Correspondence on visit to Palmyra

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Correspondence on visit to Palmyra


This newspaper account comes from a letter, presumably written by a crew member of the USS Portsmouth while on their surveying mission. It describes several details not mentioned other places, and is one of the earliest recordings of certain bird and crab life on the atoll.



Carlisle Weekly Herald




Public Domain

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You will find this letter contains little else than a brief description of the small islands which we visited, on our recent cruise. I shall endeavor, as best I can, to give you my impressions of them, and the many curious sights and things I saw.

Palmyra Island, misplaced on the charts, consists of a cluster of small islands, some sixty in number, surrounded by a coral reef; in fact the whole island is of coral. The group forms a horseshoe, the opening to the south and West. The reef extends about three miles to the westward of the island, and has from six to fifty feet of water on it. We anchored on the reef, to leeward of the island, established a camp on shore, and began to survey. The islands are separated by narrow channels of water, of no great depth, so that we used to wade from one to the other. Inside of the “horseshoe” are three lagoons, varying in size, separated by coral barriers. We could walk, or rather wade, across from the northern side to the souther, and thus avoid going around.

The cocoa palm flourishes on these islands, requiring no sort of care or cultivation. The nut falls from the tree, and after lying awhile ends roots down through the husk, and a top pierces it above, and thus in a few years a bearing tree is produced. Here were found, also, an abundance of curlew, and several of our party had fine sport, bagging quantities of them. Birds’ eggs were very plenty; indeed, on one island, they lay so think on the ground, that one could not walk without crushing numbers of them under foot; and when the birds were chased up, the flocks darkened the sky. The eggs were about the size of a hen’s, but not quite so good eating, and a small bird, about the size of a pigeon, produced them. Besides, we found the eggs of gannets, or Solan geese, and of boobies, which birds were around and about the island in thousands. Then we saw the “frigate birds,” or men-of-war hawks, which do not fish themselves, but watch other birds taking fish home to their young, when they pounce upon them, and make them drop their prey; then they swiftly dart downward and catch the falling fishes before it reaches the water. I have watched them dozens of times, at the trick, and never once have they failed in catching their booty. The most beautiful of all, was a tropical bird of pure white, with two long pointed feathers in the tail; the older ones have a deep scarlet feather.

On some of the islands these birds are so tame and numerous, that one can pull their tail feathers out while on their nests. We found here, too, the hermit crab, or “solider crab”, which carries its house about with it; and when it grows too big for the old home, it goes to the beach and selects another domicile, and immediately proceeds to drive out or eat the animal occupying it out; then it calmly takes possession and walks off with its new shelter on its back. It is a funny and strange sight to see these fellows climbing the trees with their shells on their backs. I noticed several species of crabs, among them the “fiddler” crab and a small land crab, but the greatest crab of all was a large land crab; the body the size of a lobster, and claws in proportion. At one chop one of the side-walkers could readily take off a man’s hand. These crabs climb the coconut trees and will cut down the nut, then crawl down and strip off the husk and eat the nut by some means. The yarn goes that they will carry up the husked nut to the top of a tree and drop it on a rock, and thus break the nut and eat it. I have seen them up a tree, and have seen them stripping a nut of its husk, but I never saw them carrying one up a tree.

There are curious eels which infest the rocks on the reef, and which act more like snakes than fish. At our approach they would run under rocks, stick out their heads, open their mouths and show fight. The specimens of coral we obtained were very fine, and many beautiful varieties were picked up. Fish were plentiful. We had an abundance, in all styles and of every kind; but they did not compare with those we caught at Christmas Island, which I will tell hereafter.

We could not get any vegetables, as there were only four men, with their wives and children, on the island gathering coconuts for exportation; one white man and three natives. We next ran over to Washington Island, which we found in its right place...


“Correspondence on visit to Palmyra,” Palmyra Archive, accessed October 28, 2020,


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