Office of Territorial Affairs

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The Office of Territorial Affairs was an office within the United States Department of the Interior responsible for administration of certain United States territories. The Office of Insular Affairs is its successor.

Prior to the 1930s, responsibility for administration of various United States territories and insular possession was divided among several government departments. Federal responsibilities in the territories of Alaska and Hawaii were performed by the Interior Department; Puerto Rico and the Philippine Islands were administered by the Bureau of Insular Affairs in the War Department; and the United States Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa were administered by the United States Department of the Navy.

In 1934, the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Division of Territories and Island Possessions in the Interior Department to centralize most territorial administration within the federal government. The new Division was immediately assigned principal federal responsibility with respect to Alaska, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico. Subsequently, the Division was given responsibility for the Philippines (which became independent in 1946), and after World War II, also assumed responsibility for the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, American Samoa, and the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands. The Division also was responsible for administration of several islands claimed by the United States under the Guano Act, including Howland, Baker, and Jarvis Islands.

The Division's name was changed to the Office of Territories in 1950. The office's work was significantly reduced after Puerto Rico attained Commonwealth status in 1952 and Alaska and Hawaii were granted statehood in 1959.

In 1971, the Office of Territories was temporarily abolished and territorial administration was coordinated by a Deputy Assistant Secretary for Territorial Affairs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Public Land Management. In 1973, the agency was reconstituted as the Office of Territorial Affairs, which remained the designation until 1980, when an Office of Assistant Secretary for Territorial and International Affairs was created. (The designation "international" refers to what became the freely associated states of the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, and Palau.)

Today, the Interior Department, through the Office of Insular Affairs, continues to be responsible for federal administration in the United States' outlying insular areas including American Samoa, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the Northern Mariana Islands.

The first Director of Territories was Ernest Gruening, who served from 1934 to 1939, and later served as the territorial governor of Alaska and then as one of the first senators elected from Alaska upon statehood.


  • National Archives and Records Administration (Richard S. Maxwell and Evans Walker, comps.), Preliminary Inventory of the Records of the Office of Territories, Preliminary Inventory No. 154 (1963).
  • Van Cleve, Ruth G. The Office of Territorial Affairs (Praeger Publishers 1974).