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Laysan Island: Confused History
Doug Sinclair © 2008

     In the history of human contact, the Hawai'ian archipelago is one of the most remote places on the planet. It stretches almost 1700 miles across the central Pacific Ocean. The islands west of the major Hawai'ian Islands are tiny, as islands go. Laysan is one of the larger and is only about one mile wide and two miles long. It has a roughly ovoid lake in the center, and this may explain why Hawai'ians have named it "Kauo," 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 Caucasians to explore the archipelago. Among them were Capt. Staniukowich of the ship Moller. Staniukowitch assumed he discovered Laysan/Kauo 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/Kauo, 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) One is clearly for Lisianski Island, Laysan's neighbor (although roughly 160 miles distant) to the west. The other closely points to Laysan/Kauo. The author of the 1828 report, Jeremiah N. Reynolds, and the compiler of the newspaper report said the information came mostly from captains and ship's logbooks. The references are extremely brief and leave a lot unexplained. The two coordinates for Laysan may have referred to what the captains thought were Lisianski Island. That island had been recorded over 20 years earlier by a captain of that name. There were few if any American sailors 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. Further suggesting this is the appearance of "Lassion's" Island on the 1828 list with Lisianski's coordinates. Given that the two islands are neighbors, "Lassion" and "Laysan" appear to have been garbled interpretations of Lisianski. It was likely in a whaler's logbook that the name "Laysan" was born, but which one and when isn't known. Nathaniel Bowditch published it for a broader audience in his 1826 book The New American Practical Navigator, which integrated the Nantucket list.

     It's doubtful the Nantucket list included any reports outside Nantucket, whose whalemen were pioneers in the Pacific. It was Reynolds' 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." There are discrepancies in the whalemen's calculations, but they aren't significant when talking about isolated islands in the middle of a vast sea.(4) Reynolds includes a sighting by a Capt. Briggs with coordinates that must be for Laysan. The Briggs reference doesn't appear in earlier reports. He doesn't make a connection between the Briggs report and those for "Laysan's Island," which he had taken from the Nantucket report. The Briggs report is in a different part of his list among others that generally don't put names to the geographic features.

     Capt. Briggs (likely giving the information to the crewmember in charge of the log) also gave a description of this unnamed island: "The island is low, with not more than 60 feet in any part from the water; 3 miles long and 2 across it." This 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. It is actually a little over one mile wide and two miles long and the highest point determined with 20th century technology was or is 50 feet.

     Unlike other surnames of New England whalers such as Coffin and Howland, the name Briggs makes it possible to narrow the field to one man. 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 is a matter of record that he stopped at one of the larger Hawaiian islands.(5) Although the logbooks for both are not known to still exist, the logbook for the first is excerpted in The New Bedford Mercury(6) and places the ship north of Kure Island in June of 1822 on its way to Japan from Oahu. Kure is at the west end of the Hawai'ian archipelago. This location was given in connection with his sighting of another ship, which was customary in shipping news. It also shows that he had to have passed at least relatively near the other islands between Kure and Hawai'i, perhaps close-by. Less is known of his second trip aside from returning to the Hawai'ian Islands. 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.

     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.(7) Did the Moller sighting become official because Staniukowich named the island and mapped it? Does Staniukowich personally get the credit because he was the commander of the ship? Those assumptions come from an archaic societal construct. The first person to see Laysan/Kauo may have been a poor, formally uneducated, whaling greenhand. 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 came first. One of them was certainly before the Russian report. 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.

     It can't be said which human first saw Laysan Island. If we relied only on written records we would have to ignore all activities of people who didn't normally record their life events, such as the native Hawai'ians before the early 19th century. The discussion of who first saw the island is merely a sidebar to the history of commerce in the Pacific, but it provides a lesson in the care that should be taken in interpreting evidence and questioning previous ways it's been done.

from "Jane's Oceana" site (, 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: Naval Affairs Vol. 4, pp. 688-700." (obtained at a website). 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." Laysan is at 25 deg. 42 min. latitude, 171 deg. 44 min. longitude.
2. Daily National Journal, citing an article in The Nantucket Inquirer, issue of 7 March 1825.
3. Capt. Benjamin Morrell, Four Voyages to the South Sea, etc. (New York:1832), p. 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).
6. New Bedford Mercury, 9 January 1824, p. 3.
7. Tom E. Unger, Max Schlemmer, Hawaii's King of Laysan Island (date?), p. 10.

all text and photographs © 1998-2010 by Doug Sinclair unless where otherwise noted