Saint John island was first settled by the Taino Indians who migrated north from coastal areas of present-day Columbia and Venezuela around AD 300. The Arawak inhabited the island until around the year AD 1300, when they were driven off by the more aggressive and warlike Carib.
The modern era of the island of St. John got off to a bit of a rocky start. The British and Danish fought for control of the island for more than a century. Finally in 1718 Danish fought off the British, and a group of Danish plantation owners from St. Thomas established the first settlement in Coral Bay, a vast protected harbor on the eastern end of the island. They are also credited with naming the island Saint John (Danish: Sankt Jan).
Within a few years there were approximately 109 sugar cane plantations covering the majority of arable land on St. John. Although the hilly terrain of the island was not ideal for planting and harvesting, they managed, and began bringing in sales from Africa to assist. Like many of the Virgin Islands, eventually the number of slaves inhabiting St. John greatly outnumbered the number of settlers. This led to a major revolt against plantation owners in 1733. The revolt went on for seven months and left many slaves and settlers dead. The population dropped dramatically and the revolt festered until French and Swiss soldiers came to the aid of the Danish.
In response to the revolt, the Danish government erected a new courthouse and prison in hopes of improving the justice system and treatment of slaves. This building is now the only government building still standing today. Slavery was abolished in 1848, which led to another major decline in the population of St. John.
In 1917, the United States purchased the U.S. Virgin Islands for $25 million from the Danish government in order to establish a naval base. It was intended to prevent expansion of the German Empire into the Western Hemisphere.
In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller changed the course of the island's trajectory. The well-known billionaire conservationist donated a significant portion of his land holdings on St. John to the National Park Service transforming approximately 60% of the island's acreage into a protected national park. The very same year, Rockefeller opened Caneel Bay, a forward-thinking, eco-minded resort within the Virgin Islands National Park that focuses on sustainability and living in harmony with nature.
Much of St. John's coves, and shoreline and coral reefs have been protected by being included in the national park. This protection was expanded in 2001, when the Virgin Islands Corla Reef National Monument was created.
Today St. John's largest settlement is Cruz Bay with a population of 2,700. The economy of St. John is almost entirely dependent on tourism. The island has hundreds of rental villas as well as hotels and resorts. Numerous shops and restaurants serving both residents and tourists are located in Cruz Bay and Coral Bay.
The hurricane season of 2017 was not kind to the larger resorts on the island. The resorts of Caneel Bay and the Westin were closed for more than a year for repairs.
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