Jarvis Island is located a little more than 22 nautical miles south of the equator. It is 400 miles northwest of Starbuck, 373 miles northwest of Malden, 200 miles southwest of Christmas, 260 miles a little west of south from Fanning, 310 miles south and a little east of Washington, and 395 miles south-southeast of Palmyra.
It is a low, basin-shaped, coral island, measuring 1.3/4 miles east and west by a mile greatest width. The highest point on the rim is 23 feet (at Millersville) and portions of the east rim are less than 12 feet. The rim is quite narrow, enclosing an extensive basin, one point being at sea level, although there is no permanent lagoon.
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On the map has been drawn the five-foot depression contour within this basin, connecting points which are just five feet above sea level. In 1938, in making a study of plant distribution on Jarvis, it was noted that most of the area within this line, and hence lower than five feet, was covered by a meadow of Sesuvium or pickle weed. Outside the line (elevation 5 to 15 feet) the ground is sparsely covered with Portulaca or purslane.
The entire ridge was covered by a narrow belt of Lepturus bunchgrass. On the low east side were scattered bushes of Boerhaavia and Sida; and on the west side was a patch of very dry Tribulus (puncture vine) and a little Eragrostis bunchgrass. On the steep beach west of Millersville were a few bushes of Abutilon, about three feet tall, the highest vegetation on the island.
The steep beach is surrounded by a narrow fringing reef, about 100 yards wide. Off this platform reef, which dries at low water, the water is shoal for another 200 yards, on the south, west, and north, and then deepens rapidly. Off the east side, however, is quite an area of shoal, sounded by the Itasca in 1935. The direction of the wind does not make this a good anchorage. A narrow channel which was blasted through the reef on the west side by the guano diggers makes landing comparatively easy. In good weather a small boat also might land through two similar small breaks in the reef just north of the southwest point.
The usual sea birds are numerous, as well as hermit crabs, lizards, and small field mice. Highly coloured fishes and other marine life abound in pools on the reef.
Jarvis is said to have been discovered by Captain Brown of the English ship Eliza Francis, April 21, 1821. The island also has been called Bunker, Volunteer, Jervis, and Brook or Brock, and some of these names appear on charts or occur in lists of discoveries prior to 1821. Captain Michael Baker made landings from the ship Braganza in 1835 and 1836, and from the Desdamona in 1845. The U.S. Exploring Expedition's ships Peacock and Flying Fish surveyed the island in December, 1840.
It is stated that guano samples were taken in 1855. In March, 1857, Alfred G. Benson, of New York, and Charles H. Judd, of Honolullu landed from the Hawaiian schooner Liholiho (Captain John Paty) and claimed it for the American Guano Company, under the Guano Act of 1856. A few months later the U.S.S. St. Mary's under Commander Charles Henry Davis, surveyed the island and made formal claim in the name of the United States.
February 27, 1858, C.H. Judd took 23 native workmen to Jarvis on the ship John Marshall, Captain Pendleton, to commence digging operations. Buildings were erected and moorings laid. From 1858 to 1879 there is continuous record of guano shipments from this island, one of the most extensively exploited of the guano island. On July 26, 1879, the American schooner Jos. Wooley, under Captain Benjamin Hempstead, "took all the men and material on board" and sailed in turn to Baker and Howland, where the guano works on these islands likewise were closed up.
On June 3, 1889, the island was annexed by Great Britain. In 1906 it was leased to the Pacific Phosphate Company of London and Melbourne; but very little, if any, digging was done.
On August 30, 1913, the barquentine Amaranth of San Francisco, C.W. Nielson, master, with a cargo of coal from Newcastle, N.S.W., for San Francisco, stranded on the south shore of Jarvis. The crew made their way safely in two boats, one reaching Pago Pago, September 11; the other making Apia. The wreck of the Amaranth is scattered along the south shore, and rounded fragments of coal still are to be found.
In 1924 a scientific party from B.P. Bishop Museum visited Jarvis on the U.S.S. Whippoorwill, and made a biological survey of the island.
On March 26, 1935, the American flag again was raised on Jarvis by a party of colonists, landed from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Itasca. This party was in charge of William T. Miller, of the U.S. Department of Air Commerce, in whose honour the settlement has been called Millersville.
Millersville steadily has been improved. Its tents were replaced by shacks, much of them built from wreckage from the Amaranth. These in turn were replaced by substantial houses of wood and stone, equipped with refrigeration and powerful radio. Weather observations, which have been made carefully and regularly, should be of great value to trans-Pacific fliers of the future.
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