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  • The Palmyra Atoll Digital Archive
  • Jesse Johnson (bio)

The Palmyra Atoll has been part of Hawai‘i (even sharing a zip code with one of its counties for a time) since 1862, following it through the 1898 annexation into United States territory status. Though named for the first recorded vessel to crash on its reefs in 1802, the US brig Palmyra, the islets were actually discovered four years earlier by Captain Fanning. While on his famed Pacific exploratory cruise, he experienced a series of premonitory dreams the night before reaching Palmyra, and by these avoided his own vessels wrecking in the shallow coral surrounding the atoll.

Despite sitting 1,000 miles southwest, this small group of islands in the middle of the Pacific are deeply linked to the history, events, and people of the Hawaiian Islands, and the rest of the United States as well. Though it has experienced brief periods of attention from media and academic circles over the years (not all of them very pleasant), until recently no formal attempt has been made to collect, catalogue, and preserve the history of Palmyra. [End Page 143]

In January of 2017, I created the Palmyra Atoll Digital Archive for this express purpose, in the hopes of promoting research into the first 200 years of Palmyra’s discovered history, and thereby expanding the larger contextual history of Hawai‘i as a whole. From its discovery by Captain Fanning in 1798, up until its sale to the Nature Conservancy in 2000, little was collectively known about the details of events and people on Palmyra. Since launching with just a few dozen items, our collection has grown to nearly 200 entries, many of them rare and previously unknown. It includes hundreds of photographs and documents previously kept in personal collections, or gathering dust in boxes at facilities such as the National Archives in Washington, DC, likely never to be digitized.

Here are just a few examples of what our team has found or has been donated to us by generous parties:

Chart Survey from the visit of the USS Portsmouth in 1873

This rare and extensively detailed survey chart was found by our research consultant working at the National Archives in Washington DC. Despite being the default source on Palmyra for cartographers, sailors, and scientists well into the early 1900s, the only copies of this chart up to now were grainy digital scans or faded prints included in other publications.

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USS Portsmouth Chart: 1876 chart created by the crew of the USS Portsmouth during its visit to Palmyra. Public domain.

Thanks to the discovery of this original copy, high resolution scans have been made and placed in our archive, revealing a much more detailed description of the atoll from that time, including physical [End Page 144] geography and lagoon depth soundings, along with islet names and landing locations from the expedition.

Aerial Collection of 1921

Prior to our research, the earliest known aerials of Palmyra were those included in various newspaper articles and military publications, beginning in the 1950s. Most of these were taken from scientific expeditions to the atoll, or shared from the private collections of military personnel. We have since found dozens of aerials from the Smithsonian archives and the National Archives in Washington, both before and after the massive naval construction works of the early 1940s.

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1921 Aerial: First known aerial photograph of Palmyra, taken by the crew of the USS Eagle 40 in 1921. Public domain.

The most significant of these finds came earlier this year, when we stumbled across mention of a US Navy sponsored aerial photography mission to Palmyra in 1921 (the first coastal survey of its kind in the nation’s history, which started in Hawai‘i before the crew moved on to Palmyra). The only evidence of this mission were a few photos in an obscure medical journal from that same time. We have since identified [End Page 145] the details of the mission, including the name of the ship and its crew, and several other images, all of which are now in...


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pp. 143-150
Launched on MUSE
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