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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

[American Voyages, 1800 to 1842]

American Voyages, 1800 to 1842

In the first half of the nineteenth century, the number of voyages made by American sealers, sandalwood traders, and whaling ships were numerous, but the men who went down to the sea in such ships were usually not gifted with language suitable for publication.

The United States Navy kept a small squadron on the Pacific station, and some information was recorded by warships when changing stations or visiting Hawaii. The responsibility of the government in promoting voyages to add to geographical knowledge was not realized until well toward the middle of the century, when after some opposition and criticism, the United States Expedition under the command of Commodore Charles Wilkes was approved. A few such voyages are herewith listed.

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Date Authority Ships Polynesian Islands Visited
1812-1814 David Porter Essex Marquesas
1829-1830 C. S. Stewart Vincennes Society, Marquesas, Hawaii
1831-1834 John Dowries Potomac Hawaii, Society
1838-1842 Charles Wilkes Vincennes, Peacock, Porpoise, etc. Tuamotu, Society, Samoa, Tonga, Hawaii, Penryhn, Tokelau, Ellice, Phoenix

David Porter

1812 to 1813

Captain David Porter, U.S.N., was the commander of the Essex which played havoc with British commerce in 1813 during the war between the United States and Great Britain. Porter received his orders on October 6, 1812, to prepare the Essex for a long cruise, then sailed down to the track of vessels plying between the West Indies and England. On December 12 he captured the English brig Nocton with $55,000 in specie. He changed his field of operations to the Pacific by sailing round Cape Horn in February 1813, working up the coast of Chile and Peru, and making his base in the Galapagos Islands. His strategy, for which he takes great credit, was to hoist the British flag to lure unsuspecting whalers within close range and then to substitute the American flag. The method proved successful, for Porter listed the names of about a dozen ships which were captured in this way. One of the prizes, the Atlantic, was armed with guns and a prize crew and renamed the Essex Junior. Some of the captured ships were sent to Valparaiso under prize crews to be sold.

On September 3, 1813, Porter left the Galapagos Islands and cruised south. His operations broke up the British whale fishing off Peru and Chile, deprived the British of 2,500,000 dollars in property, and resulted in the capture of 360 British seamen. The Essex and the Essex Junior sailed for the Marquesas to refresh on October 6 and arrived there on the 23. The ships anchored off Nukuhiva. After criticizing the actions of Marchand and Hergest in applying new names to the islands which had been named by Ingraham, the first discoverer, Porter proceeded to attach a fifth name to Nukuhiva, calling it Madisons Island. The inhabitants of the valley near which the ships were anchored supplied them with hogs and fresh vegetables and fruit, and the local chief "Gattanewa" asked Porter for assistance in his war against another tribe named the "Happahs." Porter obligingly sent him a detachment of men with a six-pounder gun. The enemy's fort was captured after five men had been shot. The subjugated tribe and their allies made peace by supplying the ships with provisions and continuing to trade.

Porter then sent out messages stating that if the other tribes wished to maintain friendship with him they must come in and trade with him. Failure page 103to do so would be considered antagonistic. A powerful tribe named the Tipees (Taipi) did not enter into the provisioning arrangement, so Porter sent them a message saying that if they wanted to be at peace with him, an exchange of presents would be required as a proof of their friendly disposition. The Taipi sent back a message which one cannot help admiring. They wished to know why they should desire friendship or why they should bring hogs and fruit. If Porter was strong enough, they knew he would come and take them; if he did not come, it would be because he was too weak. It would be time enough for them to think of parting with their goods when they could no longer keep their valley. Porter took this answer as a challenge, which it undoubtedly was. Not content with the superiority of firearms against spears and stones, he encouraged the mobilization of the neighboring tribes who were inimical to the Taipi, stating "our force" consisted of 5,000 men. The attack failed to dislodge the Taipi from their defense wall across their valley; and when Porter's ammunition was expended, his men had to retreat to the beach. The retirement was witnessed by his native allies with considerable interest, and Porter realized that the safety of his people "as well as the interests of my government" would be compromised by any delay in the renewal of hostilities.

The next day, 200 armed men from the Essex and the Essex Junior and from other prizes spear-headed an attack on the Taipi Valley. The Taipi warriors fought valiantly and desperately for every inch of the ground, but Porter's armed forces continued their way up the valley, burning each village as they went. Numbers of their gods were destroyed; elegant new war canoes which had never been used were burnt in their sheds; wooden drums, which had been left behind, were thrown into the flames; and the chief village, or capital, was taken. In the midst of this willful destruction, Porter had time to say that the beauty and regularity of the place was such as to strike any spectator with astonishment. The survivors of the Taipi retired to the hills where they could gaze down on the smoking ruins of their homes and realize that, though the price was high, they had proved their manhood. Porter also looked down on the valley from another ridge to contemplate that, in his own words, the valley which in the morning was a scene of beauty, abundance, and happiness was now a long line of smoking ruins marking the traces of his men from one end to the other.

A chief and a priest of the Taipi went to interview the victor and came straight to business, asking how many hogs he demanded as the price of his friendship. Porter set its value high, at 400 hogs, for which he said he would give the customary presents in return. No mention is made of what the customary presents were.

By December 9 all of Porter's ships were loaded with provisions and the Marquesans were left to resume a more normal existence. On February 3, 1814, the Essex and the Essex Junior sailed into Valparaiso, where Porter page 104 Tattooed Warrior Of the Marquesas, Drawn by Emile Lasalle, Artist with Dumont D'Urville, 1843. page 105 found two British warships, Phoebe and Cherub, waiting to receive him. In a parley between Captain Hillyar of the Phoebe and Captain Porter, they mutually agreed to respect the neutrality of the port by not committing hostile acts within its waters. The British ships thereupon withdrew and waited patiently outside the harbor. When at last Porter sailed out on March 28, he shared the fate of the whaling ships he had captured by having to strike his flag to superior force. Here ends the cruise of the Essex.

Charles S. Stewart

1829 to 1830

Charles S. Stewart had been in Hawaii under the American board of foreign missions, but his wife had become ill and he had taken her back to the United States. He became a chaplain in the United States Navy and left from Chesapeake on February 13, 1829, on the frigate Guerriere which was to relieve the Vincennes at the Pacific station. After rounding Cape Horn, the Guerriere arrived on June 18 at Callao, where Stewart transferred to the 24-gun Vincennes under Captain Finch. The Vincennes sailed for the Marquesas and arrived at Nukuhiva on July 26. She anchored off Taiohae, the valley of the "Hapas," against whom Captain Porter had sent a six-pounder gun in 1813. She moved round to the Taipi territory on August 5 and shortly after sailed for Tahiti, which was reached on the 15th. There the party met Moerenhout, a Dutch gentlemen; the missionaries Wilson and Nott; and Pritchard, the British Consul, who was ill. At Eimeo (Moorea), the South Sea Academy under the Reverend Orsmond was visited. In Tahiti, Mr. Crook, who had had a trying time in the Marquesas, was found to have a station on the south side of the island. The Vincennes visited Raiatea, where they met the missionary, John Williams, and King Tamatoa and his queen.

On September 13, the Vincennes sailed for Hawaii, where she arrived on October 1 after experiencing four days of dead calm. At Honolulu, Stewart met his old colleagues, among them Hiram Bingham, and a reception was held by King Kamehameha III. After visits to Lahaina, Maui, and Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii, the ship returned to Honolulu, whence she sailed for the Ladrones on November 24. Canton was visited in January 1830, and the Vincennes sailed for home via the Cape of Good Hope, arriving at New York on June 5, 1830.

John Downes

1831 to 1834

The United States frigate Potomac, commanded by Commodore John Downes, was sent to relieve the Pacific squadron off the coast of South America, but she was ordered to call in at Sumatra on the way to punish Malay pirates for an attack on the ship Friendship from Salem, Massachusetts The Potomac sailed from North River, New York, on August 24, page 1061831, and proceeded via the Cape of Good Hope. She made the Cape on December 6, and arrived off Sumatra on February 5, 1832. Disguised as a merchantman, she anchored five miles off Quallah-Battoo, the headquarters of the pirates. Attacking parties were sent off in boats at night, and the rajah's forts were captured and fired. The remaining fort of Tuca de Lama was shelled by the ship next day.

The Potomac then visited Java and Batavia and passed by the Ladrones. After an unpleasant voyage of fifty days, she arrived at Honolulu on July 23, 1832. She sailed for the Marquesas in September, but unfavorable winds made her change her course to the Society Islands. She passed close to Deans Island (Rangiroa) and Krusenstern Island (Tikahau) and reached Tahiti. Ready for sea again, she sailed for Valparaiso on September 19, arriving there on October 23 to take up her duties as relief ship on the Pacific station.

The Potomac's time was up at the end of 1833, but she was not ready for the home voyage until February 9, 1834. She called at the Falklands on March 9, and anchored off the navy yard at Charlestown, Boston, on May 25, 1834, thus completing a voyage round the globe. The account of the voyage was written by J. N. Reynolds, a layman, and though it is padded with flights of fancy and numerous poetical quotations, including the hymn "From Greenland's icy mountains," the parts about Hawaii and Tahiti are not without interest.

Charles Wilkes

1838 to 1842

The purposes of the Wilkes Expedition, which was approved by the Government of the United States, were set forth as follows: "The Expedition is not for conquest, but discovery. Its objects are all peaceful; they are to extend the empire of commerce and science; to diminish the hazards of the ocean, and to point out to future navigators a course by which they may avoid dangers and find safety." The ships commissioned for the expedition were six, as follows:

  • Vincennes, sloop of war, 780 tons; Charles Wilkes, Commander of the Expedition.
  • Peacock, sloop of war, 650 tons; William L. Hudson commanding.
  • Porpoise, gun brig, 230 tons; Cadwalader Ringgold, Lieutenant Commandant.
  • Sea Gull, tender, New York pilot-boat, 110 tons; Passed Midshipman James W. E. Reid.
  • Flying Fish, tender, New York pilot-boat, 96 tons; Passed Midshipman S. R. Knox.
  • Relief, store ship; A. K. Long, Lieutenant Commandant.

The scientists appointed to the expedition were Horatio Hale, philologist; J. P. Couthouy, conchologist; William Rich, botanist; J. D. Dana, mineralogist; Charles Pickering and T. R. Peale, naturalists; and J. D. Brackenridge, horticulturist.

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The expedition sailed from Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838. After observations on the way, the ships rounded Cape Horn in March 1839. While they worked up the coast to Valparaiso, the Sea Gull with a crew of fifteen was lost in a gale. At Callao, expeditions were made, into Peru. In July the fleet left for the Tuamotu Archipelago, where various atolls were surveyed. On August 13 Clermont Tonnerre (Reao) was surveyed, and the following islands were examined in sequence: Serle (Pukarua), Honden (Pukapuka), and the Disappointment Islands (Napuka and Tepoto). On August 29 the expedition saw the islands of "Tai-a-ra" (Taiaro) and "Kawahe" (Kauehi), the islands previously sighted by Fitz-Roy on the Beagle; but they were now more closely examined and located. To Taiaro, Wilkes gave the name of King, after the man at the masthead who had first sighted it. Kauehi, he called Vincennes after his ship. Raraka, in their vicinity, was visited and Aratika (or Carlshof), to the west, was examined. The King George group was visited, but as weather conditions prevented a survey, Wilkes sailed on to Waterlandt Island or "Manhii" (Manihi). Ahii, the Vlieghen of Le Maire and Schouten, was named Peacock Island after one of the ships to indicate that the expedition had marked its true position. The Peacock surveyed Arutua, or Rurick, Island and made magnetic observations at Makatea. The Vincennes surveyed the north side of Deans Island, or "Nairoa" (Rangiroa), and then passed between it and Krusenstern Island (Tikahau). Aurora Island (Makatea) was visited and pigs, poultry, vegetables, and fruit were obtained. On September 10, the ships reached Tahiti and anchored in Matavai Bay. The Flying Fish arrived after surveying the King George group (Tiokea and Oura, or Takapoto and Takaroa). On September 29 the ships sailed past the various islands of the Society group, including Bellingshausen (Motu-one).

Rose Island was sighted on October 7, and the ships visited Manua (Tau), Olosenga, Ofu, Aunuu, and Tutuila, then passed on to Upolu, Manono, and Savaii. At Upolu, a Samoan named Tuvai was tried for the murder of a New Bedford man named Cavenaugh, and Wilkes sentenced him to be exiled. They sailed from Samoa on November 10, visited Uvea (Wallis), where Tuvai was left, and the Horne Islands and reached Sydney on November 29. From Sydney, the ships went south into the Antarctic, where Wilkes sailed along miles of a coast held to be part of a continent termed Antarctica. The Peacock was damaged and returned to Sydney for repairs, and the Vincennes arrived at the same port on March 11, 1840. A rendezvous at Tonga was made with the Peacock, and on March 30 the Vincennes reached the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, where the Porpoise and Flying Fish were waiting. On April 6 they sailed for Tongatabu, passing Raoul, or Sunday, Island in the Kermadecs, and on April 22, arrived at Eua, Tonga, where the Peacock joined them.

On May 4 they left Nukualofal, Tonga, for the Fiji Islands, where they page 108engaged in a survey until August 10. The Porpoise was sent on a mission, and the Vincennes and Peacock sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. On the way, they called in at the Phoenix Islands, where they saw Gardner, and described and named McKean Island. They could not make Sydney Island, but discovered an uncharted island 60 miles west of Sydney on August 26 and named it Hull Island, after a prominent officer in the United States Navy. They passed Birnie Island and surveyed Enderbury Island, then sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. The ships arrived at Kauai on September 20 and four days later anchored in the Honolulu roads. The visit coincided with the visits of Captain Belcher in H.M.S. Sulphur and Du Petit-Thouars in the Venus. Some months were spent in Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii for scientific observations, and the Vincennes did not leave for the Columbia River until April 5, 1841. The Vincennes arrived off the Columbia River on April 28, but owing to the breakers on the bar, Wilkes sailed north and continued surveys of the coast and sounds through May and June.

Meanwhile, the Porpoise reported at Honolulu on March 24, 1841. She had continued the survey of the Tuamotu Archipelago, having visited Manihi, Ahii (Peacock), Rurick, Aratika (Carlshof), Kauehi (Vincennes), Raraka, and Saken [Katiu?]. Three small islands south of Saken were surveyed, and Lieutenant Commandant Ringgold designated the cluster as the Seagull Group and named the individual islands Reid (Tuanake), Bacon (Hiti), and Chute (Tepoto) after Passed Midshipmen Reid and Bacon and quartermaster Chute. The other Tuamotuan islands visited were Raroia, Takurea, Tauere, Nukutipipi, Teku (Four Crowns of Quiros), Heretua, San Pablo (Hereheretue), Tahanea, and Aratika. A boring party had been left at Aratika and they were picked up on the return of the Porpoise. The ship called at Tahiti, at Flint Island, and at Penrhyn (Tongareva), where the position was corrected and barter took place with the people who came out in canoes. The ship stood north from Penrhyn on February 16, sighted New York Island (Washington, wrongly named New York), and duly arrived at Honolulu.

The Peacock and the Flying Fish sailed south from Oahu on December 2 on a special project. They surveyed Washington Island and visited Jarvis Island near the equator but failed to find other islands on the reported positions. In January 1841 the Phoenix Islands were examined, and then the ships moved on to the Tokelaus. Duke of York Island (Atafu) and Duke of Clarence Island (Nukunono) were visited, and on January 29, the uncharted island of Fakaofu was discovered by Captain Hudson and named Bowditch Island. Gente Hermosa (Olosenga) was seen and Hudson named it Swains Island after the master of a whaler who informed him of its direction. There was no evidence of inhabitants. In February Upolu and Savaii were visited, and on March 6 the ships sailed for the Ellice Islands, sighting Funafuti on March 14. On page 109March 16 De Peyster Island (Nukufetau) was sighted and surveyed, and on the 18th Tracys Island (Oaitapu) was seen. On the same evening, the small island of Niutao was discovered and named Speiden after the purser. On March 24 the inhabited island of Nanomanga was discovered and named Hudson Island after Captain Hudson. On the following day St. Augustines Island (Nanomea) was passed on the way to the Gilbert, or Kingsmill, Islands.

Drummonds Island (Tabiteuea) was reached on April 3, and during the month of April surveys were carried out on the islands of the Gilberts north of Drummond. In May a visit was paid to some of the Marshall Islands, and on June 16 the Peacock anchored in Honolulu Harbor. She sailed for the Columbia River on June 21, and on July 18 was wrecked on the bar in attempting to enter the river. In spite of heavy seas, Captain Hudson and the crew were saved by three trips of the ship's boats to the land. The papers and charts were saved, but the ethnological collection was lost.

Wilkes shifted his pennant to the Porpoise, which had been able to sail into the Columbia River because of her lighter tonnage. He sent the Vincennes under Lieutenant Commandant Ringgold to San Francisco to survey the Sacramento River. With the Porpoise and the boats from the Peacock, Wilkes carried out a survey of the Columbia River. The brig Oregon was attached to the fleet to replace the wrecked Peacock. With the surveys completed, the fleet sailed for Hawaii on November 1 and the Vincennes, Porpoise, Flying Fish, and Oregon all arrived at Honolulu on November 17. After a stop of ten days, the ships sailed west, the Porpoise making a survey on the way of Necker and Wake Islands, but the weather proved too rough to examine French Frigate Shoal. After visiting various islands, the ships arrived at Singapore in February 1842 and made their way back to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope. The Vincennes anchored off Sandy Hook on June 10, 1842. Commodore Wilkes addressed the men, hauled down his pennant; and handed the ship over to Captain Hudson, who took her to the Navy Yard. The Expedition had lasted three years, ten months, and twenty-three days.


Though the first three voyages described did not add a great deal to our knowledge of Polynesia, the Wilkes Expedition more than made up for them. The work of the expedition was up to the standard inaugurated by Captain James Cook, and in the perspective of time, the opposition, antagonism, and criticism of the day are dissipated by the wealth of scientific material handed down to a more appreciative posterity. Though the voyages took place after Polynesia had been combed by other countries, new islands were discovered in the Tuamotus, Tokelaus, Ellices, and Phoenix Islands, and both seamen and scholars can pore over the volumes of the expedition with feelings of gratitude for the entry of the United States into the field of Pacific exploration.