This is The United States of America.
This is the United States of America.
These islands aren’t states, but rather territories of the United States.
There are 16 islands here, most of which are in the Caribbean, Polynesia, or Micronesia.
11 of these island territories are less significant than the rest because they have no permanent
In fact, some of them have an area of less than 5 square miles.
The other 5 of the 16 islands are inhabited, and those are the ones you’ve probably heard
So, what are these 5 islands?
First let’s talk about how these territories are organized.
Incorporated organized territories are the first of these sub classes.
Territories under this group are incorporated, meaning they are not a state, but are still
entitled to all parts of the Constitution, besides for parts specifically reserved for
The organized in the title refers to the Organic Acts, which were acts that gave certain territories
the right to self-govern.
Organic Acts have been passed for territories in the past, some of which are now states,
including my home state of Illinois, Hawaii, Colorado, and even the District of Columbia,
to name a few.
There are currently no territories in the Incorporated Organized subclass, the last
territories in the group being Alaska and Hawaii, both granted statehood in 1959.
The second group, Incorporated Unorganized territories, are the same as Incorporated
Organized territories except for their lack of a “normal” government.
Territories in this group also usually have no or a very small permanent population.
The Minnesota, California, and Dakota territories, for example, were all part of this group before
Currently, the group only includes one territory, Palmyra Atoll.
U.S. coastal waters, extending out to about 12 nautical miles, are also Incorporated Unorganized
“territories”, along with U.S. flagged vessels, including the Coast Guard, Navy,
and U.S. Merchant Marine ships.
The U.S. Merchant Marine refers to both federally and civilian owned merchant vessels.
The third group, Unincorporated Organized territories, consists of the territories you’ve
probably heard of, including Puerto Rico, Guam, the Virgin Islands, and the Northern
The last group, Unincorporated Unorganized territories, are all desolate islands with
no inhabitants, with one exception, the American Samoa.
This island is in this group simply because Congress hasn’t done anything about it yet.
An uninformed person would expect to see yet another desolate island, just like the others
in the group, but instead they’d find over 50,000 people and a lot of tourists.
Since these islands are unincorporated, some fundamental rights are given, but other Constitutional
rights are not.
Of course, the American Samoa is self governing, but it doesn’t fit the description of a
not “normally” constituted system of government.
So, now that you have a better understanding of the way these territories are grouped,
how did they become territories in the first place?
The largest territory of all, both population and land wise, is Puerto Rico.
This island boasts a large population of 3.7 million making it more populous than 21 states,
and has a land area of 3,515 square miles.
Puerto Rico was first settled by humans between 3,000 B.C.E. and 2,000 B.C.E.
However, Puerto Rico, in its modern form, was founded on November 19th, 1493 by Columbus
He originally named the island San Juan Bautista, but Spanish traders referred to the island
as Puerto Rico, meaning rich port, and that name stuck.
After enslaving the natives and establishing ports, Columbus sailed onwards to Florida,
but the island remained an important trade port.
After the United States gained independence from Britain, trade between the nations grew
to the point where the US rivaled Spain in trade importance on the island.
On September 23rd, 1868, an army of Puerto Ricans claimed independence from Spain for
their island in a movement known as Grito de Lares.
However, the army was soon defeated by the mightier Spanish army.
The island was granted autonomy by Spain in 1897, but a year later the Spanish American
war broke out.
The United States launched an invasion of Puerto Rico in July of 1898, and claimed the
island with little resistance from the inhabitants.
In December of the same year, the Treaty of Paris (the 3rd one that involved the US) was
signed, officially ending the Spanish American war.
It also approved of the cession of Puerto Rico.
Because of this, Puerto Rico, the now colony of the US, switched to the US’s monetary
system and placed it under tariff protection.
Things remained the same until 1947, when the American government gave Puerto Rico the
right to elect their own governor.
Luis Munoz Marin became the first governor of Puerto Rico that was elected by the people.
3 years later, in 1950, the US government gave the island the right to draft its own
Another 3 years later, Puerto Rico was changed from a US territory to commonwealth.
This means it's a state in every way except name.
4 states, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Virginia, and Pennsylvania are commonwealths in their
full, official state names.
There is no difference between these 4 commonwealths/states and the 46 other states nowadays.
However, when the states were founded they drafted their own Constitutions, written in
order to ensure the monarchy doesn’t return.
Commonwealth status gives Puerto Ricans common citizenship to the US, common defense, and
a common market.
But, because the island is not a state, they do not pay federal taxes, and are not able
to vote in Congress.
They do however send delegates to Congress, but they can’t vote.
This makes for an awkward situation when the island has a larger population than 21 states.
Guam, with a population of 170,000 and a land area of 210 square miles, is the second largest
US territory both population and land wise.
The island was purely inhabited by natives until March 6th, 1521 when a Spanish expedition,
led by Ferdinand Magellan, arrived with a 3 ship fleet.
Magellan was Portuguese, but was sailing for King Charles I of Spain.
Magellan's fleet had consisted of 5 ships when they first left from Spain, but 2 ships
were lost along the way, and the 3 remaining lost about half their crew.
This was because of storms, disease, and mutiny.
Magellan's fleet first landed at Umatac, a village on the southwestern coast of the island.
Guam wasn’t officially claimed by Spain until 1565, 44 years after Magellan first
landed on the island.
From 1565 on, the island was a regular port for Spanish traders sailing from Mexico to
A few hundred years later, on June 21st, 1898, American troops captured Guam in a bloodless
This was during the Spanish-American war, and Guam was an important Spanish port island.
The island wasn’t officially owned by the US until the Treaty of Paris was signed in
From this point on, the island was an important naval station for the US.
Because of this, the US made the naval commandant governor of the island.
The Navy governed the island as “USS Guam”, and refused any proposals of a civilian government.
Besides for serving as a military base, the island was also used for farming.
Maize, copra (essentially dried coconut), rice, sugar, and timber were exported, along
with fish and refined petroleum.
The island continued exporting goods until, on December 8th, 1941, Guam was invaded by
The Japanese renamed the island “Omiya Jima”, which means Great Shrine Island.
This was one of the countless islands captured by Imperial Japan during World War 2.
However, the second Battle of Guam began on July 21st, 1944.
It ended when Japanese forces surrendering to US troops on August 10th.
Sumay and Hagåtña, Guam’s previous largest towns, were destroyed.
With the island back in US hands, they converted it into a naval base like it had been previously,
now with airfields.
However, Guam’s natives weren’t too happy with this.
The result was the Guam Organic Act of 1950, which established Guam as an unincorporated
organized territory of the US, the same status held by Puerto Rico.
The Immigration Act of 1952, section 307, associated the island with the US even more.
It granted everyone born on the island after April 11th, 1899, full US citizenship.
18 years later, on September 11, 1968, Congress passed the Elective Governor Act.
This allowed the people of Guam to elect their own governor and lieutenant governor (a lieutenant
governor is basically a “vice governor”, if you will).
In the current day, the island is still used as an important strategic location for air
force and naval bases.
In fact, after the US’s leases in the Philippines expired in the 90’s, they relocated many
of the troops located there to Guam.
The United States Virgin Islands, or USVI, with a population of 106,000 and a land area
of 133 square miles, is the third most populous territory island of the United States.
The USVI consists of 4 large islands and 50 plus smaller islets and cays.
The first European to discover the islands was Christopher Columbus, when he was blown
off course during his 1493-1496 voyage.
He first landed in modern day Saint Croix island, and continued exploring Saint Thomas
and Saint John.
By the 1600s, many European countries were interested in establishing colonies on the
islands, including England, France, Spain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.
England and the Netherlands followed through with their plans in the 1620s, when they jointly
settled Saint Croix island.
Puerto Rico, still under Spanish control, invaded the small colony, causing the French
They were able to fend off the invasion, and took the colony for themselves.
It remained under French control until 1733.
The Danish West India and Guinea Company founded the second settlement on the islands in 1665,
which was on modern day Saint Thomas island.
Their new settlement had a mere 113 residents.
Wanting to expand, they founded their second settlement, which was in modern day Saint
John island in 1692.
The Danish had claimed the island since the 1680s, but they hadn’t been able to settle
due to their feud with the neighboring British city Tortola.
In order to maintain their relationship with the Danish, they eventually ceased their opposition.
The Danes joined the West India Company and settled Saint John.
After they settled, the agricultural business exploded on the island.
The Danish West Indian Company purchased St. Croix from the French in 1733, uniting St.
Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John together as the Danish West Indies.
The island remained under Danish control until 1917, until the US bought the islands for
strategic reasons in the ongoing World War 1.
The islands of St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John became the United States Virgin Islands.The
American Samoa, officially known as the Territory of American Samoa, with a population of 56,000
and a land area of 76 square miles, is the least populated of the populated island territories.
The island has been inhabited by Samoan people since around 1,500 BCE.
In 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen was the first European to encounter the islands.
Even after Europeans knew of the island, their influence was limited to occasionally trading
with the islanders.
In the 1830s, missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived on the Samoa Islands.
The missionaries converted the islanders to Christianity with great success.
Some of these missionaries, along with traders, enjoyed the islands so much that they settled
They established their own communities, with governments and laws.
The natives and the settlers lived in peace for many years.
42 years later, in 1872, the United States asked the high chief of tribes on the eastern
Samoa islands for permission to establish a naval base in exchange for military protection.
The base was greenlighted, and was built 6 years later in 1878.
By the end of the century, both Britain and Germany were competing for control of the
As a result of the second Samoan Civil War, a treaty between Great Britain, Germany, and
the US was drafted, making island became an official territory of the United States.
Uniquely, citizens of this island territory are not granted citizenship to the United
States because of the territory’s odd classification under Unincorporated unorganized.
Instead of citizens, the islanders are American nationals.
This means that they can live and work in the states and other territories but cannot
vote in elections unless they go through normal immigration processes.
The Northern Mariana Islands, officially known as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana
Islands, with a population of 77,000 and a land area of 179 square miles, is the 4th
most populous territory of the United States.
The commonwealth consists of 22 islands, all of which are part of the larger chain of islands
simply known as the Mariana Islands.
The Mariana Islands chain even includes Guam, though it is politically separated.
Saipan is the largest of the islands with a land area of 46.5 square miles, and is where
the capital, Chalan Kanoa, is located.
The islands were only inhabited by the Chamorro people until European explorers settled the
islands in 1668.
The Chamorro people are believed to have come from Southeast Asia to the islands around
They were skilled sailors and craftsmen, making intricate weavings and pottery.
Chamorro farmers mainly grew sweet potatoes and yams, planting the seeds based on the
phases of the moon and ocean tides.
The islands were under Spanish rule from their first meeting with Ferdinand Magellan until
1899, when they were sold to Germany.
Germany then relinquished the islands to Japan as the empire went against Germany.
The islands did not become US owned until the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands
was put into effect in 1947, following World War 2.
Initially the islands included in the trust were under the control of the US Navy, but
in 1951, they were transferred to the Department of the Interior.
This would remain this way until the trust was dissolved by the UN in 1990.
This made the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands an American territory.
So that’s the US, 50 states and 13 islands (5 of which aren’t desolate), with, like
everything else, a deeper history than you would have thought.