Case Studies in Historical Archaeology:

Gachlaw Village, Yap,

Yapese Boy Preparing for Sitting Dance, 1989
(Photograph ©1989, ©2000 by William Hampton Adams)

Federated States of Micronesia


by William Hampton Adams




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Yap is one of the four states comprising the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), the others being Chuuk, Pohnpei, and Kosrae. Yap is a high island, like the other main islands in the FSM, but the other islands are volcanic, whereas Yap is part of the Asian plate. As such it has a complex geological history. Yap is south of Guam and east of the Republic of Palau.

Yap proper is comprised of four main islands, Tamil, Gagil, Map, and Yap. Gachlaw Village is located in southern Yap Island. Although its territory reached the old shoreline, the villagers had few rights to ocean resources, due to their low status as pimilingay.


In July and August 1989, a team of archaeologists investigated Gachlaw Village as part of the Micronesian Resources Study funded by the Micronesian Endowment for Historic Preservaton and the U.S. National Park Service. The team consisted of William H. Adams, Richard E. Ross, and Sarah K. Campbell. The purpose of the research was three-fold:

1. to train the local heritage preservation office staff in field archaeology methods;

2. to survey and record the village of Gachlaw;

3. to develop a local consultation process for preserving heritage.

We mapped the village over a six week period and conducted oral histories of the individual sites where possible through informant interviewing.

History of Yap

by William Hampton Adams


On January 1, 1528, the Spanish ship Florida arrived in the island group they called Islas de los Reyes, probably Fais. Alvara de Saavedra Ceron, the leader, carved an account of his voyage on a tree and left a letter in a jar buried under the tree. In 1543 Ruy Lopez de Villalobos arrived in the vicinity of Yap from Mexico, via the Marshalls. There he encountered natives who greeted him in Spanish.1 This marks the first recorded visit to Yap itself by Europeans and it suggests earlier contact as well. The importance in these early contacts primarily lies in the transmission of diseases for which the natives would have no natural resistance, like smallpox. A few trade items might have been exchanged, though.
Sir Francis Drake, in his great voyage of discovery around the world, sailed west from California in 1579. His exact route and purpose has been debated by scholars for generations. William A. Lessa using his ethnological knowledge has provided an interesting account of this voyage. According to Lessa’s reconstruction Drake passed between the Marshall and Gilbert Island groups without making landfall until he reached Yap, then on the 68th day of the voyage reached Palau.
On March 2, 1731, Jesuit Juan Cantova established a mission on Ulithi, but he and the soldiers with him were soon murdered. The Western Carolines were abandoned by the Spanish for some 50 years afterwards. In a real sense, Micronesia awaited rediscovery by other nations.
From the 1790s until the 1830s, considerable interest was focused on the Pacific region, with ex-ploring parties sent out from most European nations eventually finding their way through Micronesia, mapping and exploring it. These expeditions often had naturalists aboard who studied the plants, animals, and peoples they encountered and leave us with an invaluable ethnological record. Between 1791 and 1793, several British ships sighted Yap while passing through the region bound for China.
The beche-de-mer or sea slug was highly valued in China as an aphrodisiac. In the early 1800s, Spanish trading captains discovered this and sought out sources for this creature. Yap was found to have an abundance of these and soon the natives became engaged in this international trade. The Spanish kept this trade a secret until 1829, but after 1810 centered their activity in Yap and Palau. Natives would gather the sea slug, clean it, boil and smoke it, and pack it for shipment to China. For this purpose, special drying houses were constructed. In 1836, an armed brig with a crew of 50 was attacked and the crew killed by men from the Tamil area on Yap.
In 1841, Andrew Cheyne set up two of these facilities in Yap, one in Rull, the other in Tomil Harbor. In 1843, he returned to set up a third station in the north, unsuccessfully.
5 At that point in time, Yap apparently had three cen-ters of power: Tomil, Gagil, and Rull. (Cheyne’s trading on Yap would continue until his death in 1866.) Until the 1840s Yap was virtually unknown to the outside world, although the only recorded European to have visited here, Jules Dumont d’Urville, in December 1838 and again in January 1839 met Spanish speaking natives who requested brandy and cigars from him. The Spanish, though, had lost two ships in the 1830s to Yapese warriors.
In December, 1871, the Beatrice was wrecked by a storm at Yap; one survivor was David Dean O’Keefe.
6 After being nursed back to health he went to Hong Kong, acquired his own ship the Katherine, and returned to Yap to establish the trading station he would run for the next thirty years of his life. Until 1875, this operation was part of the Celebes Seas Company but the company folded and O’Keefe became an independent trader. O’Keefe found that the Yapese were very conservative in adopting Western goods into their culture and sought other means to provide trade incentives so that he could acquire beche-de-mer and copra. The only items he had any success with were ironwares and tobacco. Instead of trying to convert the Yapese into accepting Western ways, O’Keefe brilliantly learned and then used Yapese cultural values to provide him with the trade items he sought. Many aspects of Yapese life revolved around the acquisition of their now famous stone money. These stone disks weighing a ton or more each were quarried in Palau and carried in open canoes or rafts the hundreds of miles back to Yap. The stones’ value lay in the difficulty faced in transporting them to Yap. Earlier traders like Cheyne and Tetens had brought a few stones as presents or transported a group of Yapese back with their precious stones, but it was O’Keefe who realized that he could formalize this and make periodic trips to Palau in return for copra. As many as 400 Yapese at a time were working the quarries in Palau under this arrangement. Soon O’Keefe built a fine house on Tarang Islet, in the main harbor of Yap.7
Other traders soon followed O’Keefe to Yap. In 1869 Godeffroy & Son established an agency there which controlled a 3,000 acre cotton plantation; that company failed in 1879 and its holdings were taken over by Deutsche Handels- und Plantagen-Gesellschaft. Capelle & Co took over Thomas Farrell’s station there in 1877. Crayton Holcomb and Eduard Hersheim both arrived in 1874 to set up their operations on Yap.
In 1880, Yap produced 1500 tons of copra, compared to 700 tons in the Marshalls; it was the center of commercial activities for the Carolines.
9 A new ship entered port there every week or two and a steamer called every two months. A dozen Westerners lived on the island. While the Yapese continued to ignore many trade goods, selling liquor and firearms was a lucrative business. Even machine guns were in demand.
O’Keefe’s business empire flourished, while many of his competitors languished. They were con-stantly bringing charges against him on what was later to be determined as unfounded claims. In turn, their relations with the Yapese worsened due to their attacking a village in March 1883; a machine gun was used by them, although no Yapese were injured by the traders. The notoriety of this episode let the world know that the Yapese were being abused by the traders.
10 O’Keefe’s worst enemy among the traders, Holcomb, petitioned the Spanish governor of the Philippines in 1884 to extend Spanish rule to Yap.


In August of 1885 Spain sent two warships to Yap to assert their territorial claim; however, the German government was aware of these ships and its gunboat Iltis arrived the night before (August 25) the Spanish landed. Spain protested to Pope Lee XIII, who decreed in December that Spain owned the Caroline and Palau Islands, but that Germany had the right of free trade and settlement.11 In 1886, Spanish Capuchin missionaries, government officials and police arrived in Yap. With their defeat in the Spanish-American War, Spain lost its holdings throughout Micronesia.


In February 1899, Germany bought the Carolines and Marianas from Spain and in June of that year opened government offices in Yap. German Capuchin missionaries continued the work their Spanish brothers had begun in 1886. A hospital was established immediately. The Germans also established a native police force. The German administration of Yap was accomplished by their appointing the six paramount chiefs as being responsible for local affairs in each district; as a result of simply reinforcing the local politics, the Germans did not experience the trouble they faced in Pohnpei with the Sokehs Rebellion. Under the Germans, the credit system was abolished to prevent traders from taking unscrupulous advantage, warfare abolished, liquour sales prohibited, the mispel (young woman who served as hostess in the pebey or men’s house) was no longer permitted, infanticide discouraged, and migration to Yap encouraged from outer islands. 12
In 1906, the German-Netherlands Telegraph Company selected Yap as its base and laid cables from there to Guam, Shanghai, and the Dutch Celebes. (The strategic value of that cable was recognized by President Woodrow Wilson in a speech after World War I.) The German South Sea Radio Company was later established by them on Yap to provide a radio link to Rabaul in New Guinea and with Nauru.
13 In October 1914, Japan seized control of Micronesia from the Germans.


The Japanese presence in Yap grew rapidly. In 1920, 97 Japanese lived on Yap, in 1930 241 lived there and in 1937 534 Japanese lived there; in the latter year 205 of the Japanese were women. During the same period, the number of Yapese went from 8177 to 5,559.14 As a district center, Colonia was an important town for Japanese administration of the area, yet we know little about this period of Yapese history because of the secrecy the Japanese had before the war. Outsiders were simply not permitted to travel through the area, and if they did somehow manage to get there, they were not permitted off the ship. The lone exception to this was Willard Price who did get to shore and spent several weeks traveling around the island.15 Most of what he describes is done as a tourist travelogue, but he does have some interesting vignettes of this time.
The Japanese records from Yap were destroyed at the end of the war in Yap. Copies sent to Koror were also intentionally destroyed, but other copies were sent to the South Seas Government Office in Tokyo. An American fire bomb destroyed that building.
"The Japanese kept records concerning all of the Yap external migration during their administration. They issued quasi passports and had detailed information in conjuction with them. While in Japan we spent much of our time in pursuit of these records. Our results were positive only in the sense that we positively determined that the records no longer exist. In Tokyo we interviewed the Japanese official who had been in charge of these records in Yaptown. He told us he had personally supervised the burning of all of those records immediately before the American occupation."
The former Japanese officials on Yap did not keep personal copies, apparently, of any records, but they offered the researchers their diaries; these diaries had little of value to those researchers,
17 but may be of considerable value for other researchers’ questions. The effort to track down those officials (or more likely their descendents) to view the diaries might be worthwhile. One governor, Kotaro Sakakida, was living in Akita Ken on northern Honshu Island after the war when interviewed. 18
The Japanese police records for Yap were saved nearly intact after the war; these record births and deaths, as well as many marriages from 1914 to 1945.
The Japanese sought to change Yapese life in many ways. To keep the Yapese on the island during the war, the Japanese burned most of the canoes.
19 The men’s club houses, the faluw, were destroyed by the Japanese, apparently because they disapproved of the mispil. The mispil was a young woman who lived in the faluw and who was married to all the men in the faluw.20 While she had sexual relations with the men to whom she was married, this aspect was secondary to her role as hostess and caretaker of the faluw. However, one distinguishing aspect of this form of marriage was that she did not cook for the men.


  1. Hezel 1983:15, 19
  2. Lessa 1975:6, 251; also see Wagner 1926
  3. Hezel 1983:82
  4. Müller 1917
  5. Hezel 1983:183-85
  6. Readers may have seen Hollywood’s treatment of reality in swashbuckler adventure His Majesty O’Keefe, starring Burt Lancaster. Virtually nothing in the movie was historically accurate.
  7. Hezel 1983:263-67
  8. Hezel 1983:268-71
  9. Hezel 1983:254, 281
  10. Hezel 1983:282-86
  11. Yanaihara 1940:18-19
  12. Hunt et al. 1948:5-6
  13. Yanaihara 1940:22
  14. Yanaihara 1940:30
  15. Price 1944:62-108
  16. Hunt et al. 1948:18-19
  17. Hunt et al. 1948:19
  18. Hunt et al. 1948:13
  19. Hunt et al. 1948:22
  20. Hunt et al. 1948:54
  21. Hunt et al. 1948:85

The above is excerpted from Adams, William Hampton, 1997, The Environment and History of Yap. Archaeological Survey of Gachlaw Village, Gilman Municipality, Yap, Federated States of Micronesia, edited by William Hampton Adams, pp. 1-14. Micronesian Endowment for Historic Preservation and the National Park Service, San Francisco, CA.

Bibliography (open as separate window)