Experts think that the Arawak people were the first to settle on the three main islands that are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI): St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. They likely arrived on the islands around the year 1000, journeying from South America. (The Taíno people of Puerto Rico are a subgroup of the Arawak.) In the 15th century, a warring tribe called the Caribs invaded the islands.
Christopher Columbus arrived on the island that’s now called St. Croix in 1493, and he named the cluster of islands the Virgin Islands in honor of a Roman Catholic saint. For more than 60 years, the Carib people fought off the explorers. But in 1555, the Spanish king sent forces to kill the natives and claim the territory. Over the next hundred years, European settlers arrived, forcing enslaved people from Africa to come, too. In that time the countries of Spain, France, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands fought over ownership so they could grow sugar, cotton, indigo, and other crops. In 1754, Denmark took control of the islands and renamed them the Danish West Indian Islands.
At this time, the islands served as a hub for the slave trade across the Americas. But in 1848, enslaved laborer John Gottlieb, known as General Buddhoe, lead a historic revolt on St. Croix. The uprising forced the governor to abolish slavery throughout the islands on July 3, 1848.
In 1917, the United States purchased the islands from the Danish government. The United States wanted to use the islands’ location and deep bays for naval warships while the country was fighting in World War I.
The USVI are tropical islands located on the Puerto Rico Trench, the deepest part of the Atlantic Ocean. The U.S. National Park Service manages five national parks in the USVI; four of them are dedicated to the islands' marine life.
Virgin Islands National Park covers most of St. John, and 40 percent of the park is underwater. The park houses over 500 species of fish including barracuda, nurse shark, stingray, yellow snapper, and kingfish, and it also includes Trunk Bay, a popular snorkeling site. Another national park, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, is all underwater.
The islands’ official bird is the bananaquit, nicknamed the sugar bird because it drinks nectar. The only native land mammals are bats. The great bulldog bat, which is one of six species that live on the islands, catches fish for dinner. Leatherback, hawksbill, and green sea turtles all live here.
PEOPLE AND CULTURE
Around 75 percent of the USVI population are Black people who are the descendants of the enslaved people forced over from Africa. People of European, Asian, and Latin descent make up make up the rest of the population.
Fungi (FOON-jee) is one of the best known dishes in the USVI—but it’s not mushrooms! Made with salted cornmeal, water, and okra, fungi is usually served with whole fried fish. Pates (pah-TAYS) is the USVI version of the empanada, fried dough stuffed with beef or salted fish.
The festival of Carnival is celebrated across the Caribbean with steel drum bands, colorful costumes that can take months to prepare, and parades. Each island celebrates Carnival at a different time of the year: St. Thomas celebrates after Easter, St. John around the Fourth of July, and St. Croix during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
The USVI is an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States, meaning it follows U.S. laws but also has its own local government. It also means that not all of the U.S. Constitution applies to the people living there. In 1932, the U.S. Congress extended citizenship to all residents born in the USVI, but citizens couldn’t elect their own governor until 1970. Now, the USVI has executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government to make laws on the islands. People elect a representative who serves in the U.S. Congress and participates in congressional committees, but can’t vote.
• Former NBA star Tim Duncan of the San Antonio Spurs was born and raised on St. Croix.
• Founding Father Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis but grew up in St. Croix. Today you can take a tour dedicated to Hamilton's life on the island.
• Pirates, including Captain Kidd and Black Sam Bellamy, raided the islands in the 16th and 17th centuries.
• This territory is the only place in the United States where people drive on the left side of the road.
• A small island near St. John was the setting for the novel Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.