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 the US North Pacific Surveying Expedition, including the first extensive survey of plant and animal life on Palmyra. 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.


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 va-
rieties from the lagoons and shallow
water of the shore platform, the remain-
der 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 col-
lection, but all were processed that our
facilities for preserving and catching ena-
bled us to get in the time we had to
devote to the subject. Many species
were occasionally seen which are not rep-
resented 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 arran-
ged in the form of an elongated horseshoe.

open to the westward and inclo-
sing from separate lagoons. The
islets are separated by narrow chan-
nels, 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 evi-
dence 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 horizon
tal 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 pla-
ces where they originally grew. Some of the
shells thus exposed were in a compara-
tively 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 eas-
tern 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 prob-
ably the first formed. On these the
vegetation is dense and ?, more
(genera) are represented and the cocoa-
nut 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 great
est (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 cocoa
nut 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 dif-
ficult 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 ex-
treme 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




“Journal of the Voyages of the USS Portsmouth,” Palmyra Archive, accessed March 23, 2017,

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