Territories of the United States

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

After completing this lesson, you will be able to list the territories of the United States, describe what rights territory inhabitants have, and describe the similarities and differences between the relationships the United States has with each territory. A short quiz will follow.

What is a Territory?

A territory is an area that is overseen directly by a government, but doesn't have any sovereignty of its own. So a territory of the United States is one that is overseen by the US federal government, with no official sovereignty. This is in contrast to states, which share sovereignty with the federal government.

But what does sovereignty mean? An example of how this works would be marijuana legislation. The federal government says marijuana is illegal, but several states have exercised their sovereign rights and legalized it of their own accord. A territory could never do this. A state has more rights than a territory, and can enact its own laws to some degree.

In most cases, when territories were set up, it was as a way to govern newly acquired land. In the early United States, the country was still expanding, and it was unclear what would become states. Many areas that were originally territories are now states. Others became their own sovereign countries. The current territories are basically in the middle.

From 1868 to 1876, many current states were still territories
Historical Territories

Current US Territories

The United States currently has a total of sixteen territories. This includes 4 unincorporated organized territories, 11 unincorporated unorganized territories, and 1 incorporated unorganized territory.

For a territory to be incorporated it is officially part of the United States. And for a territory to be organized it must have an organized government created by an act of the US Congress.

The Palmyra Atoll is the only incorporated unorganized territory of the United States. It is partly privately owned by The Nature Conservancy, and partly owned by the federal government. But it has no formal government, so it isn't organized.

The 4 unincorporated organized territories are Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean.

Guam has been a territory since 1898 and has a population of around 160,000. People who are born there are US citizens by an act of Congress, though no territory has a Constitutional right to citizenship. They also cannot vote in national elections and don't have voting representation in Congress, though they do send a delegate. Ethnically, Guamanians are mostly a mix of Chamorro, Filipino, and Pacific descents.

Puerto Rico has been a territory since 1898, when it was acquired from Spain after the Spanish-American War. Ethnically, the vast majority of the population are white, Hispanic, or Latino. Like Guam, people born there are US citizens by an act of Congress.

Puerto Rico is the most heavily populated US territory
Puerto Rico is the most heavily populated US territory

The United States Virgin Islands are a group of Caribbean Islands that have been a US territory since 1916 when the Danish sold the area to the United States. The 106,000 strong population is mostly Afro-Caribbean, and people who are born there are citizens in the same way as in Guam and Puerto Rico.

The Northern Mariana Islands have been a territory since 1975, partly due to the aftermath of World War II, and a desire of the people of the islands for greater ties with the United States. People born there are also US citizens in the same, limited way.

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