Unoccupied Territories: The Outlying Islands of America's Realm

At the outer edges of the USA are the tattered fragments of its dominion, known as the Minor Outlying Islands. Though officially uninhabited, each of these islands is one of the 14 Territories of the USA (along with five that are inhabited: Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa). Over the course of empire, most of these remote atolls and islets have been utterly transformed, by resource extraction and global wars. Now they are remnants of our history, where human visitation is restricted or banned outright. The islands are being reclaimed by wildlife, and evolving in their own way. Their future is driven less by national interests, and more by the collective needs of the planet.

Navassa Island
Navassa Island is an uninhabited island, less than two square miles in size, in the Caribbean Sea, between Jamaica and Haiti. Like many of these Minor Outlying Islands, it became a possession of the US as part of the Guano Islands Act, passed by US Congress in 1856, which allowed US citizens to claim any island with potential mineable deposits of bird guano, not already claimed by another nation, as “appertaining” to the United States (after Presidential approval). Within eight years, 59 islands in the Atlantic and the Pacific were claimed in this way, and over time these were mined for their nitrate-rich guano, for use as fertilizer – if they had any.
Navassa Island, also known as Devil’s Island, was mined for 40 years, beginning in 1865. The limited deposits of guano were augmented by deposits of tricalcium phosphate from ancient coral reefs. In the 1880s, mining activity increased, when the Navassa Phosphate Company of Baltimore built housing and brought more than 140 laborers and managers from Maryland to blast, dig, and bag the deposits, for export to the mainland USA. Harsh conditions induced a rebellion by black laborers, who ended up killing five white supervisors in 1889, resulting in murder trials in Baltimore. Officials visited the island and were alarmed enough by the conditions there that the murder sentences were commuted.
Mining ended in 1898, and the island was abandoned, until a lighthouse with a keeper’s residence was built in 1917. In 1929 the lighthouse was automated, and the island unoccupied again. Navassa saw some activity as an observation post in World War Two, but then was abandoned again. In 1999 the Navassa Island National Wildlife Refuge was established, which covers the island and the surrounding 12-mile ring of territorial waters. US Fish and Wildlife Service manages the refuge as one of 14 official territories of the USA; although since 1857 Navassa has also been claimed by Haiti, which is just 35 miles away. It is off limits to the public.
Bajo Nuevo Bank (Disputed)
Also known as the Petrel Islands, Bajo Nuevo Bank is a 15-mile-long reef with some grassy island outcrops in the otherwise open Caribbean Sea, midway between Jamaica and Central America. It was claimed by the US in 1869, under the Guano Islands Act. Though most of the islands in the region claimed by this act were renounced by the USA in a 1972 treaty with Colombia, this atoll-like structure, as well as another, Serranilla Bank, 70 miles west, were not mentioned by name, unlike the others, so they continued to be claimed as Territories of the USA, though not aggressively so.
Bajo Nuevo Bank has also, over the years, been claimed by Honduras and Jamaica – though Jamaica seems to have backed off since the 1980s. Nicaragua, however, still makes a claim that the Bajo Nuevo Bank is within its territorial waters, and therefore belongs to it. An international court ruling in 2012 found that Colombia has sovereignty over Baja Nuevo Bank, as well as the nearby Serranilla Bank, though the US does not recognize the ruling.
The islands have no occupants and almost no structures. Low Cay, the largest island, is currently about 2.5 acres in size, with the highest point around six feet above sea level. An automated lighthouse was erected by the Colombians there in 1982, and was rebuilt by the Colombian Ministry of Defense in 2008, as a 70-foot-tall metal tower that flashes once every 15 seconds.
Serranilla Bank (Disputed)
Serranilla Bank is 70 miles west of Bajo Nuevo Bank, and 220 miles from Nicaragua, in the middle of the otherwise open sea. Its physical attributes and jurisdictional status are like that of Bajo Nuevo Bank: it is a submerged atoll-like reef, around 25 miles long, with three small islands above water. The largest island is Beacon Cay, which has buildings, and is sometimes used to house a garrison of the Colombian Navy. There is also a 100-foot-tall metal lighthouse tower, which flashes every 20 seconds. It was built and rebuilt at the same time as the lighthouse on Bajo Nuevo Bank (1982, and 2008).
Serranilla Bank has been claimed by the US since 1879, as part of the Guano Islands Act. The US still claims ownership, though it has conceded administrative oversight to Colombia. Serranilla Bank has lingering claims by Honduras, Jamaica, and Nicaragua too.
While the land is of little value, territorial waters usually extend 12 miles out from landmasses, and an “exclusive economic zone” can extend for 200 miles. These zones are important for controlling shipping, submerged resources, and fisheries.
Johnston Atoll
Johnston Atoll is an isolated and unoccupied atoll, originally with just two small islands, 3,100 miles from the coast of the continental USA, and 700 miles southwest of the Hawaiian Islands. It became US territory when it was claimed as a Guano Island in 1858 (though it was claimed by the Kingdom of Hawaii at that time as well). By 1890, most of the guano had been mined off it, and things were relatively quiet until the 1930s, when the Navy developed a seaplane base on one of the islands, dredging coral from the sea floor to deepen the landing area, and more than doubling the island’s size.
Over the years, starting in 1941, the main island was enlarged from 45 acres to 600 acres, with a large airstrip, barracks for hundreds of military personnel, munition magazines, and bunkers. Two additional islands, each around 20 acres in size, were made by scratch, by dredging the reef. At its peak, the atoll housed 1,000 military and contractor personnel.
Starting in 1958, the first of hundreds of high-altitude research rockets was fired from the island, including several carrying nuclear bombs that were detonated in space (as much as 250 miles up), causing spectacular auroral effects, and disturbing the electrical grid in Hawaii. Nuclear tests continued through 1962, including some that failed at a low altitude, and one which blew up on the launch pad, spreading plutonium around the island. After the 1963 nuclear test ban went into effect, non-nuclear rockets continued the research into anti-satellite technologies and space warfare for another decade or so.
In 1970, the primary mission of Johnston Atoll was changed to stockpiling and destroying chemical weapons. A prototype incinerator was constructed over a five-year period, and began destroying chemical weapons brought from US bases in Japan, Germany, and the Solomon Islands. The incinerator operated until 2000, and then a massive clean up operation began, collecting, removing, and isolating chemically and radioactively contaminated soils and seafloor. Nearly all the buildings were razed, and their remains buried.
The runway was closed after the last flight out, in 2004, and the island remains off limits to this day, co-managed by the US Air Force and the US Fish and Wildlife Service. It is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Monument, a marine preserve established in 2009 that covers nearly 500,000 square miles of the Pacific Ocean, and includes most of the other Minor Outlying Island territories.

Midway Atoll
Midway Atoll is in the Northern Pacific Ocean, 1,300 miles west of Honolulu, in the trailing edge of the volcanic arc of islands that include the Hawaiian Islands. It consists of an outer barrier reef ring with a five-mile diameter, two primary islands inside it, and a dredged channel between them.
Midway has been a US territory since 1859, after being claimed as a Guano Island, though there is no evidence that guano was ever mined there. After failed attempts to develop it into a steamship coaling station in 1871, change came to the island in 1903, with the construction of the first transpacific telegraph cable. The cable provided the first direct telegraph route from the US to the Philippines, China, and Japan. It extended from Ocean Beach, in San Francisco, to Honolulu, then there to Midway, then to Guam, and Manila, ultimately covering 6,912 miles. Use of the cable was discontinued in the 1950s.
The two islands were completely transformed when the Navy developed the atoll into a naval aviation and submarine base, starting in 1940. It was second only to Pearl Harbor in importance as an outlying base to protect the nation’s west coast, and as a result it was attacked by the Japanese on December 7, 1941, along with Pearl Harbor, though much of the onslaught was repelled by US defenses. When the Japanese came back several months later, they met an even more effective defense, losing four aircraft carriers in the three-day Battle of Midway, a major turning point in the war in the Pacific.
After the war, the base expanded as Midway Naval Air Station, with submarine detection facilities, Distant Early Warning line support, and support for US military activity in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. The base was officially closed in 1993, though one runway is kept up as an emergency landing field for transpacific aviation, and for visitors. Between 100 and 200 Fish and Wildlife personnel are in residence there, but public visitation has only been allowed sporadically over the years, in very limited amounts, and has been suspended since 2012. Most of the buildings, including the 1903 cable company buildings, a Pan Am hotel from the 1930s, and the modern military base, remain – abandoned, and surrounded by hundreds of thousands of nesting gooney birds.
Kingman Reef
Kingman Reef, 3,300 miles from the shores of the continental USA, and 1,000 miles south of Hawaii, is the northernmost atoll of the Line Islands, a chain of remote Pacific islands that runs south for 1,500 miles, and include the former colonies of Kiribati.
Despite its lack of guano and its mostly underwater state, seven square miles of Kingman Reef was claimed under the Guano Island Act in 1860. It was annexed officially in 1922, and was placed under the jurisdiction of the US Navy in 1934.
Though its lagoon was used by flying clipper ships and other vessels, Kingman Reef was never settled or developed. In 2000 the Navy relinquished control to the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and it is now part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument.
The few acres or so that remain above the ocean, for now, make this perhaps the most minor of the Minor Outlying Islands, and of the rest of the 14 official US Territories, as well. Public access on land there is not permitted.

Palmyra Atoll
Palmyra Atoll is part of the Line Islands, a remote island chain in the Pacific Ocean, more than 1,000 miles south of Honolulu. It was claimed by the USA as part of the Guano Islands Act in 1859, though reportedly devoid of any mineable guano. The islands of the atoll have been privately owned since then, changing hands often.
From 1939 to 1959, it was taken over by the Navy, which built it into the Palmyra Island Naval Air Station in 1941, dredging ship channels, joining islands, building causeways that divided the lagoon, building runways, and barracks. After the war, most of the buildings were destroyed, though the changes to the atoll’s structure remain.
In 2000, some of the atoll was purchased by the Nature Conservancy, for $30 million, and today it is a marine sanctuary, wildlife refuge, and environmental research center, administered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Nature Conservancy. There are still a few parts of the atoll owned by other private parties as well.
Palmyra is the only one of the 14 official Territories of the USA that is classified as an incorporated territory, which means it is an integral and permanent part of the USA, subject to all provisions of the US Constitution, as opposed to simply a possession of the USA. This makes the land of Palmyra more American, in a way, than the land occupied by the 3.3 million inhabitants of Puerto Rico, which remains an unincorporated territory.
This is because Palmyra was previously considered part of the incorporated Territory of the Hawaiian Islands, but was omitted when Hawaii became a state in 1959. Palmyra became instead the only independent “unorganized (meaning no government), incorporated territory of the USA.”
Without an official population, this meant less. But in 2004, several bungalows were built to house a few dozen visiting workers, researchers, and scientists. While these residents are considered temporary, if anyone was ever born here, their status would be unique.
Unlike the other Minor Outlying Islands, visitation to this island is permitted, with the prior approval of the Nature Conservancy or the Fish and Wildlife Service. Few make it there, though, as it is a journey of several days by boat from Honolulu, and there is no scheduled service by boat or airplane.
Jarvis Island
Jarvis Island is a 1,000-acre island, 3,600 miles from the shore of the continental USA. It was claimed by the US in 1858 as part of the Guano Islands Act, and was mined for a few decades, when more than a dozen buildings were constructed, including a large superintendent’s house and a small railway for moving guano to the shore.
American mining stopped in 1879, then was resumed by a British company a few years later, during a period when Britain claimed some of the USA’s underutilized guano islands as theirs.
Faced with the perception that Jarvis, and other unoccupied territorial islands in the Pacific, may not be recognized as US territory, the federal government took unusual action, establishing a program in 1935, known as the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project. Since military occupation was not permitted by international law, and would have been too provocative, US civilians were secretly hired, and paid three dollars a day to reside on these islands. Most of the re-colonists were educated native Hawaiians and recent students recruited from a boys school in Honolulu.
After a year of continuous occupancy, President Roosevelt officially claimed the islands once again as US Territories. The occupation continued for a few more years, with buildings improved, and a runway cleared, until the re-colonists were evacuated, on February 7, 1942, after which the runway, which was probably never used, was bombed by the Japanese.
Largely untouched since then, Jarvis, just under two square miles in size, and 25 miles south of the equator, remains abandoned, with some un-removed piles of guano, ruins of the tram, and other faint remnants. Like the others, it is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and off limits to the public.
Baker Island
Baker Island, 4,300 miles from the continental USA, and halfway between Hawaii and Australia, is less than a square mile in size. It was claimed under the Guano Island Act, in 1857, and guano was mined by the American Guano Company from 1859 to 1878. Ships loaded more than a thousand tons of guano at a time, often delivering it to ports in Britain. In 1886, the mining rights were transferred to a British company, which, assuming the US had lost interest in it, petitioned Britain to annex the island. For a few years it was officially considered a British Territory, at least by Britain.
Baker was also re-colonized as part of the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project, starting in 1935. Teams of four people, with Army officers sometimes accompanying them, were dropped off on Baker, Howland, and Jarvis Island, and tasked with building shelters, studying wildlife, recording weather observations, maintaining a daily log, and keeping a US flag flying. Ships came by every three months or so, bringing a relief team and more provisions of canned goods and water. This continued through 1941, when the war with Japan started.
During the war, Baker was used as a staging area for fighters and bombers, and a mile-long runway was built, as well as several concrete buildings, and a radio station. Today it is a treeless unoccupied island, its runway overgrown, with a few concrete ruins, and bits of machinery. It is part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and is off limits to the public.

Howland Island
42 miles north of Baker Island is Howland Island, a remote island territory with a similar history. Slightly larger than Baker, but equally treeless and without fresh water, Howland was claimed by the Guano Act in 1858, and mined by the American Guano Company and others until depleted around 1878. In 1935 teams from the American Equatorial Islands Colonization Project arrived, and setting up their rudimentary habitations, occupied the island over the next five years.
The team on Howland was also tasked with helping to build a runway, with the WPA, as these islands were being considered for possible civilian transpacific aviation. Their value for the US military was also growing, and civilian use served their interests as well. Amelia Earhart’s around the world flight, intended to help promote civilian aviation, was scheduled to land for fuel on the newly built field on Howland in 1937, and the excited colonists prepared a special room for her (the only room on the island with curtains, they said), as well as an outdoor shower for her. Already 22,000 miles into the eastward journey, which started in Miami on June 1, she took off from New Guinea on July 2, bound for Howland, to complete the remaining 7,000 miles across the Pacific. But she never arrived, and after an extensive search, was presumed to have crashed into the ocean.
Years later, the airfield, made famous by Earhart’s fateful journey, was bombed by the Japanese within hours of bombing Pearl Harbor in 1941, and two of the young re-colonists stationed there were killed. The remaining two were trapped there until they were finally evacuated in February 1942, after being marooned for 53 days. In 1954 the remains of the two killed by the Japanese attack were disinterred, and buried in a ceremony at a military cemetery in Hawaii.
After the war, Howland was abandoned, and is now part of the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, managed by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and off limits to the public. It, along with Baker, is close to the international date line, and the equator, making them the places with the latest time on earth.
Wake Island
Wake is an atoll in Micronesia, halfway between Midway and Guam, and 4,300 miles from the continental USA. It is one of the most remote islands in the world, 600 miles away from the nearest inhabited island (an atoll in the Marshall Islands that is itself very small and remote). Its remoteness has made it an important place.
Wake was claimed by the US in 1898, though development was minimal until 1935, after it (along with other US Territories, Midway Atoll, Johnston Atoll, and Kingman Reef) were placed under the control of the Navy, in order to permit Pan American Airways to construct landing sites for island-hopping commercial air travel between the USA and China – sites which would, of course, also be of benefit to the military. An area was cleared in the lagoon for flying boats to land, and support and refueling facilities were prepared, including a 48-room hotel. The first China Clipper planes came in 1936, and continued until Japanese bombs started falling on the island in December 1941. By then the Navy had constructed an airbase there, which was taken by the Japanese and occupied by them until the end of the war.
After the war, the island was fixed up and turned back into a Naval Air Base. Pan Am service continued, until longer-range commercial jets took over transpacific flights years later. In 1972, with a decrease in civilian use, the Air Force took control of the airport from the FAA, and began developing parts of the island as an antiballistic missile test site, supporting missile activities at Kwajalein Atoll, 700 miles away. Though programs have shifted between the Army and the Air Force over the years, Wake still serves in this role today, and access to the atoll is restricted.
Wake is the only active fully militarized US Territory. Its only residents are government and military personnel and contractors, whose numbers hover around 100, unless a major operation is occurring. It is administered by the US Air Force, as well as the Fish and Wildlife Service. The runway is nearly 10,000 feet long, and is an important emergency landing field, open to civilians in an emergency only.