Journal of the Voyages of the USS Portsmouth

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Journal of the Voyages of the USS Portsmouth


This journal describes the voyage of the USS Portsmouth as part of an ocean surveying expedition to map uncharted or little known islands. While on Palmyra they performed what is considered the first extensive survey of plant and animal life on the atoll. From the manuscript: "Journal relating to collections made in natural history in the Pacific Ocean, 1873-1874"

A transcription of the portion describing Palmyra has been made.


William H. Jones


Smithsonian Institute







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From Pages 11-17
Dec 11-14 Numerous salfrians of different sizes caught to the westward of Palmyra island between the 11th and 14th

Dec 14/73 The ship anchored off Palmyra Island on Dec 14 1873, and remained until the 27th. During our stay there we collected about forty different species of fish, many of the smaller varieties from the lagoons and shallow water of the shore platform, the remainder outside the reef, around where the ship was anchored. The fish exist in the greatest abundance and many varieties are excellent eating. I do not suppose that one half the species existing in the waters around the island and in the lagoons are represented in the collection, but all were processed that our facilities for preserving and catching enabled us to get in the time we had to devote to the subject. Many species were occasionally seen which are not represented and we heard of others, but so difficult to obtain that it requires special methods to secure their capture.

One cuttlefish (octopus)* was obtained eight and ten species of crustacea; seven species of (echini); one of (osteria); one of (solaster); one (ophirian), five species of (holothurians), one of synapta, many species of mullusca and shells and ten or eleven species of corals.

Palmyra is purely a coral island. It consists of fifty eight small islets arranged in the form of an elongated horseshoe open to the westward and inclosing from separate lagoons. The islets are separated by narrow channels, through which the water has free access to the lagoons. At low water a (broad) interior shore platform of fine coral sand extends from one side of the island to the other and forms distinct boundaries for the lagoons and connects most of the islets together. It forms a barrier which is almost dry at low water, which connects the two westernmost ends of the island, there being no lagoon outlet except over it at high water. The outer shore platform is almost three hundred yards wide and is covered with coarse coral debris. From the northern and southern ends of the horseshoe, the water breaks for a mile or more and from the southern end it shoals around in a curve to the southward three or four miles from ?. The island presents very scanty evidence of any other agencies having been at work in its formation, except the coral (insect) and action of the waves.

The highest point is only seven feet high. In no place has the reef rock been upheaved ? an elevation of a few inches might be (supposed) from the rock of beach formation, which in places has been raised into a horizontal position beyond the reach of the tides and shores the (evasive) action of the waves upon the old rocks, (undermining) them in places, and leaving exposed shells of ? embedded in the places where they originally grew. Some of the shells thus exposed were in a comparatively good state of representation while others were so much decomposed that they were destroyed in the attempts to remove them. The place where this condition of things was formed is on of the eastern islets, and where the outer shore platform is almost dry at low water and only covered by a few inches at high tide while the excavations in the old rocks are at least two or two and a half feet above the level of high water at the greatest time.

The islets to the eastward were probably the first formed. On these the vegetation is dense and ?, more (genera) are represented and the cocoanut trees are more numerous and older. The island is thickly covered with vegetation but the number of species is few.

Of forest trees, there are the cocoa nut (cocos nucifera)* pandanus or ?, (Pandanus (odoratisunmus))* a species of (Boerhavia), the banyan tree, and two others not determined but called in the Tahitian language the "(tehemer)" and "(rawa)".

Of the herbs there are a species of (muscling) (Portulacea)* a paper grass (sefidium)* a species of ((amolulacea))* of the genus (spomea) and two other herbs not determined.

On the islets to the north east the (Spomea) covers the ground like a carpet and completely shrouds the trees. It seems to grow in the greatest (abundance) where the ground is composed of nothing but coral debris. There are also a species of grass and two ferns of the genus (Ashlennium) and(Poloprudium). The (ashlenium) forms a dense undergrowth on the islets to the eastward. Three other families of (cup)-togamous vegetation, (misc) (fungia) and lichens are represented.

The largest number of genera are represented on the windward islets. Here it seems the (germs) of vegetable life are first caught and afterward diffused to the westward.

There are seven large logs of Oregon red wood laying up along the shores of the islands most of them within the lagoon enclosure on the weather side. They are from five to ten feet long and from four to five feet in diameter.

We arrived at the island in the breeding season of the birds. The (genus) sola is largely represented. There are three species of this genus, one booby and two gannets. The former makes a nest of grass on the ground, the latter builds a very (rude) nest of (twigs) on the bushes and small trees. The boobies were just laying their eggs, while the (garmets) had theirs all hatched and the trees where white with their young.

The larger part of the birds belong to the tern family (sterna)*. Of the sooty tern or muddies there are two species. The larger builds its next on the cocoanut trees at the base of the leaves, the smaller makes a nest of twigs in the forks of the other trees. There is a little white tern which lays its eggs on the naked branches of the trees. The (guano) or (mutton) bird (sluma)* are very numerous. They make no nest but lay their eggs on the bare (clinker) or coral beach. They herd together in such numbers that it is difficult to walk without treading on their eggs. When they rise they darken the sun and their noise deadens the roar of the surf.

Their breeding place is on the extreme eastern islets. The other birds are the frigate bird or man of war hawk (sachyfretes aquila) the curlew, the golden backed ? and two species of (snipe). The (lufric) bird (Phaetora) is sometimes seen but he is only a visitor.

A few spiders of large size were found on the island. They are quite (harmless). Several small lizards and lizard eggs were also found.

The island is inhabited by one American and eight natives (male and female) from Tahiti, who are employed in collecting cocoa nuts to make cobrac or kobrac for exportation. The island is not very productive at present but may become so in time after all the islets are planted with the cocoanut tree.

There is no fresh water on the island, and those living there have to depend on what they collect from the rains for their subsistence. This is apparently an easy task as it rains nearly every day and the only provision made for collecting water is a large iron kettle, set under a cocoanut tree, which is kept full by the dripping from the leaves.

Original Format



William H. Jones, “Journal of the Voyages of the USS Portsmouth,” Palmyra Archive, accessed September 25, 2020,


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