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
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
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
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.