
(December) The British again seize the islands, remaining in control until November 1815.
St. Thomas is made a free port. In the following years, it becomes a major shipping center and distribution point for the West Indies.
The Danish government opens a new courthouse and prison in Cruz Bay on St. John. The structure is intended to improve the treatment of slaves by making justice a government issue, rather than leaving it to individual planters. It is the only government building from the Danish Colonial period that still exists today.
Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim (also known as the St. Thomas Synagogue) is built in Charlotte Amalie. It is the oldest synagogue in continuous use within the United States and its territories. The synagogue is designated a National Historic Landmark in 1997.
(July 2) Thousands of slaves threaten to burn down the town of Frederiksted if they are not freed. The governor of St. Croix, Peter von Scholten, acquiesces and abolishes slavery on the Danish-controlled islands. He is later jailed in Denmark. With slavery abolished, the resulting rise in labor costs further weakens the position of island sugar producers.
A treaty to sell St. Thomas and St. John to the U.S. is signed by the Danes and Americans, but the sale is never enacted since the U.S. fails to find domestic legislative support for the sale.
1900–1929 THE U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
The Danish-West Indian National Bank is established to provide the Danish West Indies with an official currency for the first time. The bank opts to use the Latin Monetary Union standard with francs and bits.
Danish West Indies native David Hamilton Jackson organizes the islands' first labor union.
The United States approaches Denmark again with the view of buying the Danish West Indies, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base.
David Hamilton Jackson travels to Denmark to convince the king to allow freedom of the press on the islands.
(November 1) After returning to the islands, Jackson founds their first free newspaper, The Herald. Today this date is celebrated in the U.S. Virgin Islands as "Liberty Day" or "Bull and Bread Day."
(January 17) The United States purchases the Danish West Indies for $25 million, putting the area under the administration of the U.S. Navy. The U.S. purchases the southern Virginia Islands including St. Thomas, St. John, St. Croix, and about 50 other small islets and cays, renaming them the United States Virgin Islands. The purchase is part of a defensive strategy to maintain control over the Caribbean and Panama Canal during World War I.
A civil government is established on the islands.
U.S. citizenship is granted to the indigenous population.
(June 22) The Organic Act establishes the U.S. Virgin Islands as a U.S. territory.
The agriculturally based economy of the islands falters. Economic insecurity continues until the 1950s, when tourism becomes the leading industry in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The U.S. acquires Water Island for $10,000. Construction of a defense installation called Fort Segarra, intended to protect military installations on neighboring islands, begins immediately. World War II ends before its completion. The Army’s Chemical Warfare Division uses sections of Water Island for several years as testing grounds for poisonous gases.
1950–PRESENT MODERN U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS
The Department of Defense turns Water Island over to the Department of the Interior, which then leases it to a private developer, Walter Phillips. The developer constructs a hotel and homes, but in 1989 Hurricane Hugo severely damages the hotel, which subsequently closes.
Laurance Rockefeller gives the National Park Service 5,000 acres of land on St. John. Today, almost two thirds of St. John’s forest, shorelines, and underwater lands are protected by the park.
Melvin Herbert Evans becomes the Virgin Islands first elected governor. Previously, governors were appointed by the U.S. Navy and then by the Department of the Interior.
Virgin Islanders elect their first non-voting delegate to Congress, Victor O. Frazer.
Hurricane Hugo slams into several Caribbean islands, including St. Croix, which is the hardest hit. Sixty-two people are killed.
The Department of Interior returns Water Island, located in St. Thomas’ Charlotte Amalie Harbor, to island control, making it the fourth U.S. Virgin Island.
(January 17) The Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument is created off St. John in order to provide greater protection to the sensitive coral reef area.
At least 5,500 residents of St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, sign a petition to ask Congress to make the island its own U.S. territory.
Click to enlarge an image
1400: Drawing of a Carib woman
1493: Salt River, where Columbus landed
1493: Saint Ursula on the coat-of-arms of British Virgin Islands
1503: Wooden chair crafted by Taínos
1671: Christian V of Denmark
1673: Slave ship diagram
1733: West Indies harbor
1833: St. Thomas synagogue
1848: Peter von Scholten
1917: Current flag of the United States Virgin Islands
1944: Water Island
1944: Seal of the Chemical Corps, formerly the Chemical Warfare Service
1956: Laurance and Mary Rockefeller
1968: Governor Melvin Herbert Evans
1972: Victor O. Frazer, 4th non-voting delegate to Congress
2001: Hurricane Hole, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument