U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Other State Department Archive SitesU.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
U.S. Department of State
Home Issues & Press Travel & Business Countries Youth & Education Careers About State Video

Purchase of the United States Virgin Islands, 1917

Beginning in 1867, the United States made several attempts to expand its influence into the Caribbean by acquiring the Danish West Indies. However, due to a number of political difficulties in concluding and ratifying a treaty to govern this exchange, this collection of islands did not become a part of the United States until their formal transfer from Denmark on March 31, 1917. After the transfer, the United States Government changed the name of the islands to the Virgin Islands of the United States.

The Danish West Indies were controlled by several European powers before coming under Danish control in the late 1600s. The Danish West Indies were further enlarged by the 1733 purchase of the island of St. Croix from France, and an 1848 revolt led to the abolition of slavery in the colony. However, after the 1830s, the islands entered into a period of economic decline, and the Danish government found that the West Indies colony was becoming increasingly expensive to administrate.

In 1867, Secretary of State William Henry Seward attempted to acquire the Danish West Indies as part of his plan for peaceful territorial expansion. Seward successfully negotiated a treaty that was ratified by the Danish parliament and approved by a local, limited-suffrage plebiscite. The treaty also allowed islanders the choice to remain Danish subjects or become U.S. citizens. However, the U.S. Senate, angered over Seward's support of President Andrew Johnson during his impeachment trial, rejected the treaty.

John Hay, U.S. Secretary of State from 1898 to 1905, was also interested in acquiring the Danish West Indies, as part of his broader plans for American expansion and securing the route of the future Panama Canal. In 1900, the U.S. and Danish governments again entered into a treaty, which the Senate ratified in 1902. However, the upper house of the Danish parliament did not ratify this treaty, deadlocking in a tied vote. The 1902 treaty did not contain a plebiscite provision, nor did it accord U.S. citizenship to the islanders. The U.S. purchase of the Danish West Indies was thus delayed again.

In 1915, especially 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 Danish government thus required that any treaty transferring ownership of the islands to the United States would make provisions for a local plebiscite, U.S. citizenship for the islanders, and free trade. Lansing rejected these provisions claiming that these issues fell under the jurisdiction of Congress and thus could not be extended by treaty. Lansing also objected to a treaty provision that Danish citizens be guaranteed the legal rights that they currently enjoyed on the islands. Concerned about recent events and Danish recalcitrance, Lansing implied that if Denmark was unwilling to sell, the United States might occupy the islands to prevent their seizure by Germany.

Preferring peaceful transfer to occupation, the Danish government agreed to Lansing's demands, and Brun and Lansing signed a treaty in New York on August 4, 1916. The treaty was approved by the Danish Lower House on August 14, and subsequently passed by the Danish Upper House. The treaty was approved by a Danish plebiscite (though not a Virgin Islands plebiscite) on December 14. Subsequent re-approvals of the transfer were passed by both Danish houses, and then ratified by King Christian X of Denmark. The U.S. Senate ratified the treaty on September 6, and it was signed by Woodrow Wilson on January 16, 1917. Formal transfer of the islands occurred on March 31, 1917, along with a U.S. payment to Denmark of $25,000,000 in gold coin.

United States colonial policy distinguished between citizens and "nationals," or inhabitants of colonies to whom the rights of U.S. citizenship were not conferred. However, U.S. officials initially displayed inconsistency on that status until Acting Secretary of State Frank L. Polk wrote on March 9, 1920 that Virgin Islanders had "American nationality" but not the "political status of citizens." The U.S. Virgin Islands were administered by the U.S. Navy from 1917 to 1931. Full U.S. citizenship to all residents born in the U.S. Virgin Islands was extended in 1932 by an act of Congress, and a 1936 act accorded a greater measure of self-government, although the islands would not have an elected governor until 1970.


  Back to top

U.S. Department of State
USA.govU.S. Department of StateUpdates  |   Frequent Questions  |   Contact Us  |   Email this Page  |   Subject Index  |   Search
The Office of Electronic Information, Bureau of Public Affairs, manages this site as a portal for information from the U.S. State Department. External links to other Internet sites should not be construed as an endorsement of the views or privacy policies contained therein.
About state.gov  |   Privacy Notice  |   FOIA  |   Copyright Information  |   Other U.S. Government Information

Published by the U.S. Department of State Website at http://www.state.gov maintained by the Bureau of Public Affairs.