St. Thomas History
Indian habitation in what is today the U.S. Virgin Islands, was recorded by explorers arriving in the late 1500s. By the 1600s however, Indian populations plummeted due to disease brought by Europeans, slave raids by Spanish to work other sugar plantation islands and immigration to other islands of the Caribbean. These indigenous groups no longer exists in the Virgin Islands.
Though Christopher Colombus isited St. Thomas during his second voyage to the New World in 1493, he didn’t stay long and sailed on to the much larger island of Puerto Rico. The unguarded bays proved perfect shelter to marauding pirates for over a century.
In 1671, the Danish West India Company was chartered from King Christian to take possession of St. Thomas to make suitable for plantations. Part of the charter indicated that the Danish government would supply male convicts to work the plantations and as many arrested women too. Many Dutch settlers came from neighboring islands, leading Dutch to become the dominant language. The Danish West India Company would quickly welcome colonists from other neighboring islands looking for work and rely on African slaves for hard labor. In 1673, the first ship of 103 African slaves arrived in St. Thomas. They would not be the last. Neighboring small islands around St. Thomas were used as pastures for goats and sheep; intended to feed the settlers on St. Thomas.
After a few years the port of Taphus was developed in what is today called Charlotte Amalie. The latter name used in honor of King Christian V’s wife. When the governor gave licenses to residents to develop the harbor area around the harbor, taverns sprung up like mushrooms. Sailors and pirates were dependable customers. Under the Esmit Brothers, who served as the 2nd and 3rd governors of St. Thomas, the island gained the image of being a pirates den. There are many stories of Blackbeard and Bluebeard hanging out here.
In 1685, the Danish West India Company signed a treaty with the Brandenburger Company allowing them to establish a slave trading business on St. Thomas. In the early 1700s, slavery enabled the sugar plantations of St. Thomas to boom. With its growing economy, many traders from other islands came to St. Thomas to buy slaves.
In 1717, a small group of planters, slaves and soldiers were sent from St. Thomas to claim St. John. And in 1733, the Danish West India Company purchased St. Croix from France.
In 1754, St. Thomas, St. John and St.Croix became Danish crown colonies. With St. Croix growing so fast its population almost doubled St. Thomas and St. John, the capital was moved from St. Thomas to St. Croix. While St. Croix developed a typical plantation economy, St. Thomas’ economy shifted to trade.
In 1801 and 1807, the British seized the Danish islands for a short period of time. Then St. Thomas was made a free port in 1815 and became a major shipping center for the Caribbean. Charlotte Amalie flourished with importing houses, belonging to English, French, German, Italian, American, Spanish, Sephardim and Danish owners. A substantial number of free Blacks worked as clerks, shop keepers and artisansand merged into the standard social life of the island.
In the 1840s, St. Thomas became a reloading station for ships traveling between North and South America. By the 1860s, technology advances enabled more ships to bypass St. Thomas. In the late 1800s through early 1900s, hurricanes, fires and a tsunami left Charlotte Amalie reeling. Years passed before the old warehouses would be rebuilt.
Negotiations between the United States and Denmark were initiated on several occasions between 1865 and 1917 when the final deal was struck and the United States bought the Danish West Indies for $25 million. The islands remained under US Navy Rule until 1931; during that time several major public works and social reform projects were undertaken. Governors were appointed from 1931 until 1969, when the first elected governor took office in Charlotte Amalie. Considered a safe American port, shipping prosperity returned to St. Thomas. Tourism took off in the 1960s.