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Territorial Affairs
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Territorial Affairs

During most of America's nationhood, a major portion of the land under United States jurisdiction was in territories rather than states. In 1873, when Congress transferred territorial oversight from the Secretary of State to the Secretary of the Interior, the governance of some 1,629,000 square miles became a department responsibility. By then the United States had reached its present continental dimensions encompassing nearly 3,611,000 square miles, so that the territories covered about 45 percent of the national domain. From them were formed the states of Colorado in 1876; Montana, Washington, and North and South Dakota in 1889; Wyoming and Idaho in 1890; Utah in 1896; Oklahoma in 1907; Arizona and New Mexico in 1912; and Alaska in 1959.

In 1898 the United States acquired its first insular possessions, annexing the Hawaiian Islands and obtaining Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines from Spain following the Spanish-American War. America's Pacific presence was extended a year later with the addition of several of the Samoan Islands. Only Hawaii came under Interior at the outset; the State Department took primary responsibility for Puerto Rico, the War Department supervised the Philippines, and the Navy Department oversaw Guam and American Samoa. When the United States purchased the Virgin Islands from Denmark in 1917, the Navy also took charge of that Caribbean possession.

This diffusion of territorial responsibility began to be reversed in the 1930s. In 1931 President Herbert Hoover moved the Virgin Islands to Interior. In 1934 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created a new Interior unit, the Division of Territories and Island Possessions, to coordinate oversight of Alaska, Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. The division dealt with the Philippines from 1939 until those islands attained independence in 1946, a period during which they were largely self-governing but then came under Japanese wartime occupation.

In the 1950s Interior gained some small territorial responsibilities but lost some big ones. The department assumed jurisdiction over Guam, American Samoa, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands in 1950 and 1951. The latter contained the Caroline and Northern Mariana Islands, former Japanese possessions that the United Nations assigned to United States trusteeship in 1947. It lost responsibility for Puerto Rico after 1952, when a new commonwealth constitution granting that island full internal self-government took effect. Most notable, of course, were the graduations of Alaska and Hawaii to statehood in 1959.

The Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa remain Interior concerns, as are two modern entities fashioned from the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands: the Republic of Palau, comprising eight inhabited and some 200 other islands in the Carolines, established in 1980; and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, of which Saipan is the seat of government and commerce, established in 1986. While their legal relationships with the United States vary, all have their own elected legislatures and executives and enjoy substantial autonomy in domestic affairs.

The Division of Territories and Island Possessions went through several reorganizations and name changes before 1980, when its duties devolved to the present Assistant Secretary for Territorial and International Affairs. The Assistant Secretary's office seeks to promote the economic, social, and political development of the territories, with self-government the announced goal. It serves as a channel of communication with the territorial governments, making their needs known to other federal agencies; studies territorial problems and poses solutions; and provides budgetary and other administrative services.

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