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Post-Spanish-American War map of "Greater America".

United States overseas expansion follows the expansion of U.S. frontiers on the North American continent (see Mexican-American War, War of 1812, and Territorial acquisitions of the United States), in particular during the "Age of Imperialism", the later part of the nineteenth century and ending with World War I, when all the major powers rapidly expanded their overseas territories.


Geographical extent

The area that would become Alaska was purchased from the Russian Empire in 1867, as a vital refueling station for ships trading with Asia.

The overseas expansion of the United States into Puerto Rico and the Pacific occurred as a consequence of the Guano Islands Act, the Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish American War, the acquisition of American Samoa via the Treaty of Berlin, and the annexation of the Republic of Hawaii at the request of the then president of Hawaii, Sanford Dole.

The U.S. Virgin Islands were purchased from Denmark in 1917. Only the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (including the Northern Mariana Islands) was gained after World War II.

In the period between the mid-1800s until the beginning of the twentieth century the United States gained a number of overseas islands and territories. The following areas have at one time or another been under the control of the United States of America and have not been fully incorporated into the country as states

U.S. expansion during the Age of Imperialism



A variety of factors coincided during this period to bring about an accelerated pace of U.S. expansion:

  • The United States had completed its occupation of available contiguous territory within the North American continent.
  • Wars such as the Spanish-American War that led to acquisition of former colonies of foreign states.
  • The industry and agriculture of the United States had grown beyond its need for consumption. Powerful business and political figures such as James G. Blaine believed that foreign markets were essential to further economic growth, promoting a more aggressive foreign policy.
  • The prevalence of racism, notably Ernst Haeckel's "biogenic law," John Fiske's conception of Anglo-Saxon racial superiority, and Josiah Strong's call to "civilize and Christianize" - all manifestations of a growing Social Darwinism and racism in some schools of American political thought.[citation needed]
  • The development of the "Frontier Thesis" of Frederick Jackson Turner, which concluded that the American frontier was the wellspring of its creativity and virility as a civilization. As the Western United States was gradually becoming less of a frontier and more of a part of America, many believed that overseas expansion was vital to maintaining the American spirit.
  • The publication of Alfred T. Mahan's The Influence of Sea Power upon History in 1890, which advocated three factors crucial to The United States' ascension to the position of "world power": the construction of a canal in South America (later influencing the decision for the construction of the Panama Canal), expansion of the U.S. naval power, and the establishment of a trade/military post in the Pacific, so as to stimulate trade with China. This publication had a strong influence on the idea that a strong navy stimulated trade, and influenced policy makers such as Theodore Roosevelt and other proponents of a large navy.
Post Spanish-American War U.S. political cartoon from 1898: "Ten Thousand Miles From Tip to Tip" meaning the extension of U.S. domination (symbolized by a bald eagle) from Puerto Rico to the Philippines. The cartoon contrasts this with a map of the smaller United States in 1798.


The area that would become Alaska was purchased from the Russian Empire on March 30, 1867, for 7.2 million dollars (at 2 cents per acre).[2] The land went through several administrative changes before becoming an organized territory on May 11, 1912 and the 49th state of the U.S. on January 3, 1959. The name "Alaska" was already introduced in the Russian colonial time, when it was only used for the peninsula and is derived from the Aleut alaxsxaq, meaning "the mainland," or more literally, "the object towards which the action of the sea is directed."[3] It is also known as Alyeska, the "great land", an Aleut word derived from the same root.

Guano islands

The Guano Islands Act was federal legislation passed by the U.S. Congress on August 18, 1856 enabling citizens of the United States to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. More than 50 islands were eventually claimed. Of those remaining unquestionably under U.S. control due to this act alone are Baker Island, Jarvis Island, Howland Island, and Johnston Atoll. Other islands could be included, depending on opinion. Some claims have never been relinquished but are not recognized by the US or the party currently claiming control.

In 1959, 94% of Hawaii's residents voted to relinquish all land claims (proposition 2) to the United States and become a state.

Others are no longer considered United States territory. Possession of Navassa Island is currently disputed with Haiti. An even more complicated case probably unresolved until now seems to be the Serranilla Bank and the Bajo Nuevo Bank. In 1971, the U.S. and Honduras signed a treaty recognizing Honduran sovereignty over the Swan Islands.


The Kingdom of Hawaii was long an independent monarchy in the mid-Pacific Ocean. During the 19th century, the first American missionaries and then business interests began to play major roles in the islands. Most notable were the powerful fruit and sugarcane corporations such as the Big Five, which included Castle & Cooke, Alexander & Baldwin, C. Brewer & Co., Amfac and Theo H. Davies & Co..

In January 1893, a group of American and European businessmen organized and carried out a coup d'état backed by the United States military[4][5] which was successful in deposing Hawaiian Queen Lili'uokalani and overthrowing the monarchical system of government. The stated goal of the conspirators was annexation to the United States, both for geostrategic and economic reasons.[5] Although U.S. President Grover Cleveland strongly disapproved the coup – which had been planned by operatives linked to Cleveland's predecessor President Benjamin Harrison – Euro-American business elites maintained political control as the Republic of Hawaii until 1898, when Hawaii President Sanford Dole was offered and agreed to annexation by the United States. The Hawaiian Islands officially became a territory of the U.S. in 1900. Following voter approval of the Admission of Hawaii Act, on August 21, 1959 the Territory of Hawaii became the state of Hawaii and the 50th state of the United States.

Spanish-American War

The Spanish-American War took place in 1898. The Treaty of Paris (1898) ended the Spanish-American war giving the United States possession of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Guam. The treaty also made Cuba a U.S. protectorate. After the war, the United States greatly increased its international power.

This era also saw the first scattered protests against American imperialism. Noted Americans such as Mark Twain spoke out forcefully against these ventures. Opponents of the war, including Twain and Andrew Carnegie, organized themselves into the American Anti-Imperialist League.

During this same period the American people continued to strongly chastise the European powers for their imperialism. The Second Boer War was especially unpopular in the United States and soured Anglo-American relations. The anti-imperialist press would often draw parallels between America in the Philippines and the British in the Second Boer War.[6]


Under the 1898 Treaty of Paris, Spain relinquished all claim of sovereignty over and title to Cuba, with the island to be occupied by the United States. The United States agreed to assume and discharge the obligations for the protection of life and property so long as such occupation should last. Cuba gained formal independence on 20 May 1902, with the independence leader Tomás Estrada Palma becoming the country's first president. Under the new Cuban constitution, however, the U.S. retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and to supervise its finances and foreign relations. Under the Platt Amendment, Cuba also agreed to lease to the U.S. the naval base at Guantánamo Bay. The naval base occupies land which the United States leased from Cuba in 1903 "... for the time required for the purposes of coaling and naval stations." The two governments later agreed that, "So long as the United States of America shall not abandon the said naval station of Guantanamo or the two Governments shall not agree to a modification of its present limits, the station shall continue to have the territorial area that it now has, with the limits that it has on the date of the signature of the present Treaty."[7][8]

Puerto Rico

On July 25, 1898, during the Spanish–American War, Puerto Rico was invaded by the United States with a landing at Guánica. As an outcome of the war, Jones-Shafroth Act granted all the inhabitants of Puerto Rico U.S. citizenship. In 1917, the U.S. granted Puerto Ricans the right to democratically elect their own governor. In 1950, the Truman Administration allowed for a democratic referendum in Puerto Rico to determine whether Puerto Ricans desired to draft their own local constitution.[9] A local constitution was approved by a Constitutional Convention on February 6, 1952, ratified by the U.S. Congress, approved by President Truman on July 3 of that year, and proclaimed by Gov. Muñoz Marín on July 25, 1952, the anniversary of the 1898 arrival of U.S. troops. Puerto Rico adopted the name of Estado Libre Asociado (literally translated as "Free Associated State"), officially translated into English as Commonwealth, for its body politic.[10][11]


In Guam, settlement by foreign ethnic groups was small at first. After World War II the strategic value of the island showed, construction of a huge military base began along with a large influx of people from other parts of the world. Guam today has a very mixed population of 164,000. The indigenous Chamorros make up 37% of the population. The rest of the population consists mostly of whites and Filipinos, with smaller groups of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Micronesians, Vietnamese and Indians. Guam today is almost totally Americanized. The situation is somewhat similar to that in Hawaii, but attempts to change Guam's status as an 'unincorporated' U.S. territory have yet to meet with success.


The Philippine Revolution against Spain began in April 1896, culminating two years later with a proclamation of independence and the establishment of the First Philippine Republic. However, the 1898 Treaty of Paris which ended the Spanish-American war transferred control of the Philippines from Spain to the United States. This agreement was not recognized by the nascent Philippine Government which, on June 2, 1899, proclaimed a Declaration of War against the United States.[12] The Philippine-American War ensued, officially ending in 1902, though hostilities continued until about 1913.

The Philippine Organic Act of 1902 provided for the establishment of a bicameral legislature composed of an upper house consisting of the Philippine Commission (an appointive body having both U.S. and Filipino members) and a popularly elected lower house, the Philippine Assembly. The Philippine Autonomy Act (Jones Law) of 1916 officially declared the United States commitment to grant independence to the Philippines, " soon as a stable government can be established therein."[13] Partial autonomy (commonwealth status) was granted in 1935, preparatory to a planned full independence from the United States in 1946. Preparation for a fully sovereign state was interrupted by the Japanese occupation of the islands during World War II. The United States suffered a total of 62,514 casualties, including 13,973 deaths in its attempt to liberate the Philippines from Imperial Japanese rule during the hard-fought Philippines campaign from 1944-1945. Full independence came with the recognition of Philippine sovereignty by the U.S. in 1946.

The Philippine-American War (1899 to 1902, with some hostilities continuing until 1913) is often cited as another instance of United States imperialism. While many Filipinos were initially delighted to be rid of the Spanish rule of the Philippines, the guerrilla fighters soon found that the Americans were not prepared to grant them much more autonomy than Spain had allowed. Thus, for the next 15 years, American forces engaged in a war in the jungles of the Philippines against the Filipino resistance. The Philippines became a U.S. colony in the fashion of Europe's New Imperialism, with benevolent colonial practices. English joined Spanish as an official language, and English language education was made compulsory.[14][15] The Philippines remained under U.S. or Japanese rule until after World War II. The Filipinos welcomed the American reconquest from Japan in 1944, and the U.S. recognized their political independence in 1946.

American Samoa

Germany, the United States, and Britain colonized the Samoan Islands. The nations came into conflict in the Second Samoan Civil War and the nations resolved their issues, establishing American Samoa as per the Treaty of Berlin, 1899. The US took control of its allotted region on June 7, 1900 with the Deed of Cession. American Samoa was under the control of the U.S. Navy from 1900 to 1951. From 1951 until 1977, Territorial Governors were appointed by the Secretary of the Interior. Immigration of Americans was never as strong as it was, for instance, in Hawaii; indigenous Samoans make up 89% of the population. The islands have been reluctant to separate from the US in any manner.

U.S. Virgin Islands

In 1917, the United States purchased the former Danish colony of St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas, which is now the U.S. Virgin Islands. The United States purchased these islands because they feared that the islands might be seized as a submarine base during World War I. After a few months of negotiations, a sales price of $25 million was agreed. A referendum held in late 1916 confirmed the decision to sell by a wide margin. The deal was thus ratified and finalized on January 17, 1917, when the United States and Denmark exchanged their respective treaty ratifications. The U.S. took possession of the islands on March 31, 1917. The territory was renamed the U.S. Virgin Islands.[16] U.S. citizenship was granted to the inhabitants of the islands in 1927.

Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands

The Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (TTPI) was a United Nations trust territory in Micronesia (western Pacific) administered by the United States from July 18, 1947, comprising the former League of Nations Mandate administered by Japan and taken by the U.S. in 1944. On October 21, 1986, the U.S. ended its administration of the Marshall Islands district. These islands are now republics that, in 1986, signed a Compact of Free Association with the U.S.

See also


  1. ^ Covenant, CNMI Law Revision Commission,, retrieved 2008-05-20 
  2. ^ Student Information, Office of Economic Development, State of Alaska,, retrieved 2009-01-17 
  3. ^ Ransom, J. Ellis. 1940. Derivation of the Word ‘Alaska’. American Anthropologist n.s., 42: pp. 550-551
  4. ^ Hale, C. (2008) "When Hawaii Had a King", Smithsonian Magazine, February 2008, p. 21.
  5. ^ a b Kinzer, Stephen (2006) America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq
  6. ^ Miller 1984, p. 163 "... Will Show No Mercy Real Warfare Ahead For Filipino Rebels Kitchener Plan Adopted The Administration Weary of Protracted Hostilities.' The reference to Kitchener made eminently clear MacArthur's intent, as the British general's tactics in South Africa had already earned ..."
  7. ^ "Agreement Between the United States and Cuba for the Lease of Lands for Coaling and Naval stations". The Avalon project, Yale Law School. February 23, 1903. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  8. ^ "Treaty Between the United States of America and Cuba". The Avalon project, Yale Law School. May 29, 1934. Retrieved 2007-06-20. 
  9. ^ Act of July 3, 1950, Ch. 446, 64 Stat. 319.
  10. ^ Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico - in Spanish (Spanish).
  11. ^ Constitution of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico - in English (English translation).
  12. ^ Pedro Paterno's Proclamation of War, MSC Schools, Philippines, June 2, 1899,, retrieved 2007-10-17 
  13. ^ ( – Scholar search) Philippine Autonomy Act (Jones Law), Corpus Juris, August 28, 1916,, retrieved 2008-07-07 
  15. ^ Andrew Gonzalez, FSC (1998), "The Language Planning Situation in the Philippines" (pdf), Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural development 19 (5&6): 487, doi:10.1080/01434639808666365,, retrieved 2007-11-06  (requoted by
  16. ^ Today in History: March 31 : Virgin Islands, U.S. Library of Congress,, retrieved 2009-12-04 .


  • Miller, Stuart Creighton (1984), Benevolent Assimilation: The American Conquest of the Philippines, 1899-1903, Yale University Press, ISBN 0300030819 
  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Nelly Maldonado Mellander (1999). Charles Edward Magoon: The Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1563281554. OCLC 42970390.
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971). The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.

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