Old Census Preserves Historical Snapshot of U.S. Virgin Islands

This is the last 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.

The 1917 census of the U.S. Virgin Islands went well beyond a count of the population existing in the islands at the time they were transferred from Denmark to the United States. Through statistics and observations, the report offers a glimpse of daily life on the three main islands and draws some differences among them.

St. Croix was the “most productive” of the islands because of the sugar and related rum industry there, according to the census officials.

Yet they called St. Thomas the “most important” because of its welcoming harbor.

St. John was “the smallest and least important” of the three main islands, they found.

On St. Croix, the officials found roads in “good condition,” traversing the island. “The automobile is used extensively by the estate owners and others for business and for pleasure.”

In contrast, St. Thomas had only one viable road suitable for auto traffic, and that ran from Charlotte Amalie east and west to the ends of the island. Other roads, “such as they are,” had connected various of the estates on the island but had been allowed to deteriorate with the decline of agriculture. That decline had begun on St. Thomas “as early as 1733.”

As for St. John, “there are no roads on the island. Consequently, the only method of travel is on horseback over mountain trails,” the census states.

The report says very little about any of the small, outlying islands. It does mention that 20 people were living on Lovango at the time of the census, a lightkeeper was on Buck Island off of St. Thomas, and that Hassel and Water Islands near Charlotte Amalie and Protestant Cay by Christiansted “are also inhabited.”

Employment

While the plantation economy had been fading throughout the islands for generations, and the population was gradually shifting from rural to urban areas, agriculture was still dominant.

On St. Croix, 91.2 percent of the land (49,206 acres out of 53,920 acres) was devoted to crops and animal husbandry. Sugar was the primary crop, but there was also significant production of hay and fruits, and vegetables. The cattle industry was particularly vibrant.

Cattle graze at Estate Diamond on St. Croix, where animal husbandry was a large industry. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

On St. John, there were 26 active farms, representing about four-fifths of the total acreage. Cattle-raising was the chief industry. Sugar production had been drastically reduced from the colonial period, with just enough left to support a little rum distilling.

Many St. John residents got by raising small crops of potatoes, yams, okra, cucumber, tomatoes, peas, and pumpkins and supplemented this diet by fishing, the report said. Some earned a bit of cash with occasional labor on estates.

St. John had developed a reputation for its bay oil, extracted from the leaves of a bay tree found only on that island. And recently, “some effort also has been made to cultivate lime trees.”

Unfortunately, both of those fledging industries – as well as St. Croix’s most recent produce exports – had suffered because of a hurricane that hit the islands in 1916. The storm stripped the leaves from the bay trees, leaving St. John with only 125 gallons of bay oil to export in 1917, about a fourth of its usual volume.

In 1916, the island had marketed 1,000 gallons of fresh lime juice, 250 gallons of juice concentrate, and 18 casks of pickled limes. Then most of the trees were either badly damaged or completely destroyed, and “this industry was suspended.”

On St. Thomas, there were still 63 estates, comprising 59 percent of the total acreage, but agriculture was fading from the landscape.

Territorywide, agriculture and animal husbandry accounted for 41.7 percent of jobs. (For St. Croix alone, the figure was 59.5 percent.) Work in the sugar industry was seasonal, primarily in March-June.

Manufacturing and mechanical industries provided another 19.2 percent of the overall employment. And another 20 percent of jobs were in domestic and personal services.

Trade accounted for 6 percent, and transportation for 5.8 percent. The remaining jobs were divided among public service, professional services, and clerical services.

On St. Thomas, many women worked fueling visiting ships, carrying coal aboard in baskets balanced on their heads.

Many women on St. Thomas eked out a living hauling coal to visiting ships. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

About 100 people supported themselves by making charcoal, according to the census. While the job numbers were small, the industry was important. Charcoal was the universal fuel for the islands, essential for cooking.

Charcoal kilns were a familiar sight in the islands, where about 100 people earned their living making charcoal, and almost everyone relied on it for cooking. (U.S. Census Bureau photo)

In all, 68.8 percent of the territory’s population over the age of 10 was gainfully employed.

Education, Housing, and Families

According to the 1917 census, 24.9 percent of the territory’s population over the age of 10 were considered “illiterate.” By definition, that meant they could not write, regardless of whether they could read.

The illiteracy rate was higher in rural areas, 34.6 percent than in cities, 18.2 percent. By comparison, the illiteracy rate for the U.S. in the 1910 census was 7.7 percent.

About a fifth of the territory’s children aged 10 to 14 was not attending school. The attendance rate was 78 percent for girls and 78.1 percent for boys.

The census officials counted a total of 5,858 dwellings in the territory and 9,568 families. A family was defined as people residing in the same dwelling, regardless of whether they were related to one another.

By that definition, they calculated that the average number of people in a dwelling was 4.4, and the average family size was 2.7 people. But they offered a caveat: the numbers were skewed because it was common in the Virgin Islands for a single person to occupy a dwelling.

There were similar problems in calculating individuals’ marital status.

The 1910 national census, on which the special V.I. 1917 census was patterned, offered four options to describe marital status: Married, Single, Widowed, Divorced.

Those were modified for the territory to: Married, Single, Widowed/Divorced, and Consensually Married. Persons over the age of 15 were asked to identify their status.

It was clearly an attempt to allow for counting couples living together without having gone through a church or civil ceremony. But apparently, it only confused things.

Some people living with a partner ignored the “consensually married” category and identified themselves as “married,” some as “single,” and even some as “widowed/divorced,” according to the census officials.

Of the 10,269 women responding to the question, 24 percent identified as married, 15.3 percent as consensually married, and 12.1 percent as widowed/divorced.

Of the 8,461 men responding, 29.1 percent said they were married, 18 percent said they were consensually married, and 5 percent said they were widowed/divorced.

The only category in which the percentages matched was “single.” Responses for both men and women showed 47.9 percent of them identified as single.

Flora and Fauna

The 1917 census necessarily concentrated on people. But because it was also serving as an introduction to the newly acquired territory, it also contained some historical and geographical information.

For instance, it cites records from the period 1843 to 1851, during which the highest temperature was 91.9˚F and the lowest, 68.9˚F.

It says, “Nearly all of the original forests have been cut down, and the timber made into lumber and charcoal.” (Historians have also talked about the practice of clearing land for plantations and about cutting down trees to prevent slaves from turning them into canoes to facilitate escape.)

Whatever the causes, the result was evident in 1917. There was an attempt at reforestation by the Danish West India Plantation Company “a few years ago,” according to the census. The company planted more than 50,000 mahogany and cedar trees, principally on St. Croix.

The report says there is limited wildlife on the islands but mentions a species of deer that is plentiful on St. Croix and the mongoose, which was imported from India to exterminate rodents and which, it says, has resulted in “the wholesale destruction of poultry” and a scarcity of wild birds.

Much of the data in the report requires considerable historical context to make it meaningful. Wage amounts are ludicrously low compared with today’s dollar values, for instance. So are the incomes from various industries.

But the report does capture a slice of the territory’s heritage and describes how it appeared as it began what is now more than a century of association with the U.S.

Part 1

1917 Census Opens Window to Islands’ Past

Part 2

USVI Came to America a Diverse Community