Guano Islands Act

From Academic Kids

The Guano Islands Act was federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress on August 18, 1856 enabling citizens of the U.S. to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. The islands could be located anywhere, so long as they were not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of other governments. It also empowered the President of the United States to use the military to protect such interests.

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)

The Guano Islands Act is currently embodied in federal statutes as U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8, Sections 1411-1419.


In the early 19th century, guano came to be prized 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 allowed 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.

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 to eventually 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 it ever becoming a state in the Union. Such insular areas are also known as unincorporated territory.

More than 50 islands were eventually claimed. Of those remaining under U.S. control are Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, Kingman Reef, Johnston Atoll, and Midway Atoll. Others are no longer considered U.S. Territory. Possession of Navassa Island is currently disputed with Haiti. In, 1971, the U.S. and Honduras signed a treaty recognizing Honduran sovereignty over the Swan Islands.

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