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The Guano Islands Act of 1856 - Congress's Bird Poop Law

I am a former Vietnam-era AF air navigator with degrees in History and Economics. Areas of interest include aviation and military history.

The United States Controls other Pacific Islands Besides the Hawaiian Islands

If you take a close look at a map of the Pacific Ocean you will notice that, next to the names of many isolated islands, the name United States or the initials U.S. appear in parenthesis next to the names of the islands. While many Americans will recognize islands like the Hawaiian Islands (which is a state) and possibly places like American Samoa (home of wrestling and Hollywood movie star, The Rock), Guam, Wake Island (site of a major 1941 World War II battle and 1942 movie of the same name) and Midway Island (also site of major World War II battle - and a U.S. victory at that - and movie of the same name), others like Baker, Howland, Kingman Reef, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, etc. are largely unknown to the public.

Wars Were Actually Fought Over this Stuff

While Hawaiian Islands, American Samoa, Guam and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are relatively large, populated and have economies and state or territorial governments, the others are very small, desert or semi-desert islands that are uninhabited except for some U.S. government personnel. These small desert islands in the Pacific, as well as some even more obscure ones in the Caribbean Sea, are all lumped under the name U.S. Minor Outlying Islands. What all of these islands have in common, besides their own Top Level Internet Domain (.um which is about to be dropped because no one has ever set up a web address ending in the .um TLD) is a lot of birds and thousands of years worth of accumulated bird poop. And it is this accumulation of bird poop or guano that caused the United States to acquire most of these islands.

On August 18, 1856 the U.S. Congress passed a law known as the Guano Islands Act which allows American citizens to lay claim to any island in the world that meets the following three criteria:

1 The island is uninhabited.

2 No other nation effectively claims the island (effectively here is a big loophole)

3 The island has vast quantities of guano which the citizen claiming the island for the U.S. intends to mine.

I used the present tense above because the Guano Islands Act is still on the books (it can be found under Title 48, U.S. Code, sections 1411-19) and American citizens still have the right to lay claim to islands that meet the above conditions. Laying claim to your own island under the Act is not the same as setting up your own country to escape stifling government regulations as the British subject Roy Bates did with his Principality of Sealand or escape U.S. taxes, the difficulty of which I explained in my Hub about the Rolling Stones and taxes. However, you do get to have your own private island and, under the law, to have the U.S. Navy protect and defend your island for you.

The source of Guano.  One of the many birds on the guano island of Navassa in the Caribbean Sea.  Guano is the end result of the accumulation of thousands of years worth of bird droppings.

The source of Guano. One of the many birds on the guano island of Navassa in the Caribbean Sea. Guano is the end result of the accumulation of thousands of years worth of bird droppings.

A Douglas TBD-1 Torpedo plane from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise over Wake Island

A Douglas TBD-1 Torpedo plane from the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise over Wake Island

The Economic Importance of Guano

You may be wondering why the U.S. government, let alone individual American citizens, are so interested in bird poop. After all, don't local governments and citizens in places like New York City invest a lot of time and money trying to prevent and clean up the mess left behind by pigeons and other birds?

While it is true that the mess left behind by these birds in cities is an unsightly (and unhealthy) mess and, despite what those having to clean up the mess think, the quantities left behind by birds on monuments and buildings in our cities is way to small to be of positive economic significance.

However, guano (which is a Spanish word that comes from the Inca Indian word wanu which refers to accumulated excrement from birds, bats and some sea mammals) is a substance that is rich in nitrogen and phosphorus both of which make it an ideal fertilizer (as well as an ingredient in gunpowder). This stuff has great economic value and, even today, is still a major economic commodity. However, to make it economically worth while to gather guano, two conditions have to be met. First, there must be a large quantity in one place in order to justify the cost of mining the guano. Second, guano for fertilizer must be collected from arid areas as water from rain and snow dissolves and washes away the nitrates which are the key ingredient in guano as far as its use as a fertilizer or ingredient in gunpowder. Without the nitrates guano is just, for lack of a better term, dried bird poop.

In a rational world, the market would provide sufficient incentive for entrepreneurs to seek out and mine guano and farmers in areas needing fertilizer would purchase it. However, with politicians and bureaucrats of various countries manipulating the economies of their countries in their never ending quest for for personal power and prestige, the world is not rational. Looking at guano in terms of 19th century history and geo-politics it becomes easier to understand why the U.S. Congress felt it important to take measures to ensure that the United States got its fair share of bird poop.

View across Niagara River from Youngstown, New York at the historic Britis Ft. George on the Canadian side.  This area was site of much fighting during the War of 1812.

View across Niagara River from Youngstown, New York at the historic Britis Ft. George on the Canadian side. This area was site of much fighting during the War of 1812.

Ft. George a British Fort in Ontario, Canada across the Niagara River from Ft. Niagara

Ft. George a British Fort in Ontario, Canada across the Niagara River from Ft. Niagara

Competition with Great Britain

First there was competition with Great Britain. Today we speak of the special relationship that exists between the United States and Great Britain. But this is a 20th Century relationship as we were allies in World Wars I and II, the Cold War and now the War on Terror. As the two major English speaking powers we have tended to work closely together on the international stage. However, the relationship was not so close during the 19th Century. In my Hub about the family reunion in Canada I mentioned the Alabama Affair in which the British government, not so secretly, provided funding for warships for the Confederacy during the U.S. Civil War and the subsequent, not so secret, support of the U.S. government for the Irish-American Fenians who invaded Canada in an attempt to gain independence for Ireland.

Prior to this there was a near war with Great Britain when the legislature of the State of Maine appropriated $10 million in 1839 to raise an army to settle a boundary dispute with the Canadian province of New Brunswick that had been smoldering since the end of the American Revolution. The U.S. Congress jumped in with more money for a war, but Secretary of State, Daniel Webster, was able to negotiate the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 which settled the dispute without war. However, two years later, James K. Polk won election as President with the campaign slogan of Fifty-four Forty or Fight which promised to take us to war with Great Britain over the border between the Oregon territory (which included the state of Washington) and British Columbia in Canada. This was also settled peacefully with the 1846 Oregon Treaty.

Then, of course, there was the real shooting war in 1812 between the U.S. and Britain during which we burned the city of York (now Toronto) which was the territorial capital of Upper Canada, an act which caused the British to retaliate by burning Washington, D.C. The U.S. and Britain were also in competition for outposts in the Pacific both for guano as well as naval and coaling stations (for steam powered ships) which led to the U.S. acquisition of islands under the Guano Act for guano, as well as other islands such as Samoa, Wake and Midway Islands (for naval defense and trans-pacific shipping and later air refueling), Hawaii, Guam and the Philippines.

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When the British appeared to be trying to gain control of guano supplies for her own use, the U.S. responded with the Guano Islands Act. Just as during the Cold War the U.S. was in a space race with the Soviets, we were in a guano race of sorts with the British in the mid-19th century.

Disputes Over Guano in Latin America

Second, while the U.S. and Great Britain came close to war over a number of 19th century disputes, in Latin America countries did go to war over guano. In fact at least two different 19th century Latin American conflicts are often referred to as the Guano Wars. The first was the Guano War of 1865 – 1866 (more commonly known as the Chincha Islands War or the Peruvian-Spanish War) between Spain and Peru with Chile joining with Peru against Spain.

Like the U.S. and Britain in that period, there were many unresolved issues and grudges between Spain and her former colonies that were the basis for the war but a major reason for the escalation from a diplomatic spat to shooting was a dispute that occurred over control of some uninhabited islands off the coast of Peru which suddenly became important after the discovery that they contained rich deposits of guano. While the shooting war lasted from 1865-1866 official peace didn't come for Peru until Spain officially recognized Peru's independence in 1879 and for Chile it took until 1883 for the two sides to agree on a peace treaty.

While Peru and Chile had been allies against Spain in the first guano war (the Chincha Islands War of 1865-1866) they immediately turned their guns on each other in the 1879-1884 War of the Pacific which was also mainly a dispute over taxes on the mining of guano and other mineral deposits. This time the disputed territory was in the Atacama Desert and specifically involved the southern Peruvian province of Tarapacá and Bolivia's southern province of Litoral. While the territory belonged to Peru and Bolivia, it was Chilean and British companies that were doing the mining and war erupted when Peru and Bolivia attempted to increase the taxes on the Chilean and British mining companies. In the war that ensued, the Chilean forces came out victorious thereby allowing Chile solve the tax problem by annexing the two provinces, an act which left Bolivia landlocked.

The Guano Act and American Territorial Expansion

This was the environment in which the Guano Islands Act of 1856 was passed. In addition to helping to secure a sufficient supply of guano for U.S. agriculture and raising the U.S. flag over a number of tiny desert islands, the act also signaled a shift in U.S. expansion policy. Prior to the passage of this act, U.S. territorial acquisition had always been directed toward westward expansion across the North American continent with the intent of eventually elevating the new territories to full statehood within the nation. The Guano Islands Act changed that by allowing for the temporary acquisition of islands containing guano with no intent to ever admit them to the Union as states. In fact, the law specifically states that U.S. government can abandon all claims to any of these islands whenever it deems necessary.

As a result of the change in policy due to the act the U.S. later went on to acquire non-contagious territories such as Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Palu, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Wake and Midway Islands. Of these, only Alaska and Hawaii have become states, while the Philippines, Marshall Islands and Palu have become independent nations. Puerto Rico and the Northern Mariana Islands have received commonwealth status and American Samoa, Guam and the Virgin Islands remain as simply insular areas or territories controlled by the United States. Wake and Midway Islands, being small and uninhabited (but not acquired under the Guano Act) have been lumped in as part of the U.S. Minor Outlying Islands group for administrative purposes.

Finally, least you think that the Guano Islands Act has fallen into disuse, there is the case of Bill Warren of San Diego who, in 1996, filed a claim with the U.S. government to take possession of Navassa Island in Caribbean Sea near Haiti under the Guano Islands Act. Navassa had been claimed by the U.S. citizens in the 19th century under the Guano Islands Act and, since 1916 been used by the U.S. Coast Guard for a lighthouse. Following the decision by the Coast Guard to abandon the island, Mr. Warren stepped forward to lay claim to the island under the Act – but this is a story for another Hub.

World War II bunker on beach on Midway Island. (photo courtesy of National Park Service - see link in links section below)

World War II bunker on beach on Midway Island. (photo courtesy of National Park Service - see link in links section below)

Aerial View of entrance to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

Aerial View of entrance to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2007 Chuck Nugent

Comments from upstate, NY on June 08, 2012:

It seems pretty consistent that the world is largely shaped by power struggles and economic concerns. I learned some new history, I never knew about the Fenians trying to seize british territory in Canada or about the value of bird poop! I thought the US may have gained interest in some of these tiny islands because ofthier military value in ww2.

Island Girl on May 09, 2012:

The Rock is actually from WESTERN Samoa :)

Just Saying -

aayushi s majmudar on August 13, 2010:

very good pictures given to us by google.

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