Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Palmyra Atoll

Palmyra Atoll is an uninhabited 12 square kilometer atoll in the Northern Pacific Ocean, about one-half of the way from Hawaii to American Samoa, at 5°52'N, 162°6'W. Its 14.5 km of coastline has one harbor known as West Lagoon. It comprises about 50 islets covered with dense vegetation, coconut trees, and balsa-like trees up to 30 meters tall.

Palmyra is incorporated territory of the US. It is privately owned by the Nature Conservancy and managed as a nature reserve, but administered from Washington DC by the Office of Insular Affairs, United States Department of the Interior. The surrounding waters, out to the 12 mile limit, were transferred to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, and designated as a National Wildlife Refuge in 2001. Defense is the responsibility of the United States.

There is no economic activity on the island. Some roads and causeways were built during World War II but are now unserviceable and overgrown. There is one unpaved airstrip about 2000 meters long.


Palmyra was first sighted in 1798 by American sea captain Edmond Fanning while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia, but it was only on November 7,1802 that the first people landed there, when Captain Sawle of the American ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll.

A Spanish pirate ship, full of Inca treasure, wrecked on the Palmyra reefs in 1816, and its crew buried the loot under a palm tree, according to legend. But the sailors died before it could be found.

In 1859 it was claimed both by the American Guano Company and the United States Guano Company, but the following year it was awarded to the second company which however never started mining for guano in accordance with the Guano Act of 1856. In the meanwhile on February 26, 1862, His Majesty, Kamehameha IV (1834-63), Fourth King of Hawaii (1854-63), issued a commission to Captain Zenas Bent and Mr. Johnson B. Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to sail to Palmyra and to take possession of the atoll in the king's name and 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 and the possession was divided : two of the heirs immediately transferred their rights to a certain Wilcox who, in turn, transferred them to the Pacific Navigation Company who made an attempt to colonize the atoll by sending a married couple to live in Palmyra September 1885-August 1886. Afterwards, by a series of agreements, signed between 1888 and 1911, the Company transferred its interests to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr (1857 - 1929). The third heir 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 was at the time in possession of the whole atoll.

In 1898 Palmyra was annexed to the U.S. In the period preceding the formal annexation of the atoll by the U.S., the U.K. started to show some interest for the atoll as 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 was made in 1911.

In 1922 Cooper sold the whole atoll except two minor islets (the 5 home islands) to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19 for $15,000.00, who established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploite it. The heirs of both parties continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of Navy administration during WWII.

In 1934 Johnston, Kingman Reef and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy from then until 1940, when the U.S. Navy took over, it was owned privately by Hawaiian and American citizens. Palmyra was explicitly excluded from being part of the United States, when Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959.

The U.S. Navy took over the island and used it as a naval air base during World War II. Then the Fullard-Leos fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1947.

In July 1990 Mr. Peter Savio of Honolulu took over a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 and formed a corporation, the Palmyra Development Company. Mr. Savio has said that he has an agreement with the atoll's owners to buy the atoll for thirty-six million (36,000,000) dollars.