Many Americans, Many Pacifics

Heesoo Cho

John Bartlett, Journal Entry, October 10, 1790, John Bartlett Journal, Log 1765. Courtesy of the Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA.

Americans in the early republic conceived of the Pacific as a set of disjointed spaces. This conception largely resulted from Americans entering different parts of the Pacific Ocean. Historians frequently categorize these experiences according to their function and purpose, either as scientific expeditions or commercial adventures. These two distinctive yet interrelated pursuits have contributed to and reinforced the Pacific Ocean’s discourse as a site for imperial expansion. A coherent Pacific in the early republic—the Pacific world—is in part both a cause and product of reading these histories exclusively through the lens of empire and empire-building.[1] In this piece, I turn our attention to the different parts of the Pacific Ocean—waters, coasts, and islands—visited by Americans in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. As Americans traversed these spaces, they soon found their voyages shaped by the material realities at sea and cultural encounters on land. American whalers, fur traders, and merchants established connections and circumvented disconnections across the Pacific Ocean within these specific conditions.

Sailors spent most of their time afloat. The Pacific voyage required spending long days, weeks, and even months on the waters expecting “clear” and “pleasant” weather and looking for signs of land. Although it conditioned the voyage, the ocean itself usually remained a backdrop except under unusual or unexpected circumstances. In its long journey to Canton, the ship Massachusetts found itself in a “very heavey sea,” which left them in a “miserable condishon” with a broken mast, one half of the cargo wet, and the small boat shattered into “a thousand peaces.” Eventually, three men lost their lives from the incident.[2] Despite the risk, sailors were continuously drawn to the Pacific for its lures, one of which was the whale. Initially operating in the South Seas, whalers gradually progressed northward in search of more whales. These whaling voyages took more than two years to complete due to seasonal change and migratory patterns. More time at sea did not guarantee more whales, but it did mean more work. For whalers, the ocean was nothing more than a workplace, the whaling ship a floating workshop. Some people never returned home. Working on the Alliance, George Clark drowned “in the Pacific Ocean” while “engaged in taking a whale he got entangled with the bow line and was drawn overboard.”[3] Life on the Pacific Ocean was not pacific at all.

The waters of the ocean ended at the coast. Coastal regions served as important nodes in global trade by supplying material goods, commodities for the Asian market, and refreshments for vessels. They were integrated into the world economy by common sailors like Joseph Holley, who sailed “to Peru, Chili, the [North West] coast and China.” In 1805, he served as the captain of the ship Stranger that sailed for Canton. Holley voluntarily ended his career by fleeing “with a large sum of money entrusted to his care” after returning from a West Indies voyage on the ship Eliza.[4] Connections between coastal sites reflected voyage patterns. Whalers frequently traversed hemispheres. On its way to the Northwest coast of America, the whaling vessel Jefferson stopped at “Valparaiso, a Spanish port, in lat. 33 S upon the coast of Chili for refreshments.”[5] Traders operating between the Northwest coast and Canton frequently found themselves dictated to by the demands and rules set by the Indigenous inhabitants. Native peoples on the Northwest Coast demanded iron in exchange for fur. Foreign ships entering the South China Sea had to be assisted by a Chinese pilot who would take them up the Pearl River to anchor at Whampoa or Macao, where foreign traders waited for permission to enter Canton. The experiences on the coasts were not only defined by the materials they produced but also through the encounters with peoples who controlled them.

American activities in the Pacific hinged on forging a cordial relationship with the Indigenous peoples, which proved to be more difficult, especially on islands. While Europeans and Americans envisioned the Pacific islands as natural bridges connecting the Americas and Asia, the islanders made clear that they controlled the bridges by showing their capacity to burn them down to the ground if necessary. Captain Mellin of the ship Portland of Boston left Batavia to evade Dutch detainment and “proceeded to the Isle of France, the Cape of Good Hope, and then passed round Cape Horn, and touched at the Friendly Islands.” Immediately, the islanders attacked the crew, and according to one writer, “no person on board was spared by the natives, save a Malay woman, who was seen on the islands by a ship which sailed from Manila under American colours.” Here was a cautionary tale: “Vessels touching at any of the Islands in the great Southern Ocean, ought to be always on their guard against the designs of the natives.”[6] These native designs, as much as American ambitions, dictated the course of Pacific voyages.

The Pacific Ocean was not a single body of water or a unified geographic entity. It was a set of experiences across a vast space consisting of multiple sites, zones, and regions. For American whalers, it was a hunting ground along the western coast of the Americas. For American fur traders, the Pacific Ocean extended from the Northwest Coast to the eastern end of Asia. The islands in between served both as a bridge and obstacle largely decided by the inhabitants’ will. Approaching the Pacific as a set of disjointed spaces brings the lived experiences of the Ocean to the fore. The U.S. government that later followed Americans into this region had to take into account the diversity and disparity of these experiences and decide whose perspective and interest to prioritize and nationalize. Its goal was to reduce many Americans’ many Pacifics and create a unified Pacific Ocean for the United States. Incorporating the Pacific Ocean to the imperial project of transforming the Trans-Mississippi West during the early republic, then, was also an eastward enterprise that started from the Pacific Ocean as much as a westward movement heading towards the Pacific.


[1] Americans, like their European counterparts, certainly participated in imperial practices that enlarged their presence in the region against indigenous resistance. These imperial practices, however, were not always driven by a firm conviction to establish a U.S. empire in the Pacific, at least not in the early years of the republic. Imperialism before empire is perhaps a more appropriate reading of the history of the early republic and the Pacific Ocean.

[2] John Bartlett, John Bartlett Journal, 1790–1795, Log 1765. Courtesy of Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Rowley, MA. The John Bartlett Journal is available online at

[3] “Died,” Old Colony Gazette (New Bedford, Massachusetts), July 12, 1811.

[4] “Five Hundred Dollars Reward,” Mercantile Advertiser (New York, New York), January. 12, 1808.

[5] “Ship News,” Independent Chronicle and Universal Advertiser (Boston, Massachusetts), October. 3, 1793.

[6] New-York Commercial Advertiser (New York, New York), October 31, 1805.

31 May 2022

About the Author

Heesoo Cho is a PhD candidate at Washington University in St. Louis.

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