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Virgin Islands Facts

Updated on April 7, 2014
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Virgin Islands are a group of some 100 small islands lying between the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean east of Puerto Rico. They are divided into the United States Virgin Islands (the former Danish West Indies) and the British Virgin Islands.

Christopher Columbus, noting the great number of islands when he discovered them in 1493, named them after Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who shared her legendary voyage. During the next century the Spaniards killed or drove out the native Arawak and Carib Indians. The first permanent European colonies were founded by the Danes and the English in the 17th century. At that time Africans were brought in to work on the European plantations, and today the overwhelming majority of Virgin Islanders are of African descent.

The United States Virgin Islands

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The western Virgin Islands are an unincorporated territory of the United States. They were purchased from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. The territory comprises 68 islands covering 132 square miles (342 sq km). Of the three main islands, St. Thomas is closest to Puerto Rico, which lies 40 miles (65 km) to the west. St. John is 3 miles (5 km) east of St. Thomas, and St. Croix is 40 miles to the south.

The territory had a population of 106,405 in 2010, according to the U.S. census. The capital is Charlotte Amalie (2010 population, 10,354), on St. Thomas. The only other major towns are Christiansted (2,433) and Frederiksted (859), both on St. Croix.

Physical Features

The land consists of a dramatic procession of craggy mountaintops rising from an underwater shelf. On St. Thomas the mountains reach 1,556 feet (474 meters); on St. John, 1,277 feet (389 meters); and on St. Croix, 1,165 feet (355 meters).

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The climate is one of the islands' chief assets, with a temperature that averages about 78° F (26° C). Humidity and pollen count are low. Annual rainfall averages about 40 inches (1,000 mm), but it may vary considerably, and most of it runs off. The first half of the year is slightly drier than the last.

The lack of rivers and streams and the mountainous terrain make extensive cultivation difficult, but some 1,220 plants have been cataloged on St. Thomas alone. Large wildlife is scarce, except for a few deer and wild boar. The mongoose was successfully introduced to kill off the snakes. Lizards, iguanas, and land crabs abound. There are more than 220 species of birds, including wild parakeets, doves, egrets, pelicans, tropical species, and boobies, whose eggs are a great delicacy. The surrounding seas contain some of the most beautiful underwater scenery in the world, with many varieties of coral, sponge, and brightly colored fish. Some 650 varieties of shells are found.

Virgin Islands National Park, dedicated in 1956, encompasses about two-thirds of St. John and extensive offshore areas. The park conserves the island's natural beauty and wildlife, underwater marine gardens, and historical objects including stone writings of the aboriginal inhabitants and the ruins of old forts and sugar plantations. The island's facilities for tourists range from a luxury resort to guest houses and national park camping accommodations. St. John lies about 3 miles (5 km) east of St. Thomas and is nearest to the British Virgin Islands.

St. Thomas, like St. John, is mountainous with a narrow coastline and steep, terraced hills leading up to the central ridge. The town of Charlotte Amalie has an excellent natural harbor and contains a number of tourist facilities. On the east side of the island, Magens Bay has one of the finest beaches in the Caribbean.

St. Croix is the flattest of the islands, but has mountains in the east and north. The north shore is bordered by coral reefs and numerous bays. The island has a variety of tourist accommodations. Buck Island Reef National Monument, northeast of St. Croix, is noted for its reefs, tropical fish, and underwater trail for snorkeling.

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