U.S. VIRGIN ISLANDS  |  St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands Travel Guide
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A Brief History of St. John

A Brief History of St. John

At the end of the 17th century, squatters from St. Thomas and nearby Tortola (British) began settling on St. John and frequent skirmishes erupted between them. Finally, in 1717, King Christian V granted a charter to the Danish West India Company for the purpose of establishing a permanent Danish colony on the island. The English on Tortola decided not to fight for the island and so the Danes worked at establishing their settlement. They carved out plantations and, to lure newcomers, offered large tax exemptions. Tobacco, sugar and cotton were soon being exported to Europe. In 1733, the population of St. John stood at 208 whites and 1,000 slaves. Prosperity was short-lived, however, as a slave revolt erupted on the island. The spark that ignited the revolt was a hurricane in the summer of 1733. It destroyed the slave’s personal food crops. When refused food by the planters, anger exploded. They set out to kill as many of the hated masters as they could and to burn down the “great houses” and cane fields.

The uprising could not be put down and for six months the slaves were in control of St. John. When control was finally re-established, almost half the plantations were destroyed. Those planters who returned to the island rebuilt their homes. Then Denmark fought with Napoleon against England. British troops from Tortola took advantage of the situation by attacking and capturing St. Thomas and St. John in 1807, holding them for seven years.

When the slaves were freed in 1848, the cultivation of sugar cane become unprofitable and most of the planters left. The few natives that remained on St. John existed by farming, fishing and raising livestock.

Caneel Bay, originally a Sugar Mill, was purchased by Laurence Rockefeller, who donated it to the Jackson Hole Preserve, a conservation organization. At that time, St. John had about 800 residents and no electricity or cars. Jackson Hole proceeded to buy up over 5,000 acres along St. John’s north shore. The locals were dismayed at the tremendous changes occurring on the island. In 1956, Jackson Hole donated the land (not Caneel Bay however) to the Federal Government, and a National Park was created. The park has permitted the natural beauty, wildlife and incomparable beaches to remain unspoiled.

The population of St. John has grown to almost 5,000 and although some resentment lingers, the locals have grown to appreciate the park in their midst.

Last updated November 18, 2010
Posted in   U.S. Virgin Islands  |  St. John
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