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Christiansted National Historic Site
St. Croix, Virgin Islands
Sailing for the Spanish, Christopher Columbus landed on St. Croix in 1493. Since then, seven flags have flown over the island of St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Christiansted National Historic Site includes the remains of a colonial fort and other buildings that document the early Spanish occupation of St. Croix, the presence of the Danish in the Caribbean during the age of expansion, and the diverse richness of life there. Visitors today can learn more about the discovery of St. Croix by Columbus, the Spanish presence on this island, and about Danish colonial life by exploring some of the historic buildings in the park. The seven acres of the park are in the area of the Christiansted waterfront/wharf and include Fort Christiansvaern (1738), the Danish West India & Guinea Company Warehouse (DWI&GC) (1749), the Steeple Building (1753), Danish Custom House (1844), and the Scale House (1856).
Christiansted National Historic Site is associated with nearby Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Reserve. This Park and Reserve contains the only known site where members of Christopher Columbus’ November 14, 1493 expedition set foot on what is now territory of the United States. It was here that the first resistance to European encroachment by Native Americans was documented.
Although Spain claimed St. Croix in 1493, it neglected to colonize the island in favor of larger islands in the area. Sixteen years after Columbus, Ponce de Leon, the first governor of Puerto Rico, and the Carib chieftains on St. Croix established an agreement whereby they would refrain from raiding each other, and the Caribs would provide agricultural produce to the Spanish in Puerto Rico. Despite this agreement, Diego de Nicuesa, a Spanish entrepreneur, raided St. Croix, capturing, enslaving, and transporting as many as 140 Caribs to Central America.
Carib resistance to Spanish imperialism grew, eventually culminating in an uprising on Puerto Rico in 1511. For these efforts, the Spanish Crown determined to eradicate the Caribs of St. Croix. In 1512, the Spanish issued a royal decree aimed at ridding the island of Caribs who resisted the Europeans. By 1590, whether because of the royal decree or the European diseases that contributed to their depopulation, the Carib permanently abandoned St. Croix.
Christiansted can trace its actual establishment to 1734 when Governor Frederick Moth led a group of settlers to the site of the former French camp. They built a fort in 1749 called Christiansvaern (“Christian’s Defense”) to honor King Christian VI of Denmark-Norway. The construction of a military facility for the defense and protection of a privately owned company was typical of colonial expansion during the 18th century. The fort was to safeguard the colony in the name of the crown and protect the goods produced by the company and the local landowners from slave rebellions. Today, visitors to the park can take a self-guided tour of the fort, which was important in establishing the Danish presence in the area.
Initial prosperity under the DWI&GC faded between 1734 and 1754, as the company tried to squeeze every possible bit of profit from the sugar plantations on the island. High taxes and tariffs hampered trade until the Danish government took over the DWI&GC in 1755. While the islands still depended on sugar for their income, management under a crown corporation was better. Christiansted was profitable and stable until the 1820s, when the invention of a process for extracting sugar from beets reduced the market for the cane sugar grown in the West Indies, thus hitting the region with a hard economic setback. The abolition of the slave trade in the late 1700s and the emancipation of slaves in 1848 ended prosperous times in Christiansted and throughout the region.
Built in 1856, the Scale House regulated trade and collected duties for the crown. It had spaces for inspecting and weighing imports and exports. The weigh master’s office and quarters for troops of the customs service were on the second floor. Particularly interesting are the wide doors at each end of the building for the customs inspection room and the scale room through which carts of goods passed. Visitors to the park can also see the 1830 Custom House used for collecting money for the crown.