Bibliography Texts

Account of the Ship
Essex Sinking, 1819-1821.

Thomas Nickerson

This page contains Nickerson's description of his visit to Galápagos on the whaleship Essex in October, 1820. The centered pagination indicates the page number in his hand-written manuscript. Some sections are presented in two-column format to compare Nickerson's account with that of Owen Chase, and later with Nathaniel Philbrick's coverage of the fire on Charles Island. Minor spelling and punctuation edits have been made for clarity.


Let us now return to the voyage of the Essex. After having made a short stay at the Lobos Islands we steered away to the northward, making a sort of zig-zag course, sometimes near the shore and at others far off at sea. We finally crossed the equator and made the best of our way for the town of Tacames [Atacames, Ecuador]. This town is very small, composed of bamboo huts with thatched roofs and built upon stakes raised about twenty feet from the ground. They are thus raised as well to keep them from mosquitoes as from the wild beasts which prowl about town during the night time. It is in latitude 00:50 minutes north of the equator and contains about three hundred inhabitants, a mixture of the Spanish and Indians. They are a very kind and civil race to strangers but are extremely poor. I don't believe the whole town could produce one thousand dollars in cash. Every requisite of food grows spontaneous. Of meats they make but little use themselves, keeping the most to sell to the shipping. Their food consists chiefly in plantains, but they have abundance of excellent oranges. They raise some few potatoes and pineapples but as these require some labour they grow as few as possible.

Hither we made our way and gained an anchorage to lay in a store of wood and water for a long cruise to the westward. We found laying at this place the ship George of London, Capt. Benneford, from a long whaling voyage, having nearly all his men down with the scurvy. He was compelled to hire a house on shore and make it a hospital for his whole ships' company as he had but three men out of a lot of forty capable of doing duty. But under good management they all recovered without the loss of a single man.


The whaling ship Lady Adams of Nantucket arrived during our stay at this place, for the same purpose as ourselves, that of recruiting for a long season. Twas on one very pleasant day the captains of the two American ships got up a cruise in the woods for hunting of wild turkeys. They had employed the cooks the day previous to baking pies, etc. for a long hunt. I being the youngest boy onboard was chosen to make up the company in place of a hunter's dog.

We accordingly having [made] every preparation, made our start on the day appointed for the bush. We had traveled about three hours over the meadows and through the woods toward the hunting grounds, when we heard the most dismal howling set up before us, that can be imagined. We continued on our way until we seemed to be approaching nearer and nearer the spot whence the dismal sounds came, when the two captains came to a full stop, looked at each other a few moments as though they wished to say somthing which each was ashamed to open first, when they turned simultaneously around, making good their retreat, simply remarking that the walking was so bad and the sun so extremely hot they would return and take a cooler day for the excursion. The fact may easily be seen by the reader. They no doubt was afraid some beast of prey would devour them and that I could not find my way back, being too young to tell their anxious wives what became of them.

I have since visited that town and found what sort of animal had so seriously alarmed us. It is a small bird not larger than the hummingbird of our country, which keeps up a continued noise night and day and may easily be mistaken for something more dangerous. Although our hunt was put off to another day, it was never proposed again and we were compelled to be satisfied with a few tame turkeys purchased in town instead of our game still roaming in the woods, and like most treasures we will leave them behind the mountain.


After having obtained a supply of wood and water, the main articles for which we came, we again set sail from this place. We now directed our course for a group of islands called the Gallapagos with the hope of getting a supply of terrapin with which those islands abound and which have been so ably described by Commodore Porter during our last war with England. After a passage of six days we gained an anchorage at Hoods Island. We caught a few whales in making this passage, which swelled our little quantity of oil to about 700 barrels.

We anchored in five fathoms water. On the northwest part of the island there is a small bay called Stephens Bay.† In this we came to anchor as the prevailing wind at this place is from SE. A ship could be hove down in this harbor without danger. The surrounding beach upon this, as well as all the other islands, are a beautiful snow white and in an evening appears like snow.‡ There were many seals of the hair species, but I saw no fur seals at this place. Those islands appear of volcanic origin. The rocks appear very much burned, and where there is soil it wears mostly the appearance of very dry stuff. In treading upon those rocks as you pass from one to the other they ring much like pot metal, and the whole lays so promiscuously that in treading upon one you will tumble over a dozen pieces of the rocks at a time.

† Nickerson is probably referring to Gardner Bay, on the north-central side of the island. Stephens Bay is in fact on Isla San Cristóbal.

‡ In writing that all the beaches “ … are a beautiful snow white and in an evening appears like snow” Nickerson apparently didn't recall the sand at Black Beach.

The method of taking terrapins by the seamen who touch at these islands is as follows. They first provide themselves with strips of canvas formed like suspenders, with small cords at each end. Thus prepared, they start off into the country from two to five miles, then divide into pairs or go singly as they may choose, keeping a sharp lookout as they pass on under the trees for the object of their search, and when anyone finds more than he can carry to the boat alone, he cries out at the top of his voice. If any are in hearing that have no load, of course they come to the sound until they find him.


They then commence to harness their prisoner. They seize him, turn him upon his back and place a large stone upon the shell beneath the knee joint, which prevents the terrapin from drawing in his legs during the operation of harnessing. They then tie those small cords, which are attached to the belts, to the legs a little above the foot. The victim thus bound is thrown upon the back of the man in waiting, passing the belts over his shoulders to secure him in that position. They then start for the boat beneath the powerful rays of a burning sun, and trust me when I tell you theirs is no enviable situation.

Their average weight is about eighty lbs., but I have often seen them four hundred weight. Their constant uneasiness whilst carrying them, together with [missing word?] add to the very uneven walking and constant giving way of stones beneath one's feet makes it, I have often thought, the hardest labor that can be given to man. And I have often seen an irritable seaman throw them from his back upon the rocks, breaking in the whole top shell, and sitting himself down upon the rocks, call down all the bitter curses he could think of upon the head of the poor unfortunate terrapin which lay bleeding at his feet. It is customary for each man to make three trips per day into the woods, and bring each his load to the boat.

The shape of this animal resembles in some measure our small land tortoise which is found upon the uplands and is, like it, high with round back. They have a very long neck which with their head resembles very much a snake and forms a very disagreeable appearance. I have often seen them with neck more than two feet in length.

They have a very novel, and yet harmless mode of combat. They will approach each other as nearly as possible. Then, stretching out the necks from the shell to its utmost extremity with mouth open, they appear like the most spiteful reptile. They wll stand in that position for a few moments, with their mouths,


head and neck quivering with rage, when the vanquished party will percieve the victor's head a little above his own and shrink back in an instant. That decides the contest. The vanquished will then draw his neck, head and legs as closely into the shell as possible and remain in that position until the victor has taken himself away. And what seems more remarkable is, that although the combatants often meet upon the decks afterward I have never known them to renew the attack. This I believe to be their only mode of warfare. They have no teeth, their mouths being formed like a parrot's bill. When upon the islands thay are very sagacious in taking care of themselves and secreting their eggs.

They are often kept for a long time onboard a ship, without food or water. I have known them kept seven months without either, but it is certainly very cruel. Many people contend that they don't feel the knawings of hunger as other animals do, but of this I cannot be persuaded, for I have observed them when kept in that way, to be constantly moving around the decks tasting of every thing that lay within their reach. Their food is of the cabbage tree which is a very juicy tasteless tree peculiar to those islands.

During one of [our] daily excursions we missed one of our officers named Benjamin Lawrence. He had gone away from the boat in the morning and lost his way, having gone too far across the island without noticing his landmarks for return, and although we all set about looking him up, it was night when he returned to the boat. He was very much exhausted as he had passed the whole day without food or water under a burning sun of 110 degrees.

He related to us his day's journey thus, that after having parted with his company in the woods, he had struck off in a southeast direction until he found a terrapin. This he harnessed and threw upon his back and started in what he believed to be the direction of the ship, but it must have been quite an opposite direction. After walking for several hours and finding himself in an impassable thicket, he let his back load go and climbed a tree to find if possible some clue to his position, but could see nothing to direct him. He now began to realize in some measure his situation as he remembered that the island produced no water, only at the rainy season.

He now renewed


his march in search of the sea beach at any point of the island, determined to follow the beach until he should see the ship. He now began to feel the need of a cooling stream and as he soon met with a terrapin he soon struck up a bargain with him for his blood. He therefore cut off the animal's head and drank the warm blood as it came oozing from the wound. This was some service in strengthening him for his journey and he marched on.

A few hours travel brought him to the sea shore, but from the tallest tree the ship could not be seen. He continued his march upon the beach amidst a burning sand for he felt quite certain that by doing so he must at some period meet with his friends. He finally after a long and weary march of it, saw the ship in the distance and began to dread the laugh which would be turned upon him if he returned to the boat empty-handed. He therefore struck off again into the woods, and soon having selected a terrapin, backed him and got to the boat soon after nightfall. All were overjoyed to see him again in safety and heartily welcomed him to the boat.

After having remained at this island four days and procured one hundred and eighty terrapin, we again set sail. Hoods Island is in 1° 20' south latitude and 89°40' west longitude. We now directed our way towards Charles Island, one of the same group. This island was famous resort for Capt. Porter in the frigate Essex during our last war with England. At this island we arrived the next morning about nine o'clock. There is an excellent harbour on the southwest side † of the island. The trees to the southward of the anchorage show to be of good growth, and things about indicate a good soil. We obtained one hundred terrapins at this island but found them to be very scarce. The terrapin of this island are the most rich-flavored and delicious meat I have ever met with. It was not unfrequently that we took from them eight to ten pounds of fat. This was as clear and pure as the best of yellow butter and of a rich flavor. We took one of those animals onboard which weighed six hundred pounds and took six of our men to carry him to the beach with cross poles. He appeared very old and we gave him the name of the Commodore, but as he never came quick at the call

† Nickerson is probably referring to Post Office Bay, on the northwest side of Isla Santa María. (There is no excellent harbor on the southwest side of the island.)

[Chase] We … laid seven days off Hood's Island, … and obtained three hundred turtle. We then visited Charles Island, where we procured sixty more.


we presume he did not fully appreciate the cognomen.

There is at those islands a curious animal called the guano. There are two kinds, the land guano and the sea guano. The one is amphibious and seems to live amongst the rocks, whilst the land guano is a different sort of animal and resembles something our lizards, but grows to a much larger size.† They have four legs and grow to about two feet in length. They look very old and ugly. Their color resembles the burned rocks of that country, which is a dirty yellowish cast. Their skin looks very rough and uneven. I have know many persons eat them with a gusto and pronounce them excellent food.

† There neither are, nor were, land iguanas on Hood or Charles Islands. Perhaps Nickerson saw them on subsequent visits to other islands, and didn't recall not seeing them when the Essex was in Galápagos.

The pelicans of this island are very numerous and worthy of some notice. They have a large bill perhaps a foot long, with a natural bag reaching from the throat to near the end of the bill. Beneath it the under jaw is so formed that it can be spread open and thus forms a net. The bag will expand and contain more than half a peck. With this net they supply themselves and their young with food. They make a very clumsy and awkward appearance when in the act of diving for fish, as they then extend their wings, open the mouth and spread the wide and awkward foot. Green turtle are found here in abundance. The whalers make little or no use of them, as the terrapin are so far preferable for the table that the green turtle stand but a poor chance for a choice.

This island has a better soil upon it than any other island of the group, but I think two hundred acres of good land would be a large calculation for it, the remainder being burned snuffy soil or parched climpers [clinkers?] and loose rock. At this time there was no inhabitants upon Charles Island and of course no cultivation.

We had with us an Englishman, a boatstearer named Thomas Chappel. He was very wild and fond of fun at whatever expence it might be produced. This lad took with him a tinder box onshore, unknown to anyone and set fire to the underbrush and trees. This being the dry season it spread with fearful rapidity and burned freely crossing our paths in every direction and cutting off our retreat to the boats. On our return we were compelled to run the gauntlet, there being no alternative. We were

[Philbrick] On the morning of October 22, Thomas Chappel, a boatsteerer from Plymouth, England, decided to play a prank. Not telling anyone else on the Essex what he was up to, the michievous Chappel (who was, according to Nickerson, “fond of fun at whatever expense”) brought a tinderbox ashore with him. As the others searched the island for tortoises, Chappel secretly set a fire in the underbrush. It was the height of the dry season, and the fire soon burned out of control, surrounding the tortoise hunters and cutting off their route back to the ship.


many of us forced to drop our heads and run through the blazing brush for many yards. Tis true we got a little singed in our hair and clothing but all came off with a whole skin.

With no other alternative, they were forced to run through a gauntlet of flame. Although they singed their clothes and hair, no serious injuries occurred―at least not to the men of the Essex.

By the time they returned to the ship, almost the entire island was ablaze.†

† Philbrick's “ … almost the entire island was ablaze” phrase is this author's interpretation of the event, not a direct quote from Nickerson.

And it was well for him that we did not know at the time whose trick it was, for I can assure you it took our lads some time to cool off, and the captain's wrath knew no bounds, swearing vengeance upon the head of the incendiary should he be discovered.

The men were indignant that one of their own had committed such a stupid and careless act. But it was Pollard who was the most upset. “The Captain's wrath knew no bounds,” Nickerson remembers. “swearing vengeance upon the head of the incendiary should he be discovered.” Fearing a certain whipping, Chappel did not reveal his role in the conflagration until much later.

There can be no estimate of the destruction caused by this fire to the animal creation. On my return to this place many years afterwards the ruin was still visible, wherever the fire raged. Neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared, and judging from the extent of the desolate ground, there must have been thousands upon thousands of terrapin, birds, lizards, and snakes destroyed and it probably burned until the rainy season again set in.

Nickerson believed that the fire killed thousands upon thousands of tortoises, birds, lizards, and snakes.

The Essex had left a lasting impression on the island. When Nickerson returned to Charles years later, it was still a blackened wasteland. “Wherever the fire raged neither trees, shrubbery, nor grass have since appeared,” he reported.

Charles would be one of the first islands in the Galapagos to lose its tortoise population.† Although the crew of the Essex had already done its part in diminishing the world's sperm-whale population, it was here on this tiny volcanic island that they contributed to the eradication of a species.

† Although the fire was no doubt severe, not all tortoises were lost. There are numerous accounts of whalers removing more tortoises from the island in the years following the fire.

At day light on the morning of October the 23rd we weighed our anchor, set all sails and again put to sea, and at sunset having lost sight of the island could still see the reflection from the blazing element.

When they weighed anchor the next morning, Charles remained an inferno. That night, after a day of sailing west along the equator, they could still see it burning against the horizon. Backlit by the red glow of a dying island, the twenty men of the Essex ventured into the farthest reaches of the Pacific, looking for another whale to kill.

We now directed our course towards the western, or as it is termed, the offshore whaling ground. Nothing occurred worthy of note during this passage, with the exception of occasionally chasing a wild shoal of whales to no purpose, until the morning of the 16th November. Then, being in 1°00' south latitude & 118°00' west longitude, a shoal of whales was descried from the masthead. All hands was summoned to prepare the boats and persue the whales. The boat of [the] chief mate being more fleet than the others, speedily came alongside of a large whale and having called up his harpoonsman to throw his dart, when quick as thought the whale turned upon his side and dashed the boat literally in pieces, and we all found ourselves quickly thrown into the sea, but strange as it may appear, none were injured by it. All were taken safely into another boat and taken to the ship.

NOTE: Chase's complete (and brief) account of the visit to Galápagos follows:

… on the 2d October we set sail for the Gallipagos Islands. We came to anchor, and laid seven days off Hood's Island, one of the group; during which time we stopped a leak which we had discovered, and obtained three hundred turtle. We then visited Charles Island, where we procured sixty more. These turtle are a most delicious food, and average in weight generally about one hundred pounds, but many of them weigh upwards of eight hundred. With these, ships usually supply themselves for a great length of time, and make a great saving of other provisions. They neither eat nor drink, nor is the least pains taken with them; they are strewed over the deck, thrown under foot, or packed away in the hold, as suits convenience. They will live upwards of a year without food, but soon die in a cold climate. We left Charles Island on the 23d of October, and steered off to the westward, in search of whales.