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Brief History - U.S. Virgin Islands


Indigenous people inhabited the U.S. Virgin Islands for over 2,000 years. When Spanish explorers were seeking a short cut to Asia they encountered the Caribbean region. Led by Christopher Columbus, they encountered the Tainos and Caribs. In fact, in the second voyage in 1493, these early explorers reported the first skirmish in the New World; it was on St. Croix (referred to by the indigenous people as Ayay) between a small landing party and a group of Caribs in the Salt River Bay. ‘Las Once Mil Virgenes’ (11,000 virgins) was the name given to the Virgin Islands by Columbus in honor of St. Ursula and her virgin followers.

There were successive claims to the islands but the Danes emerged as the dominant colonial power and colonized the islands within a century—St. Thomas (1671), St. John (1718), and St. Croix (1734). Chattel slavery was the dominant means of labor in the Danish West Indies (1682-1848), and West Africans were the major ethnic group that was selected for slavery. A treaty with the Dutch in 1685 established St. Thomas as a lucrative slave-trading post and a haven for pirates.

St. Croix and St. John on the other hand pursued agricultural development. Sugarcane, cotton, indigo and rum became the chief exports of the plantation economy, with St. Croix becoming one of the largest exporters of sugarcane in the world prior to the discovery of the sugar beet and improved modes of transportation. This period of prosperity is known as the “Golden Age” of St. Croix. Needless to say, the West African slaves resisted every step of the way, and this combined with Denmark’s adoption of harsh slave codes resulted in a 1733 slave insurrection on St. John.

On St. Croix, slavery flourished and by 1803 there were well over 26,000 enslaved Africans on the island involved in the planting and processing of sugar cane. Slave revolts became more frequent causing Denmark to develop a 12-year plan to dissolve slavery. Unyielding by the assurance of freedom enslaved Africans on St. Croix, led by Moses “Buddhoe” Gottlieb, revolted on July 3, 1848 forcing Governor Peter von Scholten to issued the Emancipation Proclamation declaring all slaves in the Danish West Indies ‘‘from that day free’’.


The U.S. Virgin Islands is an organized, unincorporated territory of the United States. The Organic Act of 1936 and Revised Organic Act of 1954 created the contemporary political system. A unicameral legislature began after the Revised Organic of 1954; it was created to unify the Territory. In 1968, the Elective Governor’s Act provided for the Territory’s voters to select their chief executives. In 1968, the position of Delegate to Congress for the Virgin Islands was approved. In 1982, the Judicial Branch was given more power to gradually create its own Territorial Court System.

The Organic Act of 1936 allowed the creation of the Government of the Virgin Islands, which was tasked with providing services in addition to creating employment for its citizens. The Organic Act of 1954 (passed by the US. Congress and administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of Interior) established its current structure. Government consists of three branches of government, the Legislative, Judicial and Executive, which mirror those of the contiguous states.

The Legislative Branch is comprised of a 15-member unicameral body. Seven Senators are elected from each island district of St. Thomas/St. John and St. Croix. The fifteenth senator is at-large and must be a resident of St. John. Senators are elected for a two-year term. The Judicial Branch is composed of a U.S. District Court, a Supreme Court and Superior Court. Judges for the Federal District Court are appointed for a period of 10 years, and are technically considered territorial court judges who do not enjoy the protections of Article Three of the U.S. Constitution.

The Superior Court is a court of general competence with unlimited jurisdiction with regard to civil and criminal legal cases. The newly formed Supreme Court is responsible for appeals from the Superior Court filed on or after January 29, 2007. Appeals filed prior to that date are heard by the Appellate Division of the District Court and Judges are appointed by the President and the Governor respectively. The Executive Branch is headed by the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, who are elected by popular vote. They serve for a period of four years, with mandated term limits of two consecutive terms.

The Governor is responsible for the administration of government. He may grant pardons, reprieves and forfeitures against local laws as well as veto legislation. He retains the powers afforded all governors throughout the fifty (50) states of the United States.