In the United States, an unorganized territory is a region of land without a "normally" constituted system of government. This does not mean that the territory has no government at all or that it is unclaimed territory. In practice, such territories are always sparsely populated.
Historically, the term "unorganized territory" was applied to an area in which there was no effective government control of affairs on a day-to-day basis, such as the former U.S. territories where the government exerted only transient control when its forces were actually present. In modern usage it indicates an area in which local government does not exist, or exists only in embryonic form. However the area is still, at least in theory, governed by the nation of which it forms part, or by a smaller unit of that nation.
These lightly governed regions were common in the 19th century during the growth of United States. Large tracts such as the Louisiana Territory, Missouri Territory and the Oregon Country were established by Congress. Later, a portion of a territory would organize and achieve the requirements for statehood, leaving the remainder "unorganized".
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Unorganized territories, as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau, occur in 10 minor civil division (MCD) states (Arkansas, Indiana, Iowa, Louisiana, Maine, Minnesota, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, and South Dakota) where portions of counties are not included in any legally established MCD or independent incorporated place. The U.S. Census Bureau recognizes such separate pieces of territory as one or more separate county subdivisions for statistical purposes. It assigns each unorganized territory a descriptive name, followed by the designation "unorganized territory". Unorganized territories were first used for statistical purposes in conjunction with the 1960 census.
At the 2000 census there were 305 of these territories within the United States. Their total land area was 85,392 square miles (221,165 km2) and they had a total population of 247,331. South Dakota had the most unorganized territories, 102, as well as the largest amount of land under that status: 39,785 square miles (103,042 km2), or 52.4% of the state's land area. North Dakota followed with 86 territories, 20,358 square miles (52,728 km2), or 29.5% of its land area. Maine was next with 36 territories, 14,052 square miles (36,396 km2), or 45.5% of its land area. Minnesota had 71 territories, 10,552 square miles (27,330 km2), or 13% of its land area. Several other states had small amounts of unorganized territory. The unorganized territory with the largest population was Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, a United States Marine Corps base with a census population of 34,452 inhabitants.
An unorganized territory can also be a United States territory for which the United States Congress has not enacted an organic act. In this sense, unorganized territories are territories over which the federal U.S. government is sovereign but which are not located within any of the states of the Union and have not been "organized" into self-governing units. Currently, all federal unorganized territories are insular areas, administered by the Office of Insular Affairs, U.S. Department of the Interior. American Samoa is technically unorganized, in that Congress has not passed an organic act, but it is effectively self-governing, under the terms of a constitution last revised in 1967. As of 2006, Palmyra Atoll (formerly part of the Territory of Hawaii) is the only unorganized incorporated U.S. territory. The other unorganized and all organized territories are unincorporated. Incorporated territories are permanently part of the United States whereas unincorporated territories may be sold, leased or granted independence by the United States.
At various times during the 19th century, large parts of the Great Plains were unorganized territory. After the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, the entire region was part of the Louisiana Territory until 1812 and the Missouri Territory until 1821. In 1821 the Missouri Compromise created the State of Missouri from the territory, and the rest of the region was left unorganized. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 created the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, bringing organized government to the region once again. The creation of Kansas and Nebraska left the Indian Territory as the only unorganized territory in the Great Plains.
In 1858, the western part of the Minnesota Territory became unorganized when it was not included in the new state of Minnesota; this area was organized in 1861 as part of the Dakota Territory. On May 2, 1890, the western half of the Indian Territory was organized as Oklahoma. The remainder was incorporated into the State of Oklahoma upon its admission to the union in 1907.
Alaska was an unorganized territory between its acquisition by the United States in 1867 and the creation of the Alaska Territory in 1912. While still organized as a state, however, almost half of Alaska remains unorganized at the county level.
In modern parlance, such territory would be considered incorporated territory (i.e., part of the United States proper), yet not organized territory. However, the distinction between incorporated and non-incorporated territories did not arise until the territorial acquisitions following the Spanish–American War in 1898.
Unorganized territories also exist in certain regions of Canada, such as Northern Ontario where there is no region-wide level of government. In Quebec, territory not within the border of a municipality of some sort is unorganized territory.