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Christiansted National Historic Site

St. Croix, Virgin Islands

The Christiansted Harbor on St. Croix was the landing site of Columbus’ second expedition to the New World on November 14, 1493.

The Christiansted Harbor on St. Croix was the landing site of
Columbus’ second expedition to the New World
on November 14, 1493.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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.

View of Fort Christiansvaern from the water.
View of Fort Christiansvaern from the water.
Kara Reuter on Flickr's Creative Commons

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. 

The Spanish were not the only colonial power to influence the development of St. Croix. The island is truly a melting pot, with stories of several South American Indian cultures, the 1493 arrival of Columbus, the Spanish encounters with the Caribs, attempts at colonization by a succession of European nations, and enslaved West Africans and their descendants. The only surviving structural evidence of the early turbulent colonial period in Virgin Islands history is the triangular earthwork fortification at Salt River begun by the Dutch. The French referred to it initially as Fort Flamand (“the Flemish Fort”) and later as Fort Sale. This feature is the only one of its type that has survived in the West Indies, and possibly in North America. After the mid-1660s, the village at Salt River was relocated to another harbor on the northeast coast of St. Croix known as Bassin, later to become the town of Christiansted under the Danes.

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.

Many of the buildings within Christiansted National Historic Site first functioned to defend a Danish colony on the site that was established at the beginning of the 18th century.
Many of the buildings within Christiansted National Historic
Site first functioned to defend a Danish colony on the site
that was established at the beginning of the 18th century.
National Park Service

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.

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 was originally 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.

Steeple Building
The Steeple Building housed the first faith community in Christiansted beginning in 1753.
Johnny Shaw on Flickr's Creative Commons

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 from 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.


Plan your visit
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.

The Columbus Landing Site, a National Historic Landmark, is located within the Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve, approximately four miles west of Christiansted, St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands. Until there is a visitor contact station at Salt River Bay, information may be obtained at Christiansted National Historic Site. You can also contact the St. Croix Environmental Association; call 340-773-3663 or visit the website.

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 and in the Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures: Explore their Stories in the National Park System Discover Our Shared Heritage Travel Itinerary.
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