By "Terra Nullius" or "white spot" I mean a place where you (if you were so inclined) could "legally" settle and live in some wilderness as a trapper or farmer without having to ask for permission, pay taxes, etc. (A place where you could get away with anarchy, if you will.)

If you look at today's word map it's clear that all territory belongs to states, which need to support themselves, hence ask duties and raise taxes from their citizens, etc. I once thought that during the settlement of the American Wild West there was still plenty of "white space" left (every rancher is his own king, so to speak), but presumably all its territory was already claimed by the time of, say, the early 19th century? Would there perhaps have been "white space" left e.g. from the point of view of precolonial Indians?

Or did the possibility vanish even earlier? (IMO it must have existed somewhen in the past when population counts were low compared to habitable areas. According to this movie the Last Trapper may be still alive and well ...)

  • 8
    How should we consider claims and/or usage of the land by non Westerners (in your example, native Americans)? Anyway, there is always Antartica (which happens to be white) :-D
    – SJuan76
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 9:15
  • 2
    I think it was in some way forbidden by the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, but of course the practice was different
    – Voitcus
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 10:03
  • 1
    @SJuan76 isn't it fully claimed by several states? Ok, no, apparently there's still a slice left.
    – o0'.
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 10:09
  • 5
    You might want to look at sealand and other microstates. And of course "legal" is a meaningless term in the context in which you use it. "Legal" implies legal according to some governance. There is no governance in white spots. During the settlement of the "Wild West" every inch of that territory was claimed in some form or another by Amerindian tribes.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 11:10
  • 1
    @SJuan76 Antactica is divided in segments, between Britain, Norway, Australia, New Zealand, France, Chile and Argentina. So it may be 'white' in one sense but not in any other. Try building a hut there and you may have a London policeman knocking at your door asking if you have applied for planning consent.
    – WS2
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 12:43

3 Answers 3


I am talking about Terra nullius which are lands occupied by countries, not individuals. (Most of my answer is from the Wikipedia link. I picked the most important)

You can find them in :

Svalbard was considered to be a terra nullius until Norway was given sovereignty over the islands in the Svalbard Treaty of 9 February 1920.


Norway occupied and claimed parts of (then uninhabited) Eastern Greenland in the 1920s, claiming that it constituted terra nullius. The matter was decided by the Permanent Court of International Justice against Norway.

Scarborough Shoal

The Philippines and the People's Republic of China both claim the Scarborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal or Huangyan Island (黄岩岛), nearest to the island of Luzon, located in the South China Sea. The Philippines claims it under the principles of terra nullius and EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone).

Guano Islands

The Guano Islands Act from August 18, 1856, enabled citizens of the U.S. to take possession of islands containing guano deposits. The islands can be located anywhere, so long as they are not occupied and not within the jurisdiction of other governments. It also empowers the President of the United States to use the military to protect such interests, and establishes the criminal jurisdiction of the United States.

Yes, there are some terra nullius left.

Bir Tawil

Between Egypt and Sudan there is a landlocked territory of Bir Tawil, which was created by a discrepancy between borders drawn in 1899 and 1902.

  • 5
    This is a fantastic answer; this is the model of what H:SE answers should be. It cleans up an inadvertent imprecision in OP's question and provides a factual, researched answer. Excellent job.
    – MCW
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 15:25

I think the question is impossible to answer definitively because of vagueness in the definitions.

Yes, today every square inch of land on Earth is claimed by SOMEBODY. There are a few disputed territories -- the area between Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, Sakhalin Island, and so forth -- but the issue here isn't that NO nation claims them, but that multiple nations claim them. Antarctica is the closest to a viable case. I understand that all the nations with claims there have agreed to "suspend" their territorial claims for the time being, mostly because actually living there is too impractical, so they may as well just co-operate on scientific research stations and the like for now.

But when was the last blank on the map claimed? Hard to say. What land do nomadic tribes claim? When the Europeans arrived in America, it was not at all clear what land the various Indian tribes claimed. They didn't keep title deeds and careful maps of borders like Europeans did. So was every square inch of America claimed by some Indian tribe? Probably not, various hard-to-access places and places where life would be too hard were not being used by anyone. But identifying exactly who owned any given square inch would be tough.

Of course the Europeans started dividing the place up and drawing borders. Eventually white folks claimed all of it, and so anywhere you go in the Americas today SOME government will claim the right to impose their laws and their taxes.

So the real answer to your question would appear to be "no later than the early 20th century, but possibly much earlier depending on definitions". Which, I know, isn't a very helpful answer.

  • 3
    The boundary line between Egypt and Sudan is ambiguous, with two disputed areas: Bir Tawil and the Hala'ib Triangle. Depending on which line you accept, one area is part of one country, and the other is part of the other country. Since the Hala'ib Triangle is by far the more valuable piece, both countries claim it, and neither claims Bir Tawil.
    – Mark
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 19:02

What gives you the idea that the American frontier was "whitespace"? Virtually all of the new world was claimed by somebody, sometimes multiple countries. Before the French and Indian War, all the land west of the Appalachians drained by the Mississippi was claimed by the French. The French armed the Indians and gave them carte blanche to kill any English settlers in those areas. Sure, you could go there and try to set up a homestead, but you risked death every day. Also, you would be living really tough. It's not like you could load up a truck with 2 tons of grain and drive it back to Baltimore to sell it. There were no roads, just paths through the forest.

As far as living "tax free", you can do that right now. In Maine there is what is called "unincorporated" land. You can buy and live on it with no property taxes. As long as you are not making any income (which you will not be if you are living in the backwoods), you will not pay any Maine or Federal taxes. In Alaska, the state will actually pay you to live in the boonies. People like Eskimoes in Alaska not only pay no taxes, but actually can get paid significant amounts of money just for living out in the middle of nowhere.

As far as living in a place where you are "free", that is hard because every square inch of land usually has somebody who wants to boss it around. There are still lots of remote areas a person can live in and not (usually) be molested by some authority, for example, the southern Phillipino islands, the interior of Borneo, central South America, eastern Alaska/western Canada, various places in Siberia, unoccupied islands in the Pacific Ocean, places in Nepal and the Himalyas, desert regions like the Sinai, the Sahara, the Rub' al Khali, the Dasht-e Kavir and the Taklamakan.

  • 1
    I was using the past tense ("I once thought") partly because it was a romantic notion (and I was a kid) at the time. In terms of an answer the 2nd part of your last paragraph is promising.
    – Drux
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 15:22
  • "No property taxes" is not at all the same as "no taxes". And I don't claim to know about the situation in Maine, maybe it's different, but in Ohio and Michigan there is "unincorporated land", which means you pay no CITY property tax, but there is still COUNTY property tax. I suppose if you literally have no income, you will pay no income taxes, and if you're living off of roots and berries in the woods and meat you can hunt down and kill with your bare hands, maybe you really do have zero income. But if you shoot the animals, you need a gun and bullets, and presumably those cost money, ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 16:05
  • ... which means you must have some income to buy them. I suppose theoretically you could build your own iron mine to get raw materials, and your own metal shop to fabricate the guns, etc. But I think if you really build your own mines and factories in the wilderness, at some point the government would say you have imputed income and start taxing it.
    – Jay
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 16:06
  • Each of the 13 colonies that had a frontier claimed that it extended to the Pacific. Connecticut had a slice of Ohio claimed - the Western Reserve. These were ceded to the Federal Government later. So colonial days is the limit for the US Frontier, at least legally if not in actual effect.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jun 11, 2015 at 18:33

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.