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1917 Census Opens Window to Islands’ Past

This is the first article in a three-part series about conditions in the U.S. Virgin Islands at the time they became part of the United States, as described in the 1917 special U.S. Census of the territory.

It may be coincidental, but the juxtaposition of Virgin Islands Emancipation Day July 3 and American Independence Day July 4 has become an annual marker of the link between the two cultures.

When that link was formalized in 1917 with the transfer of what had been the Danish West Indies to the United States, the U.S. Census Bureau took a deep look at the land America had just bought and the people who were living there.

At the time of the 1917 census, federal officials described the St. Thomas harbor at Charlotte Amalie as one of the best in the Lesser Antilles. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

The 1917 Census of the U.S. Virgin Islands is full of information about how – as well as how many – people were living in St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John as Denmark withdrew and the U.S. moved in.

This is the first in a multi-part Source series based on that document.

The U.S. Census Bureau concluded there were a total of 26,051 people in the territory in 1917, which is not quite 30 percent of the current figure of 87,146 per the 2020 census. The report broke down the total by island, by gender, age, and race, and, in part, by occupation. That data – and more – will be covered later in this series.

The next census of the islands was conducted by the local government in 1930. In 1940 the U.S. Census included the territory for the first time in its decennial count. The V.I. has been included every decade since then.

Motivation and Method

The form and the methodology of the 1917 census suggest a little about how the U.S. viewed its newest territory.

The count was requested by the secretary of the Navy, which had been given responsibility for governing the islands, and officially authorized by the secretary of Commerce.

The Census Bureau had been – and still is – conducting a census in every state every 10 years since 1790. It used the questions from its 1910 national census, slightly modified, for the special V.I. census.

It was not the first-ever population count conducted in the islands. The Danes, and some other Europeans, had recorded population figures in their colonies in the past.

But the 1917 U.S. Census collected data on a wide range of socio-economic factors as well, such as education, housing, and literacy. It also outlined a bit of geography, including the location and size of the larger islands, as well as a summary history of the islands, concentrating on the period from the 1600s forward, all in an apparent effort to give the data context.

Quoting from a report by the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Foreign Affairs dated Feb. 17, 1917, the census report noted that the sale of the islands from Denmark to the U.S. had first been proposed in 1865, and negotiations continued, off and on, for more than 50 years.

In 1866 the U.S. offered $5 million for St. Thomas, St. John, and “Santa Cruz.” Denmark countered with a price of $15 million for the three, or $10 million for just St. Thomas and St. John. The U.S. came back with $7.5 million for the three. Eventually, there was an agreement on $7.5 million for just two islands, St. Thomas and St. John.

Denmark insisted the deal be approved by island residents before it could be finalized. On St. Thomas, 1,039 people voted on the referendum, and all but 22 were in favor of the transfer. On the less populous St. John, just 205 people voted, but all were in favor. Then the deal died in the U.S. Senate.

In 1902, wishing to shield itself from growing unrest in Europe, the U.S. revived the idea. This time, a deal came even closer, and the price tag had dropped considerably – just $5 million for the three islands. The U.S. Senate ratified the agreement, and so did one of the houses of the bicameral Danish Rigsdag, but it was defeated on a tie vote of 32 to 32 in the other house.

The rejection was costly for the U.S. The census report doesn’t detail the remaining negotiations, but other sources suggest the looming World War made the Caribbean islands more valuable strategically, pushing their price to $25 million when they were finally purchased.

In another section of the report, the Census Bureau discusses the decline of commercial sea traffic in the islands and says, “The value of the Virgin Islands now lies in their geographic location and exceptional harbor facilities rather than in their commercial and agricultural activities.”

Officially, the first U.S. census of the U.S. Virgin Islands is dated Nov. 1, 1917.

But the counting actually took place in late December and in January 1918.

Citing “transportation delays,” the report states that Census Bureau officials didn’t arrive in the V.I. until Dec. 17. They were housed in “adequate quarters” in Fort Christian on St. Thomas, and the enumeration began on Dec. 24, Christmas Eve.

A few days later, a contingent of enumerators went to St. Croix, where they were housed at Government House, Christiansted.

Taken from Protestant Cay, this photo shows Christiansted as it looked in 1917. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

It was not exclusively a door-to-door count. Rather, the bureau relied on those it considered responsible individuals to make third-party reports in some instances.

“To the assistance rendered by the estate owners is due in a great measure the rapid and successful enumeration of St. Croix,” the report states.

The naval government had laid the groundwork for the census, reaching out not only to estate owners but also to school superintendents and the “quarter officers” of several districts for help. Because of the Christmas holidays, many school teachers were available to serve as enumerators too.

Fieldwork concluded on Jan. 12, and the census commission members left for New York two days later.

(Part II: The new territory by the numbers: population counts in 1917.)

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