Uncle Sam's Pacific Islets

Dublin Core


Uncle Sam's Pacific Islets


Detailed account of the islands and remote territories owned or managed by the United States, as of its publication in 1940. Contains a detailed chapter on Palmyra, and the activities surrounding it up to that point, including several maps.


David N. Leff


Stanford University Press




Public Domain





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PALMYRA ISLAND, although 960 miles southwest of Hawaii, is within the city limits of Honolulu. Palmyra is a U-shaped atoll, with its fifty-three islets totaling about five hundred acres in area, and surrounding a lagoon 5.6 miles long by 1.5 wide.' Captain Sawle, an American, discovered the island on November 7, 1802, and named it for his ship, the "Palmyra." It was also known afterward as Samarang Island but was visited rarely. The "Porpoise," of Commander Wilkes' United States Exploring Expedition, visited Palmyra, and reported small quantities of water and fruit ob-tainable on it. Wilkes found the island inhabited, apparently by indigenes, for he commented: It is to be regretted that all these detached islands should not be visited by our national vessels, and friendly intercourse kept up with them. The benefit and assistance that any shipwrecked mariners might derive from their rude inhabitants would repay the time, trouble, and expense such visits would occasion. No subsequent account of Palmyra has ever mentioned a native population.

A Hawaiian commission which visited the island in 1862 found the following notice, together with an American flag:

BE IT KNOWN TO ALL PEOPLE that on the 19th day of October A.D. 1859, the undersigned, Agent of the American Guano Co., landed from the brig Josephine, and having discovered a deposit of guano thereon, doth, on this 20th day of October aforesaid take formal possession of this island, called "PALMYRA" on behalf of the United States, and claim the same for said company.
(Signed) G. P. JUDD Agent A. G. Co.

The American Guano Company made good its discovery by filing bond with the United States in 1860 under the Guano Act of 1856. Notwithstanding these claims, of which it seemed ignorant, and which were apparently never revived, the Hawaiian Cabinet Council on February 26, 1862, granted one Zenas Bent a commission to take possession of Palmyra island in the name of King Kamehameha IV. Bent visited the island for this purpose on April 15 of that year. He erected a flagstaff wrapped in the Hawaiian flag and interred at its base a corked bottle containing notice of his act of annexation for the Hawaiian kingdom. Bent reported to the Hawaiian Department of the Interior on June 16 that he had surveyed Palmyra, ascertained its position, planted some vegetables, built a dwelling and a curing house for beche-de-mer, and left a white man and four Hawaiians to do the curing. The Minister of Interior issued a procla-mation of annexation on June 18, 1862. In 1889 Commander Nichols of H.M.S. “Cormorant" was sailing among the "Line" Islands. Finding Palmyra unoccupied, he claimed it for Great Britain.' However, when the United States annexed Hawaii in 1898 the report of the Hawaiian Commission to Congress specifically included Palmyra, by virtue of its annexation in 1862.6 The Department of the Interior observed in 1925 that current maps and atlases were calling Palmyra Island a British possession.' Five years later British publications were still not agreed as to its status.' Charles O. Paullin commented in 1932, "The subsequent continuous occupation of the Palmyra Islands by American citizens has undoubtedly confirmed the American title to these islands.”'

At one time Palmyra was controlled by the Pacific Navigation Company, which in September 1885 sent a Mr. Dillon to cut wood, catch fish and birds, plant coconut, seek pearls, and exploit the island generally on a one-year contract. He and his wife returned to Honolulu late in 1886 or early in 1887. Later Japanese bird poachers visited Palmyra sporadically. A botanical expedition from the College of Hawaii examined the atoll in 1913 as guests of the Honorable Henry E. Cooper, former president of the college board of regents, who at the time owned Palmyra Island.’ Judge Cooper afterward leased it to the Palmyra Island Copra Company." A former colonel in the Canadian Army, William Meng, went there about 1920 with his wife and a young man from Honolulu to make preliminary sur-veys of the coconut groves and plan the active work of the copra company. An aerial expedition of the United States Navy brought Mrs. Meng back to Honolulu in September 1921 for medical attention, "her long stay on the islands having brought on a nervous complaint."" With Kingman Reef the only seaplane base between Hawaii and New Zealand, Palmyra Island was being considered by Pan American Airways in mid-1935 as a possible land depot or airdrome for its Honolulu to Auckland service.' However, the final Canton-Noumea route to New Zealand has obviated the prospect of its early use in commercial aviation.

Original Format




David N. Leff, “Uncle Sam's Pacific Islets,” Palmyra Archive, accessed July 6, 2020, http://palmyraarchive.org/items/show/59.