Saint Thomas is an island in the Caribbean Sea, a county and constituent district of the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), an unincorporated territory of the United States. Located on the island is the territorial capital and port of Charlotte Amalie. As of the 2001 census, the population of Saint Thomas was 51,181 about 47% of the US Virgin Islands total. The district has a land area of 31.24 square miles (80.9 km2).
The Dutch West India Company established a post on Saint Thomas in 1657. The first congregation was the St. Thomas Reformed Church which was established in 1660 and was associated with the Dutch Reformed Church. The Danish conquered the island in 1666, and by 1672 had established control over the entire island through the Danish West India and Guinea Company. The land was divided into plantations and sugar cane production became the primary economic activity. As a result the economies of Saint Thomas and neighboring islands of Saint John and Saint Croix became highly dependent on slave labor and the slave trade. In 1685 the Brandenburgisch-Africanische Compagnie took control of the slave trade on Saint Thomas, and for some time the largest slave auctions in the world were held there. Saint Thomas was known for its fine natural harbor, known as "Taphus" for the drinking establishments located nearby. In 1691 the primary settlement there was renamed Charlotte Amalie in honor of the wife of Denmark's King Christian V. It was later declared a free port by Frederick V. In December 1732, the first two of many Moravian Brethren missionaries came from Herrnhut Saxony in present day Germany to minister to them. Distrusted at first by the white masters, they lived among the slaves and soon won their confidence. A small Jewish community was set up in Charlotte Amalie and set up a historic synagogue Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States.
While the sugar trade had brought prosperity to the island's free citizens, by the early 19th century Saint Thomas was in decline. The continued export of sugar was threatened by hurricanes, drought, and American competition. In 1848, slavery was abolished and the resulting rise in labour costs further weakened the position of Saint Thomas' sugar producers. Given its harbors and fortifications, Saint Thomas still retained a strategic importance, and thus in the 1860s the United States government considered buying the island and its neighbors from Denmark for $7.5 million, but failed to find domestic legislative support for the bid.
After being poorly managed by the Danish, David Hamilton Jackson, was instrumental in persuading the Danish to allow the USA to purchase the islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. In 1915, he traveled to Denmark and convinced the King of Denmark to allow freedom of the press in the islands. He began the first newspaper in the islands known as The Herald Newspaper. After this, he organized labor unions among the islanders for better working conditions. The islands now have an annual celebration to honor the legacy of David Hamilton Jackson.
In 1917 St. Thomas was purchased by the United States for $25 million, as part of a defensive strategy to maintain control over the Caribbean and the Panama Canal during the First World War. The transfer occurred March 31, 1917 behind Fort Christian before the barracks which now house the Legislature of the Virgin Islands. The baccalaureate service for the transfer was held at the St. Thomas Reformed Church as it was identified as the American church in the Danish West Indies.
Percival Wilson Sparks, a U.S. Naval officer, designed the flag that now represents the United States Virgin Islands. Sparks married a local Virgin Island woman, Grace Joseph Sparks; when Sparks' superior, Rear Adm. Summer Ely Wetmore Kitelle, commissioned the design for the flag, P.W. Sparks asked his wife and her sister, Blanche Joseph to sew the first flag. That flag was used until such time as a factory produced flag could be acquired. The flag's inspiration came from the U.S. Presidential seal. Sparks decided to have the eagle facing the olive branches rather than the arrows (which represented the three islands: St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John). (At the request of the Sparks family, this piece of history was entered into the Congressional Record in Washington, D.C., on April 30, 1986, vol.132, No.56, by the congressional delegate, Ron de Lugo.) Every year Transfer Day is recognized as a holiday which celebrates the acquisition of the islands by the United States in 1917.
U.S. citizenship was granted to the residents in 1927. The U.S. Department of the Interior took over administrative duties in 1931. American forces were based on the island during the Second World War. In 1954, passage of the U.S. Virgin Islands Organic Act officially granted territorial status to the three islands, and allowed for the formation of a local senate with politics dominated by the American Republican and Democratic parties. Full home rule was achieved in 1970.
The post-war era also saw the rise of tourism on the island. With relatively cheap air travel and the American embargo on Cuba, the numbers of visitors greatly increased. Despite natural disasters such as Hurricane Hugo (1989) and Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn (1995), the island's infrastructure continues to improve as the flow of visitors continues.