This collection contains sensitive information about enslaved people, as well as outdated terminology describing race.
General Collection Information
This collection contains a wide variety of records relating to enslaved individuals, free Blacks, Danish citizens, and other residents living in the Danish West Indies between 1700 and 1911. The islands—St. Thomas, St. John, and St. Croix—were sold to the U.S. in 1917 and are now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The records in this collection are a valuable resource for family historians, and they also provide insight into life in the Danish West Indies during this time period.
Using this Collection
To begin your search, it’s helpful to know the name of the person you’re searching for, as well as the location or date of event.
Some records in this database aren’t indexed, but you can browse the images by record type and year range.
The types of records you may find in this database include the following:
- Police records of arriving and departing passengers
- Police journals
- Military muster rolls
- Military payroll records
- Passport records
- Shipping records
- Departures and arrivals
- Auction and slave calculations
- General governance
The information included varies widely by document type, but you may find name, gender, dates, occupation, residence, and other details among the records. Military records typically include rank and other service details.
Many of the records in this collection are those of enslaved people. If you’re researching an ancestor who may have been enslaved, there are many ways to determine their status.
First, records often have a status field indicating whether a person was enslaved or free. In Danish, words beginning with “Fri” or “Frie” (For example, Frimand or Fridomestik) indicate a free person. The word Ufrie translates to “unfree” in English. The term Manqueron refers to an enslaved person with a disability. Busal refers to an enslaved person who had been living in the colony for less than a year.
Names can also offer clues about an ancestor’s status. If the record refers to a person only by their first name without including a surname, it often means they were enslaved.
History of the Collection
Denmark annexed the Caribbean island of St. Thomas in 1672, and St. John in 1718. In 1733, St. Croix was purchased from France to establish sugar cane plantations. An estimated 120,000 enslaved Africans were imported to provide labor for the islands’ plantations. Though the slave trade in the Danish West Indies was outlawed by 1803, it would take 45 years for slavery itself to be abolished on the islands.
When the islands were sold to the U.S. in 1917, the majority of the Danish West Indian archives were to be sent back to the Danish National Archives (known as the Rigsarkivet) in Copenhagen. The collection proved too large to transport back to Denmark in its entirety, so the portion left behind became the property of the United States.
Ancestry has partnered with Rigsarkivet to bring our customers 5 million pages of digitized content from the Danish West Indies.
The Danish National Archives - Rigsarkivet. “The West Indies.” Last Accessed December 2, 2020, https://www.sa.dk/ao-soegesider/en/collection/theme/8.
The Danish National Archives - Rigsarkivet. "History." The Danish West-Indies. December 14, 2017, https://www.virgin-islands-history.org/en/history/.