How the U.S. Acquired Its Territories That Aren't States
By Erik Sass
A far-flung maritime empire built on guano, chemical weapons, coal, and just because: these are the stories of the U.S. territories, outposts of coral, sand, and palm trees lost in the endless blue swells of the Pacific Ocean. And also Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands on the other side. Oh, and another place called Navassa. But anyway, yeah: a seaborne sovereignty, riding majestic o’er the cresting tides of the ocean stream! Because bird poop! Let’s go!
Preamble: Congress Makes a Play for Poop
The story of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands, as most of the smaller atolls are known, begins in 1856 with the passage of the Guano Islands Act by the U.S. Congress. This law made it legal for any U.S. citizen to lay claim to any island, rock, or key not already claimed by another country if it is covered with bird poop, or guano. No, really: beginning in the 1840s people mined hundreds of thousands of tons of guano every year for use as fertilizer as well as to produce gunpowder. It was also known that many otherwise uninhabited islands have played host to giant colonies of seabirds which, over thousands of years, deposited a veritable king’s ransom of poop. Ultimately more than 100 islands were claimed under the act, which stated that U.S. possession of the islands was strictly temporary (until the guano ran out). But the federal government later took permanent possession of some of the islands for strategic purposes (or whatever).
Baker and Howland Islands, 1855 AND 1857
The first islands officially temporarily claimed under the Guano Islands Act were Baker and Howland Islands, located 42 miles from each other and a bit less than 2000 miles southwest of Hawaii. Both measure less than a square mile in area and were discovered by American whalers in 1818 and 1822, respectively.
Baker (above) was claimed in 1855—a year before the Guano Islands Act—by Captain Michael Baker, and Howland (below) was claimed two years later. Two rival companies, the American Guano Company and United States Guano Company, began mining the guano on Baker and Howland in 1857. In classic shady business fashion, in 1859 the AGC tried to take possession of Howland while the USGC wasn’t occupying the island, as required by the Guano Islands Act, leading to a lengthy court case in New York State. They ended up splitting the difference.
In the age of flight, Baker and Howland became permanent U.S. possessions to assert U.S. air supremacy in the Pacific and provide refueling stations for flights from Australia to California. This effort included a strange colonization scheme that dispatched over 130 young men from Hawaii, including U.S. soldiers, to settle these islands and relatively nearby Jarvis Island (see below) from 1935 to 1942, with four men at a time occupying each island in three-month shifts. They abandoned the effort in 1942 because of Japanese air raids, but Baker and Howland were both later reoccupied by the U.S. military.
Howland’s most famous brush with history came in 1937, when pioneering female pilot Amelia Earhart disappeared while trying to locate the tiny island during her trip around the world. The Howland “colonists” cleared a landing strip and built a beacon light but Earhart never arrived and was presumably lost over the Pacific. Both Baker and Howland are now unorganized and unincorporated U.S. territories, designated as national wildlife refuges, which form part of the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument.
Jarvis Island, 1857
A little under two square miles in area, Jarvis Island was formed by the accretion of coral reefs over thousands of years, which later became a nesting habitat for seabirds, resulting in large deposits of guano. The American Guano Company claimed Jarvis in 1857 and the U.S. took formal possession in 1858. The AGC built around a dozen buildings and a tram on the island to facilitate the mining of guano, before pulling out in 1879.
A series of businesses tried to revive the guano mining industry with varying success throughout the later part of the century; the need to maintain human habitation as part of commercial claims led one venture to hire a “caretaker,” Squire Flockton, who lived alone on the island but then descended into alcoholism and committed suicide in 1883. Amidst uncertainty over its commercial status Britain claimed Jarvis in 1899, but the U.S. also maintained a claim, prompting it to include the island in the same colonization scheme as Baker and Howland. The Jarvis Island National Wildlife Refuge was created in 1974, and later became part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
Navassa Island, 1857
Our first and only non-Pacific guano property, Navassa is a two-square-mile, roughly triangular island located in the Caribbean Sea between Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba. Supposedly claimed by Haiti in 1801 (Haiti didn’t actually specify ownership of the island by name), in 1857 Navassa was claimed for the U.S. by an American sea captain named Peter Duncan, who later sold his rights to guano miners.
After a pause during the Civil War, in 1865 the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore resumed mining operations with hundreds of black employees brought in from the U.S. However the laborers rebelled due to poor treatment in 1889, killing five of their supervisors. Their legal defense claimed that the U.S. had no jurisdiction over Navassa, and the case eventually came before the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed that the U.S. had legal jurisdiction because of the Guano Islands Act. Three miners were condemned to death but President Benjamin Harrison later commuted their sentences to life in prison. Haiti still claims Navassa, which is now inhabited by wild goats, lizards, and snakes.
Johnston Atoll, 1858
Back to the Pacific! Currently one square mile in area, Johnston Atoll was originally just a fraction of that size. A mere 45 acres when it was claimed under the Guano Islands Act in 1858, the majority of the present landmass of Johnston Island was created by dredging by the U.S. military in the 1950s and 1960s, using techniques similar to those currently being employed by China to enlarge natural islands and build artificial islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea. These projects at the Johnston Atoll also created two new islands, Akau and Hikina, and enlarged a fourth smaller island called Sand Island.
The U.S. military was interested in Johnston first as a naval air base in the Pacific theater of the Second World War, and later as a staging area for nuclear tests conducted in the Pacific Proving Grounds, located in the Marshall Islands about 1000 miles to the southwest. It was also used as a base for nuclear missile tests, some of which failed, contaminating the atoll and surrounding waters with radioactive debris. During the Vietnam War, Johnston was used as a storage area for thousands of tons of the toxic defoliant Agent Orange, later linked to cancer and other diseases.
Rounding out its reputation as a tropical vacation idyll, Johnston was also used as a test site for biological weapons and a storage site for chemical weapons including sarin, VX, and mustard gas. During the 1990s it became one of the main disposal sites for chemical weapons from other U.S. military bases around the world. All this contributed to making the island a bit of a mess, although 45000 tons of radioactive soil were relocated to a fenced enclosure on the north side of the island, so it’s all good. Also, in 2010 it was infested with hyper-aggressive “yellow crazy ants.” Book your tickets now!
Kingman Reef, 1860
One of the “barely there” territories, Kingman Reef has more going on below water than above. First claimed by the United States Guano Company in 1860 in the mistaken belief that it contained guano deposits, in fact Kingman doesn’t contain much of anything. There are roughly three acres of marine debris stretched out in two long, very narrow islands along one edge of a much larger submerged coral reef.
Kingman rises no more than five feet above sea level, so it isn’t exactly safe for lengthy visits—think tropical storms—although some brave amateur radio operators made the trek in 2000 to take advantage of its location beyond the jurisdiction of national broadcast authorities. Take a peek beneath the surface, however, and there’s a whole other world!
Midway Atoll, 1867
Most famous as the site of the pivotal Battle of Midway from June 4 to 7, 1942, Midway Atoll was first claimed under the Guano Islands Act in 1859 by an American sea captain, N.C. Middlebrooks, but the U.S. government only took formal possession in 1867 amid growing interest in trade with Asia. The westernmost island in the volcanic Hawaii archipelago, the Midway Atoll measures 2.4 square miles and was a likely location for a coaling station in the age of steamships, although nothing came of this. In 1903 Midway became one leg in the project to lay an undersea telegraph cable across the Pacific Ocean, and in the 1930s was a layover for Pan Am’s super-exclusive flying boat service.
After Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Navy hoped to lure U.S. Navy aircraft carriers that had escaped destruction in the surprise attack into a trap by threatening Midway with invasion, which would set the stage for the conquest of Hawaii. However U.S. Naval Intelligence broke the Japanese code and alerted the U.S. carrier task force, which laid a counter-trap for the attacking Japanese armada. At the Battle of Midway (with the Battle of Coral Sea a month before, one of the first in history where the combatant ships engaged each other out of visible range) U.S. planes sank four out of the six Japanese carriers, at a cost of just one U.S. carrier. The Japanese war effort never recovered.
Midway continued to serve as a naval air base and saw service during the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The base was closed in 1993 and is now mostly uninhabited aside from a transient staff from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which administers the site as a National Wildlife Refuge. However the runway still comes in handy: in July 2014 a United Boeing 777 was diverted to Midway amid fears of an electrical fire.
Palmyra Atoll, 1898
Located southeast of Kingman Reef, Palmyra consists of a number of small islands with a total surface area of 4.5 square miles, most of them partially connected with narrow sand causeways. First discovered in 1798, Palmyra changed hands a number of times amid multiple claims. First claimed for the U.S. in 1859 under the Guano Islands Act (despite the fact there is no guano there), in 1862 Palmyra was annexed by the kingdom of Hawaii, but then also claimed by the United Kingdom in 1889. When the U.S. finally annexed Hawaii in 1898, Palmyra formally became part of the U.S. as well. Britain was invited to sod off.
One of the islands in the atoll, Cooper, was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for $30 million in 2000 and is now a nature reserve, while the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service administers the rest of the atoll as part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. Palmyra is the only incorporated, unorganized U.S. territory in existence, which (unlike the other unincorporated territories described here) makes it definitely subject to the U.S. Constitution. However, because it remains unorganized and has no permanent inhabitants, there’s no government to speak of, which makes it a bit of legal oddity.
The first permanently inhabited territory on this list, Guam was part of the spoils of the Spanish-American War, which also gave the United States temporary control of Cuba and the Philippines and permanent possession of Puerto Rico. Guam was on the list because in the age of steam-powered navies the U.S. needed coaling stations in the eastern Pacific.
The conquest of Guam was easy enough: on the way to the Philippines several American ships made a side trip to Guam, where their crews took a handful of Spanish officials prisoner (they didn’t know about the war until they were in custody). The American commander discovered that a U.S. citizen happened to be living on the island, one Frank Portusach, and put him in charge.
Over 200 square miles in area, Guam has a tropical climate similar to Hawaii and a population of around 175,000, including 65,000 native Chamorros and many immigrants from the United States—most associated with the major U.S. military presence on the island, which plays a key role in U.S. security strategy in the western Pacific. The U.S. military controls around a third of the island group, including several large bases: Andersen Air Force Base, Guam Navy Base, and Naval Force Marianas Naval Air Station (above, the capital Hagatna).
Guam was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War, leading to one of the more bizarre episodes in the island’s history: from 1945 to 1972 a Japanese Sergeant Shoichi Yokoi remained in hiding on the island, despite knowing the war ended in 1952, out of fear of American retribution. Originally one of a handful of holdouts, Yokoi managed to survive by living in a cave and hunting and foraging in the island’s forests. After being discovered by locals he returned to Japan, where he was received as a celebrity. He died in 1997 at the age of 82.
The island’s government is working to diversify its economy by encouraging other industries, principally tourism. While it may have a hard time convincing American tourists to travel the extra 4000 miles beyond Hawaii, it’s well positioned as an idyllic tropical getaway for Asia’s burgeoning middle classes.
Puerto Rico, 1898
Easily the largest and best-known U.S. territory with a population of 3.5 million, Puerto Rico was also conquered in the Spanish-American War. Unlike nearby Cuba it remained under U.S. control—in large part because it was simply smaller than Cuba and easier to subdue. As with Guam, the U.S. wanted Puerto Rico as a coaling station and naval base for its new steam-powered navy; like Hawaii and Cuba it was also a big sugar producer, and everyone loves sugar.
For decades Puerto Rico had substantial independence movement that the U.S. has resolutely ignored, and the island finally accepted a U.S.-drafted constitution creating a commonwealth in 1952 (although pro-independence extremists tried to assassinate President Harry Truman when he signed the agreement in 1952, and attacked the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five congressmen, in 1954). In the second half of the 20th century Puerto Rico diversified its economy by cultivating tourism, also helped by low taxes that encouraged many businesses from the U.S. mainland to open up shop.
There is still a pro-independence movement, but recently Puerto Ricans seem to be favoring the option of full statehood: in the most recent referendum in 2012, 54% voted to change the commonwealth's status, and 61% opted for statehood in response to a separate question. So far there’s been no change, however, meaning Puerto Ricans still can’t vote in congressional or presidential elections.
Most recently the phasing out of special tax benefits bestowed by the federal government in 2006 has produced a fiscal crisis. When taxes were low the island’s government ran up an enormous debt—$72 billion, or around $20,000 per person—which became unserviceable when the advantageous tax rates lapsed. Governor Alejandro Padilla has advised that the territory has no way to repay the debt, but it’s not clear what the territory can do to restructure the debt.
American Samoa, 1899
The third territory on the list with actual people living on it, American Samoa was picked up in 1899 as part of a deal with Germany, which was busily assembling an insular empire in the Pacific Ocean for some reason. In addition to some real estate swaps with the British elsewhere in the Pacific, Germany ceded eastern Samoa to the U.S., which is now known as American Samoa, while Germany took western Samoa—now just plain old Samoa. The U.S. wanted Samoa as, you guessed it, a coaling station.
Measuring 77 square miles, Samoa has a population of around 56,000 and has been called an “unsung South Pacific paradise” and “America’s best kept secret.” Its climate is comparable with nearby Tahiti and Fiji, so yeah, you could definitely find worse places to visit. During the Apollo Program the Pago Pago International Airport on Samoa served as a base for the retrieval of a number of returning astronaut crews who splashed down in the South Pacific Ocean.
Wake Island, 1899
Two-and-a-half square miles in area, Wake Island was uninhabited for most of its history, except for the unfortunate survivors of a series of shipwrecks, who typically spent anywhere from a few weeks to a few months on the island before rescuers could arrive from Guam. However after the Spanish-American War the U.S. government became interested in Wake Island, located between Hawaii and the newly-conquered Philippines, as a coaling station. In 1899 the U.S. took formal possession of the island and a few years later the navy shooed off some Japanese poachers. However not much happened until the 1930s, when Wake became another layover stop for Pan Am’s flying boat service.
In the Second World War Wake suddenly came to the attention of the American public when the Japanese attacked the small U.S. force there at the same time as the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S. garrison put up a spirited defense at the Battle of Wake Island, but by December 23, 1941 they succumbed to overwhelming numbers. The Japanese dug in and remained in possession of the island until September 1945, when Japan surrendered; during the Japanese occupation they executed 98 American civilian contractors who’d been captured on the island, a war crime for which the Japanese commander was later hanged. Today Wake Island is inhabited—but just barely. Around 200 U.S. Air Force personnel live on the island, which is home to a strategically important 9800-foot runway.
U.S. Virgin Islands
The fourth territory with a legit full-time population, the U.S. Virgin Islands were originally a Danish colony (yes, there were Danish colonies in the Caribbean) whose principal products were sugar and tobacco, although piracy was a close third. The U.S. expressed interest in acquiring the islands from Denmark on a number of occasions, but the deal didn’t go through until the First World War, when the U.S. Navy became concerned that German submarines might use the islands as a base to attack American shipping. In 1917 the Danish government finally agreed to sell the islands to the U.S. for $25 million.
The Virgin Islands include St. Thomas, St. Croix, St. John, Water Island, and many smaller islands, 136 square miles in area altogether, with a population of around 109,000, most of them the descendants of African slaves from the Virgin Islands as well as elsewhere in the Caribbean. Today the principal industry is tourism, along with rum distilling. In 1956 Laurence Rockefeller, a grandson of John D. Rockefeller, donated 5000 acres of land on St. John to the U.S. government to create a U.S. National Park.
Northern Mariana Islands, 1945
The last island territory acquired by the U.S. is actually a whole archipelago located northeast of Guam: the Northern Mariana Islands, containing 15 main islands and numerous smaller islands, with a land area of 184 square miles and a population of around 54,000. The entire population is concentrated on three main islands: Saipan, Tinian, and Rota. Most of the inhabitants are Chamorros, as in Guam, or another native group descended from immigrants from the Caroline Islands.
The Northern Mariana Islands were first claimed by the Spanish in 1565, but in 1899 Spain threw in the towel and sold them to Germany after the Spanish-American War. The islands formed part of Germany’s implausible Pacific empire until 1914, when the Japanese conquered them at the beginning of the First World War. The U.S. in turn conquered the Northern Mariana Islands in 1944, during the island-hopping phase of the Second World War, and they would play a fateful role in bringing the war to an end.
On August 6, 1945, the U.S. Air Force B-29 Enola Gay took off from Tinian to drop the “Little Boy” atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Three days later the B-29 Bockscar took off from Tinian to drop the “Fat Man” atomic bomb on Nagasaki.