Guano Island Act

The Guano Islands Act (11 President of the United States to use the military to protect such interests and establishes the criminal jurisdiction of the United States.

Whenever any citizen of the United States discovers a deposit of guano on any island, rock, or key, not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government, and takes peaceable possession thereof, and occupies the same, such island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.
—first section of Guano Islands Act


In the 1840s, guano came to be prized as a source of saltpeter for gunpowder as well as an agricultural fertilizer. In 1855, the U.S. learned of rich guano deposits on islands in the Pacific Ocean. Congress passed the Guano Islands Act to take advantage of these deposits.

The act specifically allows the islands to be considered a possession of the U.S., but it also provided that the U.S. was not obliged to retain possession after the guano was exhausted. However, it did not specify what the status of the territory was after it was abandoned by private U.S. interests. The implication is that it would return to its former status as terra nullius.

This is the beginning of the concept of insular areas in U.S. territories. Up to this time, any territory acquired by the U.S. was considered to have become an integral part of the country unless changed by treaty and eventually to have the opportunity to become a state of the Union. With insular areas, land could be held by the federal government without the prospect of its ever becoming a state in the Union.

The provision of the Act establishing U.S. criminal jurisdiction over such islands was considered and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in Jones v. United States, 137 202 (1890).


More than 100 islands have been claimed for the U.S. under the Guano Islands Act. Most are no longer considered United States territory; those remaining under U.S. claim are:

Unlike some of the other Islands claimed under the Guano Act of 1856, but whose ownership was also disputed, a series of events cemented Navassa Island becoming part of the United States. Because of the actions of Haiti due to its own claim to Navassa Island, President James Buchanan issued Executive Orders establishing United States territorial jurisdiction beyond just the Guano Act. The United States Supreme Court in 1890 ruled the Guano Act of 1856 constitutional; and, citing the actions of the Executive Branch, amongst other points in Law, determined Navassa Island as pertaining to the United States. See: “Jones v. United States, 137 U. S. 202 (1890)” Control of Navassa Island was transferred by the Department of the Interior to the Director of the Office of Insular Affairs under Order No. 3205 on January 16, 1997, both the Department of the Interior, and Insular Affairs, would later grant administration responsibilities to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service under Order No. 3210 on December 3, 1999. Order No 3210 also established a 12 nautical mile territorial sea boundary for the United States around Navassa Island.

There are complicated case deals with Serranilla Bank and the Bajo Nuevo Bank, where multiple countries claim ownership. In 1899, a claim was even made on Fox Island, Quebec.

In 1964, Leicester Hemingway, brother of author Ernest Hemingway, attempted to establish a country (or more appropriately, a micronation) dubbed the Republic of New Atlantis, on an 8 x 30 foot bamboo raft anchored with an engine block outside the territorial waters of Jamaica, using the Guano Islands Act as part of a claim to sovereignty. His apparent intention was to use the new country as the headquarters for his own International Marine Research Society, with which he planned to further marine research, as well as to protect Jamaican fishing. His claim was never recognized by either the USA or Jamaica, and the raft was destroyed in a storm in 1966.[4][5]

In 1971, the U.S. and Honduras signed a treaty recognizing Honduran sovereignty over the Swan Islands.

See also


External links

  • Text of U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8
  • 34th Congress Statutes at Large
  • 43rd Congress Statutes at Large
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