Palmyra Atoll is an unoccupied equatorial Northern Pacific atoll administered as an unorganized incorporated territory by the United States federal government. The variable temporary population of 4–20 "non-occupants" are staff and scientists employed by various departments of the US government and The Nature Conservancy, as well as a rotating mix of Palmyra Atoll Research Consortium scholars pursuing research.
Palmyra is one of the Northern Line Islands (southeast of Kingman Reef and north of Kiribati Line Islands), located almost due south of the Hawaiian Islands, roughly halfway between Hawaii and American Samoa. The atoll is , and it is located in the equatorial Northern Pacific Ocean. Its of coastline has one anchorage known as West Lagoon.
The islets of the atoll are mostly connected. Sand Island and the two Home Islets in the west and Barren Island in the east are not. The largest island is Cooper Island in the north, followed by Kaula Island in the south. The northern arch of islets is formed by Strawn Island, Cooper Island, Aviation Island, Quail Island, Whippoorwill Island, followed in the east by Eastern Island, Papala Island, and Pelican Island, and in the south by Bird Island, Holei Island, Engineer Island, Tanager Island, Marine Island, Kaula Island, Paradise Island, and Home Island (clockwise). Average annual rainfall is approximately per year. Daytime temperatures average 85 °F (29 °C) year round.
Palmyra was sighted in 1798 by the American sea captain Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut while his ship, the Betsy, was sailing to Asia. According to the accounts, Fanning had awoken three times during the night before. On the third time, he took this as a premonition, and he ordered his first mate to heave to. On the next morning the ship resumed its travel, but she only went about a nautical mile before reaching the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued on her course at night, the ship might have been wrecked. On November 7, 1802, Captain Sawle and the U.S.S. Palmyra shipwrecked on the reef, which ultimately took the name of this vessel.
In 1859, Palmyra Atoll was claimed for the United States by Dr. Gerrit P. Judd of the brig Josephine, in accordance with the Guano Islands Act of 1856, but there was no guano there to be mined. On February 26, 1862, King Kamehameha IV of the Hawaiian Islands commissioned Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson Beswick Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to take possession of the atoll, and on April 15, 1862, it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii.
Throughout the next century, ownership of the atoll passed through various hands. Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Wilkinson on December 24, 1862, and the atoll was owned by Kalama Wilkinson (Johnson's widow) through 1885. It was then divided between three heirs, two of whom immediately gave their rights to William Luther Wilcox who, in turn, gave them to the Pacific Navigation Company. In 1897, this company was liquidated, and its interests were sold first to William Ansel Kinney, and then to Fred Wunderburg.
Wilkinson's third heir sold his rights to William Ringer.
In 1898, Palmyra was annexed to the United States along with the overall annexation of the Hawaiian Islands, and on June 14, 1900, Palmyra became part of the new Territory of Hawaii. To end all British claims, a second act of annexation by the U.S. Government was made in 1911. This Act of Congress made Palmyra the only "incorporated territory" of the United States at that time.
Since the Panama Canal was about to open up, the Palmyra's location became important. The British Empire had established a submarine cable station for the All Red Line on nearby Fanning Island. Hence the warship was dispatched to Palmyra, on February 21, 1912, she formally reaffirmed the American claim on Palmyra.
In 1912, Henry Ernest Cooper (1857–1929) acquired William Ringer's property rights to Palmyra and, after a challenge in court, he became the sole owner of the atoll. Cooper visited the island in July 1913 with the scientists Charles Montague Cooke, Jr., and Joseph F. Rock, who wrote up a scientific description of the atoll.
Cooper sold the whole atoll except two minor islets to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo on August 19, 1922 for $15,000. These two people established the Palmyra Copra Company to harvest the coconuts growing on the atoll. Their three sons, including actor Leslie Vincent, continued as the owners afterwards, except for the period of administration by the U.S. Navy during World War II (1940–1945).