The History of Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra was first sighted in 1798 by an American sea captain, Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut, while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia, but it was only later—on November 7, 1802—that the first western people landed on the uninhabited atoll. On that date, Captain Sawle of the U.S. ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll.

Many believe the atoll’s discovery by Fanning to have included a paranormal occurrence, which lends to the island’s mysticism. Fanning’s ship was under the command of the first mate at night while Fanning slept. Fanning awoke three times in the middle of the night, each time awaking out of bed. The third time, Fanning took it as a premonition and ordered the first mate to heave to. In the morning the ship resumed its travel, but only went a mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued its course at night, the entire crew might have perished.

In 1859, Palmyra was claimed by Dr. Gerrit P. Judd of the brig Josephine for the American Guano Company and the United States, in accordance with the Guano Islands Act of 1856; however, the company never started mining for guano, because there was none to be mined. Palmyra is located close to the Intertropical Convergence Zone; there is too much rain for guano to accumulate. In the meanwhile, on February 26, 1862, Kamehameha IV (1834–1863), Fourth King of Hawaii (1854–1863), issued a commission to Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson B. Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to sail to Palmyra and to take possession of the atoll in the king’s name and on April 15, 1862 it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii.

Captain Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Mr. Wilkinson on December 24, 1862 and from 1862 to 1885, Kalama Wilkinson owned the island which was divided in 1885 between three heirs, two of which immediately transferred their rights to a certain Wilcox who, in turn, transferred them to the Pacific Navigation Company. The latter entity made an attempt to colonize the atoll by sending a married couple to live there between September 1885 and August 1886.

In 1898 Palmyra was annexed to the U.S. in conjunction with the overall U.S. annexation of Hawaii; on June 14, 1900 it became part of the then U.S. Territory of Hawaii. In the period preceding the formal annexation of the atoll by the U.S., the U.K. had shown interest for the atoll to become part of the Guano Empire of John T. Arundel & Co; and in 1889 the British had even formally annexed it. In order to end all further British attempts or contestations, a second, separate act of annexation of Palmyra by the U.S. was made in 1911.

Afterwards, by a series of agreements signed between 1888 and 1911, the Pacific Navigation Company transferred its interests to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr. (1857–1929). The third heir of Kalama Wilkinson transferred his rights to a Mr. Ringer, whose children in turn also transferred their rights to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr. (s.a.) in 1912 and who then became the sole owner of the atoll.

On February 21, 1912 it was formally claimed by the U.S. government, still as part of Hawaii Territory.

In 1922 Cooper sold the whole atoll except some minor islets (the 5 home islands) to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19 for $15,000.00. The latter party established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploit the coconuts growing on the atoll. Their heirs continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of Navy administration during World War II.

In 1934, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy. When the U.S. Navy took over to use the atoll as a naval air station on 15 August 1941, the atoll was owned privately by American citizens, including Hawaiians. It only had permanently resident government representatives, styled Island Commanders, from November 1939 to 1947.

After the war, the Fullard-Leos fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1947. When Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra, which had been officially part of the City & County of Honolulu, was explicitly separated from the new state as an Incorporated Territory of the U.S., administered by U.S. Department of Interior.

In 1962, the U.S. Department of Defense used the atoll for an instrumentation site during high altitude atomic weapon tests over Johnston Island. There was a utility staff of about ten men who managed the camps and were present during the entire period. But there was an average of about 40 people who were there to run the instrumentation and to service the technical staff. These people represented many of the large universities and laboratories around the world.

Minor problems occurred with the protection of wildlife from servicemen and camp staff. The coconut crabs and Goonie birds were about the only animals of any type around the Atoll, thus there was no reported discipline issued to any individual. The main problem was the Goonie birds. Feasting in the evening, they could be drenched by the rain and become unable to return to their roosting grounds. Being attracted by the camp lights, they stopped over and usually regurgitated their meal all over the camps. On the other hand, The Hawaiians who were assigned to the staff were great fishermen and frequently caught many fish, lobster and octopus for the enjoyment of the occupants of the Atoll.

In July 1990, Peter Savio of Honolulu took a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 and formed the Palmyra Development Company.

When Savio took over the atoll he appointed Roger Lextrait caretaker of the island, and Roger lived there full time for 8 years.

In December 2000, most of the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy, for the purposes of coral reef conservation and research. The Cooper family still owns two of the five Home Islands.

In November 2005, a worldwide team of scientists joined with The Nature Conservancy to launch a new research station on the Palmyra Atoll in order to study Global warming, disappearing coral reefs, invasive species and other global environmental threats.

Recently, a scientific study was published regarding fossil coral washed up on Palmyra Atoll. The fossil coral was examined for evidence of the behavior of the El Nino effect on the tropical Pacific over the past 1,000 years.

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