History of Jarvis Island

Jarvis Island is an uninhabited 4.5 square kilometer coral island in the Line Island group near the equator, about 1,350 miles south of Honolulu, Hawaii. It was discovered in 1821 by Captain Brown aboard the British ship Eliza Frances. The United States claimed possession of Jarvis under the Guano Islands Act. The act gave American citizens the right to claim any unclaimed, uninhabited islands for the purpose of mining guano, or bird droppings. At this time guano was a very valuable asset used for fertilizer.

Settlers were moved to Jarvis Island in 1935 to maintain a weather station and plan a landing field. A settlement called Millersville was established on the west coast of the island with the highest elevation. The Japanese shelled the island in 1942 and the men living on Jarvis were evacuated soon afterward. Nobody was hurt in the attack.

Since 1974 the United States Fish and Wildlife Service and the United States Department of the Interior have maintained Jarvis Island as a National Wildlife Refuge and the Island is only available to visit with a special permit, however typically only researchers and similar persons are given permits. Amateur radio operators have also been known to be granted access to Jarvis Island.

Jarvis Island is located at 0°22' 42'' S, 160°1' W. Jarvis Island is frequently grouped together with Baker Island and Howland Island, which are over a thousand miles west of Jarvis and are with Jarvis, also United States Minor Outlying Islands.

Because the island is surrounded by 100 meters of coral reef, the guano workers had to blast away a portion of the reef to create a passageway for the guano to be transported through; other than this there is no anchorage facilities and all vessels must be anchored offshore. A possible second man-made passage can be seen on the southwest side of the island.

The Island was annexed by the United States in 1858 and mined for twenty one years until 1879. In 1889 Jarvis Island was annexed by Great Britain, and leased seventeen years later in 1906 to The Pacific Phosphate Company of London and Melbourne. Still unclear is if Pacific Phosphate continued mining, however if it did, very little was performed.

Long before Jarvis Island's discovery by humans it once contained a lagoon in the center of the island which gradually filled up with sand and detritus, or dead organic materials, including guano. At the same time the entire island underwent a positive change in elevation. Jarvis is encircled by a fringing reef about 100 meters wide. Beneath the guano lies sometimes two feet of lime sulphate. This is the result of sea water crashing into the basin in the center of the island, evaporating, and leaving salt deposits.

When a coral island contains a lagoon it is called an atoll. Otherwise it is just a coral island. Coral islands are usually atolls before their current state. Atolls are formed when volcanic islands erode and coral takes over at the same rate as the erosion. This was proved by Charles Darwin in 1842. The following animation displays the process quite clearly.

coral atoll formation animation
Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Ocean Service

What Jarvis Island looked like as a volcanic island and as a complete atoll is currently unknown. It is thought that islands in their current form are much smaller than their original state.

Until this page is updated next, please see jarvisisland.net for more information.