United States Exploring Expedition

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United States Exploring Expedition
Route of the voyage :
1. Hampton Roads; 2. Madeira; 3. Rio de Janeiro;
4. Tierra del Fuego; 5. Valparaíso; 6. Callao; 7. Samoa;
8. Fiji; 9. Sydney; 10. Antarctica; 11. Hawaii
Return route :
1. Puget Sound; 2. Columbia; 3. San Francisco;
4. Polynesia; 5. Philippines; 6. Borneo; 7. Singapore;
8. Cape of Good Hope; 9. New York
Date 1838-1842
Location Pacific Ocean, Antarctic Ocean, Atlantic Ocean, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Oceania
Result Successful expedition and defeat of aboriginal peoples.
United States United States Fiji
Commanders and leaders
US Naval Jack 26 stars.svg Charles Wilkes
US Naval Jack 26 stars.svg William L. Hudson
US Naval Jack 26 stars.svg William M. Walker
Malietoa Moli
2 sloops-of-war
1 ship
1 brig
2 schooners
Marines and Sailors
Casualties and losses
~30 killed or wounded
1 sloop-of-war sunk
1 schooner sunk[1]
~80 killed or wounded
12 killed

The United States Exploring Expedition was an exploring and surveying expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands conducted by the United States from 1838 to 1842. The original appointed commanding officer was Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. Funding for the original expedition was requested by President John Quincy Adams in 1828, however, Congress would not implement funding until eight years later; in May 1836, the oceanic exploration voyage was finally authorized by Congress and created by President Andrew Jackson. The expedition is sometimes called the "U.S. Ex. Ex." for short, or the "Wilkes Expedition" in honor of its next appointed commanding officer, United States Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. The expedition was of major importance to the growth of science in the United States, in particular the then-young field of oceanography, during the event, armed conflict between Pacific islanders and the expedition was common and dozens of natives were killed in action, as well as a few Americans.


USS Vincennes at Disappointment Bay, Antarctica in early 1840

Through the lobbying efforts of Jeremiah N. Reynolds, the United States House of Representatives passed a resolution on 21 May 1828, requesting President John Quincy Adams to send a ship to explore the Pacific. Adams was keen on the resolution and ordered his Secretary of the Navy to ready a ship, the Peacock, while the House voted an appropriation in Dec. Yet, the bill stalled in the US Senate in Feb. 1829. However, under President Andrew Jackson, Congress passed legislation in 1836 approving the exploration mission. Yet again, the effort stalled under Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson until President Van Buren assumed office and pushed the effort forward.[2][3]

Originally, the expedition was under the command Commodore Jones, but he resigned in Nov. 1837, frustrated with all of the procrastination. Secretary of War Joel Roberts Poinsett, in April 1838, then assigned command to Wilkes, after more senior officers refused the command. Wilkes had a reputation for hudrography, geodesy and magnetism. Additionally, Wilkes had received mathematics training from Nathaniel Bowditch, triangulation methods from Ferdinand Hassler, and geomagnetism from James Renwick.[2]:19,35,56,61

Personnel included naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, a taxidermist, and a philologist. They were carried aboard the sloops-of-war USS Vincennes (780 tons), and USS Peacock (650 tons), the brig USS Porpoise (230 tons), the full-rigged ship Relief, which served as a store-ship, and two schooners, Sea Gull (110 tons) and USS Flying Fish (96 tons), which served as tenders.[2]:43,63,65,68,73-76

On the afternoon of 18 August 1838, the vessels weighed anchor and set to sea under full sail. By 0730 the next morning, they had passed the lightship off Willoughby Spit and dischared the pilot, the fleet then headed to Madeira, taking advantage of the prevailing winds.[2]:71-76

Coincidentally, Commodore George C. Read in command of the East India Squadron aboard the flagship frigate USS Columbia, together with the frigate USS John Adams, were at the time in the process of circumnavigating the globe when the ships paused for the second Sumatran punitive expedition, which required no detour.

Route of the expedition[edit]

Wilkes was to search for vigias, or shoals, as reported by John Purdy, but failed to corroborate those claims for the locations given, the squadron arrived in the Madeira Islands on 16 September 1838, and Porto Praya on 6 Oct.[2]:86-87

They eventually arrived at Rio de Janeiro on November 23, the entire passage from the United States to Brazil took ninety-five days, about twice the time normally for a vessel proceeding directly. Due to repairs needed by the Peacock, the Squadron did not leave Rio de Janeiro until January 6, 1839, from there, they moved southward to Buenos Aires and the mouth of the Río Negro, and passed a French naval blockade of Argentina's seaports. The European powers at the time, with the aid of Brazil, were involved in the internal affairs of the Argentine Republic. However, since the Americans had reduced their military profile prior to departure from the United States, they were not molested by the French warships.

Following this beginning, the squadron visited Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and Peru, the USS Sea Gull and its crew of fifteen were lost during a South American coastal storm in May, 1839. From South America, the expedition visited the Tuamotu Archipelago, Samoa and New South Wales, Australia. In December 1839, the expedition sailed from Sydney into the Antarctic Ocean and reported the discovery "of an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands". That part of Antarctica was later named Wilkes Land, because of discrepancies in the logs of the various ships of the Wilkes expedition, and suggestions that these may have been subsequently altered, there is a controversy between the Wilkes expedition, who saw an "ice island" 175 km from the coast on January 16 then the coast itself on January 25, and the French expedition of Jules Dumont d'Urville, which saw the coast about 400 km westward on January 20 and disembarked on an islet of Geologie Archipelago, 4 km from the mainland, on January 22 to take mineral, algae and animal samples, on who was the first to sight the Antarctic mainland coast in this vicinity. The controversy was added to by the actions of the commander of the USS Porpoise, Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, who, after sighting d'Urville's Astrolabe deliberately avoided contact.

In February 1840, some of the expedition were present at the initial signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand.[4]

External video
Booknotes interview with Nathaniel Philbrick on Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, January 25, 2004, C-SPAN

After sighting the Astrolabe, the expedition visited Fiji; in July 1840, two members of the party, Lieutenant Underwood and Wilkes' nephew, Midshipman Wilkes Henry, were killed while bartering for food in western Fiji's Malolo Island. The cause of this event remains equivocal. Immediately prior to their deaths, the son of the local chief, who was being held as a hostage by the Americans, escaped by jumping out of the boat and running through the shallow water for shore, the Americans fired over his head. According to members of the expedition party on the boat, his escape was intended as a prearranged signal by the Fijians to attack. According to those on shore, the shooting actually precipitated the attack on the ground, the Americans landed sixty sailors to attack the hostile natives. Close to eighty Fijians were killed in the resulting American reprisal and two villages were burned to the ground.[1]

The Pacific Northwest. An 1841 Map of Oregon Territory.
from "Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition." Philadelphia, 1845.

In 1841, the expedition explored the west coast of South America and North America, including the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Puget Sound, and the Columbia River. After Fiji, the expedition sailed to Hull Island, later known as Orona, and the Hawaiian Islands. Like his predecessor, British explorer George Vancouver, Wilkes spent a good deal of time near Bainbridge Island, he noted the bird-like shape of the harbor at Winslow and named it Eagle Harbor. Continuing his fascination with bird names, he named Bill Point and Wing Point. Port Madison, Washington and Points Monroe and Jefferson were named in honor of former United States presidents. Port Ludlow was assigned to honor Lieutenant Augustus Ludlow, who lost his life during the War of 1812.

"Andes near Alparmarca, Peru: Sketched from an Elevation of 16,000 Feet". Illustration by Alfred Thomas Agate from the South American portion of the United States Exploring Expedition, digitally restored.

In April 1841, USS Peacock, under Lieutenant William L. Hudson, and USS Flying Fish, surveyed Drummond's Island, which was named for an American of the expedition. Lieutenant Hudson heard from a member of his crew that a ship had wrecked off the island and her crew massacred by the Gilbertese. A woman and her child were said to be the only survivors, so Hudson decided to land a small force of marines and sailors, under William M. Walker, to search the island. Initially, the natives were peaceful and the Americans were able to explore the island, without results, it was when the party was returning to their ship that Hudson noticed a member of his crew was missing. After making another search, the man was not found and the natives began arming themselves. Lieutenant Walker returned his force to the ship, to converse with Hudson, who ordered Walker to return to shore and demand the return of the sailor. Walker then reboarded his boats with his landing party and headed to shore. Walker shouted his demand and the natives charged for him, forcing the boats to turn back to the ships, it was decided on the next day that the Americans would bombard the hostiles and land again. While doing this, a force of around 700 Gilbertese warriors opposed the American assault, but were defeated after a long battle. No Americans were hurt, but twelve natives were killed and others were wounded, and two villages were also destroyed. A similar episode occurred two months before in February when the Peacock and the Flying Fish briefly bombarded the island of Upolu, Samoa following the death of an American merchant sailor on the island.[5]

The Peacock was lost in July 1841 on the Columbia River, though with no loss of life, thanks to a canoe rescue by John Dean, an African American servant of the Vincennes purser, and a group of Chinook Indians. Dean also rescued the expedition's artist, Alfred Agate, along with his paintings and drawings. Upon learning that the Peacock had foundered on the Columbia River Bar, Wilkes interrupted his work in the San Juan Islands and sailed south. He never returned to Puget Sound.

From the area of modern-day Portland, Oregon, an overland party headed by George F. Emmons was directed to proceed via an inland route to San Francisco Bay. This Emmons party traveled south along the Siskiyou Trail, including the Sacramento River, making the first official recorded visit by Americans to, and scientific note of, Mount Shasta, in northern California.

The Emmons party rejoined the ships, which had sailed south, in San Francisco Bay, the squadron surveyed San Francisco and its tributaries, and later produced a map of "Upper California".[6] The expedition then headed back out into the Pacific, including a visit to Wake Island in 1841, and returned by way of the Philippines, the Sulu Archipelago, Borneo, Singapore, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hope, reaching New York on June 10, 1842.

Map showing the locations of the battles between Pacific islanders and Americans during the Wilkes Expedition.

The expedition was plagued by poor relationships between Wilkes and his subordinate officers throughout. Wilkes' self-proclaimed status as captain and commodore, accompanied by the flying of the requisite pennant and the wearing of a captain's uniform while being commissioned only as a Lieutenant, rankled heavily with other members of the expedition of similar real rank, his apparent mistreatment of many of his subordinates, and indulgence in punishments such as "flogging round the fleet" resulted in a major controversy on his return to America.[1] Wilkes was court-martialled on his |return, but was acquitted on all charges except that of illegally punishing men in his squadron.

The publication program[edit]

For a short time Wilkes was attached to the Coast Survey, but from 1844 to 1861 he was chiefly engaged in preparing the report of the expedition. Twenty-eight volumes were planned, but only nineteen were published.[7] Of these, Wilkes wrote the multi-volume Narrative of the United States exploring expedition, during 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842[8] (consisting of an atlas and 5 volumes published in the fall of 1844),[1]:338 Hydrography (consisting of an atlas published in 1858 and a volume published in 1861),[9][10][11] and Meteorology (consisting of a volume published in 1851).[12] The Narrative contains much interesting material concerning the manners and customs and political and economic conditions in many places then little known. Other valuable contributions were the three reports of James Dwight Dana on Zoophytes,[13] of 1846, Geology,[14] 1849, and Crustacea[15] of 1852 to 1854. In addition to many shorter articles and reports, Wilkes published the major scientific works Western America, including California and Oregon,[16] 1849, and Theory of the Winds[17] of 1856. The Smithsonian Institution digitized the five volume Narrative and the accompanying scientific volumes,[18] the mismanagement and bungling that plagued the expedition prior to its departure continued after its completion. By June 1848, many of the specimens had been lost or damaged and many remained unidentified. Asa Gray was hired for five years, including the first one being at the herbariums in Europe, to work on the botanical specimens.[3]:185-190, 194-195

Significance of the expedition[edit]

Tuvaluan man in traditional costume drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate in 1841.
A man from the Nukufetau atoll, Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu) drawn by Alfred Thomas Agate in 1841.

The Wilkes Expedition played a major role in the development of 19th-century science, particularly in the growth of the American scientific establishment. Many of the species and other items found by the expedition helped form the basis of collections at the new Smithsonian Institution.[19]

With the help of the expedition's scientists, derisively called "clam diggers" and "bug catchers" by navy crew members, 280 islands, mostly in the Pacific, were explored, and over 800 miles of Oregon were mapped. Of no less importance, over 60,000 plant and bird specimens were collected. A staggering amount of data and specimens were collected during the expedition, including the seeds of 648 species, which were later traded, planted, and sent throughout the country. Dried specimens were sent to the National Herbarium, now a part of the Smithsonian Institution. There were also 254 live plants, which mostly came from the home stretch of the journey, that were placed in a newly constructed greenhouse in 1850, which later became the United States Botanic Garden.

Alfred Thomas Agate, engraver and illustrator, created an enduring record of traditional cultures such as the illustrations made of the dress and tattoo patterns of natives of the Ellice Islands (now Tuvalu).[20]

A collection of artifacts from the expedition also went to the National Institute for the Promotion of Science, a precursor of the Smithsonian Institution. These joined artifacts from American history as the first artifacts in the Smithsonian collection.[21]

The expedition in popular culture[edit]

The Wiki Coffin novels of Joan Druett are set on a fictional 7th ship accompanying the expedition.


Members of the expedition[edit]

Naval Officers[edit]

Engravers & Illustrators[edit]

Watercolor of a Cyprinoid, Mylocheilus sp., by Joseph Drayton, circa 1840

Scientific Corps[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Philbrick, N., Sea of Glory, Viking, 2003
  2. ^ a b c d e f Stanton, William (1975). The Great United States Exploring Expedition. Berkeley: University of California Press. pp. 13,16–17,23–24,31,33,50–51. ISBN 0520025571. 
  3. ^ a b Dupree, A. Hunter (1988). Asa Gray, American Botanist, Friend of Darwin. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press. pp. 59–65. ISBN 978-0-801-83741-8. 
  4. ^ Wilkes, Charles (1845). Narrative of the United States exploring expedition during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. 2. Lea and Blanchard. p. 375. ...a disastrous circumstance for the natives... 
  5. ^ Ellsworth, Harry A (1974). One Hundred Eighty Landings of United States Marines 1800–1934 (PDF). Hailer Publishing. p. 172–174. Retrieved 15 October 2017. 
  6. ^ Map of "Upper California"
  7. ^ The Publications of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1844–1874, Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection
  8. ^ http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/007911158
  9. ^ http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/ScientificText/usexex19_34b.cfm?start=8
  10. ^ Hydrography in libraries (WorldCat catalog)
  11. ^ Hartwell, Mary Ann, ed. (1911). Checklist of United States public documents 1789–1909. p. 661. 
  12. ^ Meteorology / by Charles Wilkes; with twenty-five illustrations - Biodiverstiy Heritage Library
  13. ^ http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/011619603
  14. ^ http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/ScientificText/USExEx19_14select.cfm
  15. ^ http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/009027155
  16. ^ http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006568406
  17. ^ http://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/001486034
  18. ^ 'Follow the Expedition'
  19. ^ Adler, Antony (6 October 2010). "From the Pacific to the Patent Office: The US Exploring Expedition and the origins of America's first national museum". Journal of the History of Collections. 
  20. ^ 'Follow the Expedition', Volume 5, Chapter 2, pp. 35–75, 'Ellice's and Kingsmill's Group', http://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/usexex/
  21. ^ "Planning a National Museum". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved January 2, 2010. 
  22. ^ a b c d e f g h i http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/Crew/crew_display_by_ship.cfm?ship=Porpoise
  23. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/Crew/crew_display_by_ship.cfm?ship=Vincennes
  24. ^ a b c http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/Crew/crew_display_by_ship.cfm?ship=Relief
  25. ^ a b c d e f g h i http://www.sil.si.edu/digitalcollections/usexex/navigation/Crew/crew_display_by_ship.cfm?ship=Peacock
  26. ^ "Charles F. Guillou papers, 1838–1947". The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Retrieved March 4, 2011. 
  27. ^ a b "Domestic Intelligence – Exploring Squadron – List of officers and scientific corps". Army and Navy chronicle. 6: 142. 
  28. ^ Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington, (1909) pp.74–5 at Archive.org, accessed September 5, 2010
  29. ^ a b c SIarchives.si.edu

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]