The Danish West Indian period was documented from many perspectives and by many entities prior to March 31, 1917.  For researchers intent on tracing references to historical events or unraveling complex family histories occurring in the Danish West Indian era, the challenge is to determine (1) what kinds of records were created, (2) by whom they were created, and (3) in whose custody the records are currently retained.

 

Because of their importance and enduring value, records created in, by and about the Danish West Indies have been preserved to varying degrees over the years in archives and special collections so that the information they contain will always be available to researchers.  The complication is that information barriers still exist because Danish West Indian archives are divided among three principal locations:  Denmark, the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

 

What Kinds of Records Exist and Who Created Them?

 

It is important to remember that records of archival quality are often created for a specific economic purpose or for governance that has little to do with the present-day use that researchers make of them, and this is especially true of colonial records.  Colonies were typically established for economic gain and strategic purposes so it makes sense that most of the colonial records that were made were transactional records or records delimiting rights, ownership, and privileges.  There are many examples.

 

Among other things, demographics were derived from government census records:  numbers of residents, family relationships, the loci of population centers, citizenship status, occupations, disabilities, and religious affiliations.  This information assisted the government in preparing tax lists, identifying immigrants, gathering information on population and making periodic reports to higher authorities. 

 

Churches kept detailed records of the baptisms, marriages and deaths of their members among other things for assessing tithing obligations, to document the church’s ministry from “cradle to grave,” and to fund subscriptions for extraordinary improvements.

 

Plantations and agricultural concerns kept meticulous records of crop yields and financial transactions in order to qualify for certain royal subsidies and to measure productivity.  Above all plantations were profit-seeking enterprises.  Particular attention was paid to recording any information that affected the bottom line of daily operations, including, prior to Emancipation, the identity and status of slaves and indentured servants and their fitness for work.

 

Colonial administrative and military courts and local law enforcement officials kept records to document the abrogation of rights for criminals and others who violated laws, and the protection of rights for the law-abiding citizenry of all nationalities and origins. Courts and civil authorities also kept records in transcript and evidentiary form to document, among other things, transfers of real property rights, the disposition of estates after death or invalidity, municipal licenses, commercial transactions and terms and conditions of contracts.

 

Today, a family history researcher may need to rely on information from remarkably diverse record sets to document the birth, education, occupation, lifestyle, residence, marriage, possessions, travel and death of a single Virgin Islands ancestor’s life: a church’s roster of confirmation candidates, a tax list, a bill of sale, a census record, a bill of lading, a customs receipt, a passport list, a newspaper notice and a civil burial records report to name a few.  The key to effective research in the archives—wherever they may be located--is in knowing the kinds of records that were created, which of those still exist and how they may be accessed.

 

Where Are the Records? How Did They Get There?

 

The following page attempts to give a brief outline of some of the historical events and decision-making that have affected records of information and documentation generated in and about the Danish West Indies from 1671 to 1917.

 

A direct result of these and many other events and decisions is that surviving information about the Danish West Indies is documented in archives that exist here, there and everywhere:  in Denmark, principally at the Rigsarkivet (Danish National Archives) where the collection is broadly divided between Danish West Indian so-called “Local Archives” and Colonial Danish West Indian Administration Records (5,725 lf total); in College Park, Maryland, at the National Archives and Records Administration’s state-of-the-art Archives II facility (2,500 lf); in the U.S. Virgin Islands (1,000 lf); and in some special collections in the U.S. such as the Bancroft Library in California and the New York Regional Facility of NARA (50 lf total). N.B., all quantities are expressed in linear feet (lf) and are estimations only.      

 
 ARCHIVES OF THE DANISH WEST INDIES: SOME EVENTS AND DECISIONS

 

 

   

 1500  to 1700

1800

1900

 2000

Denmark establishes Royal Archives                                               

       1582

Denmark settles St. Thomas                                                             

              1672

Denmark settles St. John                                                                   

                 1694

Denmark purchases St. Croix from France

                       1733

Danish West India Company dissolved; 200 linear ft of records sent to the Royal Archives; Danish West Indies becomes a Danish crown colony

                         1754

Hurricane destroys many pre-1755 records

                               1772

Emancipation rebellion:  all Frederiksted Police Court records destroyed by mob

                                     1848

The Constitutional Act of the Kingdom of Denmark ( Denmark becomes a constitutional monarchy)

                                      1849

Rigsarkivet (Danish National Archives)  established pursuant to the Archives Law of 1889 ( Denmark)

                                           1889

Rules promulgated for Denmark’s Archives Law of 1889:  must transfer records to one of three Provincial Archives of the Rigsarkivet

                                              1891

Danish government transfers pre-1848 Danish West Indies records to Provincial Archives in Copenhagen

                                                 1894-1902

Convention  between the U.S. and Denmark re Cession of the Danish West Indies[1]

                                                    1916

Historical societies in Denmark lobby for return of records created before 1863

                                                    1916-1918

VI under administration of the Department of the Navy

                                                    1917-1931

VI releases over 2,000 linear ft of records to Danish archivist George Saxild including government records up to 1900, probate inventories through 1885 and records of community committees if retained in the government archives (deed and mortgage letter books were excluded)

                                                     1919

VI administration transferred to the Department of the Interior

                                                       1931

VI Librarian Enid M. Baa begins collecting Virgin Islands materials

                                                       1933

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration established by Congress

                                                        1934

Organic Act

                                                         1936

NARA sends Harold Larson, a Danish-speaking archivist, to VI for eight months as part of the New Deal’s WPA Survey of Records Project; he is appointed special assistant to VI Gov. Lawrence Cramer; Danish records examined and selected for transfer to NARA.  Most but not all records date after 1848.  Larson excludes land title records and post-1917 records.[2]  Shipment totals 1,462 cubic ft (1,260 linear ft)

                                                         1936-1937                                

National Archives Archivist Gaston Litton surveys federal records in St. Thomas for condition and makes recommendations for disposition; Municipal Councils do not transfer legislative records; other local VI offices send inactive files to NARA

                                                           1942

Governor de Castro offers to send all older records, except land records to NARA

                                                             1953

Revised Organic Act

                                                             1954

Records from 1818-1917, and some post-1917, transferred to NARA (95 cubic ft)

                                                             1954

Records from 1818-1917, and some post-1917, transferred to NARA (309 cubic ft)

                                                             1955

Last accession by NARA:  post-1917 records (some through 1949)  (204 cubic ft)

                                                               July 1959

Von Scholten Collection established

                                                                1960

Finding aid for post-1917 records at NARA (preliminary inventory)

                                                                1960

Finding aid for pre-1917 records at NARA (shelf-list only)

                                                                 1961

VI legislation establishes archives under the Office of the Lt. Governor

                                                                   1967

Elective Governor Act of 1968

                                                                     1968

Government Reorganization Act:  Territorial Archives transferred to Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums established under the Department of Planning and Natural Resources

                                                                        1987

Finding aid for NARA Records Group 55 published online

                                                                               1996

Bilateral Archival Commission formed (USVI and Denmark)

                                                                                  1999

Finding aid by Erik Gøbel for Danish West Indies records in Denmark

                                                                                    2002

Bilateral Archives Commission Strategic Planning Committee convened

                                                                                       2008

 


For more information about the Archives of the Danish West Indies . . .

 

Treaty Series, No. 629, Convention between the United States and Denmark, 39 Stat. 1706, Cession of the Danish West Indies.  Online at http://www.doi.gov/oia/pdf/vitreaty.pdf.

 

Bastian, J.. “Taking Custody, Giving Access: A Postcustodial Role for a New Century.” Archivaria [Online] 1:53. Jan 2002

Online at:  http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/article/view/12838

 

Bastian, Jeannette Allis.  Owning Memory:  How a Caribbean Community Lost Its Archives and Found Its History.  Libraries Unlimited ( Westport, CT) :  2003

 

Bastian, Jeannette Allis.  “A Question of Custody:  The Colonial Archives of the United States Virgin Islands.”  The American Archivist, Vol. 64 (Spring/Summer 2001) : 96-114.

Online at: http://archivists.metapress.com/content/tmk62207504ugg16/

 

Dansk Demografisk Database  (Web site:  http://www.ddd.dda.dk/soeg_stcroix.html).  Contains searchable transcriptions of many Danish West Indian censuses for St. Croix, as well as St. Thomas and St. John.  

 

Gøbel, Erik. A Guide to Sources for the History of the Danish West Indies ( U.S. Virgin Islands), 1671-1917.  Syddansk Universitetsforlag ( Odense) : 2002.

 

National Archives and Records Administration (Microfilm Descriptive Pamphlet).  M1883. Selected Records of the Danish West Indies, 1672-1917: Essential Records Concerning Slavery and Emancipation. 11 rolls. 35mm.

Online at:  http://www.footnote.com/pdf/M1883.pdf

 

National Archives and Records Administration (Microfilm Descriptive Pamphlet).  M1884. Selected Records of the Danish West Indies, 1672-1917: Records with Genealogical Value. 130 rolls.  To view and download a PDF copy of this pamphlet, go to http://eservices.archives.gov/orderonline  then enter M1884 in box to Search & Browse NARA’s Microfilm Catalog.  In the next screen, click on the Publication Title link.  In the next screen, click on “View Important Publication Details” to view, print or save the PDF file.

 

National Archives and Records Administration (Preliminary Inventory).  PI-126.  Records of the Government of the Virgin Islands of the United States, comp. by H. Donn Hooker (1960), 31 pp. (RG 55). Dates of records: 1917-50.Size: 8" x 10.5".

Order from NARA online at:  http://www.archives.gov/publications/lists.html

 

National Archives and Records Administration.  Record Group 55:  Records of the Government of the Virgin Islands Danish West Indies, 1672-1917.”  (A detailed finding aid published online in 2001for records held by NARA at its Archives II facility in College Park, MD. Includes an Introduction by NARA Staff Archivist, Dr. Vernon Paul Rood.) 

Online at:  http://www.virgin-islands-history.dk/nara/danmark1.pdf

 

National Archives and Records Administration (Web site).  “Record Group 55:  Records of the Government of the Virgin Islands.” (Contains brief descriptions of the collection’s record group and series.)

Online at:  http://www.archives.gov/research/guide-fed-records/groups/055.html

 

ProGenealogists (Web site:  www.progenealogists.com).  West Indies Genealogy Research.”

Online at:  http://www.progenealogists.com/westindies/ 

 

Rigsarkivet.  “The Danish West Indies.”  Rigsarkivet Informer, No. 35.  Statens Archiver ( Copenhagen) : 2004. Text by Erik Gøbel.  (Contains background information on the Danish West Indies holdings of the Danish National Archives and other repositories, as well as useful links to other resources.)

Online at:  http://www.sa.dk/media(467,1030)/RAFolder35_Danish_West_Indies.pdf

 

Rigsarkivet (Web site: http://www.sa.dk/content/us/). “Archives” (Under “Virgin Islands History” with further links to a record group, series and sub-series listing of the Danish National Archives holdings). 

Online in English at:  http://www.virgin-islands-history.dk/eng/a_intro.asp

 

Royal Danish Consulate United States Virgin Islands (Web site:  www.dkconsulateusvi.com/).  This site includes links to many resources, including the PDF file “A List of the Names of Inhabitants: The Danish West Indian Islands (the Virgin Islands) from 1650-ca.1825” (online at:  http://www.dkconsulateusvi.com/Inhabitants/Inhabitants07052002.pdf).

 

Territorial Archives (Web site:  http://www.virginislandspubliclibraries.org/usvi/archives.asp), under the auspices of the Department of Planning and Natural Resources (Robert S. Mathes, Commissioner), Division of Libraries, Archives and Museums (Ingrid A. Bough, Territorial Director).

 

v



[1]The 1916 Convention between Denmark and the United States for the transfer of sovereignty includes the following provision in Article I:

 

In this cession shall also be included any government archives, records, papers, or documents which relate to the cession or to the rights and property of the inhabitants of the Islands ceded, and which may now be existing either in the Islands ceded or in Denmark.  Such archives and records shall be carefully preserved, and authenticated copies thereof, as may be required shall be at all times given to the United States Government or the Danish Government, as the case may be, or to such properly authorized persons as may apply for them.

 

[2]  Larson indicated in his preliminary inventory:  “[T]he present accession was made with the understanding that the Government of the Virgin Islands or its representatives, upon request should be given all available information from these records.”