The US Virgin Islands, geographically part of the Leeward Islands of the Lesser Antilles archipelago in the Caribbean region, is located between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean about 50 miles east of Puerto Rico.
The original inhabitants of the islands were various people groups indigenous to the region: the Arawaks, the Caribs and the Ciboney. When Christopher Columbus “discovered” the islands during his second voyage in 1493, he named them after Saint Ursula and her legendary 11,000 virgin companions. Over the course of the ensuing centuries, the islands were under the control of a number of European powers.
During the 17th century, the island group was divided into two territorial units, one claimed by the English and the other by the Danish. As in many other locales in the Caribbean region, the economy was driven by the institution of slavery in the production of sugar cane. In 1917, fearing that the Germans might seize the islands and use them as a submarine base, the US purchased the islands controlled by Denmark. Today, the Virgin Islands are officially a Territory of the United States and have voice representation in the US Congress.
Of its population of over 108,000, some 76% are descendants of former African slaves. English is the official language, with Virgin Islands Creole English having a prominent place in the culture. Also found are speakers of Spanish and Papiamentu (a Portuguese/Spanish-based Creole spoken in the Netherlands Antilles).
The predominant religion of the Territory is Christian—with about 60% being adherents of Protestant denominations and around one third being Roman Catholics.