The Virgin Islands of the United States (commonly called the United States Virgin Islands, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Virgin Islands, or USVI) are a group of islands in the Caribbean that are an insular area of the United States. The islands are geographically part of the Virgin Islands archipelago and are located in the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles.
The U.S. Virgin Islands consist of the main islands of Saint Croix, Saint John, and Saint Thomas, along with the much smaller but historically distinct Water Island, and many other surrounding minor islands. The total land area of the territory is 133.73 square miles (346.4Â km2). The territory's capital is Charlotte Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas.
In 2010 the population was 106,405, and mostly Afro-Caribbean. Tourism is the primary economic activity, although there is a significant rum manufacturing sector. Farming is done on a smaller scale on the island of St. Croix, although it has seen a slow resurgence in recent years.
Formerly the Danish West Indies, they were sold to the United States by Denmark in the Treaty of the Danish West Indies of 1916. They are classified by the UN as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, and are currently an organized, unincorporated United States territory. The U.S. Virgin Islands are organized under the 1954 Revised Organic Act of the Virgin Islands and have since held five constitutional conventions. The last and only proposed Constitution, adopted by the Fifth Constitutional Convention in 2009, was rejected by the U.S. Congress in 2010, which urged the convention to reconvene to address the concerns Congress and the Obama Administration had with the proposed document. The convention reconvened in October 2012 to address these concerns, but was unable to produce a revised Constitution before its October 31 deadline.
The Virgin Islands were originally inhabited by the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawaks. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next two hundred years, the islands were held by many European powers, including Spain, Great Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Denmark-Norway.
The Danish West India Company settled on Saint Thomas in 1672, on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754, named the Danish-Westindian islands (Danish: De dansk-vestindiske Ã¸er). Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the abolition of slavery by Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.
The Danish West India and Guinea Company represented the first Europeans to settle the Virgin Islands. They are also credited with naming the island St. John (Danish: Sankt Jan). The Danish crown took full control of Saint John in 1754, along with St. Thomas and St. Croix. Sugar plantations such as the famous Annaberg Sugar Plantation, were established in great numbers on St. John because of the intense heat and fertile terrain which provided ideal growing conditions. The establishment of sugar plantations also led to the importation of more slaves from Africa. St. John was the site of one of the first significant slave rebellions in the New World in 1733, when enslaved Akwamu rebels from the Gold Coast 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 men and women shot themselves before the French forces could capture them. It is estimated that by 1775, slaves outnumbered the Danish settlers by a ratio of 5:1. The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks were also used as slave labor to the point of wiping out their entire population. Slavery was abolished in the Virgin Islands on July 3, 1848.
For the remainder of the period of Danish rule the islands were not economically viable and significant transfers were made from the Danish state budgets to the authorities in the islands. In 1867 a treaty to sell Saint Thomas and Saint John to the United States was agreed, but the sale was 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 balanced ballot (because the opposition literally carried a 97-year-old life member into the chamber).
The onset of World War I brought the reforms to a close and again left the islands isolated and exposed. During the submarine warfare phases of the First World War, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base, again approached Denmark with a view to buying them. After a few months of negotiations, a selling price of $25Â million in United States gold coin was agreed (this is equivalent to $541.82 million in 2015 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.
The Treaty of the Danish West Indies was signed in August 1916, with a Danish referendum held in December 1916 to confirm the decision. The deal was finalized on January 17, 1917, when the United States and Denmark exchanged their respective treaty ratifications. 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 celebrate the acquisition of the islands by the United States. U.S. citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927.
Water Island, a small island to the south of Saint Thomas, was initially administered by the U.S. federal government and did not become a part of the U.S. Virgin Islands territory until 1996, when 50 acres (200,000Â m2) of land was transferred to the territorial government. The remaining 200 acres (81Â ha) of the island were purchased from the U.S. Department of the Interior in May 2005 for $10, a transaction which marked the official change in jurisdiction.
Hurricane Hugo struck the Virgin Islands in 1989, causing catastrophic physical and economic damage. 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, Georges, Lenny, and Omar in 1996, 1998, 1999, and 2008, respectively, but damage was not as severe in those storms.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are in the Atlantic Ocean, about 40 miles (60Â km) east of Puerto Rico and immediately west of the British Virgin Islands. They share the Virgin Islands Archipelago with the Spanish Virgin Islands (administered by Puerto Rico) and the British Virgin Islands.
The territory consists of four main islands: Saint Thomas, Saint John, Saint Croix, and Water Island, 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.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are known for their white sand beaches, including Magens Bay and Trunk Bay, and strategic harbors, including Charlotte Amalie and Christiansted. Most of the islands, including Saint Thomas, are volcanic in origin and hilly. The highest point is Crown Mountain, Saint Thomas (1,555Â ft or 474Â m).
Saint Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies to the south and has a flatter terrain. The National Park Service owns more than half of Saint John, nearly all of Hassel Island, and many acres of coral reef. (See also Virgin Islands National Park, Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, Buck Island Reef National Monument, Christiansted National Historic Site, and Salt River Bay National Historical Park and Ecological Preserve.)
The U.S. Virgin Islands lie on the boundary of the North American plate and the Caribbean Plate. Natural hazards include earthquakes and tropical cyclones (including hurricanes).
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 thorough October), while in the winter the northeast trade winds prevail. Summer and winter high temperatures differ by 5 F or less on average.
Politics and government
The U.S. Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory. Even though they are U.S. citizens, U.S. Virgin Islands residents cannot vote in presidential elections. U.S. Virgin Islands residents are able to vote in presidential primary elections for delegates to the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. Unlike persons born on the mainland and naturalized citizens who derive their citizenship from the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. constitution, those born in the U.S. Virgin Islands derive their U.S. citizenship from Congressional statute.
The main political parties in the U.S. Virgin Islands are the Democratic Party of the Virgin Islands, the Independent Citizens Movement, and the Republican Party of the Virgin Islands. Additional candidates run as independents.
At the national level, the U.S. Virgin Islands elect a delegate to Congress from their at-large congressional district. The elected delegate, while able to vote in committee, cannot participate in floor votes. The current House of Representatives delegate is Stacey Plaskett (D).
At the territorial level, 15 senators â" seven from the district of Saint Croix, seven from the district of Saint Thomas and Saint John, and one senator at-large who must be a resident of Saint John â" are elected for two-year terms to the unicameral Virgin Islands Legislature.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have elected a territorial governor every four years since 1970. Previous governors were appointed by the President of the United States.
The U.S. Virgin Islands have a District Court, Superior Court and the 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, Pennsylvania. District Court judges are appointed by the President, while Superior Court and Supreme Court judges are appointed by the Governor.
On Oct 21, 1976, President Gerald Ford signed Pub.L. 94â"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. On May 26, 2009 the U.S. Virgin Islands Fifth Constitutional Convention adopted a proposed a Constitution of the Virgin Islands, which was submitted by President Barack Obama to Congress on March 1, 2010. On June 30, 2010, President Obama signed Pub.L. 111â"194 in which Congress urged the constitutional convention to reconvene.
Administratively, the U.S. Virgin Islands are divided into three (3) districts and twenty (20) sub-districts.
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 and Christiansted on St. Croix were historically referred to as "districts", in contrast to the surrounding plantation land.
The U.S. Virgin Islands are on the United Nations list of Non-Self-Governing Territories (to be taken off in October 2015). 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 referenda have been scheduled since. (Referenda was either to be a State or remain a Territory).
In 2004, the 25th Legislature of the Virgin Islands established the Fifth Constitutional Convention, a constitutional convention gathered in order to draft a new constitution. In June 2009, Governor John de Jongh, Jr. rejected the resulting constitutional draft, saying the document did "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. The President of the United States forwarded the proposal to Congressâ"which then had 60 days to approve or reject the documentâ"in May 2010, along with a report noting concerns raised by the U.S. Department of Justice 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 by President Obama on June 30, 2010.
Months later, a federal lawsuit was filed in the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands in 2011. 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. The case is Civil No. 3:11-cv-110, Charles v. U.S. Federal Elections Commission et al. (3:11-cv-00110-AET-RM). 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 and closed on August 16, 2012 by District Judge Anne E. Thompson from the Federal District Court of the Virgin Islands, Division of St. Croix.
Tourism is the primary economic activity. The islands normally host 2Â million visitors a year, many of whom visit on cruise ships.
The manufacturing sector consists of mainly rum distilling. 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 Water and Power Authority also uses imported energy to operate its desalination facilities to provide fresh water.
Until February 2012, the Hovensa plant located on St. Croix was one of the world's largest petroleum refineries and contributed about 20% of the territory's GDP. It has since been largely shut down and is now operating as no more than an oil storage facility, provoking a local economic crisis.
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.
To draw more technology-focused companies and expand this segment of the economy, the government founded and launched University of the Virgin Islands Research and Technology Park in conjunction with private businesses and the University of the Virgin Islands.
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 U.S. 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.
Transportation and communications
The Henry E. Rohlsen International Airport serves St. Croix and the Cyril E. King International Airport serves St. Thomas and St. John. The U.S. Virgin Islands is the only U.S. jurisdiction which drives on the left. This was inherited from what was then-current practice on the islands at the time of the 1917 transfer to limit losses of livestock. As most cars being imported from the mainland United States are left-hand drive, the driver sits to the outside of the road, raising traffic safety issues.
As in other U.S. territories, U.S. Virgin Islands mail service is handled by the United States Postal Service, using the two-character state code "VI" for domestic mail delivery. ZIP codes are in the 008xx range. As of January 2010, specifically assigned codes include 00801â"00805 (St Thomas), 00820â"00824 (Christiansted), 00830â"00831 (St John), 00840â"00841 (Frederiksted), and 00850â"00851 (Kingshill). The islands are part of the North American Numbering Plan, using area code 340, and island residents and visitors are able to call toll-free U.S. numbers.
In 2010 the U.S. Virgin Islands had a population of 106,405. There are 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 was spread out 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 age 18 and over, there were 87.7 males. The annual population growth is â'0.12%.
The median income for a household in the territory was $24,704, and the median income for a family was $28,553. Males had a median income of $28,309 versus $22,601 for females. The per capita income for the territory was $13,139. About 28.7% of families and 32.5% of the population were below the poverty line, including 41.7% of those under age 18 and 29.8% of those age 65 or over.
The racial makeup of the U.S. Virgin Islands was:
- Black or Afro-Caribbean: 76.0% (66.1% Non-Hispanic Black)
- White: 15.6% (13.5% Non-Hispanic Whites)
- Asian: 1.4%
- Mixed: 2.1%
- Other: 4.5%
- Hispanic or Latino of any race: 17.4% (10.3% Puerto Rican, 5.4% Dominican)
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.
The official language is English. Virgin Islands Creole, an English-based creole locally known as "dialect", is spoken in informal situations. The 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.
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%.
Danish, once the language of administration and a handful of inhabitants for over a century and a half, virtually ceased to be spoken once Denmark sold the islands, although Danish place names and surnames among natives still remain.
Christianity is the dominant religion in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Protestantism is most prevalent, reflecting the territory's Danish colonial heritage. There is also a strong Roman Catholic presence. Rastafari is also prevalent. There are some Jews living in the territory.
In 2010, the national average life expectancy was 79.61 years. It was 76.57 years for men and 82.83 for women.
The Virgin Islands Department of Education serves as the territory's education agency, and has two school districts: St. Thomas-St. John School District and St. Croix School District.
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 islands have a number of AM and FM radio stations (mostly on St. Thomas and St. Croix) broadcasting music, religious, and news programming. (See List of radio stations in U.S. Territories.) Full and low-power television stations are split between St. Thomas and St. Croix. (See List of television stations in the U.S. Virgin Islands.) Newspapers include:
- 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 Years Day
- January 6: Three Kings Day
- January (third Monday): Martin Luther King, Jr. Day
- February (third Monday): President's Day
- March 31: Transfer Day (celebrates the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the U.S.)
- April: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, Easter Monday
- May: 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: Veteran's 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.
- Outline of the United States Virgin Islands
- Index of United States Virgin Islands-related articles
- Bibliography of the United States Virgin Islands
- National Register of Historic Places listings in the United States Virgin Islands
- List of people from the United States Virgin Islands
- List of countries by intentional homicide rate
- VI.gov or Gov.vi - Official Government Website
- Official Tourism Website
- Governor's Website
- Office of the Lieutenant Governor
- Virgin Islands entry at The World Factbook
- U.S. Census Bureau: Island Areas Census 2000
- United States Virgin Islands at UCB Libraries GovPubs.
- United States Virgin Islands at DMOZ
- Wikimedia Atlas of the United States Virgin Islands
- Real-time, geographic and other scientific resources of Virgin Islands at the United States Geological Survey.
- Convention between the United States and Denmark for cession of the Danish West Indies