Cool Stuff about: U.S. Minor Territories
Quick show of hands; who can name the minor territories of the United States of America? Better yet, who can even tell me what that means? Minor territories — some of those foreign colonies I told you about earlier — are an important peg in the history of about a boatload of countries around the green globe … but they sure aren’t mentioned that much. They are some of the most interesting and obscure, where marauding pirates meet condemned whalers, and tropical superstorms meet biochemical weapons testing.
Saying “territories” you may think of Puerto Rico or American Samoa, possibly, but I don’t mean those; those are the big dogs. Here I’m talking of the little dogs, the toy breeds. I’m talking “baby territories”. So let’s give them a name. There are eleven, ready?
(Caribbean) Navassa Island, Serranilla Bank, Bajo Nuevo Bank
(then Pacific) Palmyra Atoll, Wake Island, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, Baker Island, Howland Island, Jarvis Island and Midway Atoll
Mouthfull right? I know, they sound like a gargle of place and people names I suddenly invented to sound like I know geography, but there’s a real history behind these places — an American history, at that.
Major territories (let’s call them Majors) are the ones with distinct cultures, heritages, languages, national pride. These sucker babies, the Minors, don’t really have a culture, or population for that matter, but were mostly used for the extraction of guano, military activities during the wars of the 20th century, and early trans-Pacific flight stopovers. (P.S. guano is a compounded product of accumulated bird and bat poo, popularly mined for use as quality fertilizer)
On the topic of stopovers, for example, Wake was a major stop for flying boats and long commercial test flights in the early 1900s, a military landing spot during the Korean War, and an evacuation and relocation center for almost 15 thousand Vietnamese refugees “processed” there after their war. Nowadays these Minors are used mostly for weather and eco-research and conservation projects.
The baby territories are mostly atolls or emerging reefs, while some are simple sandbanks, dotted lightly with a few clumps of grass and hardly inhabited by anything, and most fall under the category of so-called “desolate desert islands” (DDI). One of these DDIs is Kingman, that for the most part is a flooded bank of sand and grass, and functions primarily as a nesting ground or pit-stop for birds (and their guano).
I know that doesn’t sound too exciting, but looking at some of the more eery examples of DDI in the world are the bros, Baker and Jarvis, whose bleak landscapes hold abandoned light beacons, cemeteries, ghost-town colonies, and old runways overgrown with shrubbery among other randomly placed equipment, mining vehicles, and left-about debris. Then finally, the dried up lagoons at their centers to add to the breezy “wasteland” island vibes.
Jarvis was a major guano mining spot in the 19th century until the business was abruptly shut down, and the island abandoned. This went for every worker except for one guy, who was left behind to take care of the island. I don’t know how they convinced him to watch over a desert island in the middle of the ocean alone (wouldn’t have been me), but it didn’t go well as imagined, as he later committed suicide following months of downing gin in his lonesome. His wooden grave marker was visible there for decades later.
Several of these scattered islands were claimed by different European powers and even the Kingdom of Hawaii before giving their “pleasant” crowned jewels* up to Uncle Sam. After Britain claimed the island of Baker, the U.S. attempted to colonize it and some nearby baby cousins. However, the settlers’ attempts to grow crops were stunted by the plentiful harsh weather conditions and hungry seabirds, ultimately going to “guano” after attacks from the Japanese forced their evacuations. On Baker were evacuated a peak of four entire citizens.
But if you don’t like guano jokes, well, too bad (just kidding, it’s not for everybody), then we can talk about epic lady figures in history. Similar to Baker, Howland is sprawled by abandoned runways, crumbling beacons, and unkempt structures. However, Howie is known as the island where Amelia Earhart was looking to stop on her way across the Pacific and around the world. A beacon there called the Earhart Light stands in memory of her, and between memories gets an occasional quote-unquote visit from pilots to honor her. There they tend to fly by and drop wreaths to commemorate the late pioneer-ess.
Evidence of sporadic and un-lasting settlements by ancient Polynesians should’ve been proof enough against any similar attempts on the Minors, but American colonists — among others — insisted to try. Palmyra, like many others, was “discovered” by a series of European and American sailors and travelers who ended up shipwrecked off its atoll reefs. Palmyra herself is the southernmost part of the incorporated United States, that is where America has direct control, as opposed to American Samoa (which is further south) where they don’t have direct control.
One Spanish group sailing from Peru sought out to find a hidden Esperanza treasure but got shipwrecked during a storm in the process. They were attacked and subsequently abducted by pirates, who afterward on their way to the East were together shipwrecked again by another storm and later saved by American whalers. Sadly, after being table-tennised back and forth across the Pacific, the two final survivors passed shortly following their rescues.
The Minors were the sites — and causes — of quite a few major shipwrecks. Another one includes a British tea ship that was wrecked at Wake, whose crew had to survive on rations of wine for six days until they could gather enough rainwater to make it alive to a bigger island for their eventual rescue. They were noted for being the happiest crew of stranded sailors ever, and didn’t even care about their lost tea* … Oh, and there’s the crew of Japanese who were wrecked on the same island (come on, Wake!) and only after five months of struggle and strife were luckily salvaged by Brazilian navy personnel on a mission to sail around the globe. They were later dropped off back home in Japan.
Another case of this Pacific Uber service happened after a failed settlement attempt on Midway. Here the U.S. sent a relief group to pick up the settlers who got themselves wrecked and later had to send a rescue effort to save the stranded relief boat.
Palmyra, Johnston, and Wake were all sites for U.S. nuclear and biological weapons testing (here’s a clip) after they joined the newly-claimed state of Hawaii. Many of these, along with Howland, Midway, and brother Jarvis were attacked then evacuated with minimal casualties and damages by the Japanese during WW2. Former U.S. president Nixon had a secret meeting at Midway during that time with South Vietnamese president, Nguyen. Johnston especially was the location of tests for secret missiles, nuclear weapons, and biological warfare, in addition to being a full-out Public-Storage-bin* for the notorious chemical arm Agent Orange and numerous top-secret (well, not anymore) operatives. Because of these actions, decontamination efforts for plutonium and other radioactive substances are still being played out.
After closing off military action there, the government tried unsuccessfully to auction poor Johnston off, suck him dry and leave him in the dust (you know, the typical agenda). But they later flipped the island, like many of the others, into a natural research center. Speaking of that, one research crew got isolated there during a hurricane with 100 mph winds, surviving by taking shelter in an old military edifice. One of that research team’s tasks on the island, e.g., was to eradicate an invasive population of crazy ants, which I thought essential to add because they’re actually called “crazy ants” (I’ll give you all a picture), and the imagery of guys in lab coats running after a bunch of mad ants is hilarious.
Most of these baby islands are crossroads for strong winds and super typhoons, leaving many of the plants and structures tilted spookily sideways like atolls designed by Tim Burton. Midway suffered a tsunami that completely “sunk” the island for a time and devastated the poor seabird population. But hey, “guano” happens. Midway, btw, is the only Hawaiian island group not part of the state of Hawaii.
Bikini Islanders — who I must also mention because, like crazy ants, their name is silly — from straight outta the Marshall Islands were prohibited from living on Wake because of its high radiation levels, provoked by — well, now you can guess why.
Wake was where the Japanese first attacked U.S.-run territory before their success at Pearl Harbor. Their ships were sunk by a few brave military persons and civilians, but they came back to conquer the island until WW2 was ended. During Japanese rule, several American POWs were enslaved on the island or shipped to camps in Japan, and many were brutally killed. However, after America recaptured their territory, Japanese military leaders were either imprisoned or executed and left to exile where many perished of starvation. A few survivors sustained themselves on bird eggs and wild rats after rations had run out, up until their government went to rescue them.
Because of this military history, Wake is home to the longest strategic runway in the Pacific. It’s also claimed by Marshall Islanders as a historic voyage point where their ancestors gathered bird bones for traditional tattooing. Besides them, the island is also claimed by the self-declared Kingdom of EnenKio (Wake’s native name), though the “kingdom” was considered a scam intent on distributing fake passports.
In the 1970s, Palmyra was the site of the murder of a wealthy California couple that later inspired a comic and TV miniseries. The alleged murderer’s scandalous lawyer was rumored to have exploited his client, though, and one of the victims’ deaths has never really been proven.
Due to their location in the Pacific, many of these Minors are major gathering grounds for debris and oceanic trash from the world over, with crisp panoramic views of floating isles of plastic and littered shorelines; obvious hazards for seabirds and fish, but a great “getaway” for the world’s trash.
Getting around to the Caribbean, here the Minors are all disputed for some reason or other and claimed by other countries in the area. These in my humble opinion don’t belong to the U.S. anyway. Navassa was “discovered” by Spanish explorers after Colombus got temporarily stranded on Jamaica. Instead of enjoying a coconut and Malibu on the beach, he opted to send his men to Hispaniola (Haiti, the DR) for help. On the way, they bumped into little Navassa. It was noted for having dangerous reefs and no fresh water and was basically avoided for the following 350 years.
The U.S.A. claimed and used it for guano mining (another one) and later as an important stopover and lighting point for ships during the years of Panama Canal construction. Haiti though also says the island is theirs, given it’s only a short thirty-five-mile hop from them. Nowadays it’s used mostly as an outpost for transient Jamaican and Haitian fishermen, and occupied primarily by wild dogs, cats, and pigs, and so should be considered for my proposal of the movie Babe: Pig in the Caribbean. I know, it’s a working title. #keepBabealive!
Bajo Nuevo and Serranilla are two banks of sand and coral that really are part of a Colombian island-province called San Andrés and Providencia, but America said: “we don’t care, we’ll take it anyway.” Even though the two reefs barely poke their noses out of the water, they’ve both been continuously disputed as part of Nicaragua and Honduras. And the U.S., of course, holds onto its precious guano children. Both banks contain lighthouses that sit out along the coral reefs and cays, and both caused pirates havoc for years.
In all honesty, my intention was to jam all the U.S. territories into one post, but I saw how much cool info I could juice out of just these babies. They’re all very small, largely unheard of by the international and American public alike, I’ll dare to say. As you can see, they have a deep and strangely interconnected history and have been pivotal in America’s rise to power and world leadership in more ways than one. I hope that I was able to open that up to you all in this article and spark some interest in these little hotspots of random oceanic action.
Thanks once again for reading, and please keep reading on and learning more about the places that interest you; I know I will. And of course, please comment anything you know or want to add. Next time we’ll cover those Majors I told y’all about. This was cool stuff about: U.S. Minor Territories!