A successful trader, Fanning made a fortune in the China trade, killing seals in the South Pacific and exchanging their skins in China for silks, spices, and tea; which he in turn sold in New York City. As master of the Betsey in 1797-1798, he discovered three South Pacific Islands — Fanning, Washington, and Palmyra — which are collectively known as the Fanning Islands. (Fanning Island, today known as Tabuaeran, is today part of Kiribati, while Palmyra, claimed by the Hawaiian Government in 1862 and owned for many years by a Hawaiian family, was purchased in 2000 by the Nature Conservancy for an ongoing study of global warming and its effect on coral reefs.)
When he discovered Palmyra Atoll, many believe[weasel words] it to be a paranormal occurrence that lends to the atoll's mysticism. Fanning's ship was in command of the first mate at night while Fanning slept. Fanning awoke three times in the middle of the night, each time awaking out of bed. On the third time Fanning took this as a premonition and ordered the first mate to heave to. In the morning the ship resumed its travel, but only traveled a mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued its course at night, the entire crew might have perished.
Acting for American investors, Fanning was agent for more than 70 commercial expeditions and voyages. His partnership Fanning & Coles built the ship Tonquin in 1807, sailed her around the world several times and sold her for $37,000 to John Jacob Astor's Pacific Fur Company. Later the Tonquin was burned by Indians in the northwest. In 1829 he was instrumental in sending out the first American naval exploring expedition, and was greatly responsible for Congress's authorizing of the Wilkes Expedition. Fanning's memoirs, Voyages Around the World, were published in 1833. He died in New York City.
- Fate, March 1953, Premonition of Danger, by H.F. Thomas in Connecticut Circle; see also Invisible Horizons, by Vincent H. Gaddis, Ace Books, Inc., 1965.