The Records of the Government of American Samoa (Record Group 284) are a valuable resource for those interested in studying the history of American colonialism in the Pacific.
Like other Pacific territories, American involvement in the Samoan Islands evolved out of a strategic military interest. After the Tripartite Convention of 1899 partitioned Samoa, the eastern islands came under the control of the Department of the Navy. In 1951, naval jurisdiction was transferred to the Department of the Interior.
The Government of American Samoa records are held at the National Archives at San Francisco. These records span the period from 1900, when the first treaties were signed, to 1967, a few years after the ratification of the first constitution of American Samoa. Records are arranged by the Offices of the Governor and Attorney General, and from the High Court. Topics include many facets of Samoan politics and culture ranging from legislative affairs and judicial review to education and religion.
These records are useful for researchers interested in American Samoa’s history as a colonial territory, the governance structure developed to protect indigenous culture (also known as fa‘asāmoa), and modern experiences such as questions over birthright citizenship. In particular, records from the Governor’s office document how early naval policies, the Samoan movement for a civil government (also known as Mau), and the eventual territorial constitution helped lay the basis for today’s form of indigenous self-determination that is unique among U.S. territories. Because Congress has not enacted an Organic Act for American Samoa, the territory remains “unorganized” and therefore the provisions of the U.S. Constitution do not fully apply. As a result, American Samoa has been able to restrict communal land ownership to Samoans as well as maintain and integrate its traditional governance (also known as fa’amatai) into the political structure.
Fifteen days after the high chiefs from Tutuila signed the 1900 Cession, Commander B.J. Tilley passed two laws that restricted land ownership to Samoans (Regulation No. 4) and preserved the traditional chiefly system of fa‘amatai (Regulation No. 5). Laws were published in both Samoan and English.
From series Regulations, Proclamations, and Orders..., 1900-1956 (NAID 1436618)
While Samoan chiefs (or matai) would govern at the district and village level, any of their decisions could be overruled by the Governor (essentially the Naval Commander) or adjudicated by the Secretary of Native Affairs - both positions held by non-Samoans. This 1920 petition was the first of many grievances sent over the next decade, protesting against arbitrary navy rule. From series Subject Files, 1900-1958 (NAID 1392347)
Section 3 from the American Samoa Bill of Rights reaffirmed the protection for American Samoans against alienation of their lands and loss of culture.
From series Records of Boards and Commissions, 1941-1959 (NAID 1756069)
Considering the importance of customary land tenure and the matai (or chiefly) system, many requests come from genealogists researching related records, along with various vital records such as birth and death documents. Most land and matai title records are retained by the Government of American Samoa and researchers should contact the Office of The Territorial Registrar for access. Records dated in the 1970s and prior have been microfilmed by the Genealogical Society of Utah under publication I22, which is available to view at the National Archives at San Francisco. Portions of I22 as well as records from the Office of the Territorial Registrar may also be accessed online at FamilySearch.org.
The holdings in Record Group 284 do include a small set of records related to matai titles and land estates. These files can be found in the High Court’s General Files (NAID 638834); and in the Office of the Governor’s Subject Files (NAID 1938347) and Coded Subject Files (NAID 638718). We also have early village Census Returns (NAID 1726381) as well as War Damage Claims (NAID 638721). These records, along with a portion of other parts of Record Group 284, have also been reproduced on microfilm publication T1182, which can be accessed onsite at the National Archives at San Francisco or can be ordered online through the National Archives.
Note: The Tripartite Convention of 1899, the 1900 Cession of Tutuila and the 1904 Cession of Manu’a are part of series “Perfected Treaties, 1778 – 1945” (NAID 299804) which are held at the National Archives at College Park. These have been reproduced as part of microfilm publication M1247.