Thursday, September 29, 2011

Tales from the Road: St. John, USVI

The discovery of St. John is the same as that of St. Thomas which is not all that surprising considering that they are right next to each other. Christopher Columbus is credited for discovering it in 1493 but the island had been visited and inhabited by indigenous peoples long before that, as evidenced by the petroplyphs found on the island. Early European settlers established sugar plantations worked mostly by African slaves. In the late 1600's the British and the Danes disputed over ownership of the island. On March 25, 1718 Danish planters from St. Thomas raised their flag over the first permanent settlement on the island at Estate Carolina in Coral Bay. The British continued to overtake the Danes on St. John until 1762 when they relinquished their claims to keep up good relations. Sugar, and also cotton, became the major industries with 109 plantations that covered almost the entire island. The adoption of a harsh slave code, the arrival of an elite group of African tribal rulers who preferred death to life as slaves, and a harsh summer of natural disasters lead to the Slave Revolt of 1733 when the island's slaves rose up and took control of the island. They held the island for seven months before the Danes enlisted the help of the French Marines to put down the revolt. The Danes built a prison, known as the Battery, in Cruz Bay intended to improve the treatment of slaves by making justice a government issue rather than leaving it to individual planters. They abolished slavery in 1848, prompted by a revolt on St. Croix. After this the main economy was mostly small scale subsistence farming, a hard life that cost the island much of its population. St. John was purchased along with St. Thomas to become part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. One of the things St. John is best known for is its large National Park which started as 5000 acres donated to the Federal Government by Laurence Rockefeller in 1956.

The Virgin Islands National Park includes 7200 acres of land and 5600 acres of underwater lands. It encompasses over half the island of St. John and almost all of Hassel Island. All together it is one of the most undisturbed and comprehensive Caribbean landscapes. There are several significant historical sites including archaeological sites that date as early as 840 BC. The large span of the park means that it covers a variety of ecosystems and forest types from dry to moist forests, salt ponds, beaches, mangroves, seagrass beds, coral reefs, and algal plains. Much of the vegetation on the island is second generation growth as the original vegetation was clear-cut to make way for sugar cane production. Some native species of tyre palm remain, but much of today's growth consists of introduced The animal species on St. John are abundant with 140 species of birds, 302 species of fish, 7 species of amphibians, 22 species of mammals, and many species of insects. The National Park's marine areas are also quite diverse with hundreds of species of fish and beautiful coral reefs  that are open to visitors.

Traveled up to Trunk Bay and the Underwater Snorkling Trail which is part of the Virgin Islands National Park.
Along the way was some beautiful scenery.
We would be driving along and then the trees would part to show beautiful views!
Most of the drive through the Park was surrounded by lush vegetation.
After a morning of snorkling, back in Cruz Bay we found the only ice cream place. Yum.
Part of Cruz Bay.
St. John as we leave on the ferry to St. Thomas.
Unfortunately all of my underwater pictures while snorkling Trunk Bay came out in a horrible blue-green washed color. Photoshop and I will be endeavoring to correct the color but the prospect looks dim. Bummer.

Some websites to find out more about the history of St. John:
St. John Historical Society
VInow's St. John History Page
The Beach's St. John History Page

And I really recommend looking around the National Park Service's Virgin Islands National Park website. It includes some great natural science information as well as links to other great websites, field guides, and animal and plant checklists.

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