American Samoa History

 American Samoan man and young boy with captured sea turtle. 1940.
Wayne A. Forde Collection

With a rich heritage and an even richer land, Polynesuians first migrated to the Samoan Islands more than three thousand years ago. According ot the traditions as told by their ancestors, the Samoman islanders had contat that was sometime hostile with Fijians and other Pacific Islanders. In 1722, Dutch explorer Jacob Roggeveen became the first Eurpoean to arrive in the beautiful islands, but for most of the 18th century European influence was limited to sometimes trading with the ships that passed through the islands. A conflict between Utuila islanders and a French ship party resulted in 51 deaths in 1787. This incident and a later dispute with another ship, a British ship, gave the islanders a reputation for being violent, though they weren’t. Missionaries from the London Missionary Society arrived in the 1830’s and with great success converted a lot of the Samoans to Christianity.Pirates and whalers sailing in the Pacific were among the first Europeans to visit Samoa. By the mid-nineteenth century, Pago Pago was on of the prime whaling ports in the entire Pacific Ocean! By the early 1800’s, European traders made frequent stops at these islands. The traders were on their way to China, carrying goods for sale. Some of them like the climate and scenery of the South Pacific so much that they settled there. Sadly, they brought with them some unwelcome diseases to which the natives had no immunity. A number of Europeans settled in the Samoan islands in the next twenty years and established their own communities and laws. For a long time the two groups lived in peace with one another.

United States influence began in 1872 when the United States Navy Commander Richard Meade met with Tutuila’s Chief Manuma to establish a harbor in Pago Pago. By the end of the century, Britain, Germany and the United States were engaged in a power struggle to control the Islands. American Samoa became United States territory by a treaty with Great Britain and Germany in 1899. Local Polynesian chiefs gave up their claims to the islands in 1900 and 1904. Before this, the United States Navy had used the harbor at Pago Pago as a fueling station and American Samoa’s first “presidents” of the islands were United States Navy officers who ran the islands as a military base. The welfare of the Samoan people was neglected, except by a handful of missionaries.

 Two young American Samoan girls with pineapple plants. 1940.
Wayne A. Forde Collection

As an unincorporated and unorganized territory of the United States and administered by the Office of Insular Affairs and the United States Department of the Interior Independence, the America Samoa military activities take place within the United States. With no military of its own, the America Samoans depend upon the United States for military support. Being the responsibility of the United States Military, the 1,133 square miles (about the size of Rhode Island) of America Samoa territory is located about one half of the way from Hawaii to New Zealand. American Samoa became even more important to the United Stated during the Second World War when Pago Pago was a naval base and staging point for the Navy offense in the Pacific. The islands were run by the United States Navy until 1951 when United States president Harry Truman transferred responsibility for American Samoa to the U.S. Department of the interior. A new constitution was drafted in 1960 and in 1978 the first election took place. In the 1960’s the United States started providing new opportunities and a large amount of money to the Samoan Island through trading and exportation. Wanting to become a larger force in the economic sector, the Samoan Islands location is actually prohibitive to trading any more than they do now because of its remote location.Today, schools have been built, roads paved, housing has expanded and a new jet airport has been constructed. About a third of people from the islands work for the American Samoan government as the others work in the fishing and canning industry. As it was in ancient Samoa, the land is still communally owned by most families living in rural areas. They still maintain a small amount of taro and banana plantations for their own families to eat, and approximately twenty members of the same family live under one roof.

While tourism is not prevalent in this part of the Pacific in part, because of its remote location, traffic has become very congested, especially in Pago Pago. One of the most interesting attractions in the Samoan Islands is their National Park. This lies in the South Pacific Ocean and was establish to protect the area’s tropical rain forest on the islands. Because it is home to plants and animals, including the flying fox (which is actually a bat with a wing span of over three feet!). There are many islanders who choose to continue practicing the traditional forms of farming and reef fishing in the park. Therefore, the white sandy beach and a large corral reed on the island of Ofu are also protected.

American Samoa is served by one major airline today and two commuter, or smaller, airlines. There is television (two channels) and one daily newspaper in print. Surprisingly though, telephone (including cellular phone service) and internet service is readily available and used by almost everyone on the island.