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Survey of Historic Sites and Buildings

Virgin Islands

Location: City of Christiansted, St. Croix Island, Virgin Islands; address, Superintendent, Christiansted National Historic Site, 2100 Church St. #100, Danish Custom House, Christiansted, St. Croix, VI 00820.

This site includes approximately three city blocks, comprising 7-1/2 acres, on the Christiansted waterfront, including Fort Christiansvaern, the Old Danish Post Office, Old Danish Customhouse, Steeple Building, and Government House. It commemorates the discovery of America, the European struggle for colonial empire, and especially the development of the Virgin Islands under the Danes. Seven flags have flown over Christiansted, the capital of the Danish West Indies when "sugar was king."

St. Croix Island is the first territory now under the flag of the United States to have been discovered by Columbus—on November 14, 1493, during his second voyage to the New World. Columbus named the island Santa Cruz (Holy Cross), which was inhabited by fierce Indians and unattractive to colonists during the 16th and early 17th centuries. During the period 1625-50, French freebooters and Dutch and English settlers apparently lived on the island at various times. In 1650, however, a Spanish expedition from Puerto Rico drove out all Europeans, only to be expelled itself several months later by a French force from St. Kitts Island.

Christiansted NHS
Christiansted National Historic Site.

The French, who called the island St. Croix, sold it in 1651 to the Knights of Malta, a private religious-military order. They later regained possession of it as a crown colony, but about 1696 the King transferred the French population, which consisted of 147 white settlers and 623 slaves, to Haiti. The island remained largely uninhabited until 1733, when the Danish West India and Guinea Company, which for some years had held neighboring St. Thomas and St. John Islands, purchased it.

Although earlier efforts had been made by other European nations to colonize St. Croix, under the Danes St. Croix boomed. It became a major sugar producer, bound to both Europe and America by close commercial, social, and culturalties. By 1755, the population had reached 10,200, including 9,000 slaves. Some cotton was grown, but sugar was the principal crop. Despite the prosperity of the colonists, the company was almost bankrupt by 1755, and gladly sold out to the Danish King, under whose rule the three islands remained until the United States purchased them for $25 million in 1917.

harbor and wharf
Harbor and wharf of Christiansted, on St. Croix Island, Virgin Islands, probably in the first half of the 19th century. From a lithograph by an unknown artist.

Sugar production increased from 11.2 million pounds in 1755 to 46 million pounds in 1812, during a period when the Danish West Indies were near the economic center of gravity of the New World, among the "Fabulous Sugar Islands," as the Lesser Antilles were known. Their importance during the latter 18th century is difficult to conceive today. In such a stimulating environment, Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, lived during his youthful years. He worked for a Christiansted merchant during the period 1766-72.

Fort Christiansvaern, the first public building in Danish Christiansted, was originally the residence of the Governor. Little is known of the history of the Old Danish Customhouse, apparently erected between 1779 and 1815, and the Old Danish Post Office. The Steeple Building was the first church to be erected by the Danes, who started construction in 1750 and 3 years later first put the building to use. A conspicuous feature of Christiansted harbor today, it is an unusual representative of Danish colonial architecture. Built of rubble-masonry, it is one story high, and the four-tiered steeple is 77 feet high. John Wilhelm Schopen, a merchant and official of the Danish West India and Guinea Company, built the present Government House as his home. It has been renovated and enlarged over the years since then, and now consists of three floors, which total about 37,200 square feet. On the second floor is a ballroom about 98 by 22 feet. Most of the period furnishings in the building are the gift of the Danish Government.

Christiansted National Historic Site is administered by the National Park Service in cooperation with the Government of the Virgin Islands.

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Last Updated: 22-Mar-2005