June 1990

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Japan in 1852


F. C. Pollay

Francis C. Pollay of Pulteney, was one of Commodore Perry's crew in the invasion of Japan in 1852. Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr. made this transcription of Pollay's story from a 1904 newspaper clipping.

Until 1852 very little was known of the Japanese Islands. Japan then had no intercourse with other nations except Holland, which, by some kind of agreement that could hardly be called a treaty, was allowed to send two ships to Ha Rodota [Nagasaki]. This condition was brought to the attention of our government in 1850 or '51 by reported loss of ships and crews off the coast of Japan. In some manner it became known that wrecked crews escaped to land but were never afterwards heard from. In 1850 congress resolved to send a fleet to attempt a treaty with the Islands. Early in 1852 a shipwreck and the loss of many lives was reported. Then a fleet of ten ships was ordered to Hampton Roads to be fitted out for the expedition: Flagship Mississippi, Minnesota and Powhattan steam frigates, the Sarasota, Plymouth, Macedonian and Vandalia sailing ships and storeships supply Southampden and Vincennes. The Minnesota was disabled at Chesapeake bay and the Susquehanna ordered in her stead. The fleet was in command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Hong Kong was selected as the rendevous. I was ordered to the flagship Mississippi and joined her in New York Bay. She was my only home for the next three years.

We sailed to Norfolk to take on stores. Sidney D. Lee (father of General Fitz Hugh Lee, and brother of General Robert E. Lee) was our captain. At Norfolk President Millard Fillmore came aboard and made a speech. We reached Capetown January 24th, 1853, and left there February 3rd, reaching Hong Kong, China, April 7th. Ours was the first fleet to reach the port. Here we found a young Japanese sailor, who, with sixteen others in a junk, had been blown from his course, was picked up by the St. Mary, sloop of war, and taken to the Sandwich Islands and from thence to Hong Kong by a merchantman. Their captain died on the way. Not daring to return home they scattered in different directions.

The great traveler and historian, Bayard Taylor, joined us in Hong Kong. After attending to important interests of the government at Whampoa, Macao, Shanghai and Cumsingmoon, upon the arrival of the Susquehanna, Saratoga and Plymouth we started for Japan, taking two sloops of war in tow. We arrived at the Loo Choo [Ryukyu] Islands, May 26th. These islands are tributary to both China and Japan and were the sole medium of communication between Japan and the outer world. The Japanese brought their produce there and returned with goods from China. The islands were very fertile, producing sugar, rice, tea and various tropical fruits; also sweet potatoes and yams.

We signed the coast of Nippon, the principal island of Japan, early in the morning of July 8th, the first glimpse being the top of the volcano, Fust Amu [Fuji]. The entire crew was on deck anxious for a view of the land of which so much had been told. It would be hard to describe the sensations. Would we be met with kindness or treacherous hostility? As we possessed no chart of the islands we felt our way slowly into Jeddo Bay. There the flagship signaled clear for action. The first cutter was lowered and the howitzer and small arms put aboard. Then with pistols, cartridge boxes and cutlasses, in command of Boatswain Coultson, we pulled ahead to sound the way for the ships. After proceeding about three miles we sighted what appeared to be thousands of boats stretching from shore to shore. As we approached it became apparent that we could not break through. We signaled for instructions, were recalled and went aboard. With a very slow head of steam the ship moved ahead, flagship in the lead, until our bows struck the line and slowly forced it back. They clung to the ship calling "go back," the only words of English they knew, and caught our anchors as they hung from the forward catheads, trying to get aboard. The flying posts were down, so that we could bring the 150 pound guns into action if needed. It looked for a time as though there would be a lively skirmish. The engines were stopped but the headway carried us beyond their line. We came to anchor about eight miles up the bay, and the boats dispersed.

The following day a boat went ashore with a flag of truce. An interview and armistice were demanded. The Japanese endeavored to prevent this. They brought bullocks alongside and offered to supply us with provisions and water if we would go. An armistice was finally allowed, and an interview arranged about a mile farther up the bay, at Oa Sakie [Osaka]. Thus we succeeded in gaining in what others had failed in—entrance to that land of mystery and isolation.

The next morning we proceeded to Oa Sakie. Two days later we landed 1,000 men, forming a line of marines and one of blue jackets from beach to the council house. After much discussion the Japanese commission agreed to give an answer in six months. We left for Loo Choo July 17, arriving the 25th, in company with the Susquehanna, Saratoga and Plymouth, and sailed for Hong Kong. At Loo Choo we found Dr. Bettelheim, a German missionary, who had been there nine years without seeing a white man until we came. The authorities had forbidden intercourse, and the natives fled at our approach. We arrived at Hong Kong August 7th, and remained in China six months, protecting the American consulates from the Boxers, as the Ta Ping rebellion was in progress. January 18th, '54, we left Hong Kong for Japan, and arrived at Jeddo Bay February 12th, landing at Oa Sakie. March 31st the treaty was signed, opening four ports and protecting all persons wrecked off the coast.

Upon landing in Japan we found three regiments of soldiers in an enclosure of about five acres, in all about 1,500 men. One body of men was armed with primitive match locks, another with cross bows, and a third with lances. They were what we call small people. Some of your readers will perhaps remember Samuel Sentaro, the young Jap who came home with me. He was a fair sample of the average Jap. The commanders were armed with two swords each. Each sword had two handles, one much shorter than the other. There was no belt, the sheath being thrust through a girdle at the waist. The dress of the men was a sort of loose trousers, and a loose robe reaching to the knees, with a sort of tunic underneath. The outside robe was open to the waist and was made of as fine material as the owner's means permitted. They were indeed picturesque. The head was shaven from the forehead to the crown, and the hair drawn up and tied into a cue about two inches long which pointed forward. The women were dressed much the same as the men. Their hair was dressed similarly to the ladies of our country at that time.

The travelling and transporting facilities were as primitive as the weapons of war. Loads were carried strung on poles, a man at each end on mules not much larger than a large dog. Their vehicle was a palanquin carried on the shoulder be means of poles. The Rickasha was a later product. Their boats and junks were clumsy affairs. The sails were made of matting, the same as the Chinese matting we buy here. They raised wheat and rice, but I saw no barley or oats.

At our last landing they passed sponge cake and candy as we stood in line. It was as fine as I ever ate. There were plenty of tropical fruits and also peaches; also fine watermelon.

The Japs were very kind and courteous. After the treaty was signed we were allowed to go ashore nearly every day. We were forbidden to give offence, and were therefore careful of our conduct. We soon won their friendship, not only for ourselves but for our nation which has lasted to the present time.

The treaty was a turning point on which a great nation is being built. What a change has been wrought. They no longer shave the head. They wear our style of dress. They have wagons and carriages, railroad machine shops, schools and colleges, modern arms and some of the finest battleships in the world, and brave little sailors to sail them. They have made greater strides towards civilization in those fifty years than have the Russians.

After visiting Simada [Shimoda] and Ha Kodade [Hakodate] we sailed for Hong Kong June 25th and arrived July 12th, having made a short stop at Loo Choo. We remained in China until September 21st, when we returned to Japan, arriving the 21st at open port of Simoda. We were allowed to land at pleasure and open trade at the bazaar. The bazaar was in a temple, so that the buying and selling was in the presence of a divine image of Buddha. A temporary consulate was established, as we could not speak their language nor they ours. We would select the article desired and hand it to a young girl clerk. When ready to depart she would gather up the purchases and trudge along with you to the consulate. Goods were surprisingly cheap. No attempt was made to take advantage of our ignorance. During the visit I spent many pleasant hours on shore. Their conversation was never in the shrill gabble of the Chinese. The voices of both men and women were soft and rich in tone, and I always found them courteous and affable, yet with plenty of latent force and strength of character which their intercourse with the world has brought to the surface and which I believe will place them among the great nations of the earth.

October 1st, amid the explosion of firecrackers, beating of gongs, calls of good bye and good wishes we fired a salute, gave them three hearty cheers and started for home. Seven days out we encountered a typhoon. Our forward bulwarks were stove in, and for four hours great seas broke over us. We arrived in Honolulu October 23rd with a fractured crank pin. After making repairs and burying one man who died from exposure en route, we sailed for San Francisco. One of our engines was out of commission. This was repaired at the Benicia Iron Works, San Francisco. We left there December 16th and arrived at New York April 22nd, 1855. There with our mission accomplished, we parted with our brave commander, Commodore M. C. Perry, the ship went out of commission, we were paid off and discharged.

F. C. Pollay

Pulteney, N. Y.

© 1990, Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.
Index to articles by Herbert A. Wisbey, Jr.


This article is a transcription of an undated and unidentified newspaper clipping. An advertisement on the back is dated April 8, 1904, the year of the Russo-Japanese War referred to in the article. Francis C. (Frank) Pollay, pronounced to rhyme with "play," (1835-1912) left his home in Pulteney vowing that his father would never whip him again, and joined the navy on August 4, 1852. A shipmate on the U.S.S. Mississippi was a marine named Jonathan Goble from the town of Wayne. Goble later returned to Japan as a missionary and is credited by some as the inventor of the jinrikisha. Pollay may have drawn up the plans or made the first prototype in his carriage shop in Pulteney. More information about this will be presented in a future issue. —H. A. W., Jr.
A permanent exhibit about Francis C. Pollay arranged by Pulteney Town Historian Emily Ratigan will open in the Pulteney Town Hall on May 28, 1990. It will be open to the public without charge on Tuesdays, Wednesdays
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