The Kingdom of Hawaii claimed the atoll in 1862, and the US included it among the Hawaiian Islands when it annexed the archipelago in 1898. The Hawaii Statehood Act of 1959 did not include Palmyra Atoll, which is now privately owned by the Nature Conservancy. This organization is managing the atoll as a nature preserve. The lagoons and surrounding waters within the 12 nautical mile US
territorial seas were transferred to the US Fish and Wildlife Service and were designated a National Wildlife Refuge in January 2001.
The atoll received its name from the American vessel Palmyra under the command of Captain Sawle, who sought shelter there on November 7, 1802. On February 26, 1862, His Majesty, Kamehameha IV (1834-1863), Fourth King of Hawaii (1854-1863), 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.
On April 15, 1862, Captain Bent and Mr. Wilkinson landed in Palmyra and took formal possession of the atoll in accordance with the royal commission. Captain Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Mr. Wilkinson on December 24, 1862. This deed was recorded in 1885 in the Royal Registry of Conveyances in Honolulu.
Palmyra was specified as one of the islands included in the Joint Resolution of the Congress of July 7, 1898, which annexed the Republic of Hawaii to the United States. [VideVolume 30, Statutes-at-Large, page 750, et Senate Document No. 16, Fifty-fifth Congress, Third Session, page 4.] In 1912, at Judge Cooper's suggestion, the then Governor of Hawaii asked the Secretary of the Interior to
send an American vessel to Palmyra to confirm American sovereignty. Thus, on February 17, 1912, the U.S. Navy cruiser West Virginia under the command of Rear Admiral W.H.H. Southerland left Honolulu and returned on February 28, 1912, with the announcement that the cruiser's officers had taken formal possession of Palmyra in the name of the United States on February 20-21, 1912.
During the 1940's the U.S. Navy stationed six thousand sailors in the atoll. They dredged a seaplane runway which merged the atoll's two western lagoons into one. A causeway was built on the remaining reef. At the same time, the sailors joined three of the islands into one and built a land plane runway about one mile long, which the U.S. Air Force used until 1961.
In July 1990 Mr. Peter Savio of Honolulu took over a lease on the atoll till the year 2065 and formed a corporation, the Palmyra Development Company. Mr. Savio intends to develop in the atoll residential areas and tourist spots which will emphasize a "get-away-from-it-all" lifestyle. Mr. Savio has said that he has an agreement with the atoll's owners to buy the atoll for thirty-six million
dollars. Mr. Savio has carried the atoll's for-sale listing since 1987. Except for rare, short-term travelers arriving by boat, the atoll is currently uninhabited.
Palmyra Atoll was a part of the Territory of Hawaii (United States v. Fullard-Leo, 331 U.S.256, 266 (1947)) prior to Hawaii's entering the Union on August 21, 1959. Before this date, the Territory of Hawaii provided law enforcement to Palmyra as a part of Hawaii. In as much as the Congress expressly excluded Palmyra from the State of Hawaii by section 2 of the Hawaii Statehood Act (Public Law
86-3, March 18, 1959), legislation was required to provide for law enforcement. The Congress accomplished this by Public Law 86-3(March 18, 1959), which extended the jurisdiction of the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii to cases arising in Palmyra (Title 48, U.S. Code, section 644a).
From August 12, 1898, until April 30, 1900, Hawaii (including Palmyra Atoll) was an unincorporated U.S. territory. On the latter date the Congress made the U.S. Constitution and all U.S. laws applicable to Hawaii (including Palmyra Atoll) as elsewhere in the several States and the District of Columbia. On April 30, 1900, Hawaii (including Palmyra Atoll) became an incorporated U.S.
territory. ( In corporation has been consistently interpreted as a perpetual state. Once incorporated, an area cannot be de-incorporated.) So, when Hawaii (excluding Palmyra Atoll) was admitted as one of the several States, Palmyra remained and continues to remain an incorporated U.S. territory. It is, in fact, of the fourteen U.S. insular areas, the only incorporated U.S. territory, that is, a
Territory. (Under Federal law U.S. insular areas are divided into two categories: incorporated insular areas which use "Territory" with a capital "T" and unincorporated insular areas which use "territory" with a lower-case "t.")
Section 48 of the Hawaii Statehood Act continued to vest all executive and legislative authority necessary for the civil administration of Palmyra in the Secretary of the Interior, until the Congress provided for the government of Palmyra. Section 48 maintained that all judicial authority for the government of Palmyra other than that contained in Title 48, U.S. Code, section 644a,
would continue to be vested as well in the Secretary of the Interior. Section 48 allowed that the Secretary might confer on the U.S. District Court for the District of Hawaii jurisdiction in addition to that contained in Title 48, U.S. Code, section 644a, and those judicial functions and duties which the Secretary deemed appropriate for Palmyra's civil administration.
Executive Order No. 10967 (October 10, 1961) restated that the Secretary of the Interior was responsible for Palmyra's civil administration and all executive and legislative authority necessary for that administration and all judicial authority other than that contained in Title 48,U.S. Code, section 644a. Similarly, the order permitted the Secretary to confer on the U.S. District Court for
the District of Hawaii jurisdiction in addition to that contained in Title 48,U.S. Code, section 644a, and those judicial functions and duties which the Secretary deemed appropriate for Palmyra's civil administration. This executive order will continue in force until the Congress provides for Palmyra's civil administration.