The Danish West Indies

The Danish West Indies consisted of the Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix. The Colony was sold to the United States in 1917, since which time the three islands have been known as the United States Virgin Islands. Most of the historical records of the islands for the pre-1917 period are located in the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen.

History of the Danish West Indies

The three small Caribbean islands of St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix - currently known as the United States Virgin Islands - were a Danish Colony for over two hundred years. The Danes settled on St. Thomas around 1670, on St. John in 1718, and on St. Croix in 1733.

After a rather difficult period of settlement the Colony bloomed economically from c. 1750 to c. 1850. At that time the free port of St. Thomas was the commercial and shipping centre of the Caribbean; while St. Croix was characterised by sugar plantations cultivated by Negro slaves, until their emancipation in 1848.

After the appearance of steamships and improved means of long-distance communications around - circa 1850 - the Danish West Indies turned into a financial loss. During the First World War the islands were sold to the United States; the transfer took place on 31 March 1917.

Records

Most of the records relating to the history of the Colony during the Danish epoch were transferred to Copenhagen before and just after 1917. Some of the records dated prior to 1917 were, however, left by the Danes and have subsequently been moved to the National Archives in Washington DC, with just a few pre-1917 records remaining on the islands (cf. below).

Today, the Danish National Archives in Copenhagen have well over 1,500 metres of archival material relating to the Danish West Indies from 1671-1917. These records are separated according to origin, into what are known as "West Indian Local Archives", "Revised West India Accounts", and "Other West Indian records".

The Danish National Archives

Most of the records are written in the Danish language and in the old Gothic (German) style.

Online course in reading the Gothic style of handwriting (in Danish)

Finding Aids

Before you start researching the vast amount of archival material it is important to familiarise yourself with the literature available on Danish West Indian history. A comprehensive bibliographical essay can be found in:

  • Erik Goebel, A Guide to Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies (U. S. Virgin Islands), 1671-1917, Odense: University Press of Southern Denmark, 2002.

The contents of the Guide are available online, and it is also possible to order the book over the internet.

Virgin Islands history

The website, which is entirely in English, contains an exhibition of interesting documents relating to the history of the Danish West Indies, as well as general surveys of records and detailed archival catalogues (cf. below).

West Indian Local Archives

The West Indian Local Archives were created by Danish government officials and public authorities in the Danish West Indies. They include such archives as those generated by the West Indian Government, the West Indian Superior Court, the St. Thomas Harbour Master, the St. John Sheriff, and the Christiansted Post Master. The Local Archives mainly consist of material from the period 1755-1917 and cover 810 metres of space.

The West Indian Local Archives are separated into records from general Danish West Indian authorities, from offices on St. Thomas, on St. John, and on St. Croix. The archives are subdivided into 58 groups, according to the offices that created the records. The most comprehensive of the 58 groups are those of the West Indian Government, the Governments on St. Thomas and St. Croix, and the Sheriffs' offices.

A detailed catalogue of the Local Archives is to be found online at Virgin Islands history. Please note that when ordering records you must identify the appropriate office, the nature of the material, the dates encompassed, and the archival identification number. Here is an example: West Indian Local Archives, West Indian Government, Registers of proceedings, 1771-1825, (i.e. box 3.1.2).

Revised West Indian Accounts

A voluminous record group is made up of the many accounts sent from offices in the West Indies to Copenhagen for auditing, since 1755. These constitute 150 metres and are divided into 164 different series of accounts.

Some of the most frequently used accounts are the Land Registers of St. Thomas and St. John, 1755-1915 (119 vols.), and the Land Registers of St. Croix, 1758-1915 (142 vols.). Detailed catalogues of the revised accounts are to be found at Virgin Islands history. The correct manner of referring to the accounts is, for example: Revised West Indian Accounts, St. Croix Main Ledgers, 1758, (i.e. vol. 63.5.4).

Other West Indian Records

Quite a lot of the West Indian archival material in the Danish National Archives stems from those branches of the Central Administration in Copenhagen that dealt with the Danish West Indies. Altogether, such records cover a space of at least 500 metres.

West India and Guinea Company

From 1671 to 1754, the West India and Guinea Company was responsible for Central Administration of the Colony. The archives preserved from the Company include 957 boxes and bound volumes.

The archives are organised in seven sections:

  • The Company's Copenhagen archives
  • Archives sent home from St. Thomas and St. John
  • Archives sent home from St. Croix
  • Accounts sent home from St. Thomas and St. John
  • Accounts sent home from St. Croix
  • Two groups of records from Guinea
A detailed catalogue of the Company's archives

The catalogue can also be found in the Guide on pages 163-253.

Chamber of Revenues

From 1754 to 1760 the Chamber of Revenues took over Administration. The preserved archives of the Chamber's West India and Guinea Office total 71 boxes and volumes. These are composed of Royal Resolutions, copybooks, journals with journal files, incoming letters, and miscellaneous subject files.

A detailed catalogue of the Office's archives

The catalogue can also be found in the Guide on pages 254-258.

Chamber of Customs

From 1760 to 1848, the Chamber of Customs was in charge of the Colony. Its preserved specific West Indian and Guinean files totalling 1,080 boxes and volumes, in addition to a substantial amount of records in the general record series of the Chamber.

The West Indian and Guinean files consist of the usual kinds of records mentioned above.

These archives are divided into five sections:

  • 1760-1771
  • 1771-1816
  • 1816-184
  • Miscellaneous
  • The Colonial Auditing Office
A detailed catalogue of the files

The catalogue can also be found in the Guide on pages 259-294.

Central Directorate of the Colonies

From 1848 to 1917, the Central Directorate for the Colonies administered the Danish West Indies.

Its archives consist of 1,097 items divided into six sections:

  • Royal Representations
  • Copybooks, journals
  • Journal files
  • Thematically sorted files
  • Accounting files
  • A few Guinean and East Indian files
A detailed catalogue of the Central Directorate's archives

The catalogue can also be found in the Guide on pages 295-331.

Other archives

In addition to the four most important institutions mentioned above, many other offices in Denmark created records relating to the Danish West Indies. Thus, until 1848, the Danish Chancellery's archives included copybooks with copies of outgoing letters sent to the Colony, including Legislative Acts and Executive Orders, appointments, etc., especially with regard to ecclesiastical and educational matters.

The archives of the West Indian Debt Liquidation Directorate, 1786-1816; the Directorate for the National Debt and Sinking Fund, 1816-1848; and the State Assets Administration, 1848-1917; contain much information about plantations in the three islands.

A small archive is preserved from the Danish West Indies National Bank, 1904-1934, just as from the West India Trading Company, 1778-1824, and the West India Warehouse Manager, 1847-1917. In addition to the Revised West Indian Accounts, some other accounts have also been preserved, as have records from the Colonial Accounting Office, 1848-1871, and the Ministry of Finance's Supervisor of the Danish Colonial Lottery, 1904-1933. Among the records from the Statistics Bureau, 1850-1913, are 69 boxes containing the original forms from all twelve censuses taken between 1835 and 1911.

Private archives

In addition to these - and several other - public archives, the Danish National Archives maintain a large collection of private archives left by individuals or institutions. Some of these archives are of relevance to the Danish West Indies and constitute a valuable supplement to the official records. Among the more comprehensive and important ones are: the private archives of Ernst Schimmelmann (b. 1747, d. 1831), who was a Government Minister, landowner, and planter; and that of Olaf Rübner-Petersen (b. 1862, d. 1919), who was Director of Education on St. Croix.

Maps and drawings

Due to their large formats, most maps and drawings have been kept separate. The largest group relating to the West Indies is to be found in the Maps and Drawings Collection, Group 25, Items 337,1-337,634. These c:300 West Indian items are varied, but most of them are architectural drawings and geographical maps. It must be kept in mind that a good number of maps and drawings are also to be found outside the Maps and Drawings Collection.

A detailed presentation of the West Indian holdings in the Danish National Archives can be found in the guidebook or at Virgin Islands history mentioned above.

Records in other Danish institutions

Even though most of the relevant records are located in the Danish National Archives, some are to be found in other institutions.

  • The Danish National Business Archives in Aarhus, among a few other archives, hold material from the Danish West Indian Plantation Company, 1903-1927, the St. Croix Sugar Factory, 1872-1929, and the West India Company, 1902-1983.
  • The Royal Library holds the largest collection of printed material relating to the Danish West Indies, i.e. Danish and foreign books, periodicals, leaflets, maps, and nautical charts. The Manuscript Department, the Map Collection, and the Picture Collection all contain a considerable amount of material regarding the Danish West Indies.

Records in National Archives, Washington DC

The records of the Government of the Virgin Islands, 1672-1917, are to be found in Record Group 55, which comprises Administrative, Legislative, Judicial, Police and Military Records similar to those found in the West Indian Local Archives at the Danish National Archives (cf. above).

An inventory of Record Group 55

Records in the United States Virgin Islands

The archival material comprises, first and foremost, land records, 1754-1917. Most of the records are kept in the Enid M. Baa Library on St. Thomas, and in the Florence M. Williams Library on St. Croix.

Genealogical records online

Some records are available online, see for instance http://www.ddd.dda.dk/soeg_stcroix.html and http://stx.visharoots.org/ and http://www.vifamilies.org/home.html.

Films and other copies

A few West Indian records have been microfilmed. This holds true for large parts of the archives of the West India and Guinea Company and the Chamber of Customs, as well as for all the censuses.

Some of the Revised Accounts, e.g. the Land Registers, have also been filmed. In addition, it should be noted that the West Indian section of the Maps and Drawings Collection has been photographed.

Copies of films and photographs can be ordered at reasonable prices. You can also order copies of original archival material.

Services

There is self-service photocopy machine and reader/printer equipment available in the Reading Room.