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What Should I Know About the US Virgin Islands?

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  • Written By: Brendan McGuigan
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 31 August 2016
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The US Virgin Islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean. They cover 134 square miles (346 sq. km), making them about twice the size of Washington, DC. They consist of three major islands, Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas, as well as Water Island, and a few dozen smaller islands.

The first people to inhabit the US Virgin Islands were the Ciboney, a group who dwelt there during the Stone Age, about whom little is known. The next group to arrive were the Arawaks from mainland South America, settling in to farm and fish. The Arawaks lived in relative tranquility for a few centuries, until the Caribs arrived in the 15th century, virtually eradicating the Arawaks and settling the islands themselves.

At the end of the 15th century, Christopher Columbus landed on Saint Croix, continuing on to Saint Thomas and Saint John soon after. Over the next two-hundred years, after slavery, disease, murder, and suicide, the Arawaks had completely vanished from the US Virgin Islands. Some few Caribs survived, but not enough to constitute a labor pool. So, in the late 17th century, the Europeans began importing slaves from Africa.

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Less than 60 years later conditions had gotten bad enough that a massive slave revolt occurred, with slaves from the Akwamu tribe of Ghana taking control of St. John, at this point controlled by the Danish. The Danish asked the nearby French for assistance, and six months after the Akwamu had taken control, finally succeeded in reclaiming the island. A number of smaller revolts occurred over the next century, but the islands were largely held in check.

In 1848, however, a larger revolt occurred. This time, rather than enlisting the French's help, the Danish governor, Peter von Scholten, emancipated every slave on the island. Although the local economy suffered greatly as a result, it allowed the islands to begin working towards a collective future.

In the early 20th century, just before the outbreak of World War I, the United States bought the islands from the Danish government for $25,000,000 US Dollars (USD). The US was worried that in the event of war, which at this point seemed inevitable, if the Germans conquered Denmark they would claim the islands and have bases near enough to the United States to launch attacks. The islands were later granted some level of autonomy and inhabitants were given limited US citizenship in 1932.

The US Virgin Islands have tourism as their main source of income. This means that the various islands have a great deal to offer to tourists. From beautiful vistas and pristine parks, to luxury amenities, to fine dining, everything one could hope for in a destination can be found in the US Virgin Islands. And while not as cheap as some places in the world, the US Virgin Islands are also surprisingly affordable, making them an ideal Caribbean destination.

The main draw of the US Virgin Islands are of course the beaches. Beautiful white sandy stretches with glittering blue water await visitors year-round. Diving and snorkeling on the islands is some of the best in the Caribbean. There is also some good surfing, particularly off the island of St. John. The highlight of the islands, though, is the United State Virgin Islands National Park. This park, which covers nearly 60% of the island of St. John, features beautiful hiking trails through lush forests, and amazing underwater trails that showcase the coral reefs of the region.

Flights arrive regularly to both St. Croix and St. Thomas from the United States, and Europeans can reach the islands via either Florida or Puerto Rico. Ferries connect the islands, and also connect St. Thomas to Puerto Rico. Cruise ships also regularly make port, most at either Frederiksted or Charlotte Amalie.

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