The History of St. John: In Brief

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A Bite Size History of St. John

Ancient History – The Virgin Islands, like their Caribbean neighbors, are formed by undersea volcanoes and shifting plate tectonics. Non-human life reigns supreme for thousands of centuries while the islands develop into a tropical paradise.

Less Ancient History – Arawak or Taino Indians live peacefully on St .John for centuries before being overrun by Caribs – a far more aggressive tribe of natives. Although contrary to popular lore, they were probably not cannibals.

The Petroglyphs—stone inscriptions depicting Taino spirit beings—can be seen today on the Reef Bay Trail, carved above a serene reflecting pool that purportedly never runs dry.
Thousands of years pass before natives are confronted by strange white men from faraway lands.

1493 Christopher Columbus meets some indigenous folk when he officially discovers the islands on his 2nd voyage. They express their displeasure at his presence by eliminating two of his crewmembers. Columbus high-tails it shortly thereafter, but not before naming the islands, Las Once Mil Virgenes, after the legend of St. Ursula and the 11,000 virginal handmaidens killed with her.

1500 – 1700 – European weapons and disease wipe out the islands’ indigenous people during the next two centuries.

St. John stays mostly uninhabited- home to a few remaining natives and sparse settlements- while neighboring St. Thomas develops into a regional hub for trade and commerce.

1718  Several decades after conquering St. Thomas, the Danes, in a desperate search for fertile soil, take control of St. John – grabbing it from the Brits, who ultimately decide the tiny island isn’t worth a fight.

The Danish West India & Guinea Company along with several St. Thomian landowners extend holdings to St. John, purchasing land for sugar plantations to be worked by slave hands.

Many plantation holders are absentee—living on St. Thomas and using their St. John plantage as a retreat. It seems the image of St. John as peaceful haven to St. Thomas’ bustling industry has been around for hundreds of years.

1733 – Slaves on St. John – led by recent captives who’d been African royalty and slave-owners themselves —stage an impressive revolt against their oppressors. There is much initial carnage and plantation business ceases for six months until French soldiers from Martinique sail in to lend support. Most of the rebels commit suicide rather than return to slavery.

1848  Denmark finally abolishes slavery in the West Indies, more than a decade after slaves are freed in the neighboring British Virgin Islands. The decree comes after another rebellion, this one on St. Croix.

1917 After years of negotiation, the U.S. buys the Danish West Indies from Denmark for $25 million in gold. The purchase is primarily motivated by military strategy in the onset of WWI.

1927  Virgin Islanders become U.S. citizens.

1956 – The Virgin Islands National Park is established on St. John. The transfer of 5,086 acres to the US Department of Interior is a massive group effort, led by such distinguished figures as St. John native and 1st VI Senator Julius Sprauve, and most famously, Laurance S. Rockefeller.

1970 Virgin Islanders elect Melvin Evans as their first governor after years of being appointed from above. To this day, we elect one non-voting delegate to Congress and cannot vote for President.

2001 – The Coral Reef National Monument is established by President Clinton, protecting 12,000 acres of submerged land on which coral reefs have long been home to a diverse array of marine life.

2012 –  Trunk Bay is given the prestigious environmental Blue Flag designation.

Do you have more questions (or answers) about the history of St. John? Want to know a little about St.Thomas’s history?

Let us know in the comments below what we missed.

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