From the Reference Desk: U.S. Acquisition of Pacific Island Territories

By Amy Flick


Courtesy of the CIA World Factbook, which is in the public domain.


“I have a citation that Guam was the first U.S. Pacific island territory, and I’m not sure that that’s correct. What date did it become a U.S. territory?”

At last, a ready reference question! This should be quick!

“What about Hawaii, Samoa, the Aleutians, Santa Catalina and the islands off the California coast? Oh, and I need to find the treaty for the U.S. acquisition of Guam, and for whichever of those acquisitions came first.”

So, not a quick question. I then spent the afternoon wading through the history of nineteenth-century U.S. colonialist adventures.

One issue to resolve here is definitions. Are the Aleutians and Santa Catalina considered Pacific island territories? With “U.S. Pacific island territory” part of the original question, are you including islands that are part of U.S. states? Do you want the acquisition date, or the date that the islands formally became U.S. territories? Beyond raising those questions, I leave it to the professor to decide, and I concentrate on finding dates and documents for acquisition of the islands she mentioned.

Since this was an urgent request, I started with Google hoping to find a list already compiled. I found lists of U.S. territorial acquisitions, with dates, from the Global Policy Forum and from Dr. Kathryn MacKay at Weber State University. These list the acquisition dates for the Mexican Cession (California) as 1848, Alaska 1867, Hawaii 1898, Guam 1898, and American Samoa 1899. The list from Dr. MacKay cited a publication from the U.S. Geological Survey, Franklin K. Van Zandt, Boundaries of the United States and the Several States. Emory’s catalog listed it with a link to the USGS. I went through them in the order listed in the USGS book.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Feb. 2, 1848, 9 Stat. 922, T.S. 207, added California and other western territory to the United States as a purchase after the Mexican-American War. Article V of the treaty sets the boundaries, including “thence across the Rio Colorado, following the division line between Upper and Lower California, to the Pacific Ocean,” with no mention of the islands off the coast. Van Zandt at page 151 notes that California never had the status of an organized territory, but was instead admitted directly into the Union. The California state constitution of 1849, Article 12, asserted jurisdiction of “all the islands, harbors, and bays along and adjacent to the coast,” and an August 31, 1852 appropriations act of Congress at 10 Stat. 91 made an appropriation for subdividing the islands. And Santa Catalina was included in the County of Los Angeles in the Compiled Laws of California for 1850-1853. According to Van Zandt, “[t]he question of sovereignty over these islands has been raised several times, the claim being made that as they were not mentioned in the treaty of 1848, Mexico had not given up its title to them; but it is evident…that it was generally understood after the treaty was signed that the islands were a part of the territory ceded to the United States.” (Van Zandt, p. 152)

Alaska was purchased by treaty from Russia in 1867, in Treaty Concerning the Russian Possessions in North America, art. I, March 30, 1867, 15 Stat. 539, T.S. 301, 11 Bevans 1216, 1217 (1867). However, it wasn’t formally organized as a U.S. territory by act of Congress until August 24, 1912, 37 Stat. 512. Article I of the treaty sets Alaska’s boundaries, including “to the meridian of one hundred and ninety-three degrees west longitude, so as to include in the territory conveyed the whole of the Aleutian islands east of that meridian.”

Hawaii’s annexation was complicated. Characterized as a “voluntary action of its citizens” (Van Zandt at p.33),  the male property owners voting under the 1897 Constitution of the Republic of Hawaii, and was not by treaty. The Legislature of the Republic of Hawaii approved a Joint Resolution of annexation to the United States in 1895. Joint Resolution, Laws of the Republic of Hawaii 1892-1898, Special Session 1895, p. 100 (Aug. 13, 1898). Hawaii was annexed by a Joint Resolution of Congress in 1898. Joint Resolution: To provide for annexing the Hawaiian Islands to the United States., Chapter 55, 55th Congress, Session 2, 30 Stat. 750, 751 (July 7, 1898). Hawaii became a U.S. territory by act of April 30, 1900, 31 Stat. 141.

Getting to the subject of the original question, Guam was ceded to the United States by Spain in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, along with the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. Treaty of Peace (Treaty of Paris), art. II, Dec. 10, 1898, 30 Stat. 1754, T.S. 343, 11 Bevans 615, 621 (1898).

As with Hawaii, American Samoa’s history is also complicated. According to Van Zandt (p. 36), the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany exercised a “joint protectorate” over Samoa after a naval confrontation over the islands in 1889. Samoa was divided into German and U.S. regions in an 1899 treaty with Germany and the United Kingdom. Adjustment of jurisdiction in Samoa, Dec. 2, 1899, 31 Stat. 1878, T.S. 314, 1 Bevans 276, 277 (1899). As Van Zandt notes at page 36 of the USGS document, “natives of Samoa had no part in this convention.” The Joint Resolution of Congress accepting the cession of the Samoan Islands came in 1929 by Public Resolution 89, Ch. 281, 70th Cong. 2d Sess., 45 Stat. 1253 (Feb. 20, 1929).

Of the islands and territories listed by the professor in her request, Santa Catalina and the islands off the coast of California were acquired by the United States first. Guam was acquired by treaty in 1898. The information from the U.S. Geological Survey document, Franklin K. Van Zandt, Boundaries of the United States and the Several States, made it easy to find the treaties, congressional acts, and state laws on Hein Online to send to the professor. (I’m linking here to the Library of Congress, HathiTrust, and other freely available sources, however.) I also recommended Foreign Relations of the United States for more documents related to the territorial acquisitions and treaties.

One response to “From the Reference Desk: U.S. Acquisition of Pacific Island Territories

  1. Pingback: Top 19 Posts of ’19 | DipLawMatic Dialogues

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