Last Updated: September 27, 2022
Thousands of people asked Google last month: “Is Guam a U.S. territory?”
The quick answer? Yes.
However, the longer answer is actually more interesting—and it reveals Guam’s unique global status as well as its rich history.
Through 15 fascinating facts, we’ll take you through a quick tour of the series of events that led Guam to its position todayas a U.S. territory, populated by citizens of diverse origins with a vibrant culture to share.
Fact #1: Guam is part of the Mariana Islands. Sort of.
Geologically, Guam is a member of the Mariana Island archipelago, a crescent-shaped line of islands in the Pacific Ocean that are all part of the same underwater mountain range. The northern part of the chain is made up of dormant volcanic islands, while the southern part of the chain is capped by limestone from coral reefs.
Politically, however, the chain is divided into two regions: The Commonwealth of the Mariana Islands and Guam. (We’ll explain how this happened later!)
Fact #2: Guam’s original inhabitants came from Southeast Asia.
The indigenous people of the Mariana Islands are called the Chamorros, and it’s believed they came to the islands around 2,000 BCE from Southeast Asia, likely Taiwan, Indonesia, or the Philippines.
Is it “Chamorro” or “CHamoru?”
The spelling of the word “Chamorro” has long been debated. You’ll see many variations in written accounts, including “Tsamoru,” “Chamorru,” and “Camuru.” The Kumision I Fino’ CHamoru (Chamorro Language Commission) adopted the spelling “CHamoru,” so you will also see this spelling frequently. As the commission noted, neither the letter C nor the double-R are part of the CHamoru language. As a result, the spelling “CHamoru” is more reflective of the language itself.
How did the Chamorro people get to Guam? It’s believed the Chamorros used wayfinding—a method of navigating by stars, wind, and current—to find the Mariana Islands. Other experts have noted that it’s possible to navigate from the Philippines to the Marianas just by following the sun.
Fact #3: The Chamorros established a matrilineal society.
The Chamorro people didn’t have a written language before European arrival. Additionally, during the era of Spanish rule, much of the original Chamorro culture was suppressed, and a number of people perished from war and disease. As a result, a great deal of what we know about the early years of the Chamorro people comes from archaeological evidence or European accounts.
One of the most striking artifacts of the Chamorro culture are their latte houses, whose foundation stones you’ll find all over the island. (See the picture above.) European accounts also document the matrilineal nature of the Chamorro society, with ancestry traced through the maternal side of the family. Finally, archaeological evidence suggests that the population grew rice, subsisted on fishing, and occasionally traded with neighboring islands.
All of this began to change with the first European arrivals.
Fact #4: Magellan was the first European to arrive in Guam.
The Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was leading a Spanish expedition for King Charles I of Spain when he arrived in Guam on March 6, 1521. However, Guam was not officially claimed by Spain until 1565, and the island wasn’t colonized by Europeans until the 17th century.
Fact #5: Strict Spanish rule changed the Chamorro culture and language.
The 1672 death of a Jesuit missionary who secretly baptized the infant daughter of a local chief touched off a new era of harsh rule by the Spanish. The Chamorros were herded into villages, each of which was supervised closely by a Spanish priest.
As with many other colonized peoples, the Chamorros began to find their culture suppressed by the Spanish. Additionally, parts of Spanish culture began to permeate Chamorro culture. This is easy to see in the Chamorro language today, which still retains its grammar but borrows some of its vocabulary from Spanish.
Chamorro Phrases with Origins in Spanish:
Spanish origin phrase: buen provecho
Chamorro meaning: You’re welcome!
Spanish origin phrase: cuánto
Chamorro meaning: How much/many?
Spanish origin phrase: adiós
Chamorro meaning: goodbye
Spanish origin phrase: escuela
Chamorro meaning: school
Fact #6: The U.S. ideal of manifest destiny changed the course of Guam’s history.
By the 19th century, the U.S. was becoming a world power, and it joined many European nations in pursuing the expansion of its territory. All of this activity occurred under the banner of the “manifest destiny” philosophy, an idea that the United States was divinely ordained to expand, spreading democracy and capitalism across North America—and beyond.
In the late 1890s, tensions began mounting with Spain. These tensions continued to rise as the U.S. supported Cuba’s independence—in contrary to Spain’s claim on the island. Finally, the mysterious explosion of the battleship U.S.S. Maine in Havana Harbor proved to be the final straw. Spain and the U.S. declared war on each other in 1898.
As part of their campaign during the Spanish-American War, the United States captured Guam in a bloodless landing on June 21, 1898. In 1898, the Treaty of Paris formalized the handover, and Guam officially came under U.S. rule.
Fact #7: A simple omission separated Guam from the rest of the Marianas.
As we mentioned earlier, Guam is geographically a part of the Mariana Islands. However, the rest of the islands are administered as the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands.
Apparently, the U.S. officials who negotiated the Treaty of Paris didn’t ask about the rest of the Mariana Islands—or the other islands in Micronesia to which Spain had a claim. As a result, the Spanish retained ownership of these islands after the close of the Spanish-American War, then quickly sold them to Germany. After passing through Japanese possession as a result of World War I, the Northern Marianas were given over to U.S. administration at the conclusion of World War II.
Fact #8: Guam soon became a critical part of the first direct telegraph route to the Philippines.
Just a few years after coming under U.S. rule, Guam would play a crucial role in establishing direct lines of communication between North America and Asia. In 1902, the Commercial Pacific Cable company laid a telegraph cable from San Francisco to Honolulu. In 1903, cables were laid from Honolulu to Midway Atoll, then to Guam, and then to Manila, in the Philippines.
These same cables carried the very first message to travel all around the globe, sent by Theodore Roosevelt, the president of the U.S. It took the message nine and a half minutes to travel worldwide.
Fact #9: Guam was captured by the Japanese in 1941.
Just a few hours after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the Japanese bombed Guam. In a coordinated air and sea attack, the Japanese seized control of the island. They renamed the island “Omiya Jima” (Great Shrine Island), and they occupied the island for three years.
Fact #10: The occupation led to great suffering for the Chamorro people.
More than 1,100 people died during the Japanese military occupation of Guam. Others were subject to injury, forced labor, forced marches, and internment. A local priest, Father Jesus Baza Dueñas, was tortured and assassinated. Even still, the Chamorro people retained loyalty to the United States, hiding several American servicemen who were trapped on the island.
On August 10, 1944, American forces ended the occupation by defeating the last Japanese troops during the Second Battle of Guam. To commemorate this battle—and the efforts by all Allied Powers in World War II—the National Park Service built the War in the Pacific National Historical Park in Asan. Today, it makes a great stop for learning more about the recent history of Guam.
Fact #11: It wasn’t until 1952 that those born in Guam were recognized as U.S. citizens.
In the years following World War II, Chamorro leaders on Guam pressed the U.S. for greater autonomy. The Guam Organic Act of 1950 established Guam as an unincorporated territory of the United States. It also put in place a civilian government with three branches—executive (in the form of a territorial governor and lieutenant governor), legislative, and judicial. Today, each of the island’s villages is headed by an elected mayor, who works with the local government of Guam, the military communities, and federal agencies to create policy.
Subsequently, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952 granted U.S. citizenship to all people born on the island of Guam on or after April 11, 1899.
Citizens of Guam:
- Can elect the members of their local government, including their governor, representatives to the Guam legislature, and village mayors.
- Can elect a non-voting delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
- Are U.S. citizens.
- Cannot vote for president.
- Pay a single annual income tax, filed with the Guam Department of Revenue and Taxation.
That being said, residents of Guam can’t vote in U.S. presidential elections. However, they do have representation in Congress. As with the District of Columbia, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico (technically called a “resident commissioner”), the Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa, the residents of Guam are represented by a non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives.
Finally, rather than paying state and/or federal income taxes, citizens of Guam pay one single annual income tax. You might be interested to know that Guam residents use the same forms as those who file in the 50 states. However, they file and pay taxes to the Guam Department of Revenue and Taxation.
Fact #12: Guam remains a strategic stronghold in the Pacific.
The U.S. built its first airbase on Guam in 1944. It found a valuable port in Apra Harbor, which offered protected anchorage for military ships.
Today, Guam plays host to Joint Region Marianas, a command that oversees U.S. Naval Base Guam, Marine Corps Base Camp Blaz, and Andersen Air Force Base. Nearly 7,000 military personnel are stationed on Guam, and its installations occupy nearly a third of the island’s total area. The island has also been called “a permanent aircraft carrier” since it offers the U.S. a strong base to defend potential attacks from the Pacific.
Fact #13: Guam is where America’s day begins.
Because of its location on the other side of the International Date Line, the residents of Guam are ahead of residents of Hawaii and the mainland, time-wise. Chamorro Standard Time (ChST) is:
- 20 hours ahead of Hawaii Standard Time (HST)
- 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time (EST)
As a result, those on Guam get to start each day before any other U.S. residents.
Fact #14: Guam is quite different from the continental U.S., but you will find a few things that feel familiar.
The culture on Guam is a unique blend of its inhabitants, which include those of Chamorro, Philippine, Pacific Island, and Asian descent. The result is a distinctive melting pot you won’t find anywhere else.
However, those familiar with the U.S. will find a few recognizable touchpoints, including:
- English is spoken almost everywhere. It’s one of the island’s official languages, along with Chamorro. You’ll also find plenty of other languages spoken on Guam, which reflect the diverse ethnicities of Guam’s residents.
- The U.S. dollar is the official currency of Guam. No need to exchange currency, worry about exchange rates, or learn a new currency system.
- Finally, permanent U.S. residents don’t need any kind of special visa to live on Guam indefinitely. If you’re coming from a foreign country, the visa requirements on Guam are the same as the continental U.S.
For these—and several other reasons—Guam can be a great place for U.S. citizens to retire, especially retired military personnel.
Fact #15: Now you won’t need Google to understand Guam’s status.
With this brief history of Guam under your belt, you have a better understanding of how Guam came to be a U.S. territory, the origins of its unique culture—and the role it continues to play in America’s future.
If you’re interested in making Guam your home, we’d be happy to help with any additional questions you might have about the island. We’ve been helping people move to, from, in and around Guam since 1983, and our on-the-ground team in Guam can help you make a safe and easy move. Just get in touch with us to learn more.
Tell us about your move!