Fort Christian, St. Thomas – Cornerstone of U. S. Virgin Islands History
It’s the most prominent and striking historical landmark in the capital city of my homeland, the U.S. Virgin Islands. Somehow, though, I’ve never set foot inside the storied red walls of Fort Christian. Judging by the history of the old fort, this counts as a major missed opportunity.
You simply cannot tell the history of the Virgin Islands without Fort Christian. Its doors opened 339 years ago, making it the oldest structure in the USVI. The distinction also ranks the fort among the elder statesmen of historic buildings throughout the entire West Indies.
Fort Christian And The Rowdy Rise Of Charlotte-Amalie
Fort Christian was constructed between 1672 and 1680. The 1671 above the fort’s entrance is a reference to the year ships carrying men and materials to build Fort Christian departed from Denmark. The fort is named for King Christian V, who ruled over the Dano-Norwegian Realm (Denmark-Norway) from 1670 to 1699. At that time, the city that would eventually become Charlotte-Amalie (est. 1666) was in its infancy. The Dano-Norwegian Realm was making their second attempt at colonizing St. Thomas, though they weren’t alone on the island.
The superb natural harbor in what would become Charlotte-Amalie had made the island a favorite of pirates long before the Dano-Norwegians put down their roots. This was a seedy place filled with raucous taverns frequented by nefarious characters. Fittingly, the city’s original name was Taphus, which translated from the Dano-Norwegian lingua franca of the time, means tap house.
Taphus’ notorious reputation continued even after the fort was completed and a more general sense of order was established. In 1685, the local governor designated the city as a port of refuge for pirates. St. Thomas also emerged as a primary hub for slave trading around the same time. Both developments ensured the Taphus bars would keep buzzing for years to come.
Out of respect for their queen, Charlotte-Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, and perhaps with an eye toward shifting negative perceptions, the Danish changed the city’s name to Charlotte-Amalie in 1691.
Strategic Location Lost To History
Another big change Fort Christian has seen over the years concerns its location.
As originally conceived, Fort Christian extended over a narrow peninsula that jutted out into Charlotte-Amalie Harbor. Approaching the fort from the east or west back then required a boat (or strong swimming skills). This, of course, presented a much more strategic defensive position than that the fort enjoys today.
Landfill was added around the fort in later years, expanding the facility’s footprint as its usefulness as a defense post waned.
Providing For More Than The Common Defense
Throughout its history, Fort Christian served as much more than a defense post. The full structure consisted of 21 different buildings all housed behind the fortress walls. The earliest governors of St. Thomas resided here. The fort was also the location of the church and all administrative government offices.
In short, Fort Christian was the center of daily life in St. Thomas… aside from those raucous taverns just outside those stalwart three- to six-feet thick red walls, of course.
(Note: Fort Christian’s walls haven’t always been red. Originally, the fort bore a grey-white color.)
As Fort Christian became outmoded as a military installation, it took on new roles.
In 1874, it was converted into a police station/prison. The fort operated in this capacity until 1983. In 1971, the Fort Christian Museum was established on-site. Then, in 1977, the structure achieved National Historic Landmark status, ensuring its preservation.
It is the most recent large scale efforts at preserving Fort Christian that are partially to blame for my never setting foot inside the historic structure. I made several trips to St. Thomas between 2005 and 2017. Sadly, the fort was closed throughout that entire period.
It’s open now, though, giving me a great reason to get back to St. Thomas.
Seeing Fort Christian from the outside, as I got to do last summer, and researching a bit of its history was nice. Walking through that archway beneath the clock tower must feel like walking back in time through 300+ years of Virgin Islands history.
Personally, I can’t wait!
How To Visit Fort Christian
Fort Christian is located on the waterfront in Charlotte-Amalie directly opposite Emancipation Garden. Hours of operation are 9am to 4pm, Monday–Friday, except for public holidays.
The entrance fee is $10 for adults visiting from overseas, and $7 for kids 12 and under. The fee for adult citizens of the U.S. Virgin Islands is $5, while local kids 12 and under pay $3. Discounts are not available for senior citizens or holders of America The Beautiful National Park passes.
Guided tours are offered at 10am. A second tour at 1:45pm operates on an irregular schedule.
For more information, call the Fort Christian Museum at Tel: 340-776-4566.