Baker Island Light

United States Minor Possessions – Pacific Ocean

The atoll has no economic activity.  It is perhaps best known as the island Amelia Earhart was searching for but never reached when her airplane disappeared on July 2, 1937, during her planned round-the-world flight.  Airstrips constructed to accommodate her planned stopover were subsequently damaged, were not maintained and gradually disappeared.  There are no harbors or docks.  The fringing reefs may pose a maritime hazard.  There is a boat landing area along the middle of the sandy beach on the west coast, as well as a crumbling day beacon.  The island is visited every two years by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The U.S. claims an Exclusive Economic Zone of 200 nautical miles and a territorial sea of 12 nautical miles around the island.

Flora and Fauna:

The climate is equatorial, with little rainfall and intense sunshine.  Temperatures are moderated somewhat by a constant wind from the east.  The terrain is low-lying and sandy: a coral island surrounded by a narrow fringing reef with a slightly raised central area.  The highest point is about twenty feet above sea level.

Ruddy Turnstones
Ruddy Turnstones

There are no natural fresh water resources.  The landscape features scattered grasses along with prostrate vines and low-growing pisonia trees and shrubs.  A 1942 eyewitness description spoke of “a low grove of dead and decaying kou trees” on a very shallow hill at the island’s center.  In 2000, a visitor accompanying a scientific expedition reported seeing “a flat bulldozed plain of coral sand, without a single tree” and some traces of building ruins from colonization or World War II building efforts, though it was all wood and stone ruins covered in flora and fauna that continues to grow on this island to this day.  Howland is primarily a nesting, roosting and foraging habitat for seabirds, shorebirds and marine wildlife.


Prehistoric Settlement:

Sparse remnants of trails and other artifacts indicate a sporadic early Polynesian presence.  A canoe, a blue bead, pieces of bamboo, and other relics of early settlers have been found.  The island’s prehistoric settlement may have begun about 1000 BC when eastern Melanesians traveled north and may have extended down to Rawaki, Kanton, Manra and Orona of the Phoenix Islands, 300 to 430 miles southeast.  K.P. Emery, an ethnologist for Honolulu’s Bernice P. Bishop Museum, indicated that settlers on Manra Island were apparently of two distinct groups, one Polynesian and the other Micronesian, hence the same might have been true on Howland Island, though no proof of this has been found.

The difficult life on these isolated islands along with unreliable fresh water supplies may have led to the dereliction or extinction of the settlements, much the same as other islands in the area.

Sightings By Whalers:

Captain George B. Worth of the Nantucket whaler Oeno sighted Howland around 1822 and called it Worth Island.  Daniel MacKenzie of the American whaler Minerva Smith was unaware of Worth’s sighting when he charted the island in 1828 and named it after his ship’s owners on December 1, 1828.  Howland Island was at last named on September 9, 1842 after a lookout who sighted it from the whaleship Isabella under Captain Geo. E. Netcher of New Bedford.

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