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History of St. John Island

The Early Years

The beautiful island of St. John is one of the roughly 100 islands spread throughout the northern Caribbean Sea making up the Greater Antilles region. Originally formed by volcanic activity, St. John began as solidified lava covered in sedimentary rocks. Trade winds and ocean currents eventually brought life to the islands, creating the spectacularly green, wildlife-filled ecosystem that we enjoy today.

The first confirmed human inhabitants of St. John, the Taíno, left traces of their occupancy dating back to 300 BC. The Taíno, an Arawak term meaning “good” or “noble”, originated from the indigenous Arawak peoples of South America and were the primary inhabitants of the Greater Antilles region. They were primarily situated along the south shore of St. John and evidence has been recovered suggesting there was a village at what is now Salt Pond Bay, tools were constructed at Grootpan Bay, and ocean harvests were collected and prepared at Lameshur Bays. It is believed that the Taíno were the creators of the petroglyph rock carvings found off the Reef Bay Trail. In the centuries prior to Columbus’ arrival in 1492, St. John went through various tribes that were believed to have occupied the island, and was eventually deserted. Sadly, as a result of war, disease, and famine, the indigenous population had disappeared as a distinct ethnic group by the end of the 16th century.

The first permanent settlement on St. John was established by Denmark in 1718 in what is now Estate Carolina in Coral Bay. The settlement expanded quickly and it is estimated that within 15 years over 100 sugar and cotton plantations covered St. John. According to researchers, it is likely that during the plantation era virtually all of the original forests were destroyed and St. John’s once plentiful natural springs dried up as a result of this deforestation. Danish plantations ruled the St. John economy until slavery was abolished in 1848 leading St. John to lose roughly half of its population over the following 20 years. The island was left to those who could provide for themselves through small-scale subsistence farming and fishing. Around 1913, the population is estimated at 930 people.

St. John Island Today

In 1917, during World War I, the United States purchased St. John and the rest of the Virgin Islands for $25 million in order to establish a naval base. During the 20th century St. John’s popularity grew and private investment was continuous. In 1956 Laurence Rockefeller donated his land to the National Park Service under the agreement that no further development be allowed. The National Park on St. John comprises 60% of islands acreage and is home to all of the pristine beaches that the island is known for.

Currently St. John has a population of 4,170 according to the most recent census data and its economy is almost entirely based on the tourism industry. Most of the residents live in either Cruz Bay, the main town and primary entry and exit point of the island, or Coral Bay, a small town on the eastern side of the island.

For more information on St. John’s history:

St. John Historical Society
National Park Service – History and Culture
VI Now – St. John History

The St. John Historical Society

The St. John Historical Society undertakes to promote an appreciation and deeper understanding of the history and cultural heritage of the island of St. John in the U. S. Virgin Islands.

This group aims to support and encourage the preservation and protection of objects, structures, traditions, and features of historic, cultural, or archeological value to the island of St. John. Their mission is to increase the knowledge, awareness, and understanding of St. John’s history and cultural heritage by such means as lectures, seminars, field trips, hikes, consultations, special educational programs, and events. They aim to encourage, assist and support the development of historical and cultural-heritage programs and events in cooperation with local museums, libraries, schools, and other public and private groups or institutions. They act in cooperation with the Virgin Islands National Park as well as other historical, cultural, and archaeological institutions or organizations

The Society is eager to foster participation in the activities of the Society by all interested individuals. They also maintain an archive of the Society’s collections, records, and any other pertinent published and/or written materials relating to the history and cultural heritage of St. John. These are the folks who prepare and disseminate publications dealing with the history and cultural heritage of St. John.

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