Post-Plantation and Pre-Tourism: Life and Work on St. John in the early 20th Century

After the collapse of the plantation system, a new era on St. John emerged, often described as a “broad-based provisioning economy.” It included a diversified agricultural economy, subsistence farming, craft industries, small-scale forest industry, and cattle estates. Although only a few people owned most of the land and hired others to work for them, the emerging communities acquired small lots purchased, transferred, or gifted from the plantations. They cultivated gardens and farmed. They crafted and manned sailing vessels, became skilled fishers and maritime traders, made charcoal, participated in the bay rum industry, and made baskets, mats, and chairs. There was a strong exchange network on St. John, including gift giving and work clubs for farming and charcoal burning. Although money was used (especially when on St. Thomas or Tortola), giving goods and labor through exchange was considered more important and essential to being St. Johnian. This system continued through the transfer of the islands from Denmark to the United States in 1917 and lasted to varying degrees until the island’s transition to a tourism economy and increased government employment in the 1940s, and the opening of the National Park and Caneel Bay in the 1956.

Photo of Charcoal making in Danish West Indies

A look at the 1917 Census of the U.S. Virgin Islands and the 1930 U.S. Census provides insight into life and work on St. John in the early 20th Century. However, we must be careful. For example, the census provides space for only one occupation. This is should be read more as the primary occupation. For example, men who worked on farms or fished also burned coal, and many people could make baskets. Moreover, all St. Johnians worked to maintain the household – tending provision grounds, cutting bush, gathering fruits and lobsters, raising chickens, cooking and baking, washing clothes, burning coal for home use, and so on. Also women and children are usually listed without an occupation but worked both inside and outside the home. Keeping these cautions in mind, we can glean a basic understanding of living and working on St. John.

In 1917, there were 959 people on St. John. The island had recently become part of the United States and experienced a devastating hurricane. Over seventy percent of the population lived on the eastern half of St. John. Most were born on island or nearby islands with 3.5% born elsewhere. Occupations were listed for 452 people.

Over half of all working men were laborers on agricultural and cattle farms. Only a few men were farmers, managers, or overseers. Even those with other primary occupations worked on farms when work was available (e.g. some of the 48 coal burners – 28 men, 20 women – living on Bordeaux). The bay rum industry was also booming on St. John. Although the census does not list anyone specifically working as bay rum pickers or manufacturers, we know from numerous sources that people worked when leaves were ready to be picked. Men also worked at sea. Forty-four men listed sailor or seaman as their occupation, the majority in East End and Coral Bay. Of the 30 fishermen most lived in Cruz Bay quarter and on Lovango Cay. Other men worked as carpenters (most at the East End shipyard), masons, police officers, a pastor, a tailor, a physician, a saddler, a school monitor, and a cigar maker. The average male worker was 34. 5 years old. Fishermen were a bit younger (29.3) and coal burners a bit older (36.8).

Most adult women were married and worked as housewives, a rigorous and time consuming daily domestic occupation. Some of these 109 wives listed additional occupations. For example, eight of nine wives in Bordeaux listed coal burner. Other women listed farm laborer, seamstress, and laundress. Sixty-five adult women were heads of their own households. Most were single or widowed and held jobs, many as laborers outside of the home.

Both young men and women worked as “servants. ” Twenty-nine youngsters most under 21 lived with and worked for a family. A few were relatives but most were not. Seven were immigrants to the island, two worked for a pastor, one for the physician, one for a police officer, two for older persons, and a few for large families — all households that likely required additional help.

By 1930 the population dropped to 765. Most residents still lived on the eastern part of the island – just fewer. As opportunities increased off-island and in the United States, many were lured away from St. John. Six-percent of the population was born outside the U.S. or British Virgin Islands. Occupations were listed for 386 people.

Cattle (stock) farming had exploded on the island, reaching its peak in 1930 with 1583 heads on 14 large farms. Most cattle were in Maho Quarter and Carolina. Forty-seven men worked on cattle farms and fifty-seven on non-cattle farms. Maritime work was still a foundation on St. John with 35 men listed as sailors and 31 as fishermen. Some men provided transportation boat services, especially on East End. There was a noticeable decline in men listed as carpenters. Other men worked as basket makers, cooks, servants, police officers, a basket teacher, an artist, government dispatcher, fish club caretaker, and a beekeeper (from Cuba).

Women’s work remained similar with most women listed as housewives or laundresses. Thirteen were servants, eight public school teachers and six basket makers. A few women cooked and five worked on farms. One woman was a farm manager and another was listed as a farmer. Fifty-five women headed households.

Although only eight persons (6 men, 2 women) on the census are listed as charcoal laborers, we know from other sources that coal burning continued in force. These workers may have been listed as general farm laborers or it went unmarked because it was part of household work. Working as a bay leaf picker, however, was not nearly as common because oil output had dropped in part as a result of hurricane damage to trees. A new form of work came with the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps in the mid 1930s. CCC projects employed young men in tree planting, building and repairing roads, digging drainage facilities, combating soil erosion, and helping eradicate animal ticks.

This was the way of life on St. John until the transition days of the 1940s and 1950s. Life on St. John would never be the same again.

(This short article draws upon the works of Earl Shaw, Karen Fog Olwig, George Tyson, Bernard Kemp, Guy Benjamin, and Doug Armstrong. All census calculations are mine. Crystal Fortwangler is a member of the SJHS, was a part-time St. John resident for six years and is Ph. D candidate at the University of Michigan. Her dissertation research focuses upon protected area politics and relationships on St. John. )

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Article Post-Plantation and Pre-Tourism: Life and Work on St. John in the Early 20th Century Fortwangler, Crystal
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Article A Week on St. John (Notes from Denmark’s most beautiful island) Linck, Olaf
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thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/St John Scenes/Thumbnails/500211.jpg Overview of Estate Carolina, 1919
Creator: Tyge Hvass
Owner: Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/St John Scenes/Thumbnails/500210.jpg Bay Rum Factory in Coral Bay, 1919
Creator: Tyge Hvass
Owner: Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark
thumbnail for Galleries/Photographs/Postcards/Thumbnails/EastEndPicnic.jpg Pic-nicking among the Danish West Indies – at the East End of St. Jan
Creator: J. Lightbourn
Owner: Private collection
Post Card
thumbnail for Galleries/Presentations/Enduring Eloquence/Thumbnails/Slide15.jpg A view of the “Negro-houses” o the Plantation Carolina in St. John
Creator: Christian G. A. Oldendorp
engraving print
thumbnail for Galleries/Presentations/Enduring Eloquence/Thumbnails/Slide21.jpg The Carolina Plantation and Coral Harbor
Creator: Fredrick von Scholten

Crystal Fortwangler

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