St. John was first settled by the Arawak Indians who had migrated north from
coastal Colombia and Venezuela around AD 300. The Arawaks inhabited the island until around the
year AD 1300, when they were driven off by the more aggressive and warlike Carib Indians. Extensive
archaeological work has been undertaken from 1996 to the present at Cinnamon Bay. The artifacts
from this dig are currently being studied and should yield more detailed information on
pre-Columbus civilization in the Virgin Islands (Taino).
Christopher Columbus is credited with being the first European to see the Virgin Islands during
his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He named the island group "Once Mil Virgenes", or
Eleven Thousand Virgins, in honor of the feast day of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were
martyred with her.
The Danish West India and Guinea Company represented the first Europeans to settle the island in
1718. They are also credited with naming the island St. John (Danish: Sankt Jan). The Danish crown
took full control of the colony in 1754, along with St. Thomas and St. Croix. Sugar plantations,
such as the famous Annaberg Sugar Plantation, were established in great numbers on St. John because
of the intense heat and fertile terrain, which provided ideal growing conditions. The establishment
of sugar plantations also led to the importation of more slaves from Africa. St. John was the site
of one of the first significant slave rebellions in the New World in 1733, when enslaved Akwamu
rebels from the Gold Coast took over the island for six months.
The Danish were able to defeat the enslaved Africans with help from the French in Martinique.
Instead of allowing themselves to be recaptured, more than a dozen men and women shot themselves
before the French forces could capture them. It is estimated that by 1775, slaves outnumbered the
Danish settlers by a ratio of 5:1. The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks were also used as slave labor,
to the point of wiping out their entire population. Slavery was finally abolished in St. John on 3
In 1917 the United States of America bought the Virgin Islands from the Danish government in
order to establish a naval base whose purpose was to prevent German expansion in the western
hemisphere. The U.S. government paid $25 million for the three islands. They also agreed to
recognize Denmark's claim to Greenland, which they had previously disputed.
Virgin Islanders are now U.S. citizens, although they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections
and have only non-voting status in Congress. The Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated
territory of the US, and since 1972 have elected their own Governor. They enjoy a large degree of
self-rule through a local 15-seat legislature that covers all three of the islands.
In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller donated most of the land he had acquired on the island to the
United States' National Park Service, under the condition that it must be protected from future
development. The remaining portion, the Caneel Bay Resort, continues to operate on a lease
arrangement while the park owns the actual land. The Virgin Islands National Park borders encompass
75% of the island, but various in-holdings within the park boundary (e.g., Peter Bay, Maho Bay)
reduce the actual land the park owns to 60%. However, much of the island's waters, coral reefs and
shoreline are protected via their inclusion in the park. This protection was expanded in 2001, when
the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was created.