1000/2000 BC—AD 200
Around this time, groups of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers settle the islands of the Caribbean. The origins of these people are still debated. Did they come from Central America, North America, South America or all three? There is a rare example of a prehistoric site from this time here in the park that dates 770 BC.
Cultural traits of these people included:
Use of coral, stone and shell for tools
Ate fish, shellfish and wild plants
Thought to have lived out in the open or in caves
Agricultural, pottery-making waves of people migrate from South America into the Caribbean. They could have displaced the primitive people who came before them, or absorbed them into their culture. An example of a village from this time period can be found at Trunk Bay.
Cultural traits of these people include:
Built wooden houses
Worked stone into tools
Grew cotton for clothing and hammocks
Caught fish, sea turtles, small game
Collected wild plants
Most of the Greater Antilles at this time is occupied by the Tainos. They are the first people to meet Christopher Columbus and his explorers when he comes to the Caribbean. The Tainos had their own spoken language, an advanced political organization, well-developed arts and an elaborate ceremonial religious life called Zemi worship. In 1998, the excavation of a Taino temple began at Cinnamon Bay. You can view some of the artifacts recovered from the dig at either the Visitor Center or the Cinnamon Bay Archaeology Lab.
Cultural traits of the Tainos:
Raised staple crops like cassava and sweet potatoes
Decorated their skin with tattoos, piercing and ornaments
Sculpted stone, shell and bone
Lived in family houses, which were part of a community
Traveled and traded in canoes
For more information on The Tainos and archaeology in the park, check out the Friends of Virgin Islands National Park web site at www.friendsvinp.org
On November 13, 1493 during Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, he arrives at St. Croix’s Salt River. He named the island Santa Cruz and sailed among the other nearby islands including St. John, giving them the name of Eleven Thousand Virgins. This was in honor of St. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgin Martyrs of Cologne. During this trip, Columbus introduces a crop that for centuries would shape the economic life of people in this new world, sugarcane.
On March 11, 1671 King Christian the Fifth of Denmark, granted a charter to the Danish West Indian Company to have, use and begin commerce in its possession, the island of St. Thomas.
The Danish sailing vessel Fero arrives in St. Thomas harbor on May 26, 1672 and raises the Danish flag.
Jorgen Iverson, the Governor of St. Thomas, lays formal claim to nearby St. John.
Formal occupation of St. John occurs on March 25, 1718 with 20 planters, 8 soldiers and 18 slaves arriving in Coral Bay.
By this time there are 20 sugar works on St. John, including one owned by the Danish West India Company. To own a plantation on St. John you had to be a Danish citizen of St. Thomas or another person living on St. Thomas who swore allegiance to the Danish government. There is no early map of St. John from this time, but we do know that the island was divided up into eight quarters. The North Shore Quarters were mostly sugar while the other areas grew cotton, tobacco and provisions.
Most of the timber is now gone from St. John, only just small trees and bushes are left. The island is divided up into approximately 109 estates. The smallest plantation is located in Cruz Bay and is 6.5 acres. The largest plantation is called Vessup and it occupies 462 acres! The average size for a sugar plantation is 147 acres and 85 acres for a cotton plantation.
This was a very disastrous year for the Danish colonies. It started with a serious drought and then in July there was a devastating hurricane, followed by a plague of insects. There was extreme suffering among the people, especially the slaves, who were now starving.
To control the disorder among the unhappy slaves, a strict mandate was put into place in September, which inflicted harsh punishments on misbehaving slaves. All of these factors contributed to what has become known as the Slave Revolt of 1733. It was a heroic attempt at freedom by the enslaved people of St. John.
The revolt started on Monday, November 23rd of 1733 with a group of slaves taking possession of the fort in Coral Bay. They did this by killing all but one soldier that was stationed there. At the same time, a second group of slaves killed the overseers of the Company Plantation also in Coral Bay, and then proceeded to attack the plantations on the north shore. The idea was to kill or drive all the Europeans from the island, creating the first free African state in the Americas. The revolt lasted for six months. The end came when the Danes received reinforcements from the French marines of Martinique, who tenaciously pursued the rebel slaves. By the time it was over in May of 1734, there were terrible losses on both sides, forty-four plantations were damaged, approximately 300 slaves were dead and three-quarters of the European settlers were killed.
The Company gives planters two tax free years to encourage them to rebuild. By this time, there are 65 cotton plantations and 24 sugar plantations in use.
With the invention of the cotton gin and the American South now producing cotton, cultivation of cotton in the islands slows down. The cotton plantations begin to disappear on St. John and are replaced with sugar, which is now worth more in the world market.
The sugar industry is at its peak on St. John. During these years, the rebuilding and alterations of many structures associated with processing sugar take place. 1,690 acres of sugar are planted in total.
Emancipation was won by the slaves of the Danish West Indies. Governor General Peter Von Scholten formally reads his proclamation on July 3, 1848 in St. Croix.
A devastating hurricane hits the island and damages many structures. It causes seven of the remaining twelve sugar plantations on the island to shut down permanently.
By this time many St. John estates fall into disuse, the island’s forests begin to reclaim the land and many roads become impassable.
Land use on St. John switches to cattle farming. This trend continues to grow until 1930, when it is documented that 1583 heads of cattle live on fourteen large farms. The other leading industry on the island during this time was the bay oil production. Thousands of bags of leaves would be collected in a good year and after they were processed, the oil would be made into numerous products like soap, shampoos and colognes.
The United States buys the Danish West Indies from Denmark for the sum of 25 million dollars in gold. Transfer Day ceremonies were held on St. John on April 15, 1917. At first the islands are administered by the United States Navy. In time the management of the islands is passed to the Department of the Interior, who continues to manage them today.
A charcoal cooperative is set up on St. John and by 1935 charcoal production is now the main source of income for St. Johnians.
Tourism begins on St. John with the West India Company opening Caneel Bay Resort, a small bungalow colony.
Laurance Rockefeller sails to St. John and soon after donates the land to establish Virgin Islands National Park. He also extended a power cable to St. John to provide electricity on a 24 hour basis.
Last updated: December 20, 2021