A Legacy Ended too Soon: The Mystery of Amelia Earhart

Today’s post comes from Chelsea Tremblay, former social media intern in our Education and Public Programs division.

Amelia Earhart prior to last takeoff, ca. 1937. Archives Identifier 670861
Amelia Earhart prior to last takeoff, National Archives Identifier 670861

This year’s National History Day theme, Leadership and Legacy in History, opens the door for millions of topics that span world history. Today we shine a spotlight on a legacy that ended too soon, but one with a story that has not yet ended.

In 1937, Amelia Earhart embarked on an aerial adventure around the world. For years she dreamed of this adventure; she even wrote to President Roosevelt asking for help making her dream a reality.

Letter from Earhart to Roosevelt
Page 1 of Letter from Earhart to Roosevelt, National Archives Identifier 6705943

On July 2nd, as her circumnavigation was just beginning, she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, mysteriously disappeared over the Pacific ocean. According to these navy records, Earhart began signaling distress around 11 a.m. after her departure from New Guinea, communicating that “failure of the flight was imminent.”

When searchers finally reached Earhart’s supposed location the next morning, the weather conditions were too poor to see anything, so they were forced to return to their bases. At the bottom of the following document, you can see Lieutenant Harvey’s description of the dismal conditions.

U. S. Navy Report of the Search for Amelia Earhart. Archives Identifier 305240
U. S. Navy Report of the Search for Earhart, National Archives Identifier 305240

Neither a plane nor bodies were found after the sudden disappearance. The two were never seen or heard from again.

Multiple theories have circled over the years: that Earhart’s plane crashed into the Pacific, resulting in her and Noonan’s death; the two traveled safely back to the United States and lived peacefully with secret identities; she was really a spy and was shot down by enemies of the US; and that the two landed on an abandoned island and lived out the rest of their days there.

The last theory is one popularly defended by The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery (TIGHAR). They believe she and Noonan spent the last of their days on an uninhabited island south of Hawaii called Nikumaroro. According to this Huffington Post article, several items have been found on the island to suggest that Earhart was there, but there’s never been concrete evidence.

Until last October.

On October 25, 2014 TIGHAR published an intensive theory about a seemingly unimportant piece of metal found on Nikumaroro in 1991. According to their research, the metal sheet was used as a makeshift patch over a rear window of Earhart’s plane. If this is true, it would would be the first piece of Earhart’s vanished plane ever found.

This discovery comes at a great time for students who are deciding on National History Day topics. This year’s theme, Leadership and Legacy, has led numerous kids to think more about Amelia Earhart and her impact on society. She was an inspirational, powerful female figure and even once said to FDR, “Like previous flights, I am undertaking this one solely because I want to, and because I feel that women now and then have to do things to show what women can do.”

Those researching her can look through the report mentioned above, and even trace the military’s search pathway to see if they agree with TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro theory.

Find more resources for National History Day on our website!

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