Throughout its history, the House has established select committees to investigate and recommend action on issues of concern to the country. In the mid-1800s, the issue was guano, particularly how the United States could get its hands on the popular fertilizer. Known colloquially as white gold because of its appearance and exorbitant price tag, guano was the nitrate-rich seabird droppings mined from uninhabited Caribbean and Pacific islands. United States farmers and entrepreneurs were unable to acquire the hot commodity because of difficulty obtaining it directly from countries that laid claim to the islands. English and French distribution monopolies further inhibited trade. In response, the House formed the Select Committee on the Guano Trade in 1854, which issued this report of its findings in July of that year, titled “Trade between the United States and the Republic of Peru.” Representative George Riddle from the select committee made the report, No. 347, to accompany H.R. 509.
In early 1856, New York Senator William H. Seward introduced what would eventually become the Guano Islands Act. The law allowed American citizens the right to claim guano-bearing islands as U.S. territories by providing that if a U.S. citizen discovered guano on, “any island, rock, or key not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other government, said island, rock, or key may, at the discretion of the President, be considered as appertaining to the United States.” Passed by Congress on August 16, 1856, President Franklin Pierce signed it into law two days later. The law set the stage for the country’s first insular territorial acquisition and eventually led to the claim of more than 70 islands as “appertaining” to the United States, an intentionally vague designation that left their territorial status conveniently open to interpretation.