Organized incorporated territory

Organized incorporated territories are those territories of the United States that are both incorporated (part of the United States proper) and organized (having an organized government authorized by an Organic Act passed by the U.S. Congress usually consisting of a territorial legislature, territorial governor, and a basic judicial system). There have been no such territories since Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states in 1959.

Through most of U.S. history, regions that were admitted as US states were, prior to admission, territories of this kind. As the United States grew, the most populous parts of the organized territory would achieve statehood. The remainder frequently kept at least some of the governing structure of the old legal entity (territory) and would be renamed to avoid confusion.

Some examples of this progression include (each grouping involves an original territory's lands legally disposed of over time from left to right):

Many such regions took a further decades long growth period before their incorporated lands could petition for admission as states. For instance, parts of both the original Louisiana Territory and the younger Oregon Territory took over fifty years to achieve statehoodIdaho and Montana.

Current territory

In 2014, the only incorporated territory of the U.S. that is neither an organized possession nor populated is Palmyra Atoll, the unorganized territory in equatorial waters far south of the State of Hawaii. The atoll under international law is an incorporated territory by 'explorers claim' and after serving in World War II as a supply and patrol base is only used today by a variable number of staff and researchers. The atoll also happens to be unorganized because it has no permanent occupants to petition for change, just the (rotating) assigned and visiting federal employees.

The District of Columbia is functionally similar to an incorporated territory, being fully a part of the United States as a non-state, but is classified separately as it was established under the unique constitutional provision for a federal capital rather than through Congressional authority over federal territory generally.

All other current U.S. territories are unincorporated (meaning that they are not fully part of the United States, with all aspects of the United States Constitution applying automatically), whereas other former incorporated territories are now states.

List of organized incorporated territories

The following territories within the United States were officially organized by Congress with an Organic Act on the first date listed. Each was admitted as a US state (of the same name, except where noted) on the second date listed. Often, larger outlying portions of an organized territory were not included in the new state.

Decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court related to the Incorporation of the Territories

"The inhabitants of the ceded territory . . . shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States; This declaration, although somewhat changed in phraseology, is the equivalent, as pointed out in Downes v. Bidwell, of the formula, employed from the beginning to express the purpose to incorporate acquired territory into the United States.[3] Here we see that the act of incorporation is on the people of the territory, not on the territory per se, by extending the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution to them.

Alaska Territory

The Rassmussen v. The United States (197 U.S. 516, 522 (1905)) case arose out of a misdemeanor conviction in Alaska by a jury composed of six persons pursuant to a federal statute allowing such a procedure in Alaska. In a decision written by Justice White, a majority of the Justices concluded that Alaska had been incorporated into the United States because the treaty of cession with Russia specifically declared that "the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be admitted to the enjoyment of all the rights,advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States.[4]

Florida Territory

In Dorr v. USA (195 U.S. 138, 141–142 (1904)) Justice Marshall is quoted more extensively as follows:

The 6th article of the treaty of cession contains the following provision:

The inhabitants of the territories which His Catholic Majesty cedes the United States by this treaty shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution, and admitted to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. [8 Stat. at L. 256.] [195 U.S. 138, 142] 'This treaty is the law of the land, and admits the inhabitants of Florida to the enjoyment of the privileges, rights, and immunities of the citizens of the United States. It is unnecessary to inquire whether this is not their condition, independent of stipulation. They do not, however, participate in political power; they do not share in the government till Florida shall become a state. In the meantime Florida continues to be a territory of the United States, governed by virtue of that clause in the Constitution which empowers Congress 'to make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States."


Downes vs Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 256 (1901) Justice Brown says:[6]

"The same construction was adhered to in the treaty with Spain for the purchase of Florida (8 Stat. at L. 252) the 6th article of which provided that the inhabitants should 'be incorporated into the Union of the United States, as soon as may be consistent with the principles of the Federal Constitution;"

Southwest Territory

In Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 321 (1901) the first mention of incorporation is made in the following paragraph by Mr. Justice Brown:[7]

In view of this it cannot, it seems to me, be doubted that the United States continued to be composed of states and territories, all forming an integral part thereof and incorporated therein, as was the case prior to the adoption of the Constitution. Subsequently, the territory now embraced in the state of Tennessee was ceded to the United States by the state of North Carolina. In order to insure the rights of the native inhabitants, it was expressly stipulated that the inhabitants of the ceded territory should enjoy all the rights, privileges, benefits, and advantages set forth in the ordinance 'of the late Congress for the government of the western territory of the United [182 U.S. 244, 322] States.' (Our emphasis).

Louisiana Territory

Downes v. Bidwell, 182 U.S. 244, 252 (1901) it was said:[8]

"Owing to a new war between England and France being upon the point of breaking out, there was need for haste in the negotiations, and Mr. Livingston took the responsibility of disobeying his (Mr. Jefferson's) instructions, and, probably owing to the insistence of Bonaparte, consented to the 3d article of the treaty (with France to acquire the territory of Louisiana), which provided that 'the inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States, and admitted as soon as possible, according to the principles of the Federal Constitution, to the enjoyment of all the rights, advantages, and immunities of citizens of the United States; and in the meantime they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property, and the religion which they profess.' [8 Stat. at L. 202.] This evidently committed the government to the ultimate, but not to the immediate, admission of Louisiana as a state....”

The Supreme Court of the United States is unanimous in its interpretation that the extension of the privileges and immunities clause of the Constitution of the United States to the inhabitants of a territory in effect produces the incorporation of that territory. The net effect of incorporation is that the territory becomes an integral part of the geographical boundaries of the United States and cannot, from then on, be separated. Indeed, the whole body of the U.S. Constitution is extended to the inhabitants of that territory, except for those provisions that relate to its federal character.

More so, the needful rules and regulations of the territorial clause must yield to the Constitution and the inherent constraints imposed on it in dealing with the privileges and immunites of the inhabitants of the incorporated territory. Notice must be taken that incorporation of a territory takes place through the incorporation of its inhabitants, not of the territory per se. As such, those inhabitants receive the full impact of the U.S. Constitution, except for those provisions that deal specifically with the federal character of the Union.

Other notes

  • Common regional names such as Louisiana Purchase, Indian Territory, and Oregon Country were never formally organized as territories.
  • During the American Civil War, there was (at least nominally) a Confederate-established Arizona Territory (1861–1865), which split Arizona and New Mexico along an east-west line, rather than the Union-established north-south line that persists today. See article for map.
  • Of the current 50 US states, 31 were at one time or another part of a U.S. territory. The exceptions include: the original Thirteen Colonies; Kentucky and West Virginia (both split off from Virginia); Maine (split off from Massachusetts); California (created as a state out of the unorganized territory of the Mexican Cession); and Vermont and Texas (both previously self-declared republics).
  • Since 1959, there have been no incorporated U.S. territories formally organized by an Organic Act.
  • On October 10, 2008, a case in the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico declared that Puerto Rico no longer remain an unincorporated territory. The court says that although Congress has never enacted any affirmative language such as “Puerto Rico is hereby an incorporated territory,” its sequence of legislative actions from 1900 to present has in fact incorporated the territory. The court elaborated that the Congressional incorporation of Puerto Rico throughout the past century has extended the entire Constitution to the island, and today entitles the territory and United States citizens thereof to full enjoyment of all rights and obligations under the Constitution. Given the same, the territory has evolved from an unincorporated to an incorporated.[9][10]
  • On December 11, 2012, the Legislative Assembly of Puerto Rico has enacted a concurrent resolution to request the President and the Congress of the United States to respond diligently and effectively, and to act on the demand of the people of Puerto Rico, as freely and democratically expressed in the plebiscite held on November 6, 2012, to end, once and for all, its current form of territorial status and to begin the process to admit Puerto Rico to the Union as a State.[11]

See also


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