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Location United States.svg

United States territory is any extent of region under the jurisdiction of the federal government of the United States,[1] including all waters[2] (around islands or continental tracts). The United States has traditionally proclaimed the sovereign rights for exploring, exploiting, conserving, and managing its territory.[3] This extent of territory is all the area belonging to, and under the dominion of, the United States federal government (which includes tracts lying at a distance from the country) for administrative and other purposes.[1] The United States total territory includes a subset of political divisions.


Territory of the United States

The United States territory includes any points of extended spatial location under the control of the United States federal government. Various regions, districts, and divisions are under the supervision of the United States federal government. The United States territory includes clearly defined geographical area and refers to an area of land, air or sea under jurisdiction of United States federal governmental authority (but is not limited only to these areas). The extent of territory is all the area belonging to, and under the dominion of the United States of America federal government (which includes tracts lying at a distance from the country) for administrative and other purposes.


Constitution of the United States

Original copy of the Constitution.

Under Article IV of the United States Constitution, territory is subject to and belongs to the United States (but not necessarily within the national boundaries or any individual state). This includes tracts of land or water not included within the limits of any State and not admitted as a State into the Union.

The Constitution of the United States states:

The Congress shall have Power to dispose of and

make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States; and nothing in this Constitution shall be so construed as to Prejudice any Claims of the United States, or of any particular State.

Congress of the United States

Congress possesses power to set territorial governments within the territory of the United States.[4] The power of congress over such territory is exclusive and universal. Congress legislation is subject to no control, unless in the case of ceded territory. The U.S. Congress is granted the exclusive and universal power to set a United States territory's political divisions.

Supreme Court of the United States

All territory under the control of the federal government is considered part of the "United States" for purposes of law. The United States Supreme Court ruling from 1945 stated that the term "United States" can have three different meanings, in different contexts:

The term "United States" may be used in any one of several senses. It may be merely the name of a sovereign occupying the position analogous to that of other sovereigns in the family of nations. It may designate the territory over which the sovereignty of the United States extends, or it may be the collective name of the states which are united by and under the Constitution.
Hooven & Allison Co. v. Evatt324 U.S. 652 (1945)

United States Department of the Interior

The United States Department of the Interior is charged with managing federal affairs within U.S. territory.[5] The Interior Department has a wide range of responsibilities (which include the regulation of territorial governments and the basic stewardship for public lands, et al.). The United States Department of the Interior is not responsible for local government or for civil administration except in the cases of Indian reservations, through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as those territories administered through the Office of Insular Affairs.

United States divisions

District, States, Counties, Cities and Townships

2000 U.S. population density in persons per sq. mile (contiguous U.S. only); This map show states and counties.

Territories are subdivided into legally administered tracts, e.g., non-sovereign, geographic areas that have voluntarily come under the authority of a government.[6] For example, American Samoa is a territory of the government of the United States. A U.S. state is not a "sovereign state" as viewed by international law, since the "Contract Clause" of the U.S. Constitution restricts individual states from conducting foreign relations. The District of Columbia is under the direct authority of Congress,[7] and was established from territory ceded by the states of Maryland and Virginia, with all of the Virginia cession having since been returned to that state.

The contiguous United States, Hawaii, and Alaska are divided into smaller administrative regions. These are called counties in 48 of the 50 states, and they are called boroughs in Alaska and parishes in Louisiana. A county can include a number of cities and towns, or just a portion of either type. These counties have varying degrees of political and legal significance. A township in the United States refers to a small geographic area. The term is used in two ways: a survey township is simply a geographic reference used to define property location for deeds and grants; a civil township is a unit of local government, originally rural in application.

History of United States territory

At times, territories are organized with a separate legislature, under a Territorial governor and officers, appointed by the President and approved by the Senate of the United States. A territory has been historically divided into organized territories and unorganized territories.[8][9] An unorganized territory was generally either unpopulated or set aside for Native Americans and other indigenous peoples in the United States by the U.S. federal government, until such time as the growing and restless population encroached into the areas. In recent times, "unorganized" refers to the degree of self-governmental authority exercised by the territory.

As a result of several Supreme Court cases after the Spanish-American War, the U.S. had to determine how to deal with its newly acquired territories, such as the Philippines,[10][11] Puerto Rico,[12] Guam,[13][14] Wake Island, and other areas that were not part of the North American continent and which were not necessarily intended to become a part of the Union of States. As a consequence of the Supreme Court decisions, the United States has since made a distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories.[15][16][17] In essence, an incorporated territory is land that has been irrevocabably incorporated within the sovereignty of the United States and to which the full corpus of the U.S. Constitution applies. An unincorporated territory is land held by the United States, and to which Congress of the United States applies selected parts of the constitution. At the present time, the only incorporated U.S. territory is the unorganized (and unpopulated) Palmyra Atoll.

State land claims and cessions to the federal government (1782-1802)  
Admission of states and territorial acquisition, U.S. Bureau of the Census  
Territorial acquisitions of the United States  
States and territories of the United States, August 21, 1959 to present  

Insular areas

Map of the U.S. Insular areas.

The U.S. currently administers 14 territories as insular areas:

Note that Hawaii is not administered as an insular area but as a member State in the Federation.

Dependent areas of the United States

Several islands in the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea are dependent territories of the United States.[18][19]

The Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, is administered by the U.S. under a perpetual lease, much as the Panama Canal Zone used to be before the signing of the Torrijos-Carter Treaties and only mutual agreement or U.S. abandonment of the area can terminate the lease.

From July 18, 1947 until October 1, 1994, the U.S. administered the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but the Trust ceased to exist when the last member state of Palau gained its independence to become the Republic of Palau. The Panama canal, and the Canal Zone surrounding it, was territory administered by the United States until 1999, when control was relinquished to Panama.

The United States has made no territorial claim in Antarctica but has reserved the right to do so.

Maritime territory of the United States

The Government of the United States of America has claims to the oceans in accord with international law, which delineates a zone of territory adjacent to territorial lands and seas. United States protects this marine environment, though not interfering with other lawful uses of this zone. The United States jurisdiction has been established on vessels, ships, and artificial islands (along with other marine structures).

The primary enforcer of maritime law is the United States Coast Guard. Federal and state governments share economic and regulatory jurisdiction over the waters owned by the country. (See tidelands.)

The Exclusive Economic Zones of the United States
The Exclusive Economic Zones of the United States

International law concerning United States territory

The United States is not restricted from making laws governing its own territory by international law. The United States territory can include occupied territory, which is a geographic area that claims sovereignty, but is being forcibly subjugated to the authority of the United States of America. United States territory can also include disputed territory, which is a geographic area claimed by United States of America and one (or more) rival governments.

Like most nations, the United States of America has acquired territory by force and conquest (Latin, "to seek for"). Internationally (specifically according to the Hague conventions), United States territory can include areas occupied by and controlled by a United States army. When de facto military control is maintained and exercised, occupation (and thus possession) extends to that territory. By convention, the forces in control of the territory have a responsibility to provide for the basic needs of individuals under their control (which includes food, clothing, shelter, medical attention, law maintenance, and social order). To prevent systematic abuse of puppet governments by the occupation forces, they must enforce laws that were in place in the territory prior to the occupation.

See also

Federal enclave, Political divisions of the United States, Commonwealth (United States insular area)
Territorial evolution of the United States, Territories of the United States
History of United States continental expansion, History of United States overseas expansion
Airspace (Controlled airspace and Uncontrolled airspace), United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, The John F. Kennedy Memorial built at Runnymede in the UK is part of the U.S. territory.


  1. ^ a b Hurd, John C. (1968) [1858]. The Law of Freedom and Bondage in the United States. New York: Negro Universities Press. pp. 438-439. OCLC 10955.  
  2. ^ McLaughlin, Andrew C.; Hart, Albert Bushnell (1914). "Influence of the United States on International Law". Cyclopedia of American Government. 2. New York: D. Appleton and Co.. pp. 204-209. OCLC 11430802.  
  3. ^ Smith, Robert W. (1986). Exclusive Economic Zone Claims: An Analysis and Primary Documents. Hingham, Mass.: M. Nijhoff. p. 467. ISBN 9024732506. OCLC 424143523.  
  4. ^ An example of this would be the Northwest Ordinance.
  5. ^ Towle, Nathaniel C. (1861). A History and Analysis of the Constitution of the United States. Boston: Little, Brown. pp. 384-385. OCLC 60723860.  
  6. ^ "Geographic Areas Reference Manual". U.S. Census Bureau. 16 September 2005. Retrieved 11 September 2009.  
  7. ^ "District of Columbia Home Rule Act". 19 November 1997. Retrieved 11 September 2009.  
  8. ^ Berg-Andersson, Richard E. (14 July 2008). "Official Name and Status History of the several States and U.S. Territories". The Green Papers. Retrieved 12 September 2009.  
  9. ^ "Indian Land Cessions in the United States, 1784-1894". The Library of Congress. 2009. Retrieved 12 September 2009.  
  10. ^ "Philippines - United States Rule". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-08-22.  
  11. ^ "Philippines - A Collaborative Philippine Leadership". U.S. Library of Congress. Retrieved 2006-08-22.  
  12. ^ Treaty of Paris (1898)
  13. ^ Paul Carano and Pedro C. Sanchez, A Complete History of Guam (Rutland, VT: C. E. Tuttle, 1964)
  14. ^ Howard P Willens and Dirk A Ballendorf, The Secret Guam Study: How President Ford's 1975 Approval of Commonwealth Was Blocked by Federal Officials (Mangilao, Guam: Micronesian Area Research Center; Saipan: Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Division of Historical Preservation, 2004)
  15. ^ FindLaw: Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244 (1901) regarding the distinction between incorporated and unincorporated territories
  16. ^ FindLaw: People of Puerto Rico v. Shell Co., 302 U.S. 253 (1937) regarding application of U.S. law to organized but unincorporated territories
  17. ^ FindLaw: United States v. Standard Oil Company, 404 U.S. 558 (1972) regarding application of U.S. law to unorganized unincorporated territories
  18. ^ Office of Insular Affairs
  19. ^ Department of the Interior Definitions of Insular Area Political Types


Further reading

  • Mellander, Gustavo A.; Mellander, Nelly Maldonado (1999). Charles Edward Magoon, the Panama Years. Río Piedras, Puerto Rico: Editorial Plaza Mayor. ISBN 1-56328-155-4. OCLC 42970390.  
  • Mellander, Gustavo A. (1971). The United States in Panamanian Politics: The Intriguing Formative Years. Danville, Ill.: Interstate Publishers. OCLC 138568.  

External links


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