As with most Caribbean islands, the island of St. Thomas was discovered by Columbus on his second voyage in 1493. Never-the-less, Amerindian settlers had been traveling the Caribbean for at least 5,000 years prior to that.
According to archaeological studies, there were two main migration periods. The first from Mesoamerica across the Gulf of Mexico probably between 4,000 and 2,000 b.c.e. The second migratory group, known as the Arawaks, “island hopped” from the Orinoco Basin in South America across the Antillean archipelago about 1,500 year ago, and settled as far West as Cuba. This “Tainos” culture was based on agriculture and the production of clay pottery. They were the residents of the islands when Columbus arrived.
St. Thomas remained unsettled until 1666, when a group of Danish merchants formed the Danish West India Co. and attempted to establish a settlement on the island. There was a chronic shortage of supplies, the soil was poor and there was no reliable source of water. In addition, the settlement was constantly on guard against raids from freebooters and pirates that cruised the Caribbean.
A second expedition, better capitalized by the Danish West India Co., and sponsored by the Danish King arrived in St. Thomas in 1672. This enterprise, although more successful in principle, was terribly mismanaged by a series of very unscrupulous governors, who plundered the company bringing the parent company to near bankruptcy.
In 1681, the main settlement was officially named Charlotte Amalie after the Queen of Denmark. Trade on the island began to thrive for several reasons:
Denmark’s neutral position in the various European conflicts made St. Thomas the only port in the area that was accessible to ships of all nations. The island’s excellent harbor and the availability of warehouse space made it an ideal port for commercial transactions. Finally, the tax exempt incentives offered by the Danish Crown eventually turned St. Thomas into a duty-free port. Above and beyond all else, St. Thomas’ strategic location made the harbor of Charlotte Amalie the first landfall on the southern Atlantic crossing for ships bound for the Gulf, Central and South America.
On January 17, 1917, the government of the United States acquired the Virgin Islands from Demark for twenty five million dollars. The purchase was primarily motivated by WWI. US wanted to protect the Panama Canal, less than 20 years old at the time, and there was also a need for a coaling station for warships in the islands. The purchase included the islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John, Hassel and Water along with numerous smaller Islands.