The U.S. Virgin Islands

United States - Scott #802 (1937)
United States – Scott #802 (1937)

On March 31, 1917, the United States of America formally took possession of the Danish West Indies after paying $25 million to Denmark, renaming the territory the United States Virgin Islands (USVI). The date is celebrated with a holiday each year in the USVI called Transfer Day; the holiday is the subject of Sophie Schiller’s 2012 novel Transfer Day. The United States’ interest in the Virgin Islands was primarily for their strategic location, while any economic benefits were secondary. The islands represented a much needed foothold in the Caribbean for the U.S. Navy, and later were looked toward as a base to guard the Panama Canal. Negotiations with the Danish government can be characterized as ones of strategic diplomacy. All offers of proposed purchase came on the heels of U.S. military conflicts.

Officially the Virgin Islands of the United States, the group of islands are located in the Atlantic Ocean, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) east of Puerto Rico and immediately west of the British Virgin Islands. They share the Virgin Islands Archipelago with the Puerto Rican Virgin Islands of Vieques and Culebra (administered by Puerto Rico), and the British Virgin Islands. The territory consists of three main islands: Saint Thomas, Saint John, and Saint Croix, 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 — 133.73 square miles (346.36 km²) is roughly twice the size of Washington, D.C. The territory’s capital is Charlotte Amalie on the island of Saint Thomas.

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. Like most Caribbean islands, the islands of the Virgin Islands, including Saint Thomas, are volcanic in origin and hilly. The highest point is Crown Mountain, Saint Thomas (1,555 feet or 474 meters). Saint Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies to the south and has a flatter terrain due to being coral in origin. The National Park Service manages more than half of Saint John, nearly all of Hassel Island, and many acres of coral reef.  They lie on the boundary of the North American plate and the Caribbean Plate. Natural hazards include earthquakes and hurricanes.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are classified by the United Nations as a Non-Self-Governing Territory, and are currently an organized, unincorporated United States territory. They 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 of the U.S. Virgin Islands 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 Fifth Constitutional Convention of the U.S. Virgin Islands met in October 2012 to address these concerns, but was not able to produce a revised Constitution before its October 31 deadline.

In 2010, the population was 106,405, and mostly Afro-Caribbean. Tourism and related categories are the primary economic activity, employing a high percentage of the civilian non-farm labor force that totaled 42,752 persons in 2016. The total non-farm labor force was 48,278 persons. Private sector jobs made up 71 percent of the total workforce. The average private sector salary was $34,088 and the average public sector salary was $52,572.

In a May 2016 report, some 11,000 people were categorized as being involved in some aspect of agriculture in the first half of 2016 but this category makes up a small part of the total economy. At that time, there were approximately 607 manufacturing jobs and 1,487 natural resource and construction jobs. The single largest employer was the government. The islands have a significant rum manufacturing sector. In mid-February 2017, the USVI was facing a financial crisis due to a very high debt level of $2 billion and a structural budget deficit of $110 million.

Panoramic view of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the United States Virgin Islands, located on the island of Saint Thomas. Viewed from Lookout Point on Skyline Drive (Route 40). Photo taken on July 25, 2015 by Matt H. Wade.
Panoramic view of Charlotte Amalie, the capital of the United States Virgin Islands, located on the island of Saint Thomas. Viewed from Lookout Point on Skyline Drive (Route 40). Photo taken on July 25, 2015 by Matt H. Wade.

The U.S. 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, settled on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754, named the Danish West Indian Islands (De dansk-vestindiske øer). 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 are also credited with naming the island St. John (Sankt Jan). The Danish crown took full control of Saint John in 1754 along with St. Thomas and St. Croix. Sugarcane plantations such as the famous Annaberg Sugar Plantation were established in great numbers on St. John because of the intense heat and fertile terrain that provided ideal growing conditions. The establishment of sugarcane plantations also led to the buying of more slaves from Africa. In 1733, St. John was the site of one of the first significant slave rebellions in the New World when Akwamu slaves 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 of the ringleaders shot themselves before the French forces could capture them and call them to account for their activities during the period of rebel control. 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 the entire native population being absorbed into the larger groups. Slavery was abolished in the Virgin Islands on July 3, 1848.

The Høgensborg estate on St. Croix, Danish West Indies drawn by Frederik von Scholten June 1838.
The Høgensborg estate on St. Croix, Danish West Indies drawn by Frederik von Scholten June 1838.

Although some plantation owners refused to accept the abolition, some 5,000 Black people were freed while another 17,000 remained enslaved. In that era, slaves labored mainly on sugar plantations. Other crops included cotton and indigo. Over the following years, strict labor laws were implemented several times, leading planters to abandon their estates, causing a significant drop in population and the overall economy.

St Thomas was a hub of the West Indies packet service from 1851 to 1885. Initially mail was transported by a Spanish packet to and from Puerto Rico; but in July 1867 the British picked up the mail contract, and packet letters are known using British stamps as late as 1879.

The first postage stamp of the Danish West Indies was issued in 1856. It had the same square coat of arms design as the contemporary stamps of Denmark, but it was denominated 3 cents and of a dark carmine color on yellowish paper. A yellow burelage of wavy lines covered the stamp. An 1866 printing was on white paper, with the direction of the burelage lines changed, and in 1872 the stamps were perforated. In 1873, a 4-cent value in dull blue was issued. The first numeral issues of the same variety as used in Denmark were released in 1874. Values ranged from 1 cent to 50 cents; all were bicolored. Inverted frames are common for several of the lower values.

In the late 1800s, numerous natural disasters added to diminish the economy. 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.

American interest in the Virgin Islands dates back to as early as the mid-1860’s. At the eve of the Civil War, budding American imperialism, and the need for a Caribbean naval base, prompted Secretary of State William H. Seward to begin to investigate the islands as a possible coaling station for U.S. naval and merchant vessels. On October 24, 1867, after nearly two years of extensive negotiation and a visit to the islands by Seward, himself, the Danish government ratified a treaty, in which Denmark would cede the islands of St. Thomas and St. John to the United States. The price was to be seven and a half million dollars in gold, provided the treaty received the consent of the islands’ population. Unfortunately, within a year the islands were visited by a hurricane, an earthquake, a tsunami and a fire.

The tsunami was so severe that it left the steamer USS Monogahela and its crew stranded on the Frederiksted wharf. However, for more than two years the treaty failed to receive the ratification of the United States Congress in response to the wave of natural disasters, the imperialistic overtones of the treaty, and concerns over the possible impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. By the end of the Spanish American War, Secretary of State John Hay expressed renewed interest in the Virgin Islands to the Danish government. Beginning on January 29, 1900, and over another two years a new treaty was negotiated, in which the Danish government would cede the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix to the United States for the sum of five million dollars. The treaty was ratified by the U.S. Congress. This was defeated in the upper house of the Danish parliament in a balanced ballot (because the opposition carried a 97-year-old life member into the chamber).

A World War I U.S. Navy Recruitment poster, using a New York Herald cartoon by W.A. Rogers. It shows an anthropomorphized Germany wading through a sea of dead bodies, with the slogan
A World War I U.S. Navy Recruitment poster, using a New York Herald cartoon by W.A. Rogers. It shows an anthropomorphized Germany wading through a sea of dead bodies, with the slogan “Only the Navy can Stop This” — a reference to the U-boat campaign sinking civilian ships, such as the Lusitania..

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 war, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base, again approached Denmark about buying them. The General Board, headed by Admiral Dewey informed Secretary of State Robert Lansing, that the purchase of the islands would not be advantageous as the site of an American naval base in light of the recent acquisition of Puerto Rico, but that the purchase would be wise in order to deter any other power from gaining bases in the Caribbean. Dewey, felt that this tactical defense of the Panama Canal was just politically by the Monroe Doctrine and by increased German efforts to consolidate the islands through commercial, diplomatic or perhaps even military means.

In March of 1916, Secretary Lansing sent a drafted treaty to the Danish Ambassador in Copenhagen Dr. Maurice Egan, offering twenty-five million dollars in United States gold coins for the islands, with instructions to deliver the proposal to the Danish government. This is equivalent to $562.23 million in 2017 dollars. 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.. On August 14, 1916, at the Biltmore Hotel in New York City, a revised treaty was signed by Danish Minister Constantin Brun and Secretary of State Lansing. The U.S. Senate approved the treaty on September 7, 1916 and by December 21, 1916 the Danish Rigsdag had approved the treaty as well.

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. The official transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States did not occur until 4:00 PM on March 31, 1917, when a formal ceremony was held in the islands. After the Dannebrog (Denmark’s civil flag and ensign)was lowered over Government House for the last time, the flag was made into several smaller ones. At the State Department a U.S. Treasury Warrant for twenty-five million dollars was given to Danish Minister Brun. The territory ceased producing its own postage stamps at this time.

After 251 years of Danish colonial rule, Dannebrog is lowered for the last time at the Governor's mansion at Saint Croix on March 31, 1917.
After 251 years of Danish colonial rule, Dannebrog is lowered for the last time at the Governor’s mansion at Saint Croix on March 31, 1917.

The flag of the United States Virgin Islands was adopted on May 17, 1921. It consists of a simplified version of the coat of arms of the United States between the letters V and I (for Virgin Islands). The yellow-colored eagle holds a sprig of laurel in one talon, and three arrows in the other. The blue color in the shield on the eagle’s breast is the same color as that of the flag and shield of the United States. The concept or idea of a U.S. Virgin Islands flag began with the administration of Rear Admiral Summer Ely Whitmore Kitelle, who was sworn in as governor of the islands on April 26, 1921. He approached Mr. White, captain of the Grib, and Percival Wilson Sparks, and asked them for suggestions for a flag design. Sparks, a cartoonist, drew a design on paper. Afterwards Sparks transferred it on heavy cotton material, then asked his wife Grace and her sister Blanche Joseph to embroider the design.

U.S. citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927. The U.S. dollar was adopted in the territory in 1934 and from 1935 to 1939 the islands were a part of the United States customs area.

Water Island, a small island to the south of St. Thomas, was initially administered by the U.S. federal government and did not become a part of the United States Virgin Islands territory until 1996, when 50 acres (20 ha) of land was transferred to the territorial government. The remaining 200 acres (81 ha) of the island were purchased from the United States Department of the Interior in May 2005 for $10, a transaction that marked the official change in jurisdiction.

Trunk Bay on St. John island in Virgin Islands National Park, Photo taken on October 20, 2003.
Trunk Bay on St. John island in Virgin Islands National Park, Photo taken on October 20, 2003.

Hurricane Hugo struck the U.S. Virgin Islands in 1989, causing catastrophic physical and economic damage, particularly on the island of St. Croix. 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. In 2017, Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage to St. John and St. Thomas; just days later, Hurricane Maria’s eyewall crossed over St. Croix.

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. The facility stopped exporting petroleum products in 2014. In the final year of full refinery operations, the value of exported petroleum products was $12.7 billion (2011 fiscal year).[17] After being shut down, it has operated as no more than an oil storage facility; the closure had provoked a local economic crisis.

Although the Virgin Islands are no longer a possession of Denmark, the islands still maintain a warm relationship with the Danish people. The Danish cemeteries, the forts and the ruins of the former sugar plantations all bear testimony to a rich Danish past. This heritage is celebrated every March 31 on Virgin Islands Transfer Day.

$25,000,000 receipt for the Treaty of the Danish West Indies
$25,000,000 receipt for the Treaty of the Danish West Indies

In January 1934, the Honolulu Society petitioned the United States Post Office Department to issue a special stamp on June 11, 1936, for the bicentennial of the birth of Kamehameha, the last king of Hawaii. Nothing came of this until the December 8, 1936, announcement that a special issue of commemorative stamps would be released for the island possessions of the United States, as well as Alaska (then still a territory). The specific plans for this territorial series was finally announced by Postmaster General James A. Farley in mid-1937.

A single stamp recognizing the United States Virgin Islands was the final of the four-stamp series to be released, debuting at the Charlotte Amalie post office on December 15, 1937 (Scott #802). The Bureau of Engraving and Printing submitted two designs on September 8, 1937. One design portrayed a scene of the harbor of St. Thomas while the other pictured Charlotte Amalie’s harbor. A model designed by Victor S. McCloskey Jr. of Charlotte Amalie with the outlying harbor and Sugarloaf Islands in the distance was approved by S.W. Purdum, Acting Postmaster General on September 18, a day after the BEP received instructions to print a Virgin Islands stamp.

Unreleased design for the 1937 Virgin Islands stamp picturing St. Thomas harbor rather than the approved Charlotte Amalie design.
Unreleased design for the 1937 Virgin Islands stamp picturing St. Thomas harbor rather than the approved Charlotte Amalie design.

The stamp was prepared after a photograph furnished by the Post Office Department. Carl T. Arlt engraved the vignette as well as the ornamental border while James T. Vail executed the lettering and frame. The accepted design showed a slight modification in that the ornament in the lower right corner was changed from a shield to a panel containing the numeral 3. It was announced that it would be available at other post offices in the Virgin Islands on December 16, “so far as conditions will permit.” The USPOD announcement described the 3-cent stamp as:

0.84 by 1.44 inches in dimensions, arranged horizontally. It is purple in color and printed in sheets of 50, by the rotary process.

The central subject of the stamp is a view of the city of Charlotte Amalie with the outlying harbor and sugar loaf islands in the distance. In a narrow panel with dark ground at the top of the stamp are the words, “VIRGIN ISLANDS” in white roman. In a corresponding panel at the lower edge of the stamp is the name “CHARLOTTE AMALIE” in white gothic, with scroll work at each end. In vertical panels with dark ground at the sides of the stamp is the wording “U. S. POSTAGE” at the left and, “THREE CENTS” at the right in white gothic. Within shield-shaped panels with dark ground in each lower corner of the stamp is the denomination numeral “3” in white. Ornamental scroll work is shown in each upper corner.

City view of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo taken on June 6, 2001.
City view of Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Photo taken on June 6, 2001.

The announcement also mentioned that “mail for the Virgin Islands is dispatched from New York every Thursday and Saturday, arriving at Charlotte Amalie late on the following Monday and Wednesday or Thursday, depending on steamer connections.”

The stamps were printed on the rotary press by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing from 200-subject plates, divided into panes of 50 by horizontal and vertical gutters. The perforated sheets were cut through the center of the gutters into panes of 50 and so issued to post offices. Printing was started on November 19, with plates 21732 and 21733 going to press. First delivery was made to the USPOD on November 26, consisting of copies from these two plates. On December 1, the two remaining plates with numbers 21730 and 21731 were first put to press.

Scott #802 was printed in light violet on unwatermarked paper, perforated 10½x11. There was very little variation in the shade of the stamps, and only one plate variety worthy of mention. This consists of a series of scratches on one stamp, which on later copies was recut. A total of 76,474,500 copies of the Virgin Islands stamp was printed. The stamps were first placed on sale at Charlotte Amalie on December 15, 1937, with first day sales totaling 415,054 stamps, part of which were used to frank 225,469 first day covers.

Flag of the Virgin Islands of the United StatesSeal of the United States Virgin Islands

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