Despite Palmyra's natural remoteness, a wide range of groups and individuals have called it home over the last 200 years, even if only for brief periods. Since its discovery in 1798, most residents have come as employees and workers for the harvesting and production of copra (the dried meat of the coconut, used to extract coconut oil), and fishing ventures. Its use as a refueling station by the Navy during the second world war dramatically changed the physical shape of Palmyra, making it much more accessible to pleasure craft, scientists, researchers, and adventurers, who have since spent long stretches of time living alongside the creatures and plant life of the islands. While few of these residents interacted with each other, and were often separated by decades of time, the things each left behind would have strong impacts on how those that came next lived and worked on Palmyra.
For instance, before the earliest attempts at coconut production on the islands, starting in the 1860’s, the many islets were almost entirely covered in a small variety of bushes and pisionia trees. By the early 1900’s, however, there were thousands of coconut trees, and a growing population of rats from the various visiting sailors. After the clearing of nearly all vegetation by the military during World War 2*, and the reforming of the islands and lagoons, what has grown back bears little resemblance to the atoll’s original plant life, and includes a variety of species from very different environments.
These residents have almost always been accompanied by locals from the nearby (relatively speaking) islands, such as Fanning and Kiribati, descendants of Palmyra’s earliest visitors. Unfortunately, because the atoll's coral surfaces and beaches were washed over with rising sea water during storms every few years, little evidence of visitors before the 1800’s has been found. Perhaps in the future, as the island is returned more and more to its pre-discovery state through valiant conservation efforts, evidence of Palmyra’s first visitors and their activities will come to light. For now, we can rely on stories like those in this exhibit to speak of the atoll’s history in housing the men and women bold enough to venture there.
*This exhibit does not include discussions of the nearly 6,000 servicemen who occupied Palmyra during World War 2 and their activities, as there is a good deal of information from that time both in the archive and other places.