A Colorful History

"Palmyra was used as a refueling station by the U.S. Navy during World War II." 

Although Palmyra has never been settled, it has a colorful human history. It was named for an American ship that was blown ashore during a storm in 1802.  Fourteen years later, a Spanish pirate ship loaded with Incan plunder ran aground on its reefs. The crew buried their treasure on the atoll and left the islands on rafts, eventually telling their story but never making it back.

Palmyra was claimed by the sovereign Kingdom of Hawai'i in 1862 and came under United States jurisdiction following the annexation of Hawai'i in 1898. The Fullard-Leo family bought the atoll from a Honolulu judge in 1922, and the U.S. Navy used it as an air refueling station during World War II. When Hawai'i became a state in 1959, Palmyra became the last remaining privately-owned U.S. territory.

A Historical Timeline

1798 A.D.
After a premonition delivered in a dream, American sea captain Edmond Fanning "discovers" the atoll the next morning. He does not land.

Captain Sawle and his American ship are blown ashore during a storm. The name of his ship is the Palmyra.

A Spanish pirate ship, the Esperanza, loaded with plunder from Incan temples, wrecks on the atoll reefs. The crew allegedly buries the treasure beneath a palm grove before setting out on three fabricated rafts. Two of the rafts are never seen again. The remaining raft is rescued by an American whaling vessel. The sole survivor of the raft soon dies after sharing the fate of his ship.

Dr. G.P. Judd of the American brig, the Josephine, claims possession of the islets for the United States and the American Guano Company.

King Kamehameha IV declares possession of Palmyra for the Kingdom of Hawaii, acting on a petition by Zenas Bent and J.B. Wilkinson. Bent later sells his interest in Palmyra to Wilkinson, who later willed his interest in the atoll to his wife.

The United States of America, by Joint Resolution of Congress and under the leadership of President McKinley, annexes the Territory of Hawaii, explicitly including Palmyra.

Judge Henry E. Cooper of Honolulu buys Palmyra Atoll and quiets title to Palmyra in the Land Court of Hawaii.

The Fullard-Leo family of Hawaii purchases Palmyra Atoll from Cooper.

The United States Navy takes over the island and utilizes it as a naval air facility during World War II.

Fullard-Leo family defeats U.S. Government claim to ownership of Palmyra by a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Hawaii becomes the 50th State. Palmyra is specifically excluded from the State of Hawaii, making it the only privately owned territory in the United States.

President Kennedy issues an executive order vesting civil administration of Palmyra in the U.S. Secretary of the Interior.

A yachting couple is murdered at Palmyra, later becoming the basis for And the Sea Will Tell, a book by Vincent Bugliosi (author of Helter Skelter), published in 1991. It becomes a New York Times Bestseller (1991) and a TV movie (1991).

The Nature Conservancy acquires Palmyra Atoll from the Fullard-Leo family for $30 million. “It’s the kind of place time forgot,” the Fullard-Leo family says in a statement. “We protected Palmyra’s wildlife and habitat for nearly 80 years. The time has come to pass on that responsibility.”


Recognizing the value of having a federal partner to support stewardship efforts, the Conservancy sells roughly half of the atoll to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  The Service quickly extends further protection to Palmyra and its surrounding waters by designating it as a National Wildlife Refuge.  


Construction of a new research station is completed and the Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium (PARC) is formed and begins conducting research.  The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation provides the major funding for the research station and start-up research operations.


The Bush Administration designates Palmyra as part of a new national Pacific marine monument, increasing the amount of protected ocean wilderness surrounding Palmyra from half a million acres to 13 million acres including nearby Kingman Reef.


The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Island Conservation and The Nature Conservancy successfully complete the Rainforest Restoration Project, a month-long effort to remove all black rats from Palmyra.  The project is a boon to the atoll's wildlife, and especially its bird life.


The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service removes three shipwrecks from Palmyra Atoll and nearby Kingman Reef, including one leaching iron into the environment. Debris from the three wreckages equals 31 city buses and is removed to protect some of the world's most pristine coral reefs. The operation takes 79 days and costs $5.5 million to complete. 


The Conservancy brings renewable energy to Palmyra. A six-week project involving Palmyra staff and a crew of 30 volunteers install 385 solar panels, a solar hot water system, and a deep-cycle battery system to store sunlight at night. Completion of the $1.2 million project dramatically reduces Palmyra's dependence on fossil fuel and eliminates an annual 21,000-gallon shipment of diesel fuel previously used to power the atoll's generators.