Every March, Virgin Islanders celebrate a peaceful transfer of ownership – an “independence” day unique to these islands. On March 31, 1917, an elaborate ceremony carried out simultaneously on each of the three Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John — marked a change in ownership of the Virgin Islands from Denmark to the United States.
The United States investigated the Virgin Islands as a possible fueling station or U.S. merchant and naval vessels as early as the mid-1860’s. A treaty between the two countries was first negotiated in 1867, however a complicated process of give-and-take termed “diplomatic fencing” ensued whereby Denmark signed the agreement and the U.S. waffled for several years before agreeing to sign, at which time Denmark opted to ignore the United States’ overture. By 1915, the U.S. acknowledged an urgent need to prevent another power from establishing a base in the Caribbean and agreed to pay Denmark $25 million in gold coin for the islands — up from the original asking price of $7.5 million! The transfer treaty was finalized on January 17, 1917 and the official transfer took place at 4:00 pm on March 31 of that year.
According to contemporary accounts, Virgin Islanders were pleased to become U.S. citizens and did not dispute the new ownership. In St. Thomas, the U.S. was represented at the transfer ceremony by a guard of honor from the U.S. ship Valkyrien anchored in Charlotte Amalie Harbor and a Danish guard of honor stood outside the barracks belonging to the Danish fort. In St. Croix, the transfer proclamation was read aloud by dignitaries in Christiansted and in Frederiksted. Needless to say, national anthems were played and artillery salutes were fired – 89 in total!
What an exciting yet solemn day it must have been for Virgin Islanders! Since that day, the islands have become thoroughly American, yet the islands’ rich Danish heritage is apparent everywhere — in family names, place names, street names and architecture. For fascinating photographic records of long-ago life in the Virgin Islands, go to stcroixfoodandwine.com, stcroixlandmarks.com and search “photos.”