[graphic] Historic Places in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands
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[photo] Castillo de San Felipe del Morro, San Juan National Historic Site, Puerto Rico
National Park Service photo

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, associated with the United States since 1898 and 1917, respectively, possess rich pasts associated with the European explorers and colonizers, as well as the Taino and Carib Americans Indians, who inhabited the region before the arrival of the Europeans. Known human settlement in the Caribbean Islands reaches back at least 4,000 years. The Taino Indians lived in small villages controlled by chiefs, where they subsisted on domesticated tropical crops such as pineapple, manioc and batatas as well as seafood. Carib Indians living in the Lesser Antilles, the Virgin Islands and Isla Vieques, at times raided Taino settlements and seized captives. In 1493, Columbus landed in a bay on Puerto Rico's west coast, and he claimed the island for Spain's King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. Fifteen years passed, however, before Spanish explorers, led by Juan Ponce de León, explored and colonized the island.

Indians, as Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus called the Caribbean's first inhabitants, first explored and settled numerous Caribbean Islands 5,000 years ago. In learning how to survive in the island environment, they created various distinctive cultures. Columbus's voyages to the "New World" initiated European colonization of the Caribbean Islands and, later, of the American mainlands during an era of intense competition for lands and riches between the maritime European powers. Spain preceded Portugal, England, France, Sweden, Denmark and other European states in staking claim to the "New World." Yet, fantastic as it sounds, Columbus died believing he had found islands near India and China; he never knew that his voyages opened the Western Hemisphere to European colonization. Most of the native inhabitants were wiped out by European diseases within 50 years; thereafter, Spanish landowners purchased imported African slaves who replaced the Indian workers at Spanish estates and mines.

[photo] Cruz Bay, Virgin Islands National Park
National Park Service photo

Columbus also "discovered" the Virgin Islands in 1493. Called "Las Virgenes", they were named after St. Ursula and her companions. The Dutch occupied Tortola in 1648, which was seized by the British in 1666. The islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix were colonized by Denmark from 1672 until 1917, with brief periods of British rule during the Napoleonic Wars. Africans were imported as slaves to work the great sugar plantations, and, as in Puerto Rico, they added to the cultural and political life of the islands. Puerto Rico in time became a midway station in the trans-Atlantic flow of riches from the Americas to Spain. The gold and precious metals captured in the conquest of the Aztec and Incan Empires enriched Spain, as well as that later mined by Indian and African American slaves, enriched Spain. France, England, Holland and Denmark quickly followed Spain by claiming various Caribbean Islands. The French and, later, the English attacked the Virgin Islands, while at one time or another Caribs, French, English and Dutch forces attacked Puerto Rico. An influx of Spanish loyalists to Puerto Rico during the Latin American Wars of Liberation (1810-1825) led to Puerto Rico's renewed importance for Spain, and new public projects reflected the growth of the sugar and coffee plantation economies on the island. Later, the United States of America possessed both Puerto Rico (1898) and the Danish Virgin Islands (1917). Unlike the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico became a Commonwealth on July 25, 1952.

[photo] Centro Ceremonial Indigena
Photo courtesy of the Puerto Rico Office of Historic Preservation
An island on the periphery of their "New World" empire, Puerto Rico served as a Spanish fortress, designed to protect their American holdings. The island's forts and towns, each with characteristic central plazas and churches, gave the island a distinctive character. Danish estates, fortifications and towns devoted to the sugar industry gave the U.S. Virgin Islands an identify separate and distinct from Puerto Rico. La Fortaleza, Centro Ceremonial Indigena, Casa Cautiño, Hacienda Buena Vista, San Germán Historic District, Fort Christian, Annaberg Historic District, Estate Carolina Sugar Plantation; the names associated with the Caribbean evoke beautiful isles infused with a rich past spanning human settlement of the region.

To illustrate the history of the islands, this itinerary links National Parks with places listed in the National Register of Historic Places. The 52 historic places highlighted in this itinerary can teach us about the contributions made by various peoples who settled in Puerto Rico and the American Virgin Islands. The itinerary includes a map showing the location of these historic places along with a brief description of their importance in our nation's past. Use this guide for locating interesting historic places near the National Parks in the Caribbean. The National Parks, National Historic Landmarks and other historic places included in this travel itinerary are listed in the National Register of Historic Places--the Nation's official list of important historic places worthy of preservation. Visitors may be interested in Historic Hotels of America, a program of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, located near some of the places featured in this itinerary.

For more information on historic places in the Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands contact:

Puerto Rico Office of Historic Preservation
Puerto Rico Office of Tourism
U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Planning and Natural Resources
Virgin Islands Tourism Office
U.S. World Heritage Sites


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