How many states are there in the United States of America? Fifty, each represented by a star on the flag. Congratulations, you just passed a question on a basic civics test.

You’re not done. How many unincorporated organized and unorganized territories are administered by the U.S.? Wait. While you’re at it, you might as well start working on that list of incorporated organized and unorganized territories. What are they and name them? You seem to be having trouble with the question (n.b. I sure did!). Let me give you some nice, long, thorough clues directly from the Constitution of the United States of America.

“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.”

Here’s another clue, this time from a Supreme Court ruling:

“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.”

That probably didn’t help much. It sounds like a passage written by lawyers to me (oh, it was?).

Let’s start by some legal definition of terms. I quote the Free Legal Dictionary, rather than available Supreme Court law websites because (1) I am not an attorney and (2) we need to keep this as simple as possible:

“A precise definition of territories and territorial law in the United States is difficult to fashion. The U.S. government has long been in the habit of determining policy as it goes along. The United States was established through a defensive effort against British forces and then through alternately defensive and offensive battles against Native Americans. From this chaotic beginning, the United States has struggled to fashion a coherent policy on the acquisition and possession of land.”

That really doesn’t help very much, so I am going free-range to get the simplest category out of our way. By eliminating the “incorporated” category, we may be able to understand the “unincorporated” category more easily. There are two types of incorporated territories: (1) organized and (2) unorganized. The last two incorporated organized territories ceased to exist as such in 1959 when the Territory of Hawaii and the Territory of Alaska gained statehood (interestingly, they became stars on the flag one year apart, Hawaii on July 4th, 1959 and Alaska on July 4th, 1960). For more on the amazing territory-to-state story, please start here and here, then follow your own curiosity down the rabbit hole of U.S. history.

Less easy to set aside is the characteristics of what makes an incorporated unorganized territory. Many current states started off as incorporated unorganized parts of territories granted statehood. When the incorporated organized part of Minnesota became a state, the western part of that territory became an incorporated unorganized territory and eventually became South Dakota (does this mean that if I’ve been to Minnesota I can also cross South Dakota off my list?).

Currently, there are only three categories of “territory” that fall within incorporated unorganized status: (1) U.S. coastal waters out to 22.2 km (excluding the first 3 km wherever state waters have authority); (2) U.S. flagged vessels at sea, including those of the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, ships of the Merchant Marine, artificial islands, and “other maritime structures, although let’s just put that headache away; (3) Palmyra Atoll, a group of 50 small, mostly connected islands about 1,609 km south of the Hawaiian islands, occupying an area of about 12 square km, with 4 square km of land area. They were “acquired” when the Hawaiian islands were “annexed” in 1898 (the word “annexed” has roughly the same connotation here as it does in the following sentence: “in 1620, citizens of the British Empire initiated annexation of the first of many areas of what was to become the United States”). It is now a wildlife refuge administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy. It is occupied by between 4 and 25 “non-occupant” staff and scientists at any given time.


That brings us to unincorporated organized and unorganized territories. Let’s start with the overarching category “unincorporated.” There are thirteen unincorporated territories occupying a total of 12, 272.24 square km (4,738.34 square miles or 3,032,537.6 acres for you property owners). They are: American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands (all of these populated by over 4 million people), then Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef(!), Midway Atoll (a National Wildlife Refuge), Navassa Island (disputed by Haiti), and Wake Island.

Of these, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the United States Virgin Islands (USVI), and the United States Minor Outlying Islands (Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island, although we have just described Palmyra Atoll as an incorporated unorganized territory, but whatever…) are unincorporated organized territories and are located in the Caribbean and in the Pacific Ocean.

The unincorporated unorganized territories are: American Samoa, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Midway Atoll, Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank, and Bajo Nuevo Bank. Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef,  Palmyra Atoll, and Wake Island comprise the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument. But wait! Didn’t we JUST determine that all of these except Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, Puerto Rico, the USVI, and Midway Atoll, and Wake Island were unincorporated organized territories? Yes, we did. We just said that.

Map of Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands

Apparently, the way this breaks down is with the definition of insular areas and how rights to the people of those territories are granted under what are called the Organic Acts that govern the establishment of a territory or designation of an agency to administer such a territory. The arrangements can also be covered by a Compact of Free Association, which allows an area once administered as a territory of the United States to continue its free association under special negotiated provisions. The typical benefits obtained by these islands are economic and military in nature, but are a patchwork of rights to work in the United States but Medicaid benefits were eliminated in 1996 under the U.S. Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act. The U.S. military may operate bases in any of the areas covered by compacts and must provide protection for those areas. No other country may exercise the same military rights while a compact is in effect. Citizens of those islands, although not citizens of the United States (see here and here), may serve in branches of the U.S. military. In 2008, the Micronesian Islands (FSM) had a higher per capita enlistment in the U.S. military and experienced five times the U.S. per capita average of casualties in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The patchwork of laws just continues to be supremely confusing. For instance, for American Samoa,

“Congress has extended citizenship rights by birth to all inhabited territories except American Samoa, and these citizens may vote and run for office in any U.S. jurisdiction in which they are residents. The people of American Samoa are U.S. nationals by place of birth, or they are U.S. citizens by parentage, or naturalization after residing in a State three months.[2] Nationals are free to move around and seek employment within the United States without immigration restrictions but cannot vote or hold office outside of American Samoa.[3]” (Wikipedia)

Other insular areas have this sort of business to unravel:

“Residents of insular areas do not pay U.S. federal income taxes but are required to pay other U.S. federal taxes such as import/export taxes,[4][5] federal commodity taxes,[6] social security taxes, etc. Individuals working for the federal government pay federal income taxes while all residents are required to pay federal payroll taxes (Social Security[7] and Medicare).” (Wikipedia)

But they are not U.S. citizens. To underline the confusion just one more time,

“Unlike within the states, sovereignty over insular areas rests not with the local people, but in Congress. In most areas, Congress has granted considerable self-rule through an Organic Act which functions as a local constitution. The Northwest Ordinance grants territories the right to send a non-voting delegate to the U.S. Congress. The United States government is part of several international disputes over the disposition of certain maritime and insular sovereignties some of which would be considered territories. See International territorial disputes of the United States.”

While there are many benefits to these sovereign areas maintaining a Compact of Free Association with the United States, some of the benefits are not provided with anything approaching the letter of the laws governing the agreements. Education, healthcare, and economic concerns are under debate and an increasing cause for concern, given China’s recent activity near these islands.

There will be some population of readers who see these issues as yet another hand out for free government stuff. There are arguments to be made against this thinking: (1) the Compacts of Free Association indicate the nature of the benefits to be derived from affiliation with the United States for both sides (U.S. and freely associated state); (2) if the legislation has passed, the benefits should be funded as they would for anyone who is paying some amount of taxes, working for the U.S. governments, serving in the U.S. military, or any other activity that obtains to their legal rights under the agreements; (3) the U.S. government has a history of signing domestic and international treaties and doing less than promised. Some of these breaches are due to changing circumstances between signatories of the treaty. Some are due to bad faith. These do not seem to be operational with the free association states.

So, what is Washington, District of Columbia, the seat of our national government? There are many ways to answer this but it was established as a “district,” meaning that it is not a state. It is the administrative area for the nation. Many people who work in D.C. commute there from Maryland or Virginia but the population of the district itself is over 670,000 (December 2015). Like some of the territories discussed above, it is neither fish nor fowl. Its citizens do not have all the rights of state citizens but have more rights than many of the territories. This sums it up:

“A locally elected mayor and a 13‑member council have governed the District since 1973. However, the Congress maintains supreme authority over the city and may overturn local laws. D.C. residents elect a non-voting, at-large congressional delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives, but the District has no representation in the U.S. Senate. The District receives three electoral votes in presidential elections as permitted by the Twenty-third Amendment to the United States Constitution, ratified in 1961.” (Wikipedia)

This isn’t stated explicitly but D.C. citizens are taxed but they have no voting congressional representative. Does that sound like a familiar insult? It was a primary point of friction between Britain and the American Colonies near the end of the 18th C.

This is a hotly debated issue. Here are some resources for you to explore the topic on your own:

and the following items from British comic John Oliver (HBO) who has described himself as looking “…like a nearsighted parrot that works at a bank.”

(Bleeped version of some potentially offensive language)

While we’re at it, here’s a similar John Oliver piece on the strange world in which U.S. territories exist:

As I count through all of the various districts, territories (of whatever description), and insular areas, I arrive at the number sixty-seven (67). The U.S. counts 50 states but then has all of these areas from which we garner benefits but do not uniformly administer their rights as citizens of those districts, territories, and insular areas. As a scientist who studies how we have come to understand the laws of the universe, this seems like an unnecessarily complicated mess that needs resolution.

And that is why I wrote this. When laws are written they should be administered equitably. If they are not, then the people who wrote them should (1) change them or (2) fund them. If they do neither of these choices, then we should get politicians who will (1) keep their promises or (2) craft laws with greater care.

If this became confusing at any point, it is because the underlying material is a mess. I may have even misunderstood elements of the whole picture. Please forgive those potential faults. But thank me for not going into extraterritorial jurisdictions and  protectorates.

Author: makingsenseofcomplications

I have an academic background in literature and, separately, science. My career has been in industry in positions of increasing responsibility assisting in the drug development process - one of the most amazing intellectual pursuits of the human mind, among many other amazing intellectual pursuits. I am interested in films, philosophy, history, art, music, science (obviously), literature (also obviously), some video gaming, human behavior, and many other topics. I wish there was more time in every day because we have a world that is full of amazing phenomena that are considered too superficially by too many. Although my first and last names are fictional, I think I believe in all of the stuff you read here, although I retain the right in perpetuity of changing my thoughts about anything written herein.

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