History of St John

Mother Earth Travel > Virgin Islands > St John > History

The history of St John is very similar to that of the other Virgin Islands with a few twists along the way that eventually created three very distinct islands, but each part of a whole.

Christopher Columbus was the first to spot the islands during his second voyage in 1493 when he saw many islands, but stopped at but a few. The history of the three US Virgins ' St. Thomas, St John, and St. Croix, was created primarily by their physical characteristics, and what would be their particular value as agricultural islands.

Fertile St John and St. Thomas (its neighbor to the south) were more conducive to farming, thus farms and plantations sprung up. While St John's plantations thrived, St. Thomas suffered difficulties with cultivation and eventually evolved into more of a mercantile center, and the primary slave market for the islands. Those characteristics in a large part shaped each islands' destiny politically, economically and socially.

Spain, England, France, Holland, Denmark, and the United States all controlled these small jewels at some point, with the US eventually winning out. The first European settlers in the Virgins were the Danes who in 1666 took control. When Columbus first arrived, he named the islands because of their mountainous terrain, Las Islas Virgenes, in honor of St. Ursula and her legion of 11,000 virgins. The Spaniards generally stayed away from the Virgins during these early days because they did not find the riches they were seeking, except for some copper on Virgin Gorda. This allowed the English and Dutch to come in do some early trading. Then in 1665, Copenhagen merchants came to the islands and formed the Danish West India Company, around which they set up a colony, unsuccessful. But, in 1671, some success was achieved when a second company was formed that had solid financial backing and royal support from home. The original colony was born in St. Thomas and then spread to St John and eventually St. Croix.

The key historical event on St John was a slave revolt in 1733, during which almost half of the population was killed off and about nearly half of the plantations were destroyed. This devestating revolt continued for six months, nearly paralyzing the remaining black and white population. The St John Slave Rebellion as it has come to be known, turned the island to anarchy. Soldiers came to help quell the rebellion, including Dutch and Danes from St. Thomas, French from Martinique and English from Tortola. The slaves gradually died out, and many committed suicide, others gave up because of lack of food and perished, or gave themselves up. In all, about 150 slaves died in the rebellion.

Britain took over the three Virgin Islands for about a year, at the time of the Napoleon Wars during which time Britain refused to allow Denmark to trade with France, until the power reverted back to the Danes in 1807. And this time it took its toll on the islands -- especially significant because it coincided with the downfall of the sugar industry, which was facing competition from the sugar beet in Europe.

During the Civil War, the islands played a strategic role and were used for shipping in supplies. The US made its first attempt at that time to procure the islands, but did not follow up on this early agreement with the Danes. During the First World War, the US made another attempt to buy the islands, but this time succeeded. The three Virgin Islands were turned over to the US in 1917 at a cost of US$25 million. The islands are now self-governed, but the courts remain under the control of the US government.

Today tourism is the primary source of income for residents of all three US Virgin Islands.