Palmyra Atoll

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Map of Palmyra Atoll
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Map of Palmyra Atoll
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Palmyra Atoll - NASA NLT Landsat 7 (Visible Color) Satellite Image

Palmyra Atoll is an uninhabited, 12 km2 atoll in the Northern Pacific Ocean at Template:Coor dm. Palmyra is one of the Northern Line Islands (southeast of Kingman Reef and north of Kiribati Line Islands), located almost due south of the Hawaiian Islands, roughly halfway between Hawai‘i and American Samoa. Its 14.5 km of coastline has one anchorage known as West Lagoon. It consists of an extensive reef, two shallow lagoons, and some 50 sand and reef-rock islets and bars covered with vegetation—mostly coconut trees, Scaevola, and tall Pisonia trees. Most islets are not separate, but connected. Exceptions are Sand Island in the West and Barren Island in the East. The largest island is Cooper Island in the North, followed by Kaula Island in the South. The northern arch of islets is formed by Strawn Island, Cooper Island, Aviation Island, Quail Island, Whippoorwill Island, followed in the East by Eastern Island, Papala Island, and Pelican Island, and in the South by Bird Island, Holei Island, Engineer island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise Island and Home Island (clockwise).

Palmyra is an incorporated territory of the United States, meaning that it is subject to all provisions contained in the United States Constitution and is permanently under U.S. sovereignty. It is also an unorganized territory as there is no Congressional act specifying how it should be governed, which is now a moot point as there is now no indigenous population nor any reason to think that there will be one in the future. It is therefore currently the only unorganized, incorporated U.S. territory. It is privately owned by The Nature Conservancy and managed as a nature reserve, but administered from Washington D.C. 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 the Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in 2001. Defense is the responsibility of the United States.

There is no current economic activity on the island. Many roads and causeways were built during World War II but are now unserviceable and overgrown. There is a ~2000 m long, unpaved and unimproved airstrip.


Palmyra was first sighted in 1798 by American sea captain, Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut, while his ship the Betsy was in transit to Asia, but it was only later—on November 7, 1802—that the first western people landed on the uninhabited atoll. On that date, Captain Sawle of the American ship Palmyra was wrecked on the atoll.

In 1859, Palmyra 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 Islands Act of 1856. Most likely this was because there was no guano. Palmyra is located close to the ITCZ —there is too much rain for guano to accumulate. In the meanwhile, on February 26, 1862, His Majesty Kamehameha IV (1834-1863), Fourth King of Hawai'i (1854-1863), issued a commission to Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson B. Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to sail to Palmyra and to take possession of the atoll in the king's name and on April 15, 1862 it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawai'i.

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, two of which immediately transferred their rights to a certain Wilcox (?) who, in turn, transferred them to the Pacific Navigation Company. The latter entity made an attempt to colonize the atoll by sending a married couple to live there between September 1885 and August 1886.

In 1898 Palmyra was annexed to the U.S. in conjunction with the overall U.S. annexation of Hawai'i. In the period preceding the formal annexation of the atoll by the U.S., the U.K. had shown interest for the atoll to become 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 by the U.S. was made in 1911.

Afterwards, by a series of agreements signed between 1888 and 1911, the Pacific Navigation Company transferred its interests to Henry Ernest Cooper Sr. (18571929). The third heir of Kalama Wilkinson 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 then became the sole owner of the atoll.

In 1922 Cooper sold the whole atoll except some minor islets (the 5 "home islands") to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19 for $15,000.00. The latter party established the Palmyra Copra Company to exploit the coconuts growing on the atoll. Their heirs continued as proprietors afterwards, except for a period of Navy administration during World War II.

In 1934, Johnston Atoll, Kingman Reef, and Palmyra were placed under the Department of the Navy. When the U.S. Navy took over to use the atoll as a naval air base, the atoll was owned privately by Hawaiian and American citizens. After the war, the Fullard-Leos fought for the return of Palmyra all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 1947. When Hawai‘i achieved statehood in 1959, Palmyra was explicitly separated from the new state; prior to that point in time, Palmyra Atoll was officially part of the City & County of Honolulu.

In July 1990 Peter Savio of Honolulu took a lease on the atoll until the year 2065 and formed the Palmyra Development Company. In January 2000, the atoll was purchased by The Nature Conservancy for the purposes of coral reef conservation and research.

The Sea Will Tell

In 1974, San Diego yachting couple, Malcom (Mac) and Eleanor (Muff) Graham sailed to Palmyra hoping to find a deserted tropical isle on which to spend an idyllic year or so. Finding numerous other "yachties" there, the Grahams were disappointed, but decided to stay. It was a fateful decision. Among the other people on Palmyra were Buck Walker and his girlfriend from Hawai‘i. Walker was a convicted drug dealer who fled Hawai‘i for life on a broken down sailboat named the Iola. Immediately, tensions real and imagined began to mount on the Graham's boat, the Sea Wind, an impeccably outfitted and beautiful ketch. The Grahams had enough food for several years, but Walker and his girlfriend were running low on staples and were planning a sail to Fanning, a nearby atoll where they thought they could use money Mac Graham paid them for their generator in exchange for the staples they needed.

Sometime between August 28 and 30 of 1974, as later related by Walker's girlfiend, The Grahams disappeared from Palmyra and the young couple found their Zodiac dinghy upside down. On September 11, after days of searching and waiting for the Grahams to make their way back to their boat, Walker and his girlfriend scuttled their own boat, the Iola and then sailed for Hawai‘i on the Sea Wind. Once in Hawai‘i, the couple had the boat repainted on Kaua‘i with a new name, although it was quickly recognized in Honolulu as the Sea Wind by acquaintenances of the Grahams. The couple were arrested for theft of the boat. Both were convicted, and served time for that theft.

Then in 1981, Muff Graham's bones were found next to an aluminum case on Palmyra. Evidence of dismembering and burning of the body was found. Buck Walker was subsequently tried and convicted of the murder of Eleanor Graham and is currently serving time (up for parole hearing in 2006 when he will be 68 years old). The girlfriend was tried separately in San Francisico, in a change of venue, and defended by Vincent Bugliosi. She was found not guilty of the murder of Muff Graham and resumed her life in California in the telecommunications industry. Mac Graham's body has never been found. Vince Bugliosi tells the story of the murders and trials in his 1991 book, And The Sea Will Tell (ISBN 0393029190).

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