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This article focuses on the territories of the United States. It’s part of a three-part series explaining the current day situation of the remnants of the colonial empires of the early 20th century, almost all of which are small islands scattered around the world. Other parts of the territories series examine the status of British territories and French territories.
The United States came to the colonization game rather late. By William McKinley’s presidency, the world had already been carved up by European powers. With a strong desire to prove itself as the equal to Britain and France, the U.S. closed out the 19th century by engaging in a war with Spain that took from it the last of its colonies.
It turned out, however, that the U.S. wasn’t very good at being a colonial power. A former colony itself, it had neither the stomach or long-term desire to hold colonies. Its largest colony, the Philippines, was given independence 40 years after it had been ceded from Spain, and it would have been granted independence even sooner if it hadn’t been for WWII.
Today, the United States has long since given up its hopes of becoming a colonial empire, but it still holds onto many pieces of its early 20th-century attempt to become one. The story of the U.S. territories is one of the least known and most interesting parts of U.S. history. If you’re looking for a fascinating longer account, check out How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States, otherwise, let’s dive into everything you need to know about U.S. territories.
Map of US Territories
Legal Status of U.S. Territories
Territories are not new to the United States. Most states outside of the original 13 were territories before they became states. The states of Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Illinois were created from Northwestern Territory. North and South Dakota used to form the Dakota Territory. And in the 20th century, Oklahoma, New Mexico, Arizona, Hawaii, and Alaska all made the jump from territory to state.
The creation of territories is addressed in the Constitution and is a power given to Congress. (It should be noted that Washington D.C. is not a territory. It’s a Federal District, and that’s distinct from a territory.)
Today there are two criteria that categorize American territories.
- A territory can be incorporated or unincorporated.
- A territory can be organized or unorganized.
Incorporation of U.S. Territories
Incorporated territories are considered integral parts of the United States. Prior to statehood, both Alaska and Hawaii were incorporated territories. In incorporated territories, the Constitution is in full effect. Incorporated territories would be similar to territories found in Canada (Northwest Territories, Yukon, and Nunavut) or the Northern Territory of Australia—in these places, they do not have a large enough population for statehood, but are still considered part of the parent country.
Today the U.S. has only one incorporated territory: Palmyra Atoll.
Most people have never heard of Palmyra Atoll, but it is legally the only incorporated territory of the U.S. It has this status because of a quirk of history. When Hawaii gained statehood in 1959, Palmyra was part of the territory of Hawaii. The act of statehood, which admitted Hawaii to the union, explicitly excluded Palmyra from joining the rest of the Hawaiian Islands from becoming a state. I’ve searched high and low for an explanation as to why Palmyra was not included with Hawaii as a state, but I could never find a reason.
Today, Palmyra is owned by The Nature Conservancy and has no permanent human settlement.
All other U.S. territories today are unincorporated territories. A such, they are not considered integral parts of the United States that the U.S. has permanent sovereignty over.
Organization of U.S. Territories
The other criterion defining U.S. territories is their organizational status.
Organized territories are territories subject to an Organic Act, passed by Congress, which establishes a government in the territory.
Of the five populated territories in the United States, four of them have passed an Organic Act and are organized territories. They are (with the date of organization):
Citizens of all of the above territories are U.S. citizens, however, they cannot vote in federal elections. They each have a representative in congress, which cannot vote on the floor but may vote in committee.
The remaining U.S. territories are all unorganized:
- American Samoa (Pacific)
- Palmyra Atoll (Pacific)
- Baker Island (Pacific)
- Howland Island (Pacific)
- Jarvis Island (Pacific)
- Johnston Atoll (Pacific)
- Kingman Reef (Pacific)
- Midway Islands (Pacific)
- Wake Island (Pacific)
- Bajo Nuevo Bank (Caribbean)
- Navassa Island (Caribbean)
- Serranilla Bank (Caribbean)
All of the unorganized territories, except for American Samoa, are uninhabited and have never had any permanent human population.
While American Samoa is officially unorganized, it is still self-governed and has a government. Citizens of American Samoa are not U.S. citizens, but rather are U.S. Nationals. They may live and work anywhere in the U.S., but they cannot vote should they move to the United States. U.S. Nationals may apply for citizenship as if they were resident aliens, but they do not have the same restriction for traveling and living in the U.S. as other resident aliens. RadioLab recently published a fascinating podcast exploring how citizens of Samoa feel about their status as Nationals, and their opinions on the autonomy of being a U.S. territory may surprise you.
If you’ve ever filled out an online form, you might have seen “US Minor Outlying Islands” as a country option in a drop-down list. While that’s an official designation for the uninhabited islands, no one actually lives there, so I’ve never understood why it is included in country lists.
Populated Territories of the United States
For all practical purposes, the United States has five territories, those being the ones that are inhabited. With my recent visit to the U.S. Virgin Islands, I’ve now visited all five inhabited territories. Here is a brief overview of each territory and some interesting facts about each.
By far the largest US territory, Puerto Rico has more people than every other territory combined. It’s also physically the closest territory to the United States mainland. If it were a state, it would be the 29th largest state in terms of population and it is larger in area than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware. It’s also the only U.S. territory that does not have English as its primary language. It became a territory of the U.S. as part of the 1898 Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War.
Attitudes in Puerto Rico have changed considerably over the last century. In the early and mid 20th century, most Puerto Ricans wanted independence from the United States. By the 21st century, most Puerto Ricans had family members living and working in the U.S. and the desire for independence all but disappeared. In 2012, the people of Puerto Rico, for the first time ever, preferred statehood over continuing as a territory in a referendum. It’s probably the only current U.S. territory that has any reasonable chance at statehood.
Guam became a U.S. territory in 1898 after it was also ceded to the U.S. in the aftermath of the Spanish-American War. It is often called the place where “America Starts its Day” because it’s located on the other side of the International Date Line.
The natives of Guam are the Chamorro people, who also inhabit the Northern Mariana Islands. Guam is actually the southernmost island in the Marianas Archipelago. Europeans first visited it in 1521, when Ferdinand Magellan landed there on his circumnavigation of the globe.
Today, the economy of Guam is mostly tourism (primarily from Japan) and the U.S. military. Military bases cover 29% of the island.
One of the most interesting attractions in Guam is Yokoi’s Cave. In 1972, Yokoi Shōichi, a Japanese soldier in WWII, emerged from the jungles in Guam unaware that the war was over. He became an instant celebrity in Japan and the hole where he lived is a popular attraction for Japanese tourists today. His story was foretold by an episode of Gilligan’s Island.
Guam was invaded hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and remained under Japanese control for over two years.
US Virgin Islands
Unlike Puerto Rico or Guam, the United States didn’t acquire USVI by conquest. It was purchased from Denmark in 1916 for $25,000,000 in gold via the Treaty of the Danish West Indies. The islands were sold prior to the U.S. entry into WWI, so as to not violate Danish neutrality.
The U.S. Virgin Islands lies only 40 miles east of Puerto Rico and is approximately double the size of the District of Columbia.
The USVI is the only part of the United States that drives on the left, even though almost all vehicles are American and have left-hand drive.
There are three primary islands in USVI: St. Thomas, St. John, and St Croix. The islands of St. Thomas and St. John are connected by ferry, whereas St. Croix is located south of the rest of the islands in the archipelago. Most of the island of St. John consists of Virgin Islands National Park.
You can still see some Danish influence on the islands, including some Danish flags. Chartered flights from Denmark in the winter are the farthest direct flights to USVI.
Northern Mariana Islands
The Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) is the newest territory of the United States. Although culturally and geographically similar to Guam, the islands have had a very different history, especially in the 20th century.
The islands were, like Guam, part of the Spanish Empire. After the Spanish-American war, the islands were ceded to Germany, not the United States. In WWI, Japan declared war on Germany and used it as a pretext to invade and take over the islands.
The islands were liberated during the Battle of Saipan in WWII, one of the bloodiest battles in the Pacific Theater.
The islands were put under U.S. management after WWII by the United Nations as part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI), along with what today are Micronesia, Palau, and the Marshall Islands. Unlike the other parts of TTPI, the CNMI choose to remain a U.S. territory rather than opt for independence.
On several occasions, the citizens of CNMI have voted to join Guam, but they were rejected by Guam. The CNMI has had a reputation of corrupt leadership since it became a territory and is probably the largest destination for sex tourism in the United States. When I walked around the capital of Garipan, it seemed that almost half the businesses were massage parlors.
In the late 19th century, a civil war in Samoa almost led the United States and Germany to go to war. Each nation backed opposite sides in the war in hopes of gaining position to use the islands for whaling and as a fuelling station. The Tripartite Convention of 1899 divided the Samoan Islands between the western islands (German) and the eastern islands (American).
Culturally, there is little difference between American Samoa and the country of Samoa. They are geographically close to each other and there are many families with relatives in each part.
There have been some calls for either independence or greater autonomy for American Samoa, but in a 2010 referendum, the majority of people opted to stick with the status quo.
Unlike other U.S. territories, Americans need a passport to enter American Samoa and they have it has its own immigration and passport stamps.
American Samoa is noted for having the highest rate of military enlistment of any U.S. state or territory.
Former U.S. Territories
There are currently four independent countries that were former territories of the United States. One of which came from the Spanish-American war (from which the U.S. acquired Guam and Puerto Rico), and the other three coming from the aftermath of WWII. A fifth country was not technically a territory, but was instead considered a protectorate.
Cuba was another part of the territorial transfer from Spain to the U.S. in 1898. However, Cuba was only a U.S. possession for four years. U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was sympathetic to the Cuban independence movement and the U.S. recognized a free Cuba in 1902.
The drink Cuba Libre (aka rum and coke) comes from that period in history. When Coke was first imported to Cuba in 1900, it was mixed with rum and people toasted a free Cuba (translated as Cuba libre in Spanish).
The other historical remnant from this period is the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay, which was leased from Cuba. A treaty in 1934 made the lease period indefinite and set the monthly payments at $4,085. The figure was never indexed for inflation, so the amount has never changed even though the value would have been the equivalent of $69,000 per month in today’s dollars.
Since the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Cuba has refused to cash these checks as it does not recognize U.S. control over Guantanamo Bay.
Many people are unaware that the Philippines was once a U.S. territory. It was ceded to the United States from Spain in the same treaty that ceded Guam. After the conclusion of the Spanish War, the Filipino forces fighting Spain for independence turned their attention to the Americans. For several years, American and Filipino forces fought, leading to the deaths of thousands on each side. It is one of the most forgotten wars in U.S. history.
There were many in the U.S. who never felt comfortable with the annexation of the Philippines. In the 1930s, the Philippines was declared a commonwealth and plans were developed for a transition to full independence. The Japanese invasion of Manila on December 8, 1941 (at the same time as the Pearl Harbor attack, but on the other side of the international date line) postponed independence for several years.
The Philippines eventually became independent on July 4, 1946. Today, however, the Philippines celebrates its Independence Day on June 12, the day it became free of Spain in 1898.
During its brief tenure as a U.S. territory (brief compared to Spain’s 333-year rule), the Philippines had a non-voting representative in the U.S. Congress and was covered by an Organic Act giving Filipinos full rights under the U.S. Constitution.
Today, if you visit the WWII Memorial in Washington D.C., every state and territory is listed in stone pillars including the Philippines, recognizing its role in the war.
If the Philippines had remained a U.S. territory and had become a U.S. state, it would be the sixth-largest state by area and the largest state by population. In a fictional world where the Philippines is the 51st state, it would consist of a quarter of the entire U.S. population and have a population almost three times larger than California.
Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands
In 1947, the United Nations created Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) from former Japanese possessions given to them by a League of Nations Mandate. The TTPI existed from 1947 to 1986, when the constituent islands began to seek independence. The above-mentioned Northern Mariana Islands is the only part of the TTPI which is still a U.S. territory.
The Marshall Islands
The Marshall Islands are perhaps best known as the location of many atomic bomb tests in the 40s and 50s on places, taking places on Bikini and Enewetak Atolls.
The Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) was declared in 1979 and the country entered a Compact of Free Association with the United States in 1986. The compact is a unique agreement that the United States has with the former TTPI countries, where they have access to many programs that are normally reserved for US citizens. For example, the Marshall Islands have mail delivered to it at U.S. domestic postal rates. It has its own USPS state and zip code. (MH and 969xx). The Marshallese can also work in the U.S. without a green card.
The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM) consists of four island groups: Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. Like the Marshall Islands, the FSM declared independence in 1979 and signed a Compact of Free Association with the US in 1986. The FSM compact of free association also gives Micronesians access to U.S. services and aid.
By population and area, Palau is the smallest of the former TTPI countries. With a population of only 20,000 people and an area of 459 km2, it’s one of the smallest countries in the world.
Palau declared independence in 1981 and signed its compact of free association with the US in 1994. Palau’s location, combined with some of the best scuba diving in the world, has given it a per capita GDP almost four times greater than the other former TTPI countries.
The Future of U.S. Territories
Historically, most U.S. territories have gone on to become states. However, most of those were located in North America and were contiguous to the other states. With the admission of Alaska and Hawaii as states in 1959, the idea of non-contiguous and non-North American states became real.
Of the current U.S.territories, only Puerto Rico has a reasonable chance at becoming a state. It has a population and landmass that would place it in the realm of current U.S. states—it would be in the middle of states population-wise and small, but not the smallest state in terms of land area.
Of the remaining territories, only the Northern Mariana Islands have an area larger than Rhode Island. The rest are less than half the size or smaller.
The real reason why you won’t see any of the non-Puerto Rican territories become states is population. The most populous non-Puerto Rican territory is Guam, which has approximately a quarter the population of Wyoming, the least populous state. The rest are as small as a fifth or a tenth of the size. It just isn’t enough for most states to justify giving two senators and a representative. Even if they were all to combine, it still probably wouldn’t be enough.
The case for Puerto Rico becoming a state is becoming more interesting. During the 2012 elections, while everyone was focused on the race for President, for the first time Puerto Rico quietly had a referendum where the majority of voters approved the idea of statehood.
With population and landmass within reasonable parameters, the only two stumbling blocks to statehood: economics and language.
The per capita GDP of Puerto Rico ($27,384) would make it the poorest state in the union behind Mississippi ($32,967). While it is poorer, it isn’t radically so and probably shouldn’t be that big of an issue. Most new states have been on the frontier, where they were poorer than older than more established states.
The real issue is language. Spanish is the dominant language in Puerto Rico. They would be the only state with a non-English speaking majority. While most of the population can speak English, they do so as a second language and at a level of proficiency lower than the rest of the country.
Over the last several decades, English proficiency has increased dramatically in Puerto Rico as more families have relatives that work in the U.S. I suspect this trend will continue even if Spanish is still the dominant language since English is an official language of Puerto Rico and has been since 1902.
It should be noted that there are three U.S. states that have an official language other than English: Louisiana also has French, New Mexico includes Spanish, and Hawaii officially recognizes Hawaiian. However in all three states, English is the most widely spoken. That said, during my travels in Puerto Rico, I’ve never had problems getting by in English.
My guess is that we are still at least 20 years away from Puerto Rican statehood.
For the rest of the territories, the debate will be between the status quo and independence. This is most true of American Samoa, which has an independent sister country next door (Samoa). Likewise, if Guam and CNMI would merge, they would be far from the smallest country in the world.
Frequently Asked Questions About U.S. Territories
Is the Philippines a U.S. territory?
No. The Philippines is not a U.S. territory. It was formerly a U.S. territory, but it became fully independent in 1946.
Is Guam a U.S. territory?
Yes. Guam is a U.S. Territory. It has been a territory of the United States since 1898, since it was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in the Treaty of Paris.
Are the Bahamas a U.S. territory?
No. The Bahamas are not and have never been a U.S. territory. They were formerly a territory of the United Kingdom and have been independent since 1973.
When did Puerto Rico become a U.S. territory, and why?
The island is about the size of Connecticut, and Puerto Rico was first settled by the Spanish in the 1500s. Puerto Rico has been a territory of the United States since 1898—when it was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in the Treaty of Paris, at the close of the Spanish/American War. This handily explains why the speak Spanish in Puerto Rico—although it’s worth noting that since 1917 Puerto Ricans have been full citizens of the U.S., able to travel freely within the U.S.
How many U.S. territories are there?
The U.S. has five inhabited territories and twelve uninhabited territories. (See above)
What territory did the U.S. buy from France in 1803?
In 1803, the United States purchased the Louisiana Territory from France. Today the Louisiana Territory no longer exists and is part of 14 current U.S. states.
And there you have it! Everything you could possibly want to know about U.S. territories explained in less than 4,000 words. Fancy a deeper dive into some of the fascinating colonial history of the U.S. and how it impacted our current territories, send a copy of How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States it will have you turning pages for hours.