Kure Atoll was discovered in 1823 by Captain Benjamin Morrell, Jr. of the schooner Tartar, who claimed Kure to have an abundance of sea turtles and sea elephants. In 1827 the Russian ship Moller, under Captain Stanikowitch re-discovered the atoll. Later, it gained the reputation of being the shipwreck isle because numerous ships ran aground on the reefs at Kure, and crews were stranded on the atoll for up to nine months at a time, eating monk seals, turtles, and seabirds to survive while they constructed smaller craft to make the long passage back to the settled Main Hawaiian Islands. On September 20, 1886, the ship Waialeale arrived at Kure and James Boyd took possession of the island in the name of King Kaläkaua and the Hawaiian Kingdom. The ship's crew built a shack and left provisions and water tanks for shipwrecked sailors. In 1894 the island was leased for guano mining, but no mining was ever done. Kure Atoll was acquired by the United States as part of the Territory of Hawaii on July 7, 1898. In 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt made Kure part of the Hawaiian Islands Bird Reservation, reserving the atoll for the Department of Agriculture as a preserve for native birds.
The ancient name of Kure Atoll is Kanemiloha`i, which refers to the brother of Pele. He was left on this island as a guard when Pele came to Hawaii from Kahiki. When he re-discovered it in 1837, Capt. Stanikowitch it "Cure Island" to honor a Russian navigator.