The Annexation of Puerto Rico in 1898

Instructor: Eve Levinson

Eve has taught various courses of high school history and has a master's degree in education.

As a strategic move during the Spanish-American War, American forces invaded the island of Puerto Rico. When the war ended, The Treaty of Paris recognized Puerto Rico as an American territory.

Empire Building

The Age of Exploration was a period beginning in the 15th century during which European empires sent ships and explorers throughout the world to find resources and spread their influence. Spain had been able to establish a broad network of colonies, including territories in Central and South America and the South Pacific. But the 18th century brought revolutions that weakened most of the strongest powers and Spain was left with Puerto Rico, Cuba, the Philippines, and Guam as its only significant overseas territories. While the reach of European power was shrinking, the desire for American empire was growing.

Spanish-American War

In the late 19th century, Cuban revolutionaries fought for independence from the Spanish Empire. The conflict created instability in the Caribbean region, and the economic and political upheaval began to impact the United States. In February 1898, the USS Maine, an American battleship in the harbor off the coast of Cuba, exploded and was used as reasoning to go to war. In later years, the wreckage was discovered and evidence showed that the explosion had come from the accidental ignition of powder on the ship.

Illustration of the USS Maine Explosion
Illustration of the USS Maine Explosion

In April, President William McKinley urged Congress to recognize Cuban independence and demand Spain do the same. When they refused, McKinley sent a naval blockade to the island, which was meant to cut off supplies and communication. Spain, in turn, declared war.

Beginning in May, the US sent an American fleet to the Philippines, Spain's most important remaining territory in the South Pacific, and defeated Spain's naval fleet. It also sent ships and troops to invade Cuba, launching attacks on the cities of Santiago, Havana, and Guantanamo Bay. Through June and July, the battles continued with the US securing numerous victories and ultimately the island. Having taken two of the remaining Spanish colonies, the US set its sights on Puerto Rico.

Annexation of Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico was another Spanish territory in the Caribbean, and it took on further strategic importance as the US fought to remove Spanish influence in the region. At one point, the Americans had even considered attacking this smaller island first, using it as a base to cut off Spanish supplies to Cuba. Instead, when the Cuban campaign was successful, Puerto Rico's role shifted to one of a bargaining chip in the peace agreement.

General Nelson Miles in Puerto Rico
General Nelson Miles

Starting in May, the US stationed ships in the harbors off the San Juan shores of Puerto Rico, engaging in firefights with Spain. By June, the US blocked the San Juan harbor. On July 25, General Nelson Miles led an invasion of the island, landing troops in Guánica on the southern coast. By surrounding the Spanish, they were able to gain the upper hand and secure the port city of Ponce as well. Fighting continued into August 13, stopped only by the cease-fire signed by the two nations.

Treaty of Paris

The American and Spanish governments met in Paris to agree to peace terms to end the war. On December 10, 1898, they signed the Treaty of Paris. The treaty granted independence to Cuba, the transfer of power of Guam (in the Western Pacific Ocean) and Puerto Rico to the US, and the sale of the Philippines to the US for $20 million.

Political Cartoon about the Treaty of Paris
Political Cartoon about the Treaty of Paris

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