This is the second article in a series based on data contained in the 1917 Census of the U.S. Virgin Islands, describing the territory as it was when it came under U.S. control.
By the time U.S. officials documented the population of the country’s newly acquired U.S. Virgin Islands territory, it had been declining for generations.
In 1835, while the islands were a colony of Denmark, the total number of residents was 43,178, according to official government records. St. Croix had the largest share, 26,681 people. St. Thomas had 14,022, and St. John 2,475.
In less than a century, the overall population dropped to just 26,051 – a decline of 39.7 percent.
That was a finding when the U.S. Census Bureau conducted a special census in 1917 at the time of the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States.
The census also revealed that the community was significantly mixed culturally and racially, in contrast to many areas at the time.
All three islands had lost population. Although St. Croix remained the island with the most people, it had suffered a 44.2 percent decline, from 26,681 to just 14,901. St. Thomas’ population dropped by 27.3 percent, from 14,022 to 10,191. And St. John, although it had been and remained the least populated, had actually seen the greatest percentage decline, 61.3 percent. Its numbers fell from 2,475 in 1835 to 959 in 1917.
The Census officials speculated the population decline was largely due to economic changes. With slavery abolished and with technical advances in agriculture, the plantation system was fast becoming obsolete. The sugar industry had suffered when island planters failed to take advantage of modern methods; beet sugar was competing with sugar cane; and the islands’ main market, the U.S., had introduced tariffs on sugar that it didn’t apply to its homegrown products.
Meanwhile, the islands also had lost out in commerce as their importance as a shipping hub began to wane. The invention of the steamboat had affected St. Thomas in particular, robbing it of the advantage the trade winds had provided in the era of travel by sail.
Although there may have been some years in which deaths outnumbered births, the Census officials concluded the primary reason for population decline was emigration that was driven by a desire for economic opportunity.
While the population had been decreasing, it had also been moving from the countryside to the city. In 1835, less than half the population – 44.5 percent – lived in the three cities, Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas and Christiansted and Frederiksted on St. Croix. By 1917, the population living in urban areas had risen to 59.4 percent.
The demographics on place of birth are particularly interesting in light of the populist “Born here” movement of recent decades that suggests a special value for V.I. nativity.
Nearly a fourth of the territory’s population in 1917 had actually come from elsewhere, according to the census figures.
The emigration came primarily from other Caribbean islands.
Residents who had been born in what was now the U.S. Virgin Islands comprised 76.2 percent of the total population.
The British West Indies – Anegada, Anguilla, Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Dominica, Grenada, Jamaica, Jost Van Dyke, Montserrat, Nevis, St. Christopher (St. Kitts), St. Lucia, St. Vincent, Tobago, Tortola, Trinidad, and Virgin Gorda – were the birthplace for another 16.4 percent of the V.I. population.
Other West Indies countries were responsible for another 3.1 percent of the population. The largest contributors in this category were St. Barthélemy (St. Barths), Puerto Rico, St. Eustatius, and St. Martin.
People born in the U.S. were 2.3 percent of the population. The rest of the population, roughly 2 percent of it, were born in “other places,” including Denmark and Central and South America.
Concerning race, the Census offered four categories: White, Negro, Mixed, and Other.
That was one more option than people in U.S. states were offered at that time. It wasn’t until 2000 that the U.S. Census Bureau introduced the category “two or more races” for people self-identifying their race.
In 1917, the V.I. population was 74.9 percent Black (or Negro, on the Census). Another 17.5 percent of the population was of “Mixed” race. And 7.4 percent were White. Just 43 people (0.2 percent of the total population) were classified as “Other.”
Proportions varied by island. On St. Croix, 82.1 percent of people were identified as Black, 13.5 percent as Mixed, and 4.2 percent as White.
On St. Thomas, the percentages were: 64.7 percent Black, 12.7 percent White, and 22.4 percent Mixed. “Two small marine camps” and “a large settlement of white fishermen” accounted for the higher percentage of Whites on the island, the census report stated. References in other parts of the report make it clear the “settlement” was Honduras, or “Frenchtown,” where people of French descent, primarily from St. Barthélemy, had established a community that survives today, somewhat modified.
St. John’s small population means its percentages did not significantly impact the overall breakdown. According to the census, 690 St. John residents were classified as Black, or 71.9 percent of the total, and just four percent as White. The island registered the highest percentage of individuals classified as “Mixed” – 27.5 percent of the total island population, or 264 people.
It’s impossible to make direct comparisons concerning the “Mixed” population figures with stateside jurisdictions since the bureau did not list that category for states.
But the mere inclusion of the category for the Virgin Islands suggests Census officials considered it significant in the territory. And their report suggests the total count of 4,563, or 17.5 percent, is likely an undercount. Some people may have opted to identify as one or the other race of their mixed heritage. And, in cases where a third party, such as an employer responded on behalf of an individual, this was even more likely.
The “Other” races category contained just 43 people: 15 Chinese, 7 Filipinos, 8 Indians, 8 “Coolies,” 2 Hindus, 1 Burmese, and 2 “not specified.”
Age and Gender
In 1917, females outnumbered males in the V.I., 14,052 to 11,999. Emigration of male workers might account for some of the disparity, the Census officials said, but it also appeared that women were healthier and lived longer than men, on average, because the difference between the genders increased after age 65.
Census officials offered a caveat concerning the statistics involving population ages. In some cases, they said, third-party reporters may have guessed at individuals’ ages. Then, too, some residents didn’t know their own birthdates and, with an illiteracy rate approaching 25 percent, records were not always available.
That said, looking at the percentage of the population listed in each age grouping, they determined the median age of people in the islands in 1917 as 25.9 years of age. That means half the population was older than 25.9 years and half younger.
(Next: Stats on housing, employment, marriage, etc., provide a glimpse at everyday life.)