Located in the South Pacific, the islands that make up the United States territory of American Samoa are as remote as their history is unique.
Early History – Two Civil Wars
The original population of the islands is said to have occurred thousands of years ago under a confederation of Polynesian islands – including modern countries of Fiji and Tonga – under the Tui Manu’a dynasties. While oral history is mostly suggestive, documentation shows commerce networks between the islands of the South Pacific. European contact in the Samoan Islands did not occur until the early 1700s, when the Dutch were first to explore the archipelago. A subsequent conflict between the natives and the French resulted in the death of the second-in-command of the expedition on Tutuila, the largest of the American Samoan islands. Tutuila was called “Massacre Island,” and the bay there is still called “Massacre Bay.”
Mission work and commerce increased into the 1800s, as French, German, British, and American ships saw the port in Pago Pago as a crucial refueling stopover. British missionaries brought Christianity to the islands, which saw the development of the first independent indigenous church of the South Pacific within a century.
In 1872, the high chief of the eastern Samoan islands granted the U.S. permission to build a naval base in exchange for military protection. The U.S. Navy then built its coaling station in Pago Pago Bay and established a rudimentary form of administration.
The Samoan islands saw two civil wars in a relatively brief period of time. The first was fought throughout a series of conflicts from 1886 to 1894. Balance of power essentially boiled down to top Western investors’ desired levels of control and the differing form of government established by the tribes of the Samoan Islands. Western powers believed the rulers of the islands to have more power than they actually did. With factional differences among the natives, Western intervention fanned the flames of an inevitable civil war. With the German Empire dissatisfied with their endorsee’s forms of control among the islands, exiling him from the islands. The Germans then installed a new leader, who met resistance from a weak form of government supported by the United States. Seeing the fighting as counterproductive, the Western powers reinstalled the formerly exiled leader. However, disputes of the islands’ ownership continued.
This resulted in the Second Samoan Civil War, fought from 1898 to 1899. The proxy government established by the Germans was fought in joint opposition by the Americans, the British, and the Samoans. The conflicts eventually came to a head with the Tripartite Convention of 1899, which granted the U.S. control of the eastern islands, including Tutuila, and the Germans control of the western islands, the much larger landmass. German Samoa eventually became the wholly independent nation of Samoa. The British surrendered their control in Samoa in exchange for German surrender of powers in Tonga, the Solomon Islands, and West Africa.
The treaty resulted in the annexation of the eastern Samoan Islands to the United States Navy on February 16, 1900.
Twentieth Century History & Politics – A Unique Form of Government
The existing coaling station in the harbor in Pago Pago later became the main naval base of the United States in what was at first known as “Naval Station Tutuila.” The native chiefs of Tutuila swore their allegiance to the United States and ceded the island. The governor of the islands expressed to the Secretary of the Navy that the Manu’a people disapproved of the name, which later allowed the Manu’a to adopt the name “American Samoa” for the islands.
Western Samoa had been invaded and conquered by New Zealand at request of the British during World War I, ending the German Empire’s brief reign of control. New leadership sparked talks of Samoan independence, resulting in the non-violent Mau movements. Similar movements were formed in American Samoa, resulting in the 1921 imprisonment of seventeen Mau chiefs.
Swains Island was then annexed by the United States as part of American Samoa, although territorial disputes arose and have continued even to the present day between the U.S. and the New Zealand-administered territory of Tokelau.
World War II showed that a majority of American Samoa’s inhabitants were U.S. Navy personnel. Native Samoan men at least fourteen years of age were combat trained by the military. American Samoans played a key role in the Pacific theater of World War II, namely as medical personnel and ship repairmen.
In 1949, the United States Department of the Interior attempted to incorporate American Samoa, which would have enforced the U.S. Constitution in the territory. The effort was defeated mainly by Samoan chiefs, led by Tuiasosopo Mariota. The rejection of incorporation led to the chiefs’ creation of a territorial legislature, called the American Samoa Fono, in 1952. The Fono is a bicameral legislature of thirty-nine voting members – including one non-voting delegate from the disputed Swains Island – and is entirely non-partisan. Members of the House of Representatives are elected popularly, whereas members of the Senate are elected by various chiefs of the islands. The Fono meets in the village of Fagatogo, located in the territorial capital of Pago Pago.
In 1956, Peter Tali Coleman became the first and only native Samoan to be appointed governor of the islands by the U.S. Navy. He would later become the first elected governor of American Samoa in 1978. That year would also see the first election of the territory’s non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives. All five U.S. territories have non-voting delegates to the U.S. House; they can sit on committees and sponsor legislation but cannot cast floor votes.
American Samoa finds itself in an odd place, as Congress has not actually passed an Organic Act for the islands, which establishes specific forms of administration for U.S. territories. Despite being considered “unorganized,” American Samoa considers itself a self-governing territory under its own constitution that became effective in 1967.
American Samoa’s governor and lieutenant governor are popularly elected on the same ticket for four year terms. Since the President of the United States cannot directly affect the territorial government, American Samoa is still administered by the Department of the Interior.
Despite local organization of elections, tribal elections within the villages and families continue within the territory, with occasional overlap with formal government.
Today, the economies of American Samoa fall into three roughly equal categories: public sector, the sole remaining tuna cannery – operated by StarKist – and the private sector.
Geography – Heart of Polynesia
American Samoa is the only U.S. territory south of the Equator and is comprised of seven bodies: five volcanic islands and two coral atolls.
- Tutuila, Aunuʻu, Ofu, Olosega, and Taʻū – The five populated volcanic islands. Tutuila is largest geographically and by population and contains the seat of the territorial Fono and the capital, Pago Pago. Aunu’u, a sparsely populated, mostly infertile island, is the only place in the territory where taro root can be farmed. Taro is comparable to sweet potato. Ofu and Olosega are a pair of eastern islands that are sparsely populated and home to climate and coral research. Taʻū, the easternmost island, is known for its near-100% reliance on solar energy, and the site of famed anthropologist Margaret Mead’s dissertation research, comparing adolescence on the remote island to that seen in the mainland United States.
- Rose Atoll – One of two coral atolls of American Samoa and the southernmost (globally) point belonging to the United States. Just 0.02 square miles, the unpopulated atoll is one of the smallest in the world. It’s home to critically endangered populations of fish and marine birds.
- Swains Island – The other coral atoll, Swains Island has long been a subject of administration between the United States and the New Zealand territory of Tokelau. Uninhabited since 2008, the island is still home to researchers and radio operators.
Current Political Leanings – An Open Question
American Samoa remains the only U.S. territory that does not receive U.S. citizenship. Residents are referred to as “U.S. Nationals,” who enjoy most privileges of citizens, except that they cannot vote in federal elections or hold certain jobs requiring U.S. citizenship. American Samoa does elect its own governor, currently held by Lemanu Palepoi Mauga (D) since 2021, and it elects a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House, currently held by Amata Coleman Radewagen (R) since 2015. Radewagen is just the third person and only Republican to represent American Samoa in the United States.
Politically, both Republican and Democratic parties are active in American Samoa – they hold presidential primaries here – but the parties are watered down by the nonpartisan Fono and local Samoan leadership. For context, Radewagen’s 2016 re-election resulted in the highest vote total for any position in American Samoa history. She won every county and jurisdiction across the populated islands. She was unopposed for a fifth term in 2022.
With a population of just over 45,000, local leaders have opposed referendums for statehood for American Samoa. Local leaders believe that statehood would collapse their system of government and erase their culture and intrinsic identity.