Navy's Interest Recalls Tales of Palmyra Treasure

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Navy's Interest Recalls Tales of Palmyra Treasure


Describes the legend and confirmed details of the wreck of the Esperanza and its survivors. Also gives a general history of Palmyra, mentioning some of the scientific expeditions.


Hawaii State Library


Honolulu Star Bulletin




Used by Permission





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A treasure island, rich perhaps in pirates' gold looted from the Incas almost 125 years ago, figures today as an active legal problem in the Honolulu federal court. The island, or rather group of islets, known as Palmyra, situated 960 nautical miles south by west of Honolulu, is wanted by Uncle Sam as a $1,000,000 naval base. It is claimed by the government as federal property against the counter claims of Mr. and Mrs. K Fullard-Leo of Honolulu and heirs of the late Judge Henry E. Cooper.

Recalls Treasure Story

Some 17 years ago, the late Capt. William R. Foster, then harbormaster of Honolulu, disclosed that letter from from a seafarer, whose name was not disclosed, contained a romantic story of buried treasure on one of the Palmyra reefs. The treasure, according to this account, was gold bullion looted by pirates in Peru in 1816. It was supposed to have been taken to Palmyra from the wreck of the pirate ship Esperanza. Although the authenticity of the account has never been verified, Palmyra, without its pirates' gold, remains a treasure island, its established wealth being estimated in terms of scenic beauty and in its value in the field of natural science.

Ideal Refuge

Descriptions of Palmyra, brought back by voyagers to Honolulu, its county seat, define it as an ideal South Sea island, the refuge of which civilization-ridden humanity dreams as an escape from it all. It is inhabited only by birds, moths, land, hermit and coconut crabs. But today escape to Palmyra may be dismissed by dreamers with a petulant high. Because what Uncle Sam wants he usually gets and soon the red footed boobies will be replaced by shining wings of navy planes and the land crabs will scurry to safety on the outermost atolls. It's a question only of time, and whether or not Uncle Sam must pay in coin of the realm for the picturesque island group.

Area 242 Acres

Aside from its scenic and natural interest, the Palmyra islets have a historical South Pacific background. The group, consisting of 50 small Islands, has a total area of approximately 242 acres, the largest island being 50 acres in area. It was discovered in June 1797 by Capt. Edmond Fanning, voyaging north-westward from Fanning island on his vessel, the Betsy. Palmyra was named for the American vessel which sought shelter there in 1802. In October, 1859, Dr. Gerrit P. Judd, agent for the American Guano Co. in Honolulu, landed at Palmyra and claimed it in the name of the guano company. No claim in that connection, however, was filed in Washington.

Given Royal Grant

Holding a commission issued by King Kamehameha IV, Capt. Zenas Bent landed at Palmyra April 15, 1862, and took formal possession under the Hawaiian flag. Capt. Bent and J. B. Wilkinson were granted by the king exclusive rights to remove guano from the islets for five years. By sale and through inheritance the Palmyra group passed into various bands. In 1889 Cmdr. Nichols of the British ship Cormorant annexed the islets in the name of Great Britain, unaware that it was a Hawaiian possession. The claim was not pressed before or after the group was annexed as part of Hawaii by the U. S. annexation resolution of July 7, 1898.

Bought by Judge Cooper

Claims of the present owners now pending in federal court date back to June, 1911, when it was purchased by Judge Cooper from the widow of William Ringer for $750. In June, 1912, the owner obtained a land court title, the validity of which is now in dispute inasmuch as the government claims that the title passed to the U..S. upon the annexation of Hawaii. Before the title was registered, however, judge Cooper was approached by an English syndicate seeking possession of Palmyra. After correspondence between then Governor Walter F. Freer and Washington, in February 1912, the U. S. cruiser West Virginia, commanded by Admiral W. H. H. Southerland, USN, formally took possession of the group in the name of the United States.

Title Changes Hands

Mr. and Mrs. Fullard-Leo, August 19, 1922, acquired title to the islands from Judge Cooper, with the exception of two islets known as Home islands for the sum of $15,000 The heirs of Judge Cooper now claim in ownership are Mary Ellen
Cooper, Alfred D. Cooper, Wallace M. Cooper. Alice G. Bailey, Irene C. Hustvedt, Ysabel G. Pine and Francis J. Cooper. Mr. and Mrs. Fullard-Leo have filed answers in court laying claim to the property. Some of the heirs of Judge Cooper have answered the government claims but the replies of others living on the mainland are to be filed later. In years past the island group was the scene of much scientific study.

Shells Collected

One of the first of these scientific expeditions was made on the USS Portsmouth by Dr. Thomas Sheets in 1873-74. Dr. Joseph Rock of the University of Hawaii and Dr. C. M. Cooke Jr., of Bishop museum visited there in 1913 as guests of Dr. Cooper. A collection of marine shells and marine life was made at Palmyra for the Bishop museum in 1922 by the late Lorrin A. Thurston and D. D. Thaanum. Recent studies were made by E. H. Bryan Jr. of the Bishop museum who visited the group on the Itasca in 1935 and on the Taney in 1938.

Lush vegetation on the islands.

Tall coconut palms, ferns and shrubbery grow in response to heavy rains which also furnish the islands' drinking water supply. About 18 species of plants are found there, coconut palms, predominating Several hundred coconut palms were planted at Palmyra by Capt. Charles B. Wilson, father of John H. Wilson, territorial social security director, between 1860 and 1863 on his voyages between Fanning island and Honolulu.

Original Format



“Navy's Interest Recalls Tales of Palmyra Treasure,” Palmyra Archive, accessed May 27, 2020,