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American Samoa Travel Guide

Death of Captain de Langle
The death of Captain de Langle at Aasu, Tutuila,
on 11 December 1787.


The Polynesians emerged in Samoa some 3,000 years ago. By 600 B.C. they'd established a settlement on Tutuila at Tula. This nucleus (or a similar one in the Manu'a Group) may have been the jumping-off point for colonizing Eastern Polynesia (Tahiti and the Marquesas) about A.D. 300. The Samoans maintained regular contact by canoe with the other island groups of Western Polynesia, Tonga, and Fiji.

Both Samoas belong to a single cultural area: The chiefs of Tutuila were subordinate to those of Upolu.

The first European in Samoa was the Dutchman Jacob Roggeveen, who visited the Manu'a Group in 1722. In 1786 Antoine de Bougainville, who was French, christened Samoa the "Navigator Islands" for the islanders in canoes he observed chasing schools of tuna far offshore. Another Frenchman, La Pérouse, called in 1787 and had a bloody encounter with the islanders. The Samoans nicknamed these early visitors papalagi, or "sky bursters," shortened today to palagi and applied to all whites.

Protestant missionary John Williams arrived in 1830 with eight Tahitians and influenza. His son, John Williams, Jr., became one of the first European traders.

Nearly 40 years later, American businessmen chose Pago Pago Harbor as an ideal coaling station for their new steamship service from San Francisco to Australia. In 1872, the U.S. Navy sent a ship to negotiate a treaty with local chiefs. Though never ratified by the U.S. Senate, this agreement kept the other powers out of Tutuila. By the treaty of November 7, 1899, Germany and the United States partitioned Samoa between themselves, with British interests recognized in Tonga. In 1900, the United States annexed Tutuila and Aunu'u, adding the Manu'a Group in 1904. This act was not formally ratified by the U.S. Congress until 1929.

From 1900 to 1951 American Samoa was under the Navy Department; since then it has been the responsibility of the Department of the Interior. Thousands of U.S. Marines were trained on Tutuila during WW II, and concrete pillboxes built at that time still punctuate much of the island's coastline. The only action experienced, however, was a few shells lobbed from a Japanese sub on January 11, 1942, which ironically damaged the store of one of Tutuila's few Japanese residents, Frank Shimasaki. In the first decade of the 21st century scores of American Samoan reservists were killed or wounded while serving in Iraq.

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