Fun:United States Minor Outlying Islands

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Location of the islands. Navassa Island not included.

The United States Minor Outlying Islands are a group of remote, mostly uninhabited (aside from a handful of researchers and military personnel) islands that the United States has stuck their flag on for one reason or another. Most of these are located in the Pacific, but one, Navassa Island, is located in the Caribbean and is the source of a territorial dispute. Most of them can be traced to the Guano Islands Act,Wikipedia which was passed in 1856 and allows U.S. citizens to claim uninhabited islands rich in guano,Wikipedia bird poop that can be used as fertilizer.[1][note 1] While the guano has largely been exhausted, the U.S. still considers these important for their military and economic value; many of these islands saw action in World War II and might be valuable again if another war or even a major trade dispute happens to break out.[2] These islands also have impressive biodiversity due to their isolation from humanity since access to most of them is strictly forbidden to the general public, so they are the subject of research and conservation efforts.

Palmyra Atoll[edit]

Palmyra Atoll is unique in that it is the U.S.'s only remaining incorporated Territory after Hawaii gained statehood.[3] This makes it the only Minor Outlying Island that the general public is allowed access to, although it's still very difficult to get there as the only airstrip is privately owned and it's a seven day boat trip from Hawaii.[4] The United States wasn't the first sovereign country to claim Palmyra Atoll, in fact, it was first occupied by the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi,[3] meaning it tends to come up whenever the U.S.'s sovereignity over Hawaii is challenged.[5] While Palmyra Atoll was included in the Territory of Hawaii, it was excluded from the state by executive order and is nowadays run by Congress.[3] Palmyra Atoll is one of the islands that has something resembling a permanent population, with four to twenty researchers generally being on the island at any given time, and it is perhaps the only Minor Outlying Island to have had a murder case.[6]

Baker and Howland Islands[edit]

Baker Island and Howland Island are two of the Phoenix Islands, an archipelago that otherwise belongs to Kiribati. The U.S. used to claim all of the Phoenix Islands for itself, to the point that the British Empire tried to forcibly relocate people to the Phoenix Islands in an attempt to stop the U.S. from encroaching,[7] but these disputes were settled by the Treaty of TarawaWikipedia in 1979.[8] Baker and Howland Islands have a timezone of UTC-12, which is unique to them; this makes them the last place on Earth where each day begins and ends.[9] However, like most of the Phoenix Islands, Baker and Howland Islands are completely uninhabited, making this timezone mostly theoretical. Howland Island has a little bit of extra infamy due to being the place where Amelia Earhart went missing.[10]

Navassa Island[edit]

Navassa Island is the only Minor Outlying Island in the Caribbean, and it is perhaps the most controversial as it is claimed by Haiti, which makes it one of the few ongoing territorial disputes that the U.S. is currently involved in.[note 2] The island was visited by Christopher Columbus, but some of his crewmen died there after drinking contaminated water.[11] Navassa was one of the first islands claimed under the Guano Islands Act in 1857, and the U.S. extracted the guano by sending "freed" African-American laborers to the islands in conditions that were basically a repeat of slavery, complete with former slave overseers; the conditions were so bad that there was a revolt that killed three of the supervisors.[12] Haiti claims the island because it was established as a French posession by the Treaty of Ryswick,Wikipedia which should have transferred over to them upon their independence, especially as it was mentioned by their constitution.[13] Perhaps a bigger reason why Haiti cares about this dispute is that Haitian fishermen rely on the fisheries near Navassa Island, so the U.S. having an exclusive economic zoneWikipedia in the area would have potential negative effects on the local Haitian population, all for an island that no one lives on.[14]

Other islands[edit]

  • Jarvis Island is mostly just notable for being one of the only U.S. territories in the Southern Hemisphere alongside American Samoa. It is the very definition of a deserted island, having absolutely no freshwater resources, but the U.S. still tried to build a settlement here.[15]
  • Johnson Atoll is closer to Hawaii than Palmyra Atoll; while the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi claimed this island as well, it was the U.S. that mined all the guano.[16] However, the island is better known for being completely contaminated with radioactive waste, nerve agents, and Agent Orange due to the U.S. military's shenanigans there.[17]
  • Kingman Reef is an atoll close to Palmyra that doesn't share its incorporated status. It was claimed under the Guano Islands Act despite not actually containing any guano.[18]
  • Midway Atoll, so named because it is about midway between the U.S. and Japan,[19] is part of the Hawaiian chain (the only part that isn't administered by Hawaii itself) and is the second most populated Minor Outlying Island, having a "whopping" forty residents (although back when it was a naval base, it could have as much as 5,000).[20] It is probably most famous for being the site of the Battle of Midway,Wikipedia widely considered the turning point of the Pacific Theatre of World War II.
  • Wake Island is becoming a major U.S. military base, having 100 military personnel stationed there (although that's still little compared to the 7,000 on Guam).[21] However, it has been claimed by the Marshall Islands[22] as well as the sham micronation "Kingdom of EnenKio".Wikipedia[23]


  1. This law is technically still in effect, so if you happen to be sailing the Pacific and come across any islands rich in bird poop, you know what to do!
  2. Others include Swains IslandWikipedia (disputed between TokelauWikipedia and American Samoa), Machias Seal IslandWikipedia (disputed between Maine and Canada), and a large dispute with Canada over the Northwest Passage.Wikipedia


  1. This 1856 law makes it legal to seize islands for America if they have lots of bird crap, Dylan Matthews, Vox 31 July 2014
  2. Why US and China Compete for Influence With Pacific Island Nations, Ben Westcott, Bloomberg 11 July 2023
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Palmyra Atoll, U.S. Department of the Interior
  4. Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  5. U.S. purchase of Palmyra hits impasse, Pacific Islands Report 11 February 2010
  6. Double murder on Palmyra Island, BC Cook, Marianas Variety 11 December 2023
  7. The Phoenix Islands Settlement Scheme, TIGHAR
  8. Formerly Disputed Islands, U.S. Department of the Interior
  9. Current Local Time in Baker Island, US Minor Outlying Islands, time and date
  10. The Legend of Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance, National Air and Space Museum 19 August 2010
  11. Navassa Island: Secret Island Between Jamaica and Haiti Which Haiti Claimed in 1801, L'union Suite 23 October 2015
  12. Navassa: America’s Forgotten Caribbean Island, Nick Pietrowicz, Institute of World Politics 10 February 2021
  13. Haiti's claim over Navassa Island: a case study, Michaelle Pierre, World Maritime University 2014
  14. Haitian Fishermen off Navassa Island, Smithsonian Magazine
  15. Jarvis Ghost Island, Atlas Oscura
  16. United States Pacific Island Wildlife Refuges, CIA World Factbook 2022
  17. 'Poisoning the Pacific': New book details US military contamination of islands and ocean, Rachel Ramirez, The Guardian 11 October 2022
  18. Unoccupied Territories: The Outlying Islands Of America's Realm, The Center for Land Use Interpretation
  19. Chronology, Midway Islands
  20. The Midway Atoll You Might Not Know, Bill O'Brian, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
  21. The US Military Is Pouring Hundreds Of Millions Of Dollars Into Tiny Wake Island, Kristin Downey, Honolulu Civil Beat 15 October 2019
  22. Wake Island, CIA World Factbook
  23. EnenKio, De Facto