At about noon on 14 January 1840, a heavy fog lifted from around the USS Vincennes and Passed Midshipman George "Colvos" Colvocoresses viewed an awe-inspiring spectacle: some 60 icebergs strewn across the ocean. "Every fantastic form and variety of tint was there," he recalled. "Masses, assuming the shape of a Gothic church, with arched windows and doors . . . composed, apparently, of crystal, showing all the shades of opal, or of emerald green; pillars and inverted cones, pyramids and mounds of every shape . . . and cities and palaces as white as the purest alabaster."
The icebergs were just some of the many fabulous sights he wrote about in his journal during the historic 1838-42 United States Exploring Expedition. While the expedition's commander, Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, left the best known and most extensive first-hand account of the "Ex.
Ex.," Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, Colvocoresses also wrote a memoir of the voyage, Four Years in a Government Exploring Expedition, which was based on his journal. The expedition was a great adventure as well as a difficult and dangerous ordeal. When he set out on it, however, Colvocoresses was already well along in his own life's eventful odyssey—a 56-year journey that would end in tragedy.
George Musalas Colvocoresses was born in 1816 on the Aegean island of Chinos. His family suffered great personal and financial loss during the Greek War of Independence when in 1822 Turkish soldiers massacred some 30,000 inhabitants of the island. Colvocoresses later wrote that he was taken captive by a "fiend who called himself my master." After ransoming the boy, George's father sent his only surviving son to America.
In late 1823, George arrived in Baltimore on board the Margareta. During the passage, the brig's first mate had befriended him, and once ashore, the boy stayed with the sailor's mother. George's plight soon came to the attention of Baltimore's active Greek Relief Committee. Its chairman, Robert Goodloe Harper, and a local publisher, Edward J. Coale, took a special interest in the lad.
George's story became known beyond Maryland, and in 1824 Captain Alden Partridge's offer to take full responsibility for his education and welfare was accepted. A former acting superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, Partridge had left the Army and founded the American Literary, Scientific and Military Academy (present-day Norwich University), located in Vermont. Since Captain Partridge was a bachelor at the time, George lived with the captain's brother Aaron and his family.
The boy became ever more proficient in English as he received the same education as the other cadets at the academy. It was not always easy, but he adapted well and graduated in 1831. Although Captain Partridge was often absent, he was a caring parent; his foster son would write that "he was to me as a father [and] he spared no expense that could conduce to my comfort or promote my future welfare."
In 1832, Partridge helped secure a U.S. Navy midshipman's warrant for George, who was later assigned to the Mediterranean Squadron. While in the Mediterranean, he served on board the frigate USS United States and in his spare time visited relatives, including his parents, who had returned to Chinos. Shortly after completing his Norfolk Naval School studies and earning his passed midshipman's warrant in 1837, Colvocoresses was assigned to the U.S. Exploring Expedition.
Since the 1820s various Americans had promoted the idea of an expedition to explore and chart the Pacific Ocean and South Seas to advance U.S. commercial interests and scientific knowledge. Newspaperman, orator, and adventurer Jeremiah N. Reynolds was the most persistent and persuasive. In 1836 he delivered a long address on the subject to Congress. Representative John Quincy Adams, who as president in 1828 had backed plans for an exploring expedition, lent his considerable prestige to the project, and Congress approved $150,000 in funding.
A combination of politics, personalities, and bureaucracy, however, delayed the Exploring Expedition's launch for two years. The ships eventually assembled for the voyage were led by the 127-foot sloop-of-war Vincennes, Lieutenant Wilkes' flagship and the first U.S. Navy ship to circumnavigate the globe. The other vessels were the sloop-of-war Peacock, the 88-foot brigantine Porpoise, the 109-foot storeship Relief, and the schooners Sea Gull and Flying Fish. The expedition's 12-man scientific corps included ethnologist Charles Pickering, ornithologist-artist Titian Peale, and botanist William Brackenridge. Finally, on the afternoon of 18 August 1838, the squadron set out from Hampton Roads.
From his vantage point on board the Porpoise, Midshipman Colvocoresses described the departure: "At 3 o'clock . . . the Vincennes made the signal . . . and we weighed anchor in company with the rest of the squadron. . . . At 4.15 P.M., on the 19th, we discharged the pilot and took our departure. The day was beautiful, the sea smooth, the breeze favoring and the vessels sailed finely."
After stops in the Madeira and Cape Verde islands, the squadron set sail for Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. On mid-November nights during the westward Atlantic crossing, Colvocoresses noted that he and his comrades "kept watch for the periodical showers of stars. Forty were seen in the midwatch of the 13th, proceeding from the Pleiades, and shooting in a northerly direction. The weather was now delightful, and the southeast trades were wafting us along at nine or ten knots."
On the 21st, the Peacock arrived in Rio's harbor, where over the next several days she was joined by the expedition's other ships. The vessels were repainted, repaired, and provisioned before setting out again in January 1839 and conducting a survey of Argentina's Negros River. The squadron then proceeding around Cape Horn and into Tierra del Fuego's Orange Harbor. From there, some of the vessels set out for Antarctica. Colvocoresses, meanwhile, was transferred to the Relief, whose assignment was to conduct surveys in the Strait of Magellan.
Before reaching the passage, however, on 18 March a furious gale hit during which the ship began drifting toward the coast. The next morning the weather moderated before worsening in the afternoon. At daylight the next day, "the bower-chain parted, the larboard sheet became unshackled at forty-five fathoms," Colvocoresses recalled. "After the sun went down the storm raged with greater intensity than at any previous time. A little after 8 o'clock the ship commenced dragging, and a tremendous wave came over the bows, which dashed some crew members against the masts and guns, and completely inundated the berth-deck." Fortunately, the wind soon changed and the Relief "tailed clear" of the Penquin Point reefs. Around midnight the weather lightened, and the ship was able to sail from shoal water.
Abandoning an attempt to enter the strait, the Relief made for Valparaiso, Chile, the expedition's rendezvous point. The Sea Gull was the only one of the ships not to arrive there. She evidently went down during the torrential weather, along with her 18 crew members.
For the next stage of the expedition, Lieutenant Wilkes dispatched the slow Relief for home after reassigning most of her officers. The remaining four ships, with Colvocoresses back in the Peacock, explored and surveyed South Pacific islands—the Disappointments, Tahiti, and the Navigator Group (present-day American Samoa)—before heading southwest to Australia. From there, with Midshipman Colvocoresses on board the Vincennes, the expedition again sailed for Antarctica; its goal was to make the first official sighting of the mysterious frozen continent.
On 3 February 1840, amid the icebergs, the ships again encountered severe weather. On the 7th, however, the weather cleared. According to Colvocoresses, "The Antarctic Continent was several times in sight in the course of the day, and a point of it . . . was named Cape Carr after the first-lieutenant of this ship." Seven days later, the ships were threading their way between masses of ice: "We were compelled to put the helm up and wear ship, picking our way through passages not more than 30 feet wide . . . at 1 p.m. we effected a landing on an iceberg and found embedded in it sand, gravel and rocks, pieces of a new continent."
After mapping hundreds of miles of the continent's coast, the expedition later arrived in the "Fejee" Islands, where Lieutenant Joseph A. Underwood and Midshipman Wilkes Henry, both from the Porpoise, were murdered by natives on Malolo. The Porpoise's commander, Captain Cadwallader Ringgold, was put in charge of a punitive force, which killed some 80 Fijians.
By October 1840, the expedition had reached the Sandwich (present-day Hawaiian) Islands, and on the 27th Colvocoresses took to horseback for a chance to view Oahu's fabulous Nuuanu Pali cliff and mountain pass. According to his description:
After a ride of about four miles . . . you enter a grove of hibiscus and other tropical trees. In a few minutes you come again into open space, and . . . the Pali suddenly bursts upon your view, filling you with wonder and astonishment. On either hand immense masses of volcanic rock rise to the perpendicular height of between six and seven hundred feet; while looking down beneath the fearful precipice, you behold in one view plantations, trees, villages, meadows filled with cattle grazing, the town of Honolulu, with its harbor and shipping, and the blue bosom of the Pacific.
After leaving the Sandwiches, by late April 1841 the Vincennes, with Colvocoresses on board, and the Porpoise were approaching the North American continent. On the 28th, the ships reached the mouth of the Columbia River, "but, as the weather was boisterous and the sea broke with great violence on the bar, we did not deem it prudent to enter the river." The wind picked up early the next morning, and the ships headed northward, for Puget Sound.
During the voyage, as Colvocoresses recalled, they very nearly escaped disaster:
About 10 A.M. on the 30th, the "look-outs" reported "breakers a-head"; immediately all hands were called, and the ship was brought by the wind. After standing a few minutes on this course the weather cleared, and we discovered Destruction Rocks [Point Grenville Rocks] not more than a half mile off. . . . It was in fact a very narrow escape from shipwreck, and certain destruction.
From July to August 1841, Colvocoresses acted as assistant to Lieutenant Henry Eld during an expedition that explored the country between the Nisqually River, in west-central Washington, and Grays Harbor, just north of the mouth of the Columbia River. It then surveyed the harbor in boats. During the journey, a "Chief Squaw" of the Sachal Indian tribe made a deep impression on the young officer. He described her as "a woman of great energy of character [who] exercises greater authority over those around her than any man chief I have met since I have been in the country."
Not long after completing the trip, Colvocoresses joined a second Ex. Ex. overland expedition. Led by Lieutenant George Emmons, its members included Titian Peale, artist Alfred Agate, cartographer Henry Eld, geologist Dwight Dana, and botanist William Rich. On 7 September the party set out southward, and over the next weeks fought off insects and illness while occasionally spotting grizzlies and Indians.
On the 29th the group reached a mountain range that separated Oregon Territory from Mexico's Alta California. According to Colvocoresses: "The ascent was steep and tedious and every moment we expected to be attacked by hostile Indians. . . . On arriving at the summit of the range, we obtained a view which more than repaid us for our trouble. The Shaste [Shasta] Mountains with their snowy peaks, could be seen some fifty miles to the southward, swelling and soaring to the skies."
The party forded the Sacramento River on 12 October and five days later arrived at New Helvatia, home of Captain John Sutter, on whose property gold would be discovered in January 1848. "We were most hospitably and kindly received by him," Colvocoresses wrote. He had "an easy, polite demeanor . . . that made us feel perfectly at home." From there, the midshipman and four other members of the party set out by boat for San Francisco Bay, arriving on the 19th. Continuing overland, the others arrived five days later.
On 25 October Colvocoresses was assigned to the Oregon, a brig Wilkes had purchased to replace the Peacock after she grounded on a Columbia River bar and was lost. The expedition then set out for home by sailing westward, to Hawaii and then Singapore, across the Indian Ocean, and around the Cape of Good Hope. After a stop at St. Helena, the ships crossed the Atlantic. George Colvocoresses ended his book with the words, "Leaving Rio Janeiro, we shaped our course for New York, where we arrived on the 3d of July, 1842, after having been absent from home and friends three years and eleven months."
The United States Exploring Expedition had logged more than 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 islands, and generated 180 charts. Four hundred zoological specimens were collected and 200 new species discovered. Several parts of the globe now had new names, among them: Colvocoresses Island in the Fijis; Colvocoresses Passage, Vashon Island, Puget Sound; and Colvocoresses Bay, Antarctica.
The voyager next enjoyed a much-deserved leave. Promoted to lieutenant in 1845, Colvocoresses married Eliza Halsey in May 1846. The couple would have four children, one of whom, George Partridge Colvocoresses, would retire from the Navy as a rear admiral. After cruises to the Mediterranean, the South Atlantic, and Africa, the lieutenant was assigned to the USS Levant in 1855. He returned to the Pacific in the sloop and battled Chinese along the Pearl River after they fired on the ship.
In 1861, the year the Civil War erupted, Colvocoresses was promoted to commander and given command of the converted storeship USS Supply, which was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron. Although outfitted with only four cannon, the ship nevertheless was able to capture a Confederate blockade runner, the Stephen Harte, off the Florida coast in January 1862. The captain's share of the disbursement of her appraised value was the healthy sum of $19,000.
The next year, while in command of the sloop-of-war Saratoga, Colvocoresses led a shore raid that snared a group of Georgians who had gathered to organize themselves into a Confederate military unit. In his report to Rear Admiral John A. B. Dahlgren, the commander wrote: "We took 26 prisoners, 22 horses and buggies, destroyed 2 bridges and burned a large encampment . . . all in broad daylight, 15 miles from our boats, without losing a single life."
On the strength of these and other activities, the commander had a justifiable expectation of a more important command, but it was not to be. Detached from the Saratoga, Colvocoresses was placed in command of the St. Mary's, an old third-rate vessel, in which he cruised off the coasts of Chile and Peru through November 1865. Worse was to come.
In 1867 he was made captain and summarily retired. His son, later-Admiral Colvocoresses, would write that he believed the shoddy treatment stemmed from three factors: His father never engaged in self-promotion, was too open in stating his strongly held political beliefs, and was not born in America. "My father had always been a democrat," the admiral was quoted as stating, "and although perfectly loyal to the government, he did not hesitate to freely express his opinion about persons and parties."
George M. Colvocoresses lived the rest of his life quietly with his family in Litchfield, Connecticut. His first wife had died in 1862, and the next year he married Adeline Swasey, the younger sister of Captain Alden Partridge's wife. But less than ten years later, tragedy struck.
At 2300 on 3 June 1872, a policeman responding to the sound of a gunshot found Colvocoresses dead near the Bridgeport, Connecticut, docks. The captain had planned to catch a boat from there to New York that night. The sheath of the sword cane he always carried lay shattered next to his body, the sword itself bent in half, and the satchel he had been carrying was missing. It was found the following day ripped open, its contents, $80,000 in bearer bonds, missing. A coroner's jury rendered a verdict of "death by pistol or gunshot wound in the lower left chest by some person or persons unknown."
And so George Musalas Colvocoresses' odyssey ended in tragic irony. After surviving a massacre, perilous seas, and battle, he met his death near home at the hands of an unknown killer. His murder remains one of history's unsolved mysteries.
Colvocoresses family histories: George M. Colvocoresses, "The Massacre of Chios—1822: A Personal narrative written for my family," no date; George Partridge Colvocoresses, "A Sketch of the Colvocoresses Family," 1902; Eva Topping, "George M. Colvocoresses USN: From Sea to Shining Sea," no date. Provided by Harold Colvocoresses.
George M. Colvocoresses, Four Years In A Government Exploring Expedition (New York: Cornish, Lamport & Co., 1852).
Navy Register of the United States, 1842-62 (Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1842-62).
William Ragan Stanton, The Great United States Exploring Expedition (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1975).
The Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies during the War of the Rebellion (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1902).