Saint John is an island in the Caribbean Sea and a constituent district of the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), an unincorporated territory of the United States. It is renowned as the wealthiest and most expensive of the U.S. Virgin Islands, enjoying a level of affluence that is comparable with the nearby island of St. Barts. St. John is located about 4 miles east of Saint Thomas, the location of the territory's capital, Charlotte Amalie, and 4 miles south and west of Tortola, part of the British Virgin Islands. It is 50.8 km² (19.61 sq mi) in area and has a population of 4,197 (2000 census) Because there are no airports on St. John, the only access to the island is by boat. The ferry service runs hourly from St. Thomas and daily from Tortola; regular ferries also operate from Virgin Gorda, Jost Van Dyke and Anegada.
Christopher Columbus is credited with being the first European to see the Virgin Islands during his second voyage to the New World in 1493. He named the island group "Once Mil Virgenes", or Eleven Thousand Virgins, in honor of the feast day of Saint Ursula and the 11,000 virgins who were martyred with her.
The Danish West India and Guinea Company represented the first Europeans to settle the island in 1718. They are also credited with naming the island St. John (Danish: Sankt Jan). The Danish crown took full control of the colony in 1754, along with St. Thomas and St. Croix. Sugar plantations, such as the famous Annaberg Sugar Plantation, were established in great numbers on St. John because of the intense heat and fertile terrain, which provided ideal growing conditions. The establishment of sugar plantations also led to the importation of more slaves from Africa. St. John was the site of one of the first significant slave rebellions in the New World in 1733, when slaves took over the island for six months.
The Danish were able to defeat the enslaved Africans with help from the French in Martinique. Many Africans committed suicide by jumping off cliffs instead of returning to slavery, as they commonly believed that when they died they would return to Africa. It is estimated that by 1775, slaves outnumbered the Danish settlers by a ratio of 5:1. The indigenous Caribs and Arawaks were also used as slave labor, to the point of wiping out their entire population. Slavery was finally abolished in St. John on July 3, 1848.
In 1917 the United States of America bought the Virgin Islands from the Danish government in order to establish a naval base whose purpose was to prevent German expansion in the western hemisphere. The U.S. government paid $25 million for the three islands. They also agreed to recognize Denmark's claim to Greenland, which they had previously disputed.
Virgin Islanders are now U.S. citizens, although they cannot vote in U.S. presidential elections and have only non-voting status in Congress. The Virgin Islands are an organized, unincorporated territory of the US, and since 1972 have elected their own Governor. They enjoy a large degree of self-rule through a local 15-seat legislature that covers all three of the islands.
In 1956, Laurance Rockefeller donated most of the land he had acquired on the island to the United States' National Park Service, under the condition that it must be protected from future development. The remaining portion, the Caneel Bay Resort, continues to operate on a lease arrangement while the park owns the actual land. The Virgin Islands National Park borders encompass 75% of the island, but various in-holdings within the park boundary (eg. Peter Bay, Maho Bay) reduce the actual land the park owns to 60%. However, much of the island's waters, coral reefs and shoreline are protected via their inclusion in the park. This protection was expanded in 2001, when the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument was created.
St. John itself has no local government; however, the Governor appoints an administrator for the island. Having no official powers, this figure acts more as an advisor to the Governor and as a spokesperson for the Governor's policies.
Cruz Bay has become the principal town on the island since the ferry service from St. Thomas became the main route of entry to the island. Previously, Coral Bay was the hub of economic activity on the island, as its natural port offered protection to the sailing vessels of the day as well as an easy sail that involved minimal tacking to the nearby British Virgin Islands. In fact, until the late 20th century the residents of Coral Bay and East End had easier and more frequent access to Tortola than those of either Cruz Bay or St. Thomas.
According to the 2000 U.S. Census, St. John has a resident population of 4,157 people, most of whom live in either Cruz Bay or Coral Bay on the eastern end of the island. However, being merely a U.S. territory, its population is not included in the overall U.S. population count.
St. John is well known for its well-preserved natural beauty and attractive beaches. Restricted development and preservation in St. John contrasts heavily with such adjacent and overdeveloped islands as St. Thomas and St. Maarten. Tourists enjoy picturesque hills dotted with opulent villas of the wealthy and elite. Cruz Bay on the western coast of the island is St. John's principal port. From there, a ferry operates throughout the day to and from Charlotte Amalie and Red Hook in St. Thomas. It is also home to (among other things) car rental locations, several restaurants, a supermarket,and possibly a day charter of which the three main ones are Mongoose Junction, the Marketplace, and Wharfside Village. Coral Bay on the eastern side of the island is the other (smaller) town on St. John, and offers some of the same amenities.
Most of St. John is National Park land, so most of the island is undeveloped. Some of the most popular beaches in the Caribbean are located along the island's north shore. The most spectacular and well-known of these is Trunk Bay, which has consistently been voted one of the "Ten Best Beaches in The World" by Condé Nast Traveler magazine and has received similar recognition from other publications. Since the beaches are on National Park land, they are all open to the public and are free of hotels or resorts. A notable exception is the Caneel Bay resort on the north shore, which lies on Rockefeller’s former personal estate. The remaining coastal land, mostly in the north and in the east, is private property, and contains many secluded private villas and cottages. The National Park Service also offers two campgrounds on the island's beaches at Maho Bay and Cinnamon Bay. The reefs near St. John's beaches are also world-famous for their snorkeling. In some areas, such as Trunk Bay and nearby Cinnamon Bay, signs identifying various marine flora and fauna have been placed by the National Park Service among the many offshore coral reefs to assist visitors. There are also sailing charters available that tour the island, as well as tours around the British Virgin Islands. Boats are available at Gallows Point, Connections or The Guide Booth in Mongoose Junction.
The beaches on the South Side of St. John are considerably wilder and more remote. Some are only accessible by rough dirt roads.
Tourism starts late October and runs through June, when Carnival starts. The off-season is considered to be the hot summer months.