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Exerpted with permission from:
A. Binion Amerson, Jr. Paper Number 79, Pacific Ocean Biological Survey Program, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Discovery and Shipwrecks

Although there are no records in historic Hawaiian lore, the earliest visitors to French Frigate Shoals probably came from the nearby Hawaiian Islands to the east which are known to have been settled by Polynesians between 1100 and 1300 AD. The Spanish and Portuguese began exploring the Pacific following Magellan's successful crossing in the 1520's. Early sailing vessels followed the Equatorial Current westward and the North Pacific Current eastward and the Hawaiian Islands were seldom, if ever, visited. Many writers believe that it was not until January 1778 that Captain James Cook, an Englishman, discovered the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands. Other Europeans soon visited the area.The discovery of French Frigate Shoals on 6 November 1786 was almost marred by disaster. The French explorer Jean Francois de Galaup, Comte de la Perouse, aboard his frigate, the Broussole, accompanied by the Astrolabe, was sailing westward on a tranquil sea from Monterey to Macao. At 0130 hours men on both ships sighted breakers directly ahead at a distance of only 2/10 mile. Both vessels were immediately brought about and headed south-southeast, passing as close as 1/10 mile to the breakers.

At daybreak, both ships reversed course, and at 0800 breakers were sighted north-northwest. Soon "a small island, or cleft rock, fifty toises [100 yards] at most in diameter, and about twenty or twenty-five [40 or 50 yards] in height' was sighted. Many years later this rock was named La Perouse Pinnacle after its discoverer.

La Perouse examined only the southeastern half of the atoll, as shown in his original 1786 map. He thought the rock was at the extreme northwest end of the reef and found only three sand-banks no more than four feet high. Before leaving he named his new discovery Basse des Fregates Frangaises, or Shoal of the French Frigates.

Several variations of la Perouse's original name have been used over the years: French Frigate Shoal, French Frigates Shoal, and French Frigate Shoals. The most recent ruling was in July 1954 when the U.S. Board of Geographic Names adopted French Frigate Shoals.

United States Possession

During the late 1700's and early 1800's European and American traders called at the larger Hawaiian islands and 1825 Honolulu had become the most important port in the entire Pacific. The United States became more and more interested in the Pacific and in August 1838 the United States Exploring Expedition put to sea under command of Lt. Charles Wilkes. This expedition spent some six months in the Hawaiian area; on 3 December 1841 they sighted French Frigate Shoals but were unable to land due to bad weather.

In early October 1858 the U.S. Schooner Fenimore Cooper, commanded by Lt. John M. Brooke, U.S. Navy, left San Francisco to sound out a route via Hawaii to Japan for a possible underwater telegraph cable. The Fenimore Cooper visited French Frigate Shoals from 3 to 7 January 1859; Brooke took depth soundings and charted the various islets for the first time. More importantly, however, Lt. Brooke took formal possession of French Frigate Shoals for the United States on 14 January in accordance with the U.S. Guano Act of August 1856 .

Guano and Shipwrecks

Brooke also reported the discovery of guano at French Frigate Shoals, a fact which produced much excitement in Honolulu among guano investors. The bark Gambia sailed to the Shoals on 5 March 1859 and on the 23rd the American clipper ship Modern Times also set sail. Both ships returned with disappointing news concerning the size of the deposits and the cost of their removal.

The first wreck recorded on the Shoals was of the American whaling ship South Seaman, which wrecked on 13 March 1859. Fortunately the Hawaiian schooner Kamehameha IV was in the area and brought back to Honolulu 12 of the South Seaman's crew. The remaining 30 or so crewmen were left on one of the islands until the Kamehameha IV (chartered by the American consul) returned to pick them up.

The Gambia, under the command of Captain N.C. Brooks, again visited French Frigate Shoals in late April or early May 1859. While at the Shoals, Brooks noted an abundance of seals, turtle, fish, and birds.

On 14 April 1867 French Frigate Shoals was the site of the shipwreck of the bark Daniel Wood. All of the crew managed to reach one of the islands. On the 16th Captain Richmond, the second mate, and 6 men embarked for Honolulu in one of the ship's whaleboats, leaving 27 shipmates behind. They landed at Honolulu on the 24th. The U.S.S. Lackawanna was dispatched by the American Consul to rescue the rest of the crew. On 20 May the schooner Malolo sailed for the Shoals in search of the wreck of the Daniel Wood. The Malolo returned to Honolulu on 22 June without finding a trace of the wrecked ship. When U.S. Naval Hydrographic Office Maps 2, 3 and 4 showing the entire Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in detail were published in 1867, other countries became interested. The Japanese soon began to fish in the area. The Japanese-owned American-chartered schooner Ada, working out of Yokohama, visited French Frigate Shoals from 3 February to 1 May 1882 (Hornell, 1934). It left the Shoals with a cargo of sharks' flesh, fins and oil, turtle shells and oil, and birds' down.

The North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company was interested in mining guano on the central Pacific islands. A letter from J.P Hackfeld, secretary of the company, dated 6 January 1894, to James A. King, Minister of the Interior of the new Republic of Hawaii, requested that King order the lease by public auction of French Frigate Shoals, Kure, Midway, and Pearl and Hermes Reef for a term of 25 years and that the purchaser should have the exclusive right to mine guano, phosphate, fertilizers, and other materials. The islands were leased on 15 February 1894 for a period of 25 years to the North Pacific Phosphate and Fertilizer Company. This company was also granted exclusive rights to the guano deposits provided they would be worked within five years; otherwise, the rights would revert to the Hawaiian government. Since the Pacific Guano and Fertilizer Company never worked French Frigate Shoals, their guano rights presumably reverted in 1899; their lease, however, was probably valid. In order to obtain clear titles to the northwestern islands for the Republic of Hawaii, President Sanford B. Dole on 9 July 1895 appointed James A. King, Minister of the Interior, Republic of Hawaii, as Special Commissioner to take possession of French Frigate Shoals. On that same date, King sailed from Honolulu on the Revenue Cutter Lehua, commanded by Captain Berry, in pursuance of President Dole's commission. King, in a subsequent letter to Dole on 22 July, noted that the Lehua sighted the rock islet of French Frigate Shoals on 13 July, that he landed and took possession; on a nearby sand island they planted the Hawaiian Flag.

The U.S. Navy, as well as other U.S. Government agencies, became interested in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in the late 1890's and early 1900's. Hawaii became a United States Territory on 30 April 1900. On 28 and 29 May 1902 the U.S. Fish Commission Steamer Albatross stopped at the Shoals; among their activities was wildlife survey.

Preservation of wildlife was of prime importance in the early 1900's and President Theodore Roosevelt signed an Executive Order on 3 February 1909 setting aside all the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, except Midway, as a preserve and breeding ground for native birds. This preserve, to be known as the Hawaiian Island Reservation, was to be administered by the Department of Agriculture.

Subsequently, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service vessels were used to patrol the area for bird poachers. The USRC Thetis made several trips to the islands. Her stops at French Frigate Shoals include 19 December 1912, 9 September 1914, 20-21 March 1915, and 28 January 1916). The USS Hermes visited on 4-5 September 1918 on a similar inspection survey.

From 25 August to 30 September and from 10 October to 4 November 1914 the USS Rainbow conducted a hydrographic survey outside of the reef. The subsequent map, first printed in June 1915, is considered to be the first modern map of French Frigate Shoals.

As part of a biological survey of central Pacific islands, the Tanager Expedition, with 11 scientists, visited the atoll from 22 to 28 June 1923. Alexander Wetmore was the field director for this survey; his unpublished field notes reveal details on the avifauna present as well as a description of each island. Many scientific collections were made. This survey was the first overall scientific survey of French Frigate Shoals.

This page was last updated on March 01, 1998 09:12 PM