United States Virgin Islands
As of 2021, the estimated population is 105,870, most of them being of Afro-Caribbean
descent. Tourism and related categories are the primary economic activities.
The islands were named "Santa Úrsula y las Once Mil Vírgenes" by Christopher Columbus
in 1493 after the legend of Saint Ursula
and the 11,000 virgins.
The name was later shortened to "the Virgin Islands".
Ancient petroglyphs in the Virgin Islands National Park
The U.S. Virgin Islands were originally inhabited by the Ciboney
, with some scholars thinking that the islands were inhabited from as early as 1000 BC.
arrived circa 1500 AD.
Christopher Columbus, on his second voyage in 1493, is thought to have been the first European to see the islands, giving them their current name.
The Spanish later settled in 1555, with English and French settlers arriving on St. Croix from 1625.
There followed a complex period in which the islands were disputed between Spain, France, Britain and also the Netherlands.
Danish colonial period
also took an interest in the islands, and the Danish West India Company
settled on St. Thomas in 1672 and St. John in 1694, later purchasing St. Croix from France in 1733.
The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754, named the Danish West Indian Islands (Danish
: De dansk-vestindiske øer
). Initially the currency was the Danish West Indian rigsdaler
, replaced by the daler
in 1849. The islands proved ideal for sugar plantations – sugarcane
, produced by slaves
from Africa, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries.
Other plantation crops included cotton
and indigo dye
.[better source needed]
During the 17th–18th centuries, a sizable Jewish community also began to settle on the islands.
The Høgensborg estate on Sankt Croix, 1833
In 1733, St. John was the site of one of the first significant slave rebellions
in the New World when Akan
slaves from the Gold Coast (modern Ghana
) 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 of the ringleaders shot themselves before the French forces could capture them. It is estimated that by 1775, slaves outnumbered the Danish settlers by a ratio of 8:1.
With the plantations no longer as profitable, Danish settlers began to abandon their estates, causing a significant drop in population and the overall economy. Additionally, the 1867 hurricane
and earthquake and tsunami
further impacted the economy. For the remainder of the period of Danish rule, the islands were not economically viable and significant transfers had to be made from the Danish state budget to the authorities in the islands.
The United States began to take an interest in the islands, and in 1867, a treaty to sell St. Thomas and St. John to the U.S. was agreed but never effected.
A number of reforms aimed at reviving the islands' economy were attempted, but none had great success. A second draft treaty to sell the islands to the United States was negotiated in 1902 but was defeated in the upper house of the Danish parliament in a tie vote (because the opposition carried a 97-year-old life member into the chamber).
The onset of World War I
brought the reform period to a close and again left the islands isolated. During the submarine warfare
phases of the war, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany
as a submarine base,
again approached Denmark about buying them. After a few months of negotiations, a selling price of $25 million
in United States gold coin was agreed, equivalent to $594.57 million in 2020 dollars. At the same time, the economics of continued possession weighed heavily on the minds of Danish decision makers, and a consensus in favor of selling emerged in the Danish parliament.
American Colonial Period
The United States took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917 and the territory was renamed the "Virgin Islands of the United States". Every year, Transfer Day
is recognized as a holiday, to commemorate the acquisition of the islands by the United States.
U.S. citizenship was granted to many inhabitants of the islands in 1927 and 1932. The Danish West Indian daler was replaced by the U.S. dollar in 1934
and from 1935 to 1939 the islands were a part of the United States customs area
The 1936 Organic Act
and the 1954 Revised Organic Act
established the local government.
In 1970, Virgin Islanders elected their first governor, Melvin H. Evans
, and from 1976 the islands began work on creating their own constitution.
Tourism began to develop, over time becoming the most important sector of the Islands' economy.
, a small island to the south of St. Thomas, was initially administered by the US federal government and did not become a part of the United States Virgin Islands territory until 1996, when 50 acres (20 ha) of land was transferred to the territorial government. The remaining 200 acres (81 ha) of the island were purchased from the United States Department of the Interior
in May 2005 for $10, a transaction that marked the official change in jurisdiction.
In 1966, Hess Oil began construction on an oil refinery. Until February 2012, the Hovensa plant located on St. Croix was one of the world's largest petroleum refineries, refining 494,000 bbl/d (78,500 m3
/d), and contributed about 20% of the territory's GDP. The refinery ceased operation in 2012, and the facility stopped exporting petroleum products in 2014. In the final year of full refinery operations, the value of exported petroleum products was $12.7 billion (2011 fiscal year).
Since refining ended, the 34-million-barrel tank farm has operated as a crude oil and petrochemical storage facility for third-party customers. The refinery's closure provoked a local economic crisis.
Following the acquisition of the 1,500-acre complex by ArcLight Capital Partners, LLC, in 2016, Limetree Bay Ventures, LLC, was formed, and is currently executing a project to refurbish and restart the refinery, with a processing capability of up to 200,000 bbl/d (32,000 m3
The aftermath of Hurricane Marilyn
on the island of St. Thomas, 1995. In recent decades the U.S. Virgin Islands have been devastated by a series of hurricanes
struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1989, causing catastrophic physical and economic damage, particularly on the island of St. Croix. The territory was again struck by Hurricane Marilyn
in 1995, killing eight people and causing more than $2 billion in damage. The islands were again struck by hurricanes Bertha
, and Omar
in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2008, respectively, but damage was not as severe in those storms.
In September 2017, Category 5 Hurricane Irma
caused catastrophic damage, particularly to St. John and St. Thomas. Just two weeks later, Category 5 Hurricane Maria
ravaged all three islands. Sustained winds at the Sandy Point National Wildlife Refuge
on St. Croix reached 99 to 104 mph (159 to 167 km/h) and gusted to 137 mph (220 km/h).
Even stronger winds likely occurred somewhere across the island's west end. The British Virgin Islands and the other two U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John and St. Thomas, were far enough northeast to avoid the worst from Maria, but were still massively impacted, with great destruction everywhere. A wind gust to 86 mph was reported at St. Thomas. Weather stations on St. Croix recorded 5 and 10 inches of rain from the hurricane, and estimates for St. John and St. Thomas were somewhat less.
The hurricane killed two people, both in their homes: one person drowned and another was trapped by a mudslide.
A third person had a fatal heart attack during the hurricane.
The hurricane caused extensive and severe damage to St. Croix. After both hurricanes, the office of V.I. congresswoman Stacey Plaskett
stated that 90% of buildings in the Virgin Islands were damaged or destroyed and 13,000 of those buildings had lost their roofs.
The Luis Hospital suffered roof damage and flooding, but remained operational.
A map of the United States Virgin Islands
The territory consists of three main islands: St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix, as well as several dozen smaller islands
The main islands have nicknames often used by locals: "Twin City" (St. Croix), "Rock City" (St. Thomas), and "Love City" (St. John).
The combined land area of the islands is roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C.
St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies to the south and has a flatter terrain due to being coral in origin. The National Park Service
manages more than half of St. John, nearly all of Hassel Island
, and many acres of coral reef
The United States Virgin Islands enjoy a tropical climate
, with little seasonal change throughout the year.
Rainfall is concentrated in the high sun period (May through October), while in the winter the northeast trade winds
prevail. Summer and winter high temperatures differ by 5 °F (3 °C) or less on average.
Politics and government
At the territorial level, fifteen senators
—seven from the district of St. Croix, seven from the district of St. Thomas and St. John, and one senator at-large who must be a resident of St. John—are elected for two-year terms to the unicameral Virgin Islands Legislature
. There is no limit as to the number of terms they can serve.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have a District Court
, Superior Court
and Supreme Court
The District Court is responsible for federal law, while the Superior Court is responsible for U.S. Virgin Islands law at the trial level and the Supreme Court is responsible for appeals from the Superior Court for all appeals filed on or after January 29, 2007.
Appeals filed prior to that date are heard by the Appellate Division of the District Court. Appeals from the federal District Court are heard by the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit
, located in Philadelphia
District Court judges are appointed by the U.S. president, while Superior Court and Supreme Court judges are appointed by the governor.
The Legislature Building in Charlotte Amalie
On October 21, 1976, President Gerald Ford
signed Pub.L. 94–584
authorizing the people of the United States Virgin Islands to organize a government pursuant to a constitution, which would be automatically approved if Congress did not act within 60 days.
In 2004, an Act was passed by the legislature of the Virgin Islands calling for a fifth constitutional convention, and 30 delegates to the convention were elected in 2007. On May 26, 2009 the convention adopted a proposed Constitution of the Virgin Islands. However, in June 2009, Governor John de Jongh, Jr.
rejected the resulting constitutional draft, saying the terms of the document would "violate federal law, fail to defer to federal sovereignty and disregard basic civil rights".
A lawsuit filed by members of the Convention to force Governor de Jongh to forward the document to President Barack Obama
was ultimately successful. President Obama forwarded the proposal to Congress in May 2010, along with a report noting concerns raised by the United States Department of Justice
that the powers sought exceeded what would be considered allowable under territorial status
and restating the issues noted by Governor de Jongh. A U.S. Congressional resolution disapproving of the proposed constitution and requesting that the Fifth Constitutional Convention reconvene to consider changes to address these issues was signed into law (Pub.L. 111–194 (text) (pdf)
) by President Obama on June 30, 2010.
Months later, a federal lawsuit was filed in the federal District Court of the Virgin Islands
. The lawsuit claimed that the United States had to provide U.S. Virgin Islanders with the ability to be represented in Congress and vote for U.S. president. It alleged that racial discrimination present in an all-white and segregated U.S. Congress of 1917 was the impetus to deny the right to vote to a majority non-white constituency. The case was ultimately dismissed on August 16, 2012.
The Fifth Constitutional Convention of the U.S. Virgin Islands met in October 2012 but was not able to produce a revised Constitution before its October 31 deadline.
Administratively, the U.S. Virgin Islands are divided into two districts
: the Saint Thomas & Saint John district, and the Saint Croix district.
However, the U.S. Census Bureau divides each of the 3 main islands into 3 separate statistical entities (which are further divided into twenty sub-districts).
Below is the U.S. Census Bureau's division model.
Each of the 3 main islands of the U.S. Virgin Islands is counted as a county-equivalent
by the U.S. Census Bureau, with the following FIPS codes: 78010 for Saint Croix, 78020 for Saint John, and 78030 for Saint Thomas.
While a Danish possession, the Islands were divided into "quarters" (five on St. John and nine on St. Croix) which were further divided into many dozens of "estates". Estate names are still used to write addresses; estates and quarters are used in describing real estate, especially on St. John
and St. Croix.
More densely populated towns such as Frederiksted
on St. Croix were historically referred to as "districts", in contrast to the surrounding plantation land.
A 1993 referendum on status
attracted only 31.4% turnout, and so its results (in favor of the status quo) were considered void.
No further status referenda have been scheduled since.
Governors of the U.S. Virgin Islands
USVI police officers in 2012
Defense is the responsibility of the United States.
There are some military facilities and personnel on the islands, supported by the U.S. government:
Tourism is the Islands' biggest industry; with 2.5–3 million annual visitors, the sector is responsible for about 60% of the GDP.
Other major sectors are the public sector, some limited agriculture, and small scale manufacturing, most notably rum
A 2012 economic report from the U.S. Census Bureau indicated a total of 2,414 business establishments generating $6.8 billion in sales, employing 32,465 people and paying $1.1 billion in payroll per year. Between 2007 and 2012, sales declined by $12.6 billion, or 64.9 percent. (In 2007, total sales were $19.5 billion and the number employed was 35,300.)
According to a report on the first half of 2016 by the VI Bureau of Economic Research, the unemployment rate was 11.5 percent.
In May 2016 the islands' Bureau of Economic Research indicated that there were 37,613 non-agricultural wage and salary jobs in the islands. This report states that the "leisure and hospitality sector" employed an average of 7,333 people. The retail trade sector, which also serves many tourists, averaged another 5,913 jobs. Other categories which also include some tourism jobs include arts and entertainment (792 jobs), accommodation and food (6,541 jobs), accommodation (3,755 jobs), and food services and drink (2,766 jobs). A large percentage of the 37,613 non-farm workers are employed in dealing with tourists. Serving the local population is also part of the role of these sectors.
In a May 2016 report, some 11,000 people were categorized as being involved in some aspect of agriculture in the first half of 2016, but this category makes up a small part of the total economy. At that time, there were approximately 607 manufacturing jobs and 1,487 natural resource and construction jobs. The single largest employer was the government.
In mid-February 2017, the USVI was facing a financial crisis due to a very high debt level of $2 billion and a structural budget deficit of $110 million.
Since January 2017, the U.S. Virgin Islands government has been unable to raise financing from the bond market
at favorable interest rates, and as of June 2019 have not issued any new bonds since then.
The median income for a household in the territory was $24,704, and the median income for a family was $28,553 according to the 2010 census. Males had a median income of $28,309 versus $22,601 for females. The per capita income for the territory was $13,139. The average private sector salary was $34,088 and the average public sector salary was $52,572.
About 28.7% of families and 32.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 41.7% of those less than 18 years old and 29.8% of those 65 or more years old. Nearly 70% of adults had at least a high school diploma and 19.2% had a bachelor's degree or higher.
Analysts reviewing the economy often point to the closure of the HOVENSA oil refinery, the islands' largest private sector employer, in early 2012 as having a major negative impact on the territory's economy.
In late 2013, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York's Research and Statistics Group pointed out that manufacturing employment dropped by 50% in May 2012 and by another 4% by November 2012, and that the GDP fell by 13%, "mainly due to an 80% drop-off in exports (mostly refined petroleum)". On the other hand, tourism and some other service industries were growing. As well, the 2010 census indicated that a relatively high share of the adult population is in the labor force: 66%, versus 65% on the mainland and well below 50% in Puerto Rico.
A May 2016 report by Bloomberg expressed concern about the islands' tax-supported debt load.
By January 23, 2017, this had increased to $2 billion. That translated to a per capita debt of $19,000, which was higher than the per capita debt in Puerto Rico which was undergoing a severe financial crisis at the time. A Debtwire analyst writing in Forbes
indicated that nothing short of a miracle would prevent a financial collapse.
Another area of concern was the structural budget deficit which was at $110 million in mid February 2017.
The government instituted a new law in March 2017 with new or increased taxes on rum, beer, tobacco products and sugary drinks, as well as internet purchases and timeshare unit owners.
Tourism, trade, and other service-oriented industries are the primary economic activities, accounting for nearly 60% of the GDP. Approximately 2.5 million tourists per year visit, most arriving on cruise ships
Such visitors do not spend large amounts of money ($146.70 each on average) but as a group, they contributed $339.8 million to the economy in 2012.
However, the travel industry warned in late 2014 that work needs to be done for USVI tourism practices to meet 21st century demands.
Additionally, the islands frequently are a starting point for private yacht charters
to the neighboring British Virgin Islands
. Euromonitor indicates that over 50% of the workforce is employed in some tourism-related work.
The manufacturing sector consists of mainly rumdistilling
. The agricultural sector is small, with most food being imported. International business and financial services
are a small but growing component of the economy. Most energy is also generated from imported oil, leading to electricity costs four to five times higher than the U.S. mainland.
The Virgin Islands were the highest oil consumers per capita in the world in 2007.
The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority
also uses imported energy to operate its desalination facilities to provide fresh water.
The CIA World Factbook
lists the value of federal programs and grants — $241.4 million in 2013, 19.7% of the territory's total revenues — and that "the economy remains relatively diversified. Along with the tourist industry, it appears that rum exports, trade, and services will be major income sources in future years".
Tax and trade
The U.S. Virgin Islands are an independent customs territory
from the mainland United States and operate largely as a free port
. U.S. citizens thus do not have to clear customs when arriving in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but do when traveling to the mainland. Local residents are not subject to US federal income taxes on U.S. Virgin Islands source income; they pay taxes to the territory equal to what their federal taxes would be if they lived in a state.
Transport and communications
Cyril E. King Airport on St Thomas
The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only U.S. jurisdiction that drives on the left.
This was inherited from what was then-current practice on the islands at the time of the 1917 transfer of the territory to the United States from Denmark. However, because most cars in the territory are imported from the mainland United States, the cars in the territory are left-hand drive
. However, not all U.S. vehicle regulations are in force, and there are vehicles on the road that cannot be sold in the mainland U.S. Additionally, headlights use the U.S. pattern which casts light to the right, tending to blind oncoming drivers. Traffic signals are located on the opposite side of the road than they are in the U.S. mainland, and many standard road signs have been altered to fit the left-side driving.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are located in the Atlantic Standard Time
zone and do not participate in daylight saving time
. When the mainland United States is on standard time, the U.S. Virgin Islands are one hour ahead of Eastern Standard Time. When the mainland United States is on daylight saving time, Eastern Daylight Time is the same as Atlantic Standard Time.
In 2010, the census put the population of the U.S. Virgin Islands at 106,405.
Current estimates put the population at 105,870 (2021).
In 2010 there were 40,648 households, and 26,636 families.
In 2010, there were 40,648 households, out of which 34.7% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 33.2% were married couples living together, 24.9% had a female householder with no husband present, and 34.5% were non-families. 30.2% of all households were made up of individuals, and 6.3% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.64 and the average family size was 3.34.
In the territory, the population in 2010 was distributed with 31.6% under the age of 18, 8.0% from 18 to 24, 27.1% from 25 to 44, 24.9% from 45 to 64, and 8.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 33 years. For every 100 females, there were 91.4 males. For every 100 females ages 18 and up, there were 87.7 males. The annual population growth is −0.12%.
The literacy rate for the adult population was 94.9% in 2010.
The racial makeup of the U.S. Virgin Islands was:
Many residents can trace their ancestry to other Caribbean islands, especially Puerto Rico and the Lesser Antilles
. The territory is largely Afro-Caribbean in origin.
A Danish street name in Charlotte-Amalie
English is currently the dominant language. Spanish is spoken by about 17% of the population, and other languages are spoken by 11% of the population.
English has been the predominant language since 1917, when the islands were transferred from Denmark to the United States. Under Danish rule, the official language was Danish
, but it was solely the language of administration and spoken by Danes, a tiny minority of the overall population that primarily occupied administrative roles in colonial Danish West Indian society. However, place names and surnames of Denmark–Norway origin are still commonly found throughout the islands.
Although the U.S. Virgin Islands was a Danish possession during most of its colonial history, Danish
never was a spoken language among the populace, black or non-Danish white, as the majority of plantation and slave owners were of Dutch
, or Spanish
Even during Danish ownership, Dutch, another Germanic language
like Danish, was more common, at least during some of those 245 years, specifically on St. Thomas and St. John, where the majority of the European settlers are Dutch. In St. Croix, English was the dominant language. St. Croix was owned by the French until 1733 when the island was sold to the Danish West Indian and Guinea Company. By 1741, there were five times as many English on the island as Danes. English Creole emerged on St. Croix more so than Dutch Creole, which was more popular on St. Thomas and St. John. Other languages spoken in the Danish West Indies included Irish, Scots, Spanish, and French, as well as Virgin Islands English Creole.
Virgin Islands Creole English
, an English-based creole locally known as "dialect", is spoken in informal situations. The form of Virgin Islands Creole spoken on St. Croix, known as Crucian
, is slightly different from that spoken on St. Thomas and St. John.
Because the U.S. Virgin Islands are home to thousands of immigrants from across the Caribbean, Spanish
and various French creole
languages are also widely spoken. Spanish is mostly spoken by Puerto Ricans; Puerto Rican migration was prevalent in the 1930s, 40s and 50s, when many Puerto Ricans relocated to Saint Croix for work after the collapse of the sugar industry.
In addition, the U.S. Navy
purchase of two-thirds of the nearby Puerto Rican island of Vieques
during World War II
resulted in the displacement of thousands of Viequenses
, many of whom relocated to Saint Croix because of its similar size and geography. Puerto Ricans in Saint Croix, most of whom have lived on the island for more than a generation, have kept their culture alive while integrating it into the native Crucian culture and society.
For example, in informal situations, many Puerto Ricans in Saint Croix speak a unique Spanglish
-like combination of Puerto Rican Spanish
and the local Crucian dialect of creole English.
As of the 2000 census, 25.3% of persons over the age of five speak a language other than English at home. Spanish is spoken by 16.8% of the population and French is spoken by 6.6%.
Religion in the United States Virgin Islands (2010)
Roman Catholic (27.1%)
Other Christian (1.8%)
Other religion (1.9%)
There is also a strong Roman Catholic presence. Rastafari
is also prevalent. St. Thomas is home to one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Western Hemisphere, as Sephardi Jews
began to settle the island in the 18th century as traders and merchants. The St. Thomas Synagogue
in Charlotte Amalie is the second-oldest synagogue on American soil, and oldest in terms of continuous usage.
In 2010, the national average life expectancy was 79.61 years. It was 76.57 years for men and 82.83 for women.
The University of the Virgin Islands
provides higher education leading to associate's, bachelor's, and master's degrees, with campuses on St. Thomas and St. Croix.
The culture of the Virgin Islands reflects the various people that have inhabited the present-day U.S. Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands
, which despite their political separation have kept close cultural ties. The culture derives chiefly from West African
traditions, in addition to the influences from the immigrants from the Arab world, India and other Caribbean islands. The islands were strongly influenced by the British, Dutch,
French and Danish during the long periods the islands were under these powers.
- The Avis, printed daily on St. Croix
- The Virgin Islands Daily News, printed daily on St. Thomas
- St. John Tradewinds, distributed weekly on St. John
- St. Thomas – St. John This Week (online only)
- St. Thomas Source (online only)
- St. Croix Source (online only)
- St. John On Island Times, news and information on St. John, USVI
- January 1: New Year's Day
- January 6: Three Kings Day
- January (third Monday): Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- February (third Monday): Presidents' Day
- March 31: Transfer Day (celebrates the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the US)
- March–April: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday
- May (fourth Monday): Memorial Day
- July 3: Emancipation Day
- July 4: U.S. Independence Day
- September (first Monday): Labor Day
- October (second Monday): Virgin Islands–Puerto Rico Friendship Day/Columbus Day
- November 1: D. Hamilton Jackson Day (also known as "Liberty Day", or "Bull and Bread Day")
- November 11: Veterans Day
- November (fourth Thursday): Thanksgiving Day
- December 25: Christmas
- December 26: Christmas Second Day (also known as "Boxing Day")
Virgin Islands government employees are also given administrative leave for St. Croix carnival
events in January and St. Thomas carnival events in April/May.
Also called the American Virgin Islands
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