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The Virgin Islands were named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage (1493) for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next three hundred years, the islands were held by Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, France, and Denmark-Norway.

The Danish West India Company settled on Saint Thomas in 1672, on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. During the 18th and 19th Centuries Sugarcane, produced by slave labour, drove the islands’ economy but following the abolition of slavery by Governor Peter von Scholten in 1848 the islands were not economically viable and became a drain on the Danish state budget.

For several decades the U.S. expressed an interest in taking over the islands but the Danes were concerned about the status and rights of the inhabitants and no agreement was reached.

 In 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, the issue of the U.S. purchase of the Danish West Indies again became an important issue in U.S. foreign policy. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and Secretary of State Robert Lansing feared that the German government might annex Denmark, in which case the Germans might also secure the Danish West Indies as a naval or submarine base from where they could launch additional attacks on shipping in the Caribbean and the Atlantic.

Lansing thus approached Constantin Brun; the Danish Minister to the United States, about the possible purchase of the Danish West Indies in October of 1915, but Brun rejected the proposal. Many Danes resisted U.S. acquisition of these islands as they expected that the unfortunate civil rights record of the U.S. in the early twentieth century would have disastrous consequences for the predominantly black population of the Danish West Indies.

The Danes required that any treaty transferring ownership of the islands to the United States must make provisions for a local plebiscite, U.S. citizenship for the islanders, and a free trade agreement. The U.S. refused and threatened to occupy the islands to prevent their seizure by Germany.

Preferring peaceful transfer to occupation, the Danish government gave in and so it was that the Lansing and Brun signed the treaty in New York on August 4th 1916. It was approved by the Danish parliament and people and the U.S. Senate with the formal transfer taking place on March 31, 1917, when the U.S. government paid Denmark $25,000,000 in gold coin.

The U.S. Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated United States territory. Even though they are U.S. citizens, Virgin Island residents cannot vote in presidential elections. Oddly though, Virgin Island residents are able to vote in presidential primary elections.

At the national level, the U.S. Virgin Islands elects a delegate to Congress from its at-large congressional district. However, the elected delegate, while able to vote in committee, cannot participate in floor votes.

Seems that the Danes were right to be concerned about the transfer. And you though America was a democracy!

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