St. Croix, V.I.: Christiansted National Historic Site

The Steeple Building
The Steeple Building housed the first faith community in Christiansted beginning in 1753.

Johnny Shaw on Flickr's Creative Commons

Capital of the Danish West Indies for more than a hundred years, Christiansted was a major port for the island of St. Croix. The Danish took over an earlier French settlement at the beginning of the 18th century and established a colonial city, Christiansted, which they built as a trading center through the Danish West India and Guinea Company (DWI&GC). Christiansted National Historic Site includes the remains of a colonial fort and other buildings that document 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 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 (1749), the Steeple Building (1753), Danish Custom House (1844), and the Scale House (1856).

The Danes were not the first colonial power to attempt to turn a profit from St. Croix. They were successful because they built an economy based on cultivating a lucrative crop: sugar. The sugar economy sparked the growth of Christiansted as a trading city that provided the shareholders of the DWI&GC with high profits from the export of sugar, molasses, and rum. These profits were only possible through a plantation economy that used the labor of African slaves the company brought to the island, mostly from Guinea. Earlier, a number of Native American tribes inhabited the island, but most died, fled to other islands, or been forcibly removed as slaves before the time of Danish colonization in 1717. Soon after arriving, the Danes constructed a number of buildings from which to govern and defend their colony, trade, store and sort slaves, and worship.

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.

With the completion of the fort, a building and settlement effort soon began on a larger scale. Visitors can see the DWI&GC warehouse constructed in the settlement in 1749 to house the sugar produced. From almost the beginning, Governor Moth developed a plan for the entire area and guided construction. His plan located the important company buildings and residences near the port and specified the layout of future streets, which resulted in a surprisingly uniform pattern of growth in the city for over 200 years.

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 Danish West India and Guinea Company 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.

Before this decline, a mix of planters, slaves, government officials, fishermen, and tradesmen lived in and around Christiansted. These people came from a variety of backgrounds and countries, including England, Germany, Holland, Ireland, and Norway. Together, they made Christiansted a vibrant urban community even though it was a tiny colony far separated from the homeland. Both slaves and free blacks worked in Christiansted. Free blacks often worked as tradesmen, just like others in the colony. In addition to seeing the fort, visitors to the park today can get a sense of community life by touring other buildings. Self-guided walking tour brochures are available for the Steeple Building and the Scale House.

Constructed in 1753 to house the first faith community established in Christiansted, the Steeple Building originally was the Church of our Lord God of Sabaoth. Its current name comes from the steeple that served for generations as a landmark for mariners entering the harbor. In the 1830s, the building fell into disrepair and the congregation voted to move to another space. For the next 100 years, the building served a variety of functions for the colonial government, including a bakery, storehouse, and town hall.

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.

Despite efforts by the Danish government to improve trade with the West Indies, the impact of the decline in sugar and the slave trade was so great that maintaining the colony became unprofitable for the government. Denmark sought to sell the islands, and after initially resisting, the United States purchased the islands in 1917. The age of colonial expansion built on sugar and slaves was officially over. A new force for growth emerged. Driven by the fear of an increased German presence in the Caribbean, the United States transformed its new purchase into a strategic military base. During the early years of its ownership of the Virgin Islands, the United States governed the former Danish West Indies through the Navy. One landmark from this period is located within Christiansted National Historic Site. The US Navy built the bandstand in 1917 for concerts by the Navy Band of the Virgin Islands, the only part of the Navy open to local blacks.

Christiansted National Historic Site, a unit of the National Park System, is located at the foot of King St. in downtown Christiansted, on St. Croix in the US VI. Click here for National Register of Historic Places registration file: text and photos. The park and buildings are open 8:00am to 4:45pm, Monday to Friday and 9:00am to 4:45pm Saturday and Sunday. The park is closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day. For more information, visit the National Park Service Christiansted National Historic Site website or call 340-773-1460. In addition to self-guided tours of Fort Christiansvaern, the Steeple Building, and the Scale House, ranger-led tours are available.

Fort Christiansvaern, the Steeple Building, the Custom House, and the Scale House have been documented by the National Park Service’s Historic American Buildings Survey. 

The park is also featured in the National Park Service Historic Places of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Travel Itinerary.

Last updated: August 11, 2017