Although the transfer of the Caribbean Islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas and St. John from Denmark to the United States occurred on March 31, 1917, the process had begun over 50 years earlier, in 1865.
During the American Civil War, Great Britain, France, and other maritime powers supported the Confederacy by closing their West Indian ports to Union shipping. Denmark, however, sympathized with the Union cause and provided the Union Navy access to the coaling and supply station on St. Thomas. They also prohibited the hoisting of the Confederate ensign in any Danish Port.
The unfriendly actions of the British Government led President Lincoln to seek means of decreasing the Unites States' dependence on foreign governments for naval repairs and supplies during war. Vice Admiral David Porter advised President Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, of the strategic value of the Danish West Indies. The first negotiations with Denmark for purchase of the islands began on January 7, 1865. The negotiations were conducted by Secretary Seward with the full support of President Lincoln. Negotiations were stalled when President Lincoln was assassinated, and the United States was in turmoil.
After Andrew Johnson became president, Secretary Seward was able to restart the purchase discussions with Denmark. On July 17, 1866, Seward proposed to Denmark that the US purchase the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John for a price of five million dollars, in gold. The Danish Government rejected this proposal with two counter options: to cede all three islands to the United States for fifteen million dollars, or to cede just St. Thomas and St. John, with the consent of the people, for ten million dollars.
Over the following year, negotiations went back and forth between the two countries. At one point, Denmark revealed that the sale of St. Croix would have to be approved by the French Government. When Denmark purchased St. Croix from France in 1733, there was a condition in that sale agreement that, should Denmark choose to sell St. Croix, they must give France an option to purchase back the island before selling to any other nation. Based on this information, the United States elected to purchase only St. Thomas and St. John for seven million five hundred thousand dollars. A treaty was signed by both nations on October 24, 1867. The treaty, however, required ratification by the Congress of the United States, the People of St. Thomas and St. John, and both houses of the Rigsdag, the Danish Parliament. Plebiscites were held on January 9, 1868 on St. Thomas, and on January 10 on St. John. St. Thomas voted 1,039 in favor of the transfer and 22 against. On St. John the vote was 205 in favor and none opposed. Encouraged by the result of the plebiscite vote, the lower house of the Rigsdag, the Folkdthing, approved the treaty on January 28, 1868, and the upper House, the Landsthing, approved the treaty on January 30, 1868. The treaty was signed by King Christian IX of Denmark on January 31, 1868.
Unfortunately, things were not going as well in the United States. The House of Representatives voted against ratifying the treaty on November 25, 1867. Three epidemics had struck St. Thomas between November, 1866 and January, 1867. Hundreds of people died from yellow fever, smallpox, and cholera. Before the islands had recovered from the epidemics, they were hit by a Category 3 hurricane on October 29, 1867. Then, less than a month later, on November 18, 1867, a 7.5 earthquake struck the islands. To put this earthquake in perspective, the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 is estimated to have been 7.8. The West Indian earthquake caused extensive damage throughout the area. It also led to a tsunami, which along with other damage, washed the USS Monongahela onto shore in Frederiksted.
The reconstruction effort required on St. Thomas after these events bode ill for ratification of the treaty. The United States Congress was having second thoughts. Moreover, President Johnson was facing impeachment proceedings, which nullified any attempt he made to push ratification of the treaty forward. When the impeachment proceedings concluded, President Johnson was acquitted of all charges, however his term as President was at an end by this time, and his party chose not to nominate him to run for a second term. The Republican Party won the election with President Ulysses S. Grant. The political rivalry between the parties was so fierce, that the treaty with Denmark was shelved indefinitely, never to be voted on by the U.S. Senate.
Although several attempts were made to reopen negotiations, it was not until 1900, under President McKinley and Secretary of State John Hay, that serious discussions were begun again. A new treaty was signed in Washington on January 24, 1902, for a price of five million dollars for all three islands. The American Senate ratified this treaty on February 19, 1902, during President Theodore Roosevelt's administration. Unfortunately, the Landsthing voted against ratification on October 22, 1902. There was still some resentment in Denmark regarding the failed 1867 treaty.
It was World War I that finally led to the successful transfer of the Danish West Indies to the United States. Economic conditions in the islands were dire due to the war, and the islands had become a financial drain on the Danish Government. Moreover, the German submarine campaign in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans was causing serious concern regarding the protection of the Panama Canal. The United States had to prevent the islands from falling into German hands. Such an event would cripple the American defense.
Secretary of State Robert Lansing met with Danish Minister Constatine Brun to sign a treaty agreeing to the purchase of the Danish West Indies on March 4, 1916. The treaty was ratified by both Governments and ratifications of the treaty were formally exchanged in Washington, D.C. on January 17, 1917. On January 25th, President Woodrow Wilson issued a proclamation setting forth the treaty and all its implications for the American people. The Danish authorities published His Majesty's (King Christian X) Proclamation on March 9, 1917.
On March 31, 1917 the transfer was consummated in Washington, D.C. A warrant for twenty five million dollars was presented to Danish Minister Constatine Brun by Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. The Secretary of the Treasury, William McAdoo had brought the warrant to the State Department and smilingly explained to the Danish Minister that he had brought the money in the form of a warrant because the actual gold coin would weigh nearly forty eight tons. As soon as the warrant had been given to the Danish Minister, Commander Pollock of the USS Hancock at St. Thomas was notified via cable and radio that the monies had been paid and was instructed to receive the islands in the name of the United States. At the same time a dispatch was sent to Governor Konow in St. Thomas that all conditions for the definite transfer of the islands had been fulfilled. It took less than twenty minutes to send these messages through.
According to the records, transfer ceremonies occurred on St. Thomas and St. Croix simultaneously at 4:00 in the afternoon on March 31, 1917.
In St. Thomas, the representative for the United States was Commander Edwin T. Pollock of the USS Hancock. The representative for Denmark was then-Governor Henri Konow. A Danish guard of honor from the cruiser Valkyrien drew up in front of the barracks of Christiansfort with their back to the building. The American guard of honor drew up opposite facing the Danish guard. When Commander Pollock left the Hancock, a fifteen gun salute was fired from the Cruiser Valkyrien which was flying the US flag from her foremast. The same salute was fired from the fort on the landing of Commander Pollock. After Governor Konow and Commander Pollock had signed the transfer documents, each returned to their respective honor guards. Governor Konow proclaimed the islands transferred to the United States of America, the honor guards presented arms, and the Danish flag, the Dannebrog, was lowered while the Danish Royal Anthem was played by the band from the Valkyrien. A salute of twenty-one guns was fired from the fort and the three warships in the harbor. The honor guards then changed places and Commander Pollock proclaimed the islands taken into possession by the United States of America. Again the honor guards presented arms, and the American Flag was raised while the band from the USS Olympia played "Hail Columbia," and the twenty one gun salute was repeated.
On St. Croix, ceremonies were performed in Christiansted and Frederiksted. In Christiansted, at 3:30PM, a Half company of Danish Gendarmes, under the command of Captain F. N. C. Fuglede, marched from their barracks on Hospital Street and lined up on the wharf facing the Fort. A short time later, the Marines commanded by First Lieutenant Edward A. Willing, marched up to face the Gendarmes. Each group saluted the other by presenting arms. The Danish Captain and the American Lieutenant greeted each other with drawn swords. A few minutes before four, the Government Secretary, Will Jacobsen, Police Master Andresen, and the Colonial Council of St. Croix arrived as a group. At the first of four strokes from the Steeple clock, the Governor Secretary read the following Royal Act:
By Order of His Majesty the King of Denmark, Commodore Konow, Governor ad-interim of the Danish West Indies, delivers at this moment these islands to the representatives of the United States of America. In conformity with the act the Danish Flag is now taken down from all public buildings.
Captain Fuglede gave the command to present arms and then lower the Dannebrog. As the Danish flag was slowly lowered, the Christiansted Industrial Band played the Danish Royal Anthem. The Danish Gendarmes and American Marines shouldered arms and changed places. With the American detachment now facing the fort, Lieutenant Willing then ordered the Stars and Stripes to be raised. Arms were presented again, and while the band played "Hail Columbia," the American flag was raised.
In Frederiksted, the USS Olympia under command of Captain Bion B. Bierer arrived around noon. Since the Vessel could not pass the sandbar in Christiansted harbor, due to her large draught, a detachment of marines were sent to Christiansted via automobiles. As the steeple struck four, the Police Master in the presence of a detachment of Danish Gendarmes and American Marines read aloud the Royal Proclamation. The Lutheran Minister John Faber then conducted a prayer for the old flag. He gave thanks to God for what good had been accomplished under the Dannebrog during the centuries it had waved over the islands. He prayed that shortcomings and mistakes that had made under the flag be forgotten, and that God in the coming days bless the Danish King, and the Danish nation under the Dannebrog, and also that God in the future would bestow his blessings upon these islands and the population under the new flag. A twenty one gun salute was fired, the Dannebrog was lowered, and the Stars and Stripes hoisted under the salute of another twenty one guns.
An era had ended. A new day had dawned. Paster Faber's prayer ninety years ago is still appropriate today. Let us remember the efforts to colonize and develop the Virgin Islands that the great nation of Denmark supported by bringing courageous, diligent people to the islands and providing financial incentives. Let us forgive the grievous misuse of the African people, moved here against their will, and let us look forward to working together as one people to forge the future of these Virgin Islands.