It was his first ocean crossing. He was seven years old—a small, dark figure clad in white against the backdrop of the vast open sea. Behind him, on the Greek Island of Chios, remained his entire family and the only life he had ever known. In front of him, on the western horizon, loomed the inscrutable possibility of America. For 50 days George Musalas Colvocoresses sailed between the old world and the new. It was 1823, and he had no inkling that this first taste of salt air would be a mere prelude to a lifetime bound to the world’s deepest, darkest waters…
George M. Colvocoresses and the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842
Setting Sail – 1838
It was Saturday, August 18, 1838, and passed midshipman Colvocoresses was once again headed to sea. Standing on the deck of the brig Porpoise, a steady breeze ruffled his dark hair. Deeply tanned, his hands hardened, the sturdy 21-year-old watched Norfolk recede into the distance under clear skies and smooth seas. It was an auspicious beginning to an adventure that would consume the next four years of his life.
Christened the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, the six-vessel squadron hoisted anchor 175 years ago with Colvocoresses onboard. It was the golden age of sail, and a fledgling America planned to make its mark on global waters by sponsoring its first international scientific expedition.
With a crew of 346 commanded by the talented but controversial Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the squadron had at least two students from Captain Alden Partridge’s American Literary, Scientific & Military Academy on board: George Colvocoresses, Class of 1831, and First Lieutenant Thomas T. Craven, Class of 1824.
Nicknamed the Ex. Ex. and authorized by an act of Congress, its objective was to “extend the empire of commerce and science” for the young, ambitious nation. Carrying some of the most preeminent artists of the day, their orders were to explore the as yet undiscovered continent of Antarctica, map long-isolated regions of the Pacific, and open up the globe to future trade for the United States.
At the same time they were to collect biological specimens and document the natural world—its creatures, plant life, peoples, cultures, and habitats—a monumental task that would eventually establish the foundation for the Museum of Natural History in the Smithsonian.
It was a daunting undertaking: Ships routinely wrecked on rocky, uncharted shoals; pirates plundered defenseless vessels; and interactions with indigenous populations could be violent and unpredictable. There was indeed great risk—but Congress was confident that the rewards would be equally great, if not greater.
But on that balmy Saturday in 1838, the last expedition to circle the globe using only wind power could not have foreseen the loss of two ships, 28 lives, or the years that stretched like the vast, uncharted sea before them.
Greek Uprising – 1822
Born in 1816 on a small Greek island off the coast of Turkey, George M. Colvocoresses was five years old when his homeland took up arms and revolted against Ottoman rule. As an example to the people, the outraged Sultan ordered his troops to pillage and burn the island, killing the men and taking the women and children as slaves. In the rampage that followed, an estimated 25,000 people were murdered.
Young George and his family fled to the interior on horses and mules. Holed up in an abandoned house, his mother begged her husband to run, telling him, “If you allow yourself to be taken you will be killed without a doubt, and then what will be the fate of myself and the children?”
As her husband fled, the Turks arrived at the door, their swords unsheathed. They were repulsive, said Colvocoresses, violent, pock-marked, and disfigured. They forced the family back to the city. Along the way the boy watched as his uncle was stripped of his money and shot.
Colvocoresses soon found himself the prisoner of a Turk with one eye. The soldier was obligated to report to his commanding officer every day at the castle, bringing the child with him. One day, Colvocoresses had a chance encounter with his grandmother. The two exchanged information, crying for joy. The next day, she came to find Colvocoresses, telling him of his father’s escape to safety. A day later she again returned, but this time the angry Turks began to beat her. On his knees, young George begged for his grandmother’s life to be spared, but they continued the assault, first with their fists and then with their swords, until she could no longer stand. Taking her by the hair they dragged her onto the street, leaving her for dead.
Only days later, Colvocoresses was forced to leave his mother and sister. As they parted, his mother gave him this advice. “Remember to say your prayers daily. The Bible is full of instances of God’s goodness toward those who have remembered to pray to him in the hour of adversity.” The child listened and remembered, recording her words years later.
In America – 1823
Back in the Vermont, Captain Partridge opened his copy of The Statesman & Advertiser and read about the struggle of the Greek people. Having recently won their own war for independence, Partridge, like many Americans at the time, was sympathetic to the Greek cause.
Colvocoresses had just arrived in Baltimore with nine other boys on the brig Margareta (his father having ransomed him from servitude) and his fate now lay in the hands of the Greek Relief Committee. His intelligence and character soon drew praise from influential gentlemen, who decided he deserved an education.
After reading about the children of Chios in the newspaper, Partridge was so impressed with Colvocoresses’ story that he wrote to the Committee. He offered to educate the young boy at the Academy and bring him up as his son.
When he first came to Norwich, Vermont, in 1824, Colvocoresses was eight years-old and the Academy—an experiment in military education for citizen soldiers—was still in its infancy.
Though teased at first by the older boys for his traditional Greek garments, Colvocoresses proved an adaptable and exceptional student, learning English in two months. He also gained a champion in Partridge. Years later he would write, “It is not enough to say that I found a friend in Captain Partridge. He was to me as a father. He spared no expense during the nine years that I lived with him that could conduce to my comfort or promote my future welfare.”
Off to Sea–1832
Using his political leverage and social connections, Partridge was able to obtain a midshipman’s appointment for Colvocoresses, and at age 16 he entered the Navy on board the U.S. Frigate United States, bound for the Mediterranean.
The cruise gave him the chance to see his parents for the first time since the massacre—and, unknowingly, the last. It also served as a rude awakening to life at sea. As the Navy’s lowest ranking officer, he was thrust into the grueling duties of a sailor. Training was physical. With hands torn and bleeding from rope burns and a rolling stomach still adjusting to rations, a new officer was expected to be a seaman too–learning to splice ropes, watching the tides, navigating by the stars, using a compass, and reefing a sail.
Years passed before Colvocoresses would return Stateside for any lengthy period. Finally his training ended, and on June 23, 1838, he underwent a grueling examination to become a Passed Midshipman, succeeding with great aplomb and ranking number 34 on the list. With a great sense of accomplishment he received his official Passed Midshipman’s Warrant: a small parchment signed by President Martin Van Buren, his name now forever spelled in Naval history as Colvocoressis.
Nicknamed “Colvos” and “Crawl-over-crosstrees” by his fellow sailors, Colvocoresses had less than two months to enjoy his new status before being ordered to report for the voyage of his life.
Yet a sailor’s life is at best, but a mixture of a little good with much evil, and a little pleasure with much pain. The beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the commonplace, and the solemn with the ludicrous. — Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before The Mast
Painted black with a white interior, Lt. Wilkes’ flagship—the sloop-of-war Vincennes—was the Rolls Royce of the adventuring world. The first U.S. ship to circle the globe, she was smooth, fast, and carried 190 men. Another sloop-of-war, the Peacock, followed the flagship with a crew of 130. Next came the heavy store ship Relief, carting provisions, followed by the brig Porpoise, with Colvocoresses on board. Bringing up the rear were two light schooners—Flying Fish and Sea Gull—each with a crew of 15.
The crew settled into their berths, the ship becoming their floating home. Instructed to keep journals to be turned over to the government, Colvos started writing what would become his book, Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition.
As an officer, Colvos had a bit more privacy than the average sailor, but harsh conditions were shared by all. The smell, noise, and mess of livestock crowded the decks, and by September most of the crew suffered from dysentery. There was a communal “head,” a grated area near the bowsprit where sailors relieved themselves, their feces swept overboard by the waves. Failure to use the head properly was an infraction that could result in flogging: U.S. Navy code allowed for up to 12 lashes to be delivered as punishment for disobeying ship’s rules. As the voyage progressed, Wilkes would routinely exceed the maximum by whipping sailors to delirium, a practice that would ultimately result in his court martial.
But despite less-than-favorable conditions, the journey was still magical for Colvocoresses, who wrote that on the 25th of September, as they weighed anchor out of St. Jago in the cloudy night, the ocean glowed—the phosphorescence so great “we could almost see to read by it.” He noted that the crew remained on deck for hours, straining the water through muslin to examine the “animalculae, which in the dark shone as brilliantly as the fire-fly.”
Orange Harbor at Tierra Del Fuego
As they approached the equator, stars showered the ships. One by one the vessels arrived in Rio de Janeiro for restocking. The Porpoise was “smoked” to exterminate the roaches that had plagued the crew since their departure. Wilkes notified the crew of the intent to sail for Antarctica.
After surveying the Negros River in Argentina, the squadron headed down to Cape Horn, the southernmost tip of the known world. Near this fragmented and icy shore, the winds of two oceans meet in unexpected and violent ways. It was here, amongst the jagged rocks of Orange Bay in Tierra del Fuego, that the ships would encounter their first significant storms.
Colvos was now onboard the Relief, which stayed behind for a collecting expedition and a survey of the Strait of Magellan. Three weeks in they were hit with a gale. Through sleet and fog, they fought with the wind. “The waves rose in mountains, and the ship was rapidly drifting towards the coast.”
To save themselves they sailed desperately towards Noir Island, hoping to ride out the storm in a small snow-covered, icy peaked cove. Relief commander, Lt. Long, ordered two anchors dropped in the deep water, one landing at 120 fathoms, or 720 feet below the sea. Then they braced themselves.
As the morning approached, they prayed that the winds would calm, but to no avail. The next day the wind shifted, sending the rolling sea towards them. The ship strained against the anchor chains and as the day and evening wore on Long ordered the men to put in the last two anchors for the night. At daylight, the crew was horrified to discovered two of their anchors had broken and there seemed to be no end to the storm.
“The sky grew more angry as the day declined. After the sun went down the storm raged with greater violence than at any previous time. Never had we seen it blow so hard before, nor ever beheld such billows. A little after 8 o’clock the ship commenced dragging and a tremendous wave came over the bows, which dashed a number of the crew against the masts and guns, and completely inundated the birth-deck.”
At every moment the water was becoming shallower. “And the storm still raged with unabated fury.” Dragging its one remaining anchor, the ship drifted closer and closer to the reef behind them. Finally, the chain could hold no more and with a snap the ship was set adrift. As they began to float, it looked as though their destruction was imminent.
Then, as if touched by divine providence, the wind shifted. To the amazement of the crew, they slipped within inches of the reef.
Long was able to finally make a move. He quickly set the sails and headed to sea. “Had the storm continued a few moments longer we would inevitably have been lost,” wrote Colvos.
They turned out to be the lucky ones. When the squadron reunited in Valparaiso, Chili, the crew soon realized that the Sea Gull was missing. After last sighting her vanishing form in a storm near Orange Bay, they sadly concluded that the lovely ship, her captain and 18 crew members were all lost.
The South Pacific Islands – 1839
Wilkes’ first foray to the South Pole also had disappointing results. Icy jams all but encircled them, stalling their progress and with it their dreams of discovering the seventh continent.
Reunited again, Wilkes soon reshuffled his officers, transferring Colvos to the Peacock and sending the sluggish Relief to drop supplies in Australia and Hawaii. The rest of the squadron soon headed up the coast of South America to Lima, Peru and prepared to head west across the Pacific. They had now been at sea over a year. As they sailed into the Pacific Islands, Colvos remarked that they had officially traded freezing weather for “oppressive heat.”
Today this vast collection of more than 20,000 islands has been divided geographically into three major groups: Polynesia (including New Zealand, Hawaii, Samoa and Tonga); Melanesia (including New Guinea, Fiji and Vanatu); and Micronesa (including Guam, Marshall Islands, and Palau). But in 1839 the number and location of the islands remained a mystery: There had been no systematic surveying or charting of this region of the globe, where reefs and rocky shorelines routinely claimed both ships and the lives of sailors. The squadron set in with gusto.
As they arrived at their first stop, the Island Clermont de Tonnere (today known as Reao), they were greeted by armed natives, who stood on the beach brandishing swords. Provoked, Wilkes used birdshot to force the islanders to retreat, clearing the beach so they could disembark. It was a violent and aggressive beginning, and a clear indication of how Wilkes planned to deal with acts of defiance.
On September 12, Colvos and the Peacock reached Tahiti, where in 1788 the mutiny of the Bounty took place. The ships were immediately besieged by natives in canoes selling pigs, yams, oranges, and the charms of women. Though missionaries had come to the island more than 40 years prior, their influence had not yet fully transformed the culture, and Colvos remarks that the women in the canoes were “not the most chaste.”
A month later, the squadron left Tahiti to head to Tutilla, one of the Samoan Islands. Anchored in Pago Pago, they found circular houses, and as a prelude to their journey ahead, runaway convicts from Botany Bay, Australia.
The South Pole – 1839-40
At the time of the Ex. Ex., there was hardly a location in the known world that famed explorer Captain James Cook had not visited, and Australia was no exception. Following Cook’s discoveries there, the English established the colony of New South Wales in 1788, and when Wilkes’ squadron arrived, it found Sydney to be a bustling commercial center, perfect for preparations to the South Pole. Now transferred to the Vincennes, Colvocoresses and the rest of the crew began to “secure the ship from the cold, boisterous weather.”
In 1840, no one really knew what lay at the southern most region of the world. Cook held the record for the furthest journey to the south, but the reality of what they might find in this immense frozen space was totally unknown. On December 26, 1839, the Ex. Ex. set off to find out. Three weeks into the journey they sailed into what Colvos called “a magnificent spectacle” of floating ice.
“Every fantastic form and variety of tint was there. Masses, assuming the shape of a Gothic church, with arched windows and doors, and all the rich drapery of that style, composed, apparently of crystal, showing all the shades of opal, or of emerald green; pillars and inverted cones, pyramids and mounds of every shape, valleys and lakes, comes supported by round transparent columns of cerulian hue, and cities and palaces as white as the purest alabaster. The liveliest imagination could not paint to itself a scene more rich and grand, and we stood gazing at it with astonishment and admiration until it was again enveloped in fog.”
They pushed on, navigating through narrow ice passages, picking their way through the frozen ocean, while weathering snowstorms and the fickle winds. By January 31st after several near death encounters, the crew had had enough. The sick list had swelled and most of the men were suffering with boils and “rheumatic affections.” The ships doctors presented Wilkes with a request to return north.
As February wore on it became more and more obvious that what they were seeing in the distance was land. On the 14th Colvos and crew “effected a landing on an iceberg and found embedded in it sand, gravel and rocks. These last were several feet in circumference, and composed of basalt and red sandstone. Many of the smaller stones were brought on board, and they very soon disappeared, for everyone was anxious to possess for themselves a piece of the new continent. There is no doubt in my mind, but that this mass of ice had once been a part of the icy barrier, and that the surface now exposed to view had rested on the bottom of the sea.”
By the 21st with the crew exhausted from exposure, and ice nearly encircling them, Wilkes was ready to head north. By then they had mapped 1,500 miles of coastline, named Wilkes Land and established the presence of a seventh continent.
And they were only halfway through their journey.
Fiji Islands– 1840
After brief stops back in Sydney, then New Zealand, and Tonga, the squadron’s next significant task was to explore and map the Fiji Islands. Feared by explorers for the violence of the natives and their practice of eating human flesh, the expedition prepared for the worst.
They began their work on the Island of Ovalau where they were greeted by a throng of natives hooting “admiration” from the beach. That afternoon the chief and an American, David Whippy, came on board to welcome them. Nantucket born Whippy had had lived among the Fijians for the past 18 years after deserting from a whaling ship. He now served as an advisor to the chief and a translator for the expedition.
The expedition made much headway among the islands, surveying uncharted atolls, establishing trade treaties for American commerce, and allowing the scientists valuable time to make observations and collect samples of flora and fauna. But their stay was not to be without conflict. As they had entered the Pacific Islands with violence, so too did they leave.
A week before the survey work was scheduled for completion, Lt. Joseph Underwood and the commander’s nephew, Wilkes Henry, were ambushed while trying to buy food on the island of Malolo.
The Americans were in the middle of negotiating for pigs when the cry of “Turanga! Turanga!” was heard. Two Fijians seized the musket of a sailor named Clark, who took out his knife and stabbed one while Underwood, who had been wounded with a spear, knocked the other down with the butt of his pistol. Suddenly, a horde of natives jumped out from behind the mangrove shrubs, and Underwood issued the order to head to the ship. As he called out to Henry to help cover their retreat in the knee-deep water, clubs and spears began flying. After shooting Underwood’s pursuer, Henry tried to run to Underwood, but was clubbed from behind, falling face first in the water, his attackers pouncing on his lifeless form and stripping him of his clothes. Underwood countered by drawing his pistols and shooting a native before being clubbed over the head himself. As Underwood tried to recover from the blow, Clark, whose own face had been run through by a spear, ran to help him. But he was too late; cut across the forehead with a pole-axe, blood flowed from Underwood’s mouth. As more crew stormed the beach, the natives fled, leaving the lifeless bodies lying in the sand.
They buried the men on an isolated beach, where they hoped the graves would not be dug up and the bodies eaten. Saddened and burning with anger, the crew prepared to retaliate.
The following day, 80 sailors landed on the west side of the island and set course to lay waste to the land—kill the men, burn the villages, and uproot the crops. By the end of their assault, more than 70 natives were dead, their island in flames. The next morning the remaining people of Malolo begged for a truce on their knees, Wilkes agreed to cease hostilities if they supplied the squadron with water and provisions, and promised to never again attack a white man.
“Thus ended this affair.” Colvocoresses writes. “An awful and a severe lesson to the savages, but not more so than they deserved.”
For the next 30 days the sailors wore the badge of mourning for their fallen friends. With half rations and heavy hearts they pressed onward, their next stop: Hawaii and the Sandwich Islands.
Hawaii – 1841
Placed on the map of the world by Cook, the nine islands held the promise of civilization for the sailors who had finally earned a couple weeks of freedom and relaxation. There were letters from home waiting, along with the pleasures of the port of Honolulu. A whaling epicenter for American ships, the city had grown up catering to the needs of sailors. Food, liquor, dancing, and women greeted the crew.
The visit was an auspicious time to for the journey to stop as well, for it soon became clear that the expedition, initially slated to last three years, was about to add one more. For the sailors and marines who signed up for a shorter commitment, it was time to make a choice. For those who decided not to reenlist, Wilkes was ready to reason with them using the lash.
Colvos himself was ordered to help with Wilkes’ inducements. He escorted four shackled Marines from the Honolulu jail, where they had been sitting in solitary confinement with half rations until they could see the light. When they returned to the ship, however, they still refused to enlist. It was only after 12 lashes with the cat that they were able to see his point of view.
With the crew reinvigorated, they began a survey of the islands, studies of the volcanoes and Wilkes’ legendary scientific investigation atop Mauna Loa. Finally preparations for the last leg of their journey were about to begin.
Northwest Coast of America: 1841
On the morning of April 5 they began their cruise to the northwest coast of America. The winds soon shifted, the weather cooled and Colvos and the crew put back on their “woolen clothing.”
In 1841, the Oregon Country, now the northwest corner of America, was a remote chunk of land whose “joint occupation” had been shared by the United States and Great Britain since the Treaty of 1818. Though Americans had settled the coast in large numbers, the region’s commerce and control still remained in the hands of the British owned Hudson’s Bay Company.
The center of that universe was the Columbia River. Explored by Lewis and Clark, the mouth of the river was, and still is, legendary for its extreme danger. One of worst intersections of river and sea in the world, the Columbia River Bar is known as the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” Three miles wide, with unpredictable shifting currents, huge waves, and wind, the bar has claimed more than 2000 ships since it was first discovered in 1792.
The Ex. Ex. had been warned of its notorious dangers and in May, when the Vincennes and Colvos arrived, “the weather was boisterous.” The chaos of the water was so great, and Wilkes so apprehensive, he decided not to risk his ship across the bar. Instead he moved on to chart the environs north near Puget Sound.
When the Peacock arrived in July, three months behind schedule, and got set to tackle the bar, she wasn’t so lucky. Commander William Hudson made a navigational mistake that landed the ship wedged on the bar. Caught aground, the ship was pummeled by the crashing sea. As it broke around them in pieces, the sailors could do nothing but hold on until the weather could calm enough for an escape. As the sky finally cleared, they began their evacuation, vessel by vessel, until all the crew was safe. Hudson remained until last, saying goodbye to the beloved ship and the hundreds of scientific artifacts she carried.
Soon the squadron broke into exploring groups. The Porpoise and the Flying Fish continued the survey of the Columbia River while the Vincennes sailed to San Francisco and smaller parties surveyed some of the surrounding rivers.
Colvos and the scientists were attached to an overland party headed to California. Warding off illness and Indians they trekked for more than a month to reach the Sacramento Valley. Arriving at Captain John Sutters’ place, where on his land gold would be discovered 7 years later, they were greeted warmly. Soon they boarded the Vincennes launch and headed to San Francisco.
In California Colvos was transferred to the brig Oregon, purchased as the Peacock’s replacement, for the long journey home. They set sail westward, back to warmth of Hawaii, a stop in the East Indies, a swing by the Cape of Good Hope, past the tomb of Napoleon and finally catching the wind up the Atlantic into New York. Arriving on July 3, 1842, Colvos had been “absent from home and friends for 3 years and 11 months.”
Upon its return to the States, controversy clouded the accomplishments of the Ex. Ex. The political climate in the United States had shifted, and debate raged about the expedition’s discovery of Antarctica. A series of court-martials also cast a shadow on the voyage, and Wilkes himself was put on trial. While most of the counts against him were dismissed, he was found guilty in 17 instances of exceeding the number of lashes he could give as punishment and underwent a public reprimand. Colvos was present and testified during the courts-martial as to the whipping of the marines in Hawaii.
The fracas diminished the importance of the discoveries of the expedition in Colvos’ lifetime. But its accomplishments were great. When the Ex. Ex. finally returned, the squadron had traveled over 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 islands, and produced 180 charts, some of which were still being used as late as World War II. Their forays into the southern hemisphere confirmed evidence of the continent of Antarctica, and charted 800 miles of the coastal Oregon Territory. Colvocoresses himself had three geographical features named after him on the new maps of the world; Ndravuni or Colvocoressis Island in Fiji, Colvos Passage, a tidal strait in Puget Sound, and Colvos Rocks. The expedition also collected enough natural history specimens to lay the foundation for what would become the Smithsonian Institution.
A Violent and Mysterious End
The journey was pivotal in Colvos life, but at 26, he still had most of his life before him. The next year he was promoted to lieutenant. Then at the age of 31 he married Eliza Freelon Halsey with whom he had four children. (One of which, his only son, George Partridge would follow in his footsteps and retire from the Navy as a Rear Admiral.)
Colvocoresses would also become a national hero for his conduct during the Civil War, when while commanding the USS Supply, he captured the blockade runner Stephen Hart. The glory though was not without pain. During this time his beloved wife died and to his heartbreak he was unable to leave the ship for her funeral. He eventually remarried Adeline Swasey, the younger sister of Captain Alden Partridge’s wife. Then 1867 he was made a captain and retired. For five years he lived quietly at his home in Litchfield, Conn. Then, the fates, which he had dodged since his youth in Greece, finally caught up with him.
On Monday, June 3, 1872 just as the evening church bells rang eleven o’clock, police officer L.M. Bailey heard the explosion of a pistol from his post on the docks in Bridgeport, Conn. Running quickly up the road, he found Capt. George M. Colvocoresses lying in a pool of blood, his shirt aflame. Gasping twice for air, the adventurer, hero, and author died. He was 55.
Bound for the night boat to New York, he had been waylaid along a side street. His cane, which held a hidden sword, was broken and his satchel slashed with a knife. His watch and $8,000 in cash had been stolen, and nearly $80,000 worth of bonds were eventually reported missing.
News of the hero’s death spread swiftly, splashed across American newspapers from New York to Ohio, and rumors raged as an insurance policy worth $200,000 was revealed. Rewards were offered for the discovery of the killer and the famous Pinkerton detective agency even became involved, but the murder remains unsolved to this day.