Virgin Islands National Park

Virgin Islands National Park

History

While many people often associate St. John’s history with the Danish colonization period beginning in 1719, the island’s history dates back several more centuries. Even when Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands in 1493, native populations had been living there more than 500 years before he arrived.

Although there was some evidence of inhabitants on St. John as early as 1100, no lasting settlements existed until the Danish took possession of St. John in 1694. They established the first permanent European settlement near Coral Bay, attracted by the lucrative prospects of cultivating sugar cane.

By 1733, there were 109 cane and cotton plantations covering the island. As the plantation economy grew, so did the demand for slaves, who were essential to sugar production. Under the auspices of the Danish West India Company, St. Thomas became the center of the slave trade with Africa. But the slaves soon revolted, killing all the whites on the island in 1733. French troops from Martinique, not Danish troops, subdued the slaves.

Sugar production continued for more than a century, effectively ending with the emancipation of the slaves in 1848. The United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917. Bay rum production, cattle and subsistence farming were the main occupations until tourism discovered St. John in the 1930s. [more…link to sugar production page]

Word of the untouched paradise on St. John spread in the 1930s, and in 1956 the Rockefeller interests bought land and gave it to the Federal Government for a national park, forming the Virgin IslandsNational Park. More than half of the land on St. John lies within the park boundaries. The rest is small towns, shops, homes and private lands. In 1962, the park was enlarged to include 5,650 acres of submerged lands off the island. The Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was proclaimed in 2001 that includes 12,708 acres of federally owned submerged lands off the island.