Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119, enacted August 18,
1856, codified at 48 U.S.C. ch. 8 §§ 1411-1419) is a United States
federal law passed by the U.S. Congress that enables citizens of the
United States to take possession of unclaimed islands containing guano
deposits. The islands can be located anywhere, so long as they are not
occupied and not within the jurisdiction of another government. It
also empowers the
President of the United States
President of the United States to use the military
to protect such interests and establishes the criminal jurisdiction of
the United States in these territories.
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.
— Section 1 of the
Guano Islands Act
The Act continues to be part of the law of the United States. The most
Guano Islands Act claim was made to Navassa Island. However,
the claim was discarded because an American court ruled the island was
already under American jurisdiction (a claim
2 Criminal jurisdiction
4 Disputed claims
5 See also
7 External links
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In the 1840s, guano came to be prized as a source of saltpeter for
gunpowder as well as an agricultural fertilizer. The United States
began importing it in 1843 through New York. By the early 1850s, the
U.K. imported over 200,000 tons a year, and U.S. imports totaled about
760,000 tons. The "guano mania" of the 1850s led to high prices in
an oligopolistic market, attempts of price control, fear of resource
exhaustion, and eventually the enactment of the
Guano Islands Act 1856
in August 1856. The Act enables U.S. citizens to take possession of
unclaimed islands containing guano for the U.S., and empowering the
President to send in armed military to intervene. This encouraged
American entrepreneurs to search and exploit new deposits on tiny
islands and reefs in the Caribbean and in the Pacific.
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.
Section 6 provides that criminal acts on or adjacent to these
territories "shall be deemed committed on the high seas, on board a
merchant ship or vessel belonging to the United States; and shall be
punished according to the laws of the United States relating to such
ships or vessels and offenses on the high seas..." The provision
was considered and ruled constitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in
Jones v. United States, 137 U.S. 202 (1890).
More than 100 islands have been claimed for the United States under
Guano Islands Act, but most claims have been withdrawn. The Act
specifically allows the islands to be considered possessions of the
U.S., but it also provides that the U.S. is not obliged to retain
possession after guano is exhausted. On the other hand, it also does
not say that the U.S. cannot retain possession though the guano is
The Act does not specify what the status of the territory is after it
is abandoned by private U.S. interests.
The islands still claimed by the United States under the Act are:
Kingman Reef/Danger Rock
Navassa Island (claimed by Haiti)
Bajo Nuevo Bank (disputed with Colombia)
Serranilla Bank (disputed with Colombia)
Swains Island (part of American Samoa; no evidence that guano was
The claim by the United States under the
Guano Act of 1856 to a number
of islands are subject to territorial disputes. In most cases, the
dispute stems from attempts by a state to expand its exclusive
economic zone over the surrounding seas.
To cement the U.S. claim to
Navassa Island against Haiti, President
James Buchanan issued Executive Orders establishing United States
territorial jurisdiction beyond just the
Guano Act of 1856. The United
States Supreme Court in 1890 ruled the
Guano Act constitutional; and,
citing the actions of the Executive Branch, amongst other points in
Navassa Island as pertaining to the United States.
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
(22 km; 14 mi) territorial sea boundary for the United
States around Navassa Island.
Multiple countries have claimed ownership of
Serranilla Bank and the
Bajo Nuevo Bank.
Bajo Nuevo Bank
Bajo Nuevo Bank is the subject of conflicting claims
made by a number of sovereign states.
In 1899, a claim was made on Fox Island, Quebec, an island located
south of Harrington Harbour,
Quebec in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.
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. Neither the US nor
Jamaica recognized his claim
before the raft was destroyed in a storm in 1966.
Guano Island claims
United States Miscellaneous Pacific Islands
United States Minor Outlying Islands
^ Underhill, Kevin (July 8, 2014). "[By Kevin Underhill:] The Guano
Islands Act" – via www.washingtonpost.com.
^ Smil, Vaclav. (2004). Enriching the Earth: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch,
and the Transformation of World Food Production. Massachusetts: The
MIT Press, pp.42.
^ Skaggs & Wines, R. A. (1985). Fertilizer in America.
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, pp. 54-70.
Guano Islands Act (11 Stat. 119
^ a b c d e f g h "Acquisition Process of Insular Areas". United
States Government, Department of the Interior. Retrieved May 9,
^ Stahr, Walter (2012). Seward: Lincoln's Indispensable Man. New York:
Simon and Schuster. ISBN 978-1-4391-2794-0. several islands first
claimed under the guano island law ; Kindle location 2856 of
^ Skaggs, Jimmy M. (1994). The Great
Guano Rush: Entrepreneurs and
American Overseas Expansion. p. 213.
^ Jones v. United States, 137 U. S. 202 (1890).
Guano is Back…". McGill University, March 20, 2017.
^ Hale, Russell. "Contents of a Country: Leicester Hemingway's
Republic of New Atlantis". University of
Texas Humanities Research
Center. Archived from the original on November 11, 2013. Retrieved
December 7, 2016.
^ Surveying the American Tropics: A Literary Geography from New York
to Rio. Liverpool University Press. 2013.
Text of U.S. Code, Title 48, Chapter 8
34th Congress Statutes at Large
43rd Congress Statutes at Large
Territorial expansion of the United States
Thirteen Colonies (1776)
Treaty of Paris (1783)
Louisiana Purchase (1803)
Red River Cession (1818)
Adams–Onís Treaty (1819)
Texas Annexation (1845)
Oregon Treaty (1846)
Mexican Cession (1848)
Gadsden Purchase (1853)
Guano Islands Act (1856)
Alaska Purchase (1867)
Treaty of Paris (1898)
Tripartite Convention (1899)
Treaty of Cession of Tutuila
Treaty of Cession of Tutuila (1900)
Treaty of Cession of Manuʻa (1904)
Treaty of the Danish West Indies
Treaty of the Danish West Indies (1917)
Concept: Manifest destiny
Political divisions of the United States
Northern Mariana Islands
U.S. Virgin Islands
List of Indian