The US Virgin Islands Best Guide

Water Island: Facts & History

Population: 161 (2000 Census)

  • Size: 491.5 acres – 2½ miles long and ½ to 1 mile wide
  • Highest Point: 300 ft


The first recorded inhabitants of Water Island were the Arawak Indians in the early 1400’s. Four small Indian campsites with pottery, tools and human remains have been uncovered on the island.

In the days of piracy, Water Island was used both for anchorage and for fresh water. Water Island gets it’s name from the numerous fresh water ponds that were once found there. Pirates and other sea farers would replenish their water supplies from these ponds.

Water Island, during the years of European colonization in the late 1600’s, was used for grazing cattle and goats. The livestock was owned by the Danish West Indian Company and was used to feed colonist on St. Thomas.

Water Island’s history of ownership post colonization is very interesting. It was uncommon to find non-white plantation owners, however numerous free colored men owned Water Island and operated plantations on it. It is believed that this was tolerated because of Water Island’s less then ideal topographical features, arid land and marginal location.

Detailed Danish records of property ownership exist from 1769 to 1914 however around 1710, it is said that a sail maker by the name of William Breitz lived with his family on Water Island. Upon Breitz’s death, the property changed hands to Albert de Ruyter. Ruyter was owner until his death in 1719. Ownership between 1719 to 1769 is not well documented.

In 1769 Jean Renaud, a free mulatto, owned the island and with eighteen slaves worked the land. Records show that he was one of two free colored planters in the Danish West Indies (what is today the Virgin Islands) at that time. In 1793 another free man of color, Peter Tamaryn took over the island from Renaud. Peter Tamaryn commanded the Free Negro Corps, a group formed by the Danes that was used to track runaway slaves.

Jean Regis Pourier, another free man of color, formed another plantation in 1799 on Water Island. For 60 years two plantations operated on Water Island independently and changed hands numerous times. In the 1860’s the two plantations were joined under the common ownership of Joseph Daniel.

Records from the 18th-century indicate that Water Island was used for livestock and cotton production.

In between the years of 1801 and 1821 the population of Water Island increased; it reached a peak in 1815 with a population of 111. The population, however, slowly decreased in the following years and it is believed that the plantations were abandoned after emancipation in 1848.

Joseph Daniel’s heirs sold Water Island to the Danish East Asiatic Company for $21,000 in 1905. In 1917, the United States Government bought the Danish West Indies (St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John) from Denmark but Water Island continued to be owned by the East Asiatic Company.

In 1944 the United States acquired Water Island for $10,000. They immediately began construction of a defense installation called Fort Segarra which was intended to protect military installations on neighboring islands. The fort included plans for barracks, gun emplacements, watchtowers and underground bunkers; World War II ended before its completion. Transportation, water, sewage and power systems were established during military presence. The Army’s Chemical Warfare Division used sections of Water Island for several years as testing grounds for poisonous gases.

U.S. Department of Defense

In 1950 the Department of Defense turned Water Island over to the Department of the Interior who then leased it to a private developer by the name of Walter Phillips. The annual rent for the island was $3,000 dollars. The lease was for 20 years and the developer constructed a hotel and homes. Walter Phillips sold the master lease for Water Island in December 1965 to the Water Isle Hotel & Beach Club under the ownership of Edward McArdle. McArdle expanded the hotel and built/sold some private homes. The lease was renewed in 1972 for another 20 years. In 1989 Hurricane Hugo severely damaged the hotel and it subsequently closed. The lease ran out three years later and was not renewed.

Water Island was transferred by the federal government to the USVI territorial government on December 12th, 1996; making Water Island the 4th member of the US Virgin Islands. Residents living on Water Island during the transfer were allowed to purchase the land and homes that they occupied.

Today Water Island exists as a somewhat private island to its 161 residents (2000 Census). The island remains largely un-commercialized and is maintained by members of the Water Island Civic Association and residents along with intermittent assistance from the Virgin Islands’ government.

Note Information for this section was gathered from Archaeology in the Caribbean: The Water Island Archaeological Project by David Anderson.

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