Group of approximately 100 islands, the westernmost part of the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies, E of Puerto Rico, divided politically between the United States and Great Britain. The U.S. island s are an organized, unincorporated territory; and the British island s are a Crown colony. The island s were discovered and named by Christopher Columbus in 1493. The chief U.S. island s are St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John. St. Thomas was claimed by Denmark in 1666 and settled in 1672. The Danes claimed St. John in 1683 and in 1733 purchased St. Croix from France, which had held it since 1651. In 1754 the island s became a royal colony as the Danish West Indies. Concerned about the defense of the Panama Canal in the midst of World War I, the United States purchased the island s from Denmark in 1917 for $25 million. The official name is the Virgin Islands of the United States. St. Croix is the largest and most populous; St. Thomas is second in size but the most important commercially. On St. John is Virgin Islands National Park, established in 1956, in which are Carib Indian relics and remains of Danish sugar plantations.
Tourism is important. The capital is Charlotte Amalie on St. Thomas. Of the 30-odd British Virgin Islands, 16 are inhabited. The most important ones are Anegada, Tortola, and Virgin Gorda. The island s were acquired from the Dutch in 1666. Tourism is important here, too. The capital is Road Town on Tortola.