FDuring the 17th century, the archipelago was divided into two territorial units, one English and the other Danish. Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In 1917, the US purchased the Danish portion, which had been in economic decline since the abolition of slavery in 1848.
The Virgin Islands were originally settled by the Ciboney, Carib, and Arawaks. The islands were named by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage in 1493 for Saint Ursula and her virgin followers. Over the next three hundred years, the islands were held by many European powers, including Spain, Britain, the Netherlands, France, the Knights of Malta, and Denmark.
The Danish West India Company settled on Saint Thomas in 1672, on Saint John in 1694, and purchased Saint Croix from France in 1733. The islands became royal Danish colonies in 1754, their name in Danish translating as Jomfruøerne. Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands' economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries, until the abolition of slavery by Governor Peter von Scholten on July 3, 1848.
For the remainder of the Danish time, the islands were not economically viable and significant transfers were made from the Danish state budgets to the authorities in the islands. An attempt to sell the islands to the United States was made early in the 20th century, but a deal proved elusive. A number of reforms in the hope of reviving the islands' economy were attempted, but none having great success. The onset of World War I brought the reforms to a close, and again left the islands isolated and exposed.
During the submarine warfare phases of the First World War, the United States, fearing that the islands might be seized by Germany as a submarine base, once again approached Denmark to sell the islands to the United States. After a few months of negotiations a selling sum of $25 million was agreed. The Danish Crown may have felt some pressure to accept the sale, thinking that the United States would seize the islands, if Denmark was invaded by Germany. However, at the same time the economics of continued possession weighed heavily on the minds of Danish decisionmakers, and a bipartisan consensus in favour of selling emerged in the Danish parliament. A subsequent referendum held in late 1916 confirmed the decision to sell by a wide margin. The deal was thus ratified and finalised on January 17, 1917, when the United States and Denmark exchanged their respective treaty ratifications. The U.S. took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917, when the territory was renamed the U.S. Virgin Islands.
U.S. citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927