Geographically a part of Tokelau, a New Zealand territory, Swains is an atoll, oval in shape and about one and one-half miles long, although from the air it looks like a big circle of palm trees enclosing a blue lagoon. The land measures about one and one-quarter square miles. Nearly all of the land has been given over to the growing of coconut palms. All unused ground is covered with the discarded husks of coconuts, which are allowed to accumulate and to rot to add organic matter to the scanty soil.
About a mile by road on the western side of Swains appears a group of buildings known as The Residency. In the center of the island the lagoon, surrounded by a ring of tree-covered land, could well be a lake deep in the forest were not the roar of the surf on the reefs outside loud enough to remind one of the presence of the Pacific Ocean. The water in the lagoon, thirty-six feet at its deepest, is brackish and useful for washing but is impotable.
At the western end of Swains Island stands a small village, the Taulaga, with a grassy malae, about twenty Tokelauan-style, rectangular fale and a copra shed, which looks like a big red New England barn. This shed serves as the island's town hall; Swains Islanders call it the iupeli. The water supply is derived entirely from the copious rainfall, which is collected in gutters around the iupeli's tin roof and led into two huge mahogany tanks. To sustain themselves, Swains Islanders raise coconuts. In addition, they grow bananas, taro, breadfruit and papaya. They supplement their diet with fish, which swim in abundance outside of Swains' reef.
To the iupeli's south stand the island's communications building and school. The latter is an open fale with a tin roof and coral floor; it measures 30 by 20 feet. The schoolteacher's fale is constructed out of wood and tin, about 12 by 15 feet. A short distance away from the iupeli is a wooden church with seating for about sixty worshippers. A road encircles the island and runs through an aisle in the palm trees, which connects the village, The Residency, the cemetery and, at least in the 1940's and 1950's, the wireless station. In the center of the cemetery stands the headstone of Eli Hutchinson Jennings Sr. (November 14, 1814-December 4, 1878). - US Department of Interior