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 one-third of the way 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 first sighted in 1798 by captain Edmund Fanning of Stonington, Connecticut, master of the American merchant ship Betsy, on a voyage to Asia. Fanning had woken three times during the night before. After the third time, he took it as a premonition, and he ordered Betsy to heave to for the rest of the night. The next morning, Betsy resumed sailing, but only about a nautical mile further on, she reached the reef of Palmyra. Had the ship continued on her course at night, the ship might have been wrecked. On November 7, 1802, USS Palmyra under Captain Sawle was shipwrecked on the reef, which was given 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 Hawaii commissioned Captain Zenas Bent and Johnson Beswick Wilkinson, both Hawaiian citizens, to take possession of the atoll. On April 15, 1862, it was formally annexed to the Kingdom of Hawaii, while Bent and Wilkinson became joint owners.
Over the next century, ownership of the atoll passed through various hands. Bent sold his rights to Palmyra to Wilkinson on December 25, 1862. Palmyra later passed to Kalama Wilkinson (Johnson's widow). In 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.
The third Wilkinson heir sold his rights to William Ringer.
Meanwhile, in 1889, Commander Nichols of claimed Palmyra for the United Kingdom, unaware of the prior claim made by Hawaii.
In 1898, the United States annexed Hawaii, and Palmyra with it. On June 14, 1900, Palmyra became part of the new Territory of Hawaii. To end all British claims, Congress passed a second act of annexation in 1911. This act made Palmyra the only "incorporated territory" of the United States at that time.
With imminent opening of the Panama Canal, Palmyra became strategically important. Britain had established a submarine cable station for the All Red Line on nearby Fanning Island. So the U.S. Navy sent to Palmyra, where on February 21, 1912, American sovereignty was formally reaffirmed.
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.
On August 19, 1922, Cooper sold the whole atoll except two minor islets to Leslie and Ellen Fullard-Leo for $15,000. They 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 Navy during World War II (1940–1945).