Volume 15, 1999
pp. 42 – 50
Gallagher’s Clues

Whether or not there were bones found other than the partial skeleton collected by Gerald Gallagher is still a matter of debate. What is not in dispute is that the young Colonial Service officer found human remains that possibly, even probably, were those of Amelia Earhart. If we can pinpoint where on the island Gallagher’s discovery was made we can conduct a thorough search and perhaps find more material. But that is easier said than done.

As far as we know, Gallagher never marked a map or provided a detailed description of exactly where he found the bones. Instead, he made passing references in various correspondence from which we must assemble our treasure map.


On October 6, 1940 in response to a question from the Resident Commissioner as to how far from shore the bones were found, Gallagher says:

“100 feet from high water ordinary springs”

His reference here is to “spring tides” which have nothing to do with the season of the year. Spring tides occur twice each month, just after full and new moon, and are ordinarily the highest tides of the month. Tidal excursions slowly diminish over the following week to neap tides, when the tides are typically at their lowest. Other references (see below) make it clear the Gallagher is talking about the lagoon shore rather than the ocean beach.

On October 17, 1940 in response to a question from the Secretary of the High Commission as to where the bones were found, Gallagher says:

“Bones were found on South East corner of island about 100 feet above ordinary high water springs...”

The problem here is figuring out how broadly he is defining the “South East corner” of the island.

In the same communication Gallagher says:

“Body had obviously been lying under a “ren” tree and remains of fire, turtle and dead birds appear to indicate life.”

“Ren” refers to Tournefortia argentia, a smallish tree that now grows pretty much all over the island, so that’s not much help. Birds, likewise, are not unique to any one part of the atoll but their principle nesting grounds tend to be along the northern and southern shore (see map). We’ve seen turtle tracks most often on the ocean beach along the northern shore but also occasionally on the southern shore.

In the same communication Gallagher says:

“All small bones have been removed by giant coconut crabs which have also damaged larger ones.”

Whether or not the scattering was actually done by coconut crabs, Gallagher obviously thought that there were crabs in the area. Birgus latro much prefers the shady forests to the harsher, more open parts of the island –- but then, logically, so would a castaway.


In the same communication Gallagher says:

“... this part of island is not yet cleared”

From aerial photos and official reports we have good information about what parts of the island were cleared and planted, and when (see map).


In Gallagher’s letter that accompanied the bones and artifacts to Fiji, dated December 27, 1940 he says:

“... found on the South Eastern shore of Gardner Island”

Again, that’s a pretty broad statement.

In the same letter Gallagher says:

“...the skull has been buried in damp ground for nearly a year.”

This would seem to be another indication that the site was in a shady forest area.


In the same letter Gallagher says:

“... something may come to hand during the course of the next few months when the area in question will be again thoroughly examined during the course of planting operations, which will involve a certain amount of digging in the vicinity.”

Clearly, the area in question was scheduled to be planted. Whether those plans were ever carried out is another question.


In the same letter Gallagher says:

“... the coffin in which the remains are contained is made from a local wood known as “kanawa” and the tree was, until a year ago, growing on the edge of the lagoon, not very far from the spot where the deceased was found.”

This would seem to place the site quite definitely near the lagoon shore.


In a note to the file in Fiji on July 3, 1941 Gallagher wrote:

“There was no evidence of any attempt to dig a well and the wretched man presumably died of thirst. Less than two miles away there is a small grove of coconut trees which would have been sufficient to keep him alive if he had only found it. He was separated from those trees, however, by an impenetrable [sic] belt of bush.”

This could be a pretty good clue, depending upon how literally we want to take Gallagher’s estimate of distance. In 1941 there were five groves of mature coconut trees on the island (see map).

From these and a few other sparse clues we have come up with three possible sites. Each fits Gallagher’s formula in some ways, but not in others. Perhaps one of them is the right place or maybe none of them is. Here are the arguments pro and con for each one.


Kanawa Point
Pro: Kanawa (Cordia subcordata) is a rare and valuable hardwood that once grew on Nikumaroro but is apparently now extinct, having been harvested out early in the colonial period. The specific mention of a kanawa tree growing on the lagoon shore close to the castaway’s campsite (No. 9 above) raises the suspicion that the site was on the one place on the island where we know that kanawa trees once grew in abundance. A small peninsula along the atoll’s southern shoreline appears as “Kanawa Point” on the map made by the 1938/39 New Zealand survey party for that reason. It was also said to be the scene of a strange encounter by the wife of the island’s first Native Magistrate, Teng Koata, with the atoll’s guardian spirit Nei Manganibuka (see “Kanawa Point” in TIGHAR Tracks Vol. 14, Nos. 1&2).
Con: By no stretch of the imagination is Kanawa Point on the south east corner (Point 2 above) or the south east shore of Nikumaroro (Point 6 above). Also, Kanawa Point was never planted to coconuts (see Point 8 above) and is within one mile, not two, of the nearest stand of coconut trees that were present in 1941 (see Point 10 above).

Favoring Kanawa Point: Points 5, 9.

Against Kanawa Point: Points 2, 6, 8, 10.

Assessment: TIGHAR has found no artifacts on Kanawa Point but neither have we conducted any kind of real search there. Although it was probably once open and quite pleasant, it is now thickly overgrown with dense scaevola underbrush. An organized inspection of Kanawa Point would be a labor intensive and time consuming enterprise. With so little going for it, a search of Kanawa Point now seems to be a low priority.
The Aukeraime Site
Pro: This is the location where, in 1991, TIGHAR found the heel, fragmented sole, and one brass shoelace eyelet from what appears to have been a shoe identical in type, vintage, and size to those worn by Earhart on her final flight. Nearby was the heel from a different pair of shoes. Given that Gallagher also found the partial sole of a “woman’s stoutish walking shoe” and some portion of a man’s shoe, this would seem to be a strong indication that we’re in the right neighborhood. The place where we found the shoe parts is near the lagoon shore and it is certainly possible that a kanawa tree once grew there (Point 9). Our find was made a bit more than 100 feet above the usual high tide line; however, it’s also clear that we found shoes that Gallagher didn’t find, so the site of his discovery could be a bit closer to the lagoon (Point 1). The Aukeraime site is on the southeastern part of the island (Point 6) and we know that the area was cleared for planting by June of 1941 (Point 8). The nearest stand of cocos in 1941 was just under two miles away (Point 10).
Con: Although on the southeastern shore, the Aukeraime site is nowhere near the southeast “corner” of the island (Point 2). Another more speculative argument against this site is that the width of the land mass between lagoon shore and ocean beach is about 400 meters and, presuming that the turtle was caught on the ocean beach, it is difficult to imagine a castaway dragging a several hundred pound turtle that far (Point 3).
Summary: Favoring the Aukeraime Site: Points 1, 6, 8, 9, 10.

Against the Aukeraime Site: Points 2, 3.

Assessment: Because the Aukeraime Site has appeared to be so promising as the place where the bones may have been originally found, TIGHAR devoted a considerable amount of time to detailed searches of the area during Niku II in 1991 and Niku III in 1997. Results have been disappointing. Aside from the shoe parts found in 1991, the only object of interest was a partially burned fragment of a paper can label found in the ashes and charcoal of a small fire uncovered in 1997. Subsequent analysis of the fragment has reliably dated it to relatively modern times and we now suspect that it, and the fire it was in, may be from a 1978 survey of the island by Kiribati authorities. A further examination of the Aukeraime Site would mean expanding the search area into the surrounding coconut jungle–a difficult prospect given the carpet of fallen nuts, some rotted, some rooted, which covers much of the ground.

Work in progress at the Aukaraime Site, 1997. TIGHAR photo by P. Thrasher.

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