a part of Doug Sinclair's Archives

Laysan Island: A Confused History

by Doug Sinclair, © 2008

     The Hawai'ian archipelago was one of the most remote places on the planet before 20th century advances in transportation. It stretches almost 1700 miles across the central Pacific Ocean. Laysan Island is at the far west of the island chain and is only about one mile wide and two miles long, with coordinates 25.7679° N, 171.7322° W (25 deg. 42 min. latitude, 171 deg. 44 min. longitude). It has a roughly ovoid lake in the center, and this may explain why Hawai'ians named it "Kauō," a word used to describe an egg. Islands in the archipelago were sighted by European and American sailors over decades in the early 19th century. They passed through the area when commerce between the United States and Japan developed, with Hawai'i being critical for supplies. It also quickly became a major whaling ground after early forays about 1820. Russians were among the earliest known Europeans to explore the archipelago. Among them were Capt. Staniukowich of the ship Moller. Staniukowitch assumed he discovered Laysan in May 1828, named it after his ship and apparently caused a map of the area to be drawn. Although this may have been the first chart to include Laysan, there is good evidence that he and his crew weren't the first humans to see the island, or the first to record the event.
     A Unites States Navy report on "islands, reefs, shoals, etc." encountered by ships, most if not all whaling ships, that sailed out of New England ports was issued in September of 1828 and lists "Laysan's Island" with two precise latitude/longitude coordinates.1 This reference and many others in the report were taken from a Nantucket newspaper article dated 7 March 1825.2 Both say the information came mostly from captains and ship's logbooks, but no persons or dates are included. The Nantucket newspaper lists one called "Laysan's Island" with coordinates 25 50, 171 51, which is close enough to confirm the identification. The other is listed next as an addendum, referred to as "also," with coordinates 26 2, 173 40. In the 1828 report, a reference to "Laysan's Island" is identical to the Nantucket list. "Lassion's Island" is also listed with the nearly the same coordinates as the "also" reference above: 26 2, 173 35. It's likely Jeremiah N. Reynolds, the compiler and author of the 1828 report, contacted whoever made the initial observation at sea, or perhaps the unedited information compiled for the Nantucket report, and was given the name "Lassion's," which was left out of the final newspaper list, and the slightly amended coordinates. There are other islands on both lists that are unnamed, but in the region of the Hawai'an archipelago. The coordinates were apparently too poorly calculated for the newspaper to associate them with named islands, but Reynolds was able to in some cases. None of the unidentified islands on Reynolds list could plausibly be for Laysan.
     The coordinates for "Laysan" and "Lassion" Islands may have referred to what the crew thought was Lisianski Island. That island had been mentioned over 20 years earlier by a captain of that name, and the "Lassion" coordinates come close to the actual location of Lisianski. There were few, if any, American mariners in the early 19th century who would have been familiar enough with eastern European names to be able to easily remember the name "Lisianski," but some version of it, simplified, was likely known to Pacific navigators, as well as an approximate location.3 This is supported by the fact that the name "Lisianski" doesn't appear on the 1825 list, even though it was a known feature. With "Lassion" phonetically close to the beginning of "Lisianski" and "Lassion" not being much different phonetically from "Laysan," both were probably garbled interpretations of "Lisianski." Whoever gave the Nantucket newspaper the coordinates for "Laysan" Island and assumed it was Lisianski's apparently, and inadvertently, coined a name for Lisanski's neighbor about 160 miles to the east.
     It's doubtful the Nantucket list included any reports outside Nantucket, whose whalemen were pioneers in the Pacific. It was Reynolds's goal to create a comprehensive Pacific survey. Information came from "New London, Stonington, Newport, New Bedford, Edgartown, Nantucket, and other places where information might be found of the Pacific ocean and South seas."4 Reynolds includes an undated sighting by a Capt. Briggs of an unnamed island: "Captain Briggs discovered an island west and north of Sandwich Islands, in 25 deg. 47 min. north, longitute 172 deg. west. The island is low, with not more than 60 feet in any part from the water; 3 miles long and 2 across it." Those coordinates leave no doubt this was Laysan. The description surely was an estimation made from beyond the surrounding reefs. In shape (if not in precise size) and elevation, this is close to the appearance of Laysan.The island is over one mile wide and two miles long, and the highest point determined with 20th century technology was or is 50 feet. This reference to Capt. Briggs is among others mentioning ship captains and log books, and seems to be an addendum, including details, to Reynolds's (and the Nantucket newspaper's) far more perfunctory lists. Dates are rare in Reynolds's references, but just after his Briggs reference is one to whaling Capt. Edward Gardiner, "while in command of the whale ship Bellona, discovered an island in 1823," showing that he gathered information going back before any of the published lists. Reynolds may have been using the term "discover" casually, since he goes on to say that the coordinates were nearly the same as those of Wake Island as it appeared on Arrowsmith's 1798 map. That map, incidentally, only mentions Necker Island and the French Frigates as geographic features west of the Hawai'ian Kaua'i and Pu'uwai Islands.
     Only one captain named Briggs is evident who sailed in the right time period in the Pacific Ocean from the Northeastern states, and he was John Briggs of New Bedford. John made two trips to the Pacific Ocean on the ship Wilmington & Liverpool Packet before the Reynolds report. The first was between 1821 and 1823 and the second between 1824 and 1827. On both voyages it's a matter of record that he stopped at one of the larger Hawai'ian islands.5 Although the logbooks for both haven't been published or located, the logbook for the first is excerpted in The New Bedford Mercury6 and places the ship north of Kure Island (Kure Atoll) in June of 1822 on its way to Japan from O'ahu. Kure is the most western of the Hawai'ian islands. This shows he had to have passed at least relatively near the other islands east of Kure, perhaps close-by. Less is known of his second trip aside from being in Hawai'i in Spring 1826. Briggs was back at sea by the time Reynolds compiled his report in the summer of 1828. Reynolds says he spoke to ship owners as well as captains, and visited their houses. While in New Bedford he would certainly have visited the office of John Avery Parker, who had a fleet of whalers that included Wilmington & Liverpool Packet, and likely their logbooks. Tom Unger, in his book Max Schlemmer, Hawaii's King of Laysan Island, mentions the previously held idea that Staniukowich "officially discovered" Laysan. He also cites "Atoll Research Bulletin No. 171" as saying that Capt. Briggs was likely John of Wilmington & Liverpool Packet and was at Laysan before Staniukowich on the ship Moller.7
      The Moller sighting may not ever have been common knowledge in the United States. It may only have been after some years passed that the information spread that far. In any case, a "discovery" in this case is highly subjective. Regardless of who did what and when, giving credit to Staniukowich adheres to an archaic idea of something being "officially discovered." It was likely a low-ranked Moller crewmember who first sighted the island when the ship passed by, but notions of social and naval heirarchy would dictate deference to the ship's captain, who was then free to choose names, not unlike the discovery of animal species in the 19th century. That too was funnelled through the same archaic notions of class hierarchy - he who did the footwork on site finding the species often had to defer to his social superiors at home to name and announce the discovery, and therefore be given the credit.
     The first person to see Laysan, or Kauō, may have been a Hawai'an native long before the appearance of Europeans in the area. Since neither of the two presumed Laysan sightings from the American reports of the 1820s is given a date, it may never be known which of those came first. One of them was certainly before the Russian sighting. The crew of Wilmington & Liverpool Packet might have seen the island in June 1822 when they passed through the area and noted it in the ship's log, possibly predating the sighting noted in the Nantucket list of 1825. They may not have seen it until their next trip and would then have been the second crew to record it, but still before the Russians. Pinpointing the "discovery" of Laysan is, therefore, pointless without more evidence.

from "Jane's Oceana" site (http://www.janeresture.com/laysan/), taken from a report made in 1923.

1. "Information Collected by the Navy Department Relating to Islands, Reefs, Shoals, Etc., in the Pacific Ocean and South Seas, and Showing the Expediency of an Exploring Expedition in that Ocean and those Seas by the Navy", 29 January 1835, American State Papers, Class VI, Naval Affairs, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: 1861), 688-700 (https://www.google.com/books/edition/American_State_Papers/3YSzHlef4xAC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=%22Information+Collected+by+the+Navy+Department+Relating+to+Islands%22&pg=PA688&printsec=frontcover). Within the report it says "Captain Briggs discovered an island west and north of Sandwich Islands, in 25 deg. 47 min. north, longitude 172 deg. west. The island is low, with not more than 60 feet in any part from the water; 3 miles long and 2 across it."
2. Daily National Journal, citing an article in The Nantucket Inquirer, issue of 7 March 1825. Nathaniel Bowditch integrated the Nantucket list in his 1826 work The New American Practical Navigator, but provided no amendments or annotations.
3. Capt. Benjamin Morrell, Four Voyages to the South Sea, etc. (New York: 1832), 216. He visited "Lisiansky" in July of 1825.
4. The accuracy of the coordinates given in Reynolds report varies, but any ship travelling those distances would have to be guided by a dependable navigator and equipment. According to Reynolds, "The whalemen are much advanced in mathematics and practical navigation beyond other navigators: for, on their long voyages out and home, the most intelligent officers assist the younger in their mathematical and nautical studies; and thus schooled, all come home improved in their branches, distinction in them being the direct road to preferment." The coordinates are sometimes not exactly correct for Lisianski or what is supposed to be Laysan, but they are close enough to leave little doubt which island is referred to. Most of the archipelago islands are not near enough to each other that the coordinates for one, even if they are off a bit, can be confused for another. That is certainly the case with Lisianski and Laysan.
5. Crew lists for the ship are available at the National Archives at Waltham, MA, with notes that refer to being in the Sandwich Islands on both trips, specifically Oahu in the Spring of 1822 (transcription). The second trip reference is in New Bedford Mercury, 3 November 1826, 3, saying only "Sandwich Islands."
6. New Bedford Mercury, 9 January 1824, 3.
7. Tom E. Unger, Max Schlemmer, Hawaii's King of Laysan Island, 10.

all text and photographs © 1998-2022 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted