(published in Uncle John’s “AHH INSPIRING” Bathroom Reader)

Uncle Sam’s Other Islands

American tourists who feel they have an obligation to “see America first”, but secretly harbor a longing for someplace more exotic, may be interested to learn that the U.S. owns some off-shore real estate. Most of it, your travel agent probably never heard of.

There is always Hawaii, of course. But if you don’t think luaus and leis are anything to write home about, how about a historical tour of a tiny Caribbean island covered with centuries of bird droppings (called “guano”) where a crew of slave laborers revolted and killed their overseers? It’s not much to brag about, but it’s ours. The “Guano Act” of 1856 authorized Americans to take possession of uninhabited islands and mine the guano, a fertilizer rich in nitrogen and phosphorous. Nearly one hundred islands were claimed for the U.S under the Act, mostly in the South Pacific. We still own a half dozen— the others were abandoned or given up to other countries which claimed them.

Planting the flag on a pile of bird droppings was a pretty easy way of gaining territory. But the better vacation spots we acquired a little more painfully— either by war or, when absolutely necessary, purchase.

All told, the U.S. possesses a dozen “territories” and two “commonwealths.” The definitions of both terms are a little vague. Both are under the jurisdiction of the U.S. and residents have fundamental rights under the U.S. Constitution. The inhabited territories generally have an elected local government, similar to states. Commonwealths are semi-autonomous, with an elected government and constitution, and have more control of their internal affairs than do territories.
Residents of our two commonwealths (Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands) and two of our territories (Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands) are U.S. citizens, but do not vote in federal elections or pay federal taxes. They are, however, eligible for welfare and other federal aid programs. Residents of American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, but not citizens.

With that somewhat oversimplified explanation in mind, here is a list of America’s island outposts. Stick a fresh umbrella in your drink and relax.


Don’t have a passport? Don’t worry. Because of their remarkably different histories and cultures these two commonwealths feel foreign, but thanks to our armed forces they are part of the U.S.
Puerto Rico
Status: Commonwealth of the U.S.
Location: between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of the Dominican Republic
Size: 3500 square miles
Population: 4,000,000
Background: Columbus claimed Puerto Rico for Spain in 1493, on his second voyage to the New World. He found the island inhabited by the Taino, descendents of Amazonian Indians who had migrated into the Caribbean. Spain gave Puerto Rico to the U.S. in 1898 following its defeat in the Spanish-American War. (In the same deal we got Guam, bought the Phillipines and won independence for Cuba.) The island became a territory of the U.S. in 1917. Seeking a greater degree of autonomy, Puerto Ricans voted in 1951 to become a commonwealth.

Puerto Rico’s Hispanic heritage is still richly evident in the island’s architecture, customs and language— 95% of the population speak Spanish. Though both English and Spanish are official languages, few are truly bilingual. Vestiges of the Taino language can be found in words such as hurricane and hammock. Though the Taino were decimated by Spanish diseases and mistreatment, a recent genetic study shows that a surprising number of Puerto Ricans carry Taino blood, suggesting that there was more assimilation than previously thought.

The three major Puerto Rican political parties are differentiated primarily by their stance on the political status of the island. A small, but sometimes violent, minority favor independence, citing Puerto Rico’s distinct heritage and cultural differences. In 1950 independentistas attempted to assassinate President Truman; four yeas later a group opened fire in the U.S. House of Representatives, wounding five politicians. Statehood is advocated by those who want increased federal aid and expanded political power, such as full representation in Congress. However three times, most recently 1998, Puerto Ricans voted by narrow margins to retain commonwealth status. According to some it is the best of both worlds— a degree of independence along with U.S. citizenship and significant federal support.

Northern Mariana Islands
Status: Commonwealth of the U.S.
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines
Size: 180 square miles
Population: 75,000
Background: The Northern Marianas are fourteen islands in a 500 mile chain. Only the three southernmost islands of Saipan, Tinian and Rota are developed. The native Chamorros, probably descendants of migrants from Malaysia, first encountered Europeans in 1521 when Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan stopped by on his round-the-world voyage. Spanish missionaries and merchants showed up in the 1600s and dominated the sometimes hostile Chamorros for the next three centuries.

After Spain was defeated in the Spanish-American War Germany bought the islands and established coconut and fishing industries. The next two wars brought two more owners. Japan was appointed administrator by the League of Nations after World War I and cleared coconut groves to plant sugarcane. The Americans took the islands from the Japanese in one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.

In 1975 the people of the Northern Marianas voted to become a Commonwealth of the U.S. Today the Chamorro comprise about 30% of the population. About half the population are non-resident aliens— Filipino mostly— connected to the huge garment-making industry. And the Japanese are back— this time as tourists spending nearly half a billion dollars a year.


From history-rich island paradises to a barren reef, these U.S. territories have something for everyone.
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Philippines
Size: 212 square miles
Population: 158,000
Background: Guam is the fifteenth island in the chain that includes the Northern Marianas, and shares a similar culture. Guam was ceded to the U.S. by Spain in 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War . Occupied by the Japanese in 1941, it was retaken by the U.S. three years later. The military installation on the island is an important strategic base in the Pacific, and dominates the island with more than 23,000 military personnel and dependants. About half the population are Chamorros; 35% of the population are under the age of 15. Guam is seeking Commonwealth status, similar to that of Puerto Rico.

U.S. Virgin Islands
Status: U.S. territory
Location: Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, east of Puerto Rico
Size: 136 square miles
Population: 122,000
Background: This island paradise is comprised of three islands, St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, and numerous smaller islets. Columbus found the larger archipelago in 1493 on his second voyage to the New World and named it the Virgin Islands, after the 11,000 virgin followers of St. Ursula. During the 17th century, the islands were divided into two territorial units, one English and the other Danish. The English possessions were called the Virgin Islands; the Danish part was called the Danish West Indies.

The largest slave auctions in the world took place on St. Thomas. Sugarcane, produced by slave labor, drove the islands’ economy during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The streets of St. Thomas were a shoppers paradise as the Danish administrators allowed Blackbeard and other pirates to openly sell their stolen treasures.

Strategically important for the control of the Caribbean basin and protection of the Panama Canal, the U.S. Congress approved the purchased of the Danish portion in 1917 for $25 million in gold. The U.S. renamed the islands the U.S. Virgin Islands, and for clarity the U.K. appended “British” to its territory (BVI for short). Today tourism accounts for 70% of the islands economy and employment, with two million visitors a year.

American Samoa
Status: U.S. territory
Location: South Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and New Zealand
Size: 76 square miles
Population: 67,000
Background: Settled as early as 1000 B. C. by Polynesian migrants, the first European to visit the islands of Samoa was Dutch sea captain Jacob Roggegeen, in 1722. The islands became a strategic stopover for whalers and South Sea spice traders. Rivalries between Germany and the U.S. in the latter half of the 19th century were settled by an 1899 treaty in which the two countries divided the islands between the themselves. Germany was driven out by New Zealand during World War I. Western Samoa gained independence in 1962.

The U.S. part, American Samoa, is comprised of five islands and two coral atolls, including the coveted deep water harbor of Pago Pago. which the U.S used as a coaling station for naval ships until World War II.

Though the Samoans enthusiastically embraced Christianity after the first missionaries showed up in the 1830s, in many ways they have maintained their traditional ways better than most other Pacific Islanders. Nearly all land is owned communally and there is a social hierarchy that stresses one’s responsibility for the extended family. However Samoans have become heavily dependant on U.S. aid and imports. Samoans spend about 40% of their income on imported food. Though Samoa is a territory, not a commonwealth, Congress authorized it to draft its own constitution and elect local government.
Kingman Reef
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and American Samoa
Size: less than one half square mile
Population: uninhabited
Background: The U.S. annexed this reef in 1922. There is no plant life on the reef, which is frequently under water, but it does support an abundant and diverse marine life. In 2001, the waters surrounding the reef were designated a National Wildlife Refuge.

Midway Islands
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, north of Hawaii
Size: less than two and a half square miles
Population: 150 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services personnel
Background: Part of the Hawaiian island chain, Midway was first discovered by a Hawaiian sea captain in 1859. At the urging of the North Pacific Mail and Steamship Company, which was looking for a coal depot for its Asian mail run, the U.S. Navy surveyed and ceremoniously claimed the atoll for the U.S. in 1867. Shortly afterwards, in the first of a series of modifications, the Navy blasted and dredged the reef to enable ships to enter the coral-encircled lagoon. The laying of the trans-Pacific telegraph cable, which passed through the islands, brought the first residents in 1903. The second round of improvements, by the cable station superintendent, included ornamental trees and bushes, coarse grass to anchor the wind-swept sand, and several variety of birds. The U.S. naval victory over a Japanese fleet off Midway in 1942 was one of the turning points of World War II. The islands continued to serve as a naval station until closed in 1993. Today the islands are a wildlife refuge open to the public and eco-tourists. Deluxe accommodations in the former Officer Quarters Buildings are available, including air-conditioned rooms with mini-bars.

Wake Island
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and the Northern Mariana Islands
Size: two and a half square miles
Population: 200
Background: Wake Island is an atoll comprised of three islets surrounding a shallow lagoon. It was discovered in 1796 by British sea captain William Wake. The U.S. annexed the atoll in 1899 for a telegraph cable station. An airstrip and naval base was built in late 1940, but in December 1941 the island was captured by the Japanese and held until the end of World War II. Today the airstrip and facilities are under the administration of the Federal Aviation Agency.

Not really anybody’s idea of paradise, don’t expect to see any postcards from these tiny islands. Covered with bird droppings they are our last remaining possessions acquired under the Guano Act. The amazing thing is that some of these poop-covered rocks have interesting histories.
Navassa Island
Status: U.S. territory
Location: Caribbean Sea, between Haiti and Jamaica
Size: less than two and a half square miles
Population: no permanent residents
Background: Navassa was claimed for the U.S. in 1857 by sea captain Peter Duncun. The Baltimore-based Navassa Phosphate Company began mining guano in 1865, using convicts at first, then former black slaves. Emancipation had done little to improve working conditions for the blacks. They were forced to mine one-and-a-half tons of guano per day for a daily wage of 50 cents. In 1889 the deplorable conditions and mistreatment provoked a revolt and fifteen white overseers were killed. Forty workers were taken to Baltimore for trial. The court acknowledged the basis for the uprising— only one worker was hung, the others were granted a lesser sentence of life imprisonment. The Navassa Phosphate Company continued mining guano on the island until the beginning of the Spanish-American War, in 1898.

The U.S. built a light house on the island in 1916, but abandoned it in 1996. In 1998 a California entrepreneur named Bill Warren filed a claim under the Guano Act, obtained a deed to the island from heirs of the Navassa Phosphate Company and claimed ownership of the island. Predictably the U.S. Government denied his claim.

There is also an unsettled dispute between the U.S. and Haiti, which maintains the island lies within it’s territorial boundary.

Baker Island
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Australia
Size: one half square mile
Population: uninhabited
Background: Named by an American whaler named Michael Baker who found the island in 1832, the American Guano Company claimed the island in 1857. Presently the island is a National Wildlife Refuge run by the U.S. Department of the Interior; a beacon is situated near the middle of the west coast.

Howland Island
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, between Hawaii and Australia
Size: a little more than one half square mile
Population: uninhabited
Background: Howland was claimed by the American Guano Company in 1858. In 1937 an airstrip was built on the island as a stopover for aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart who, with her navigator Fred Noonan, was attempting a round-the-world flight. The pair took off from Lae, New Guinea, on July 2 but never reached Howland. The unexplained disappearance has intrigued conspiracy buffs ever since. Today Howland is a National Wildlife Refuge.

Jarvis Island
Status: U.S. territory
Location: South Pacific Ocean, halfway between Hawaii and the Cook Islands
Size: Less than two square miles
Population: uninhabited
Background: Discovered by the British in 1821 Jarvis was claimed in 1858 by the American Guano Company. The island was abandoned in 1879 after tons of the natural fertilizer had been removed. Britain annexed the island in 1889 but never did anything with it. The U.S. reclaimed it in 1935. The island is currently a National Wildlife Refuge; a small group of buildings are occasionally occupied by scientists and weather researchers.

Johnston Atoll
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean 800 miles southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii
Size: one square mile dry land; 50 square miles of shallow water
Population: 1000 military and support personnel
Background: The four tiny islands of sand, coral and guano were accidentally discovered in 1796 by an American sea captain. A U.S. company mined guano for several years in the late 1800s. During World War II the military used Johnston Island, the largest of the four outcroppings, as a refueling point for aircraft and submarines. A few days after the attack of Pearl Harbor Japanese submarines fired on military support facilities but caused no casualties. The U.S. Air Force took over in 1948, and the site was used for high altitude nuclear tests in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1964 a series of open-air biological weapons tests were conducted near the atoll using several barges loaded with rhesus monkeys. Chemical weapons have been stored on Johnston Island since 1971, but the U.S. Army began destroying them in 1981. Munitions destruction is reportedly complete, and the Army plans to turn over the atoll to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2003.

Palmyra Atoll
Status: U.S. territory
Location: North Pacific Ocean, a thousand miles south of Hawaii
Size: four and a half square miles
Population: uninhabited
Background: Of the islands claimed under the Guano Act Palmyra Atoll is the exception. A group of 54 islets, the atoll is known for its lush natural beauty and biological diversity. The first to land on the atoll were sailors from an American ship named Palmyra which was blown ashore during a storm in 1852. Though an American sea captain claimed Palmyra for the American Guano Company in 1859, guano was never mined there. In 1862 King Kamehameha IV of Hawaii took possession of the atoll, which is part of the Hawaiian archipelago. The U.S. included it when it annexed Hawaii in 1898, but when Hawaii became state in 1959 Palmyra, which lies a thousand miles from the main Hawaiian islands, was excluded.

The 1974 murder of a yachting couple on Palmyra became the subject of a 1991 novel by Vincent Bugliosi and a TV movie, both entitled And the Sea Will Tell. Today the atoll is privately owned by the Nature Conservancy which is managing the it as a nature preserve. It was designated a National Wildlife Refuge in 2001.

copyright©Jim McCluskey 2002-2012