About St. Thomas
The first inhabitants of St. Thomas were the Ciboney, Caribs, and Arawaks. In 1493, Christopher Columbus discovered the Virgin Islands while searching for a new route to India. He named the beautiful islands “The Virgins” in reference to Ursula and her 11,000 virgins. The Spaniards were apparently not too interested in St. Thomas; she was left undefended which allowed for settlers from many European nations to stake claim until the late 1600s. The Danish West Indian Company made their first attempt at settling the island in 1665, and they were successful at establishing a settlement in 1672. The first slaves were brought to the island the following year.
In 1685, the Danish government signed a treaty with the Dutch allowing the establishment of a slave-trading post on St. Thomas. In addition, early governors realized that becoming a safe haven for pirates would benefit local merchants. As a result, St. Thomas developed into a prosperous trade center. Plantations dotting the island grew sugar, adding to the economic boom of the early 1700s.
In 1754, the Danish Government took control of St. John, St. Thomas, and St. Croix, and they became crown colonies.
In 1815, St. Thomas was made a free port, allowing the island to become a shipping center and distribution point for the West Indies. A large segment of free Blacks made their living as clerks, shop keepers, and artisans. The atmosphere of the island was sophisticated, especially when compared to the plantation life on St. Croix.
A series of natural disasters in the late 1800s and early 1900s forced the closing of a number of warehouses and left the island much more dependent on Denmark and its treasury.
St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix remained under Danish rule until 1917, when the United States purchased them for $25 million in order to prevent the Germans from establishing a military base in the Caribbean. The US flag was raised over the US Virgin Islands on March 31, 1917. The US Navy ruled the island until 1931, and appointed governors ruled the island until 1969. The first elected governor took office in that year, and today the island’s residents are US citizens who elect a governor, lieutenant governor, 15 senators and a non-voting delegate to the US House of Representatives.
An increase in air and sea travel and the closing of Cuba to American travelers in the 1950s led to a tourism boom on the Virgin Islands. The population of St. Thomas has increased enormously since that time, with a flood of settlers seeking better economic opportunities. Today, 50,000 people call St. Thomas home, and the economy is a healthy mix of tourism, light and heavy industry.