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The United States Exploring Expedition was an exploring and surveying expedition of the Pacific Ocean ("the Southern Seas") conducted by the United States Navy from 1838–1842. The original appointed commanding officer was Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. The voyage was authorized by Congress in 1836. It is sometimes called the "Ex. Ex." for short, or "the Wilkes Expedition" in honor of its next appointed commanding officer, U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes (1798–1877). The expedition was of major importance to the growth of science in the United States.


In May, 1828, the United States Congress, after prodding by President John Quincy Adams, voted to send an expedition around the world with the understanding that the country would derive great benefit. It was to promote commerce and to offer protection to the heavy investment in the whaling and seal hunting industries, chiefly in the Pacific Oceanmarker. Congress also agreed that a public ship or ships should be used. At the time, the only ships owned by the government capable of such a circumnavigation were those of the U.S. Navy. So, in fact, Congress had decided that a naval expedition be authorized. There were to be many unforeseen impediments and it was not until May 18, 1836, that an act was passed, which authorized funding. Even with the burden of finance lifted, there were another two years of alteration of formation and command before six oddly-assorted ships moved down from Norfolk to Hampton Roadsmarker on August 9, 1838. On August 17, after being joined by the tenders (Sea Gull and Flying-Fish) Lt. Wilkes received his final orders and at 15:00 hours the afternoon of August 18 the vessels weighed anchor. Due to light breezes the expedition did not discharge their pilots until 09:00 August 19 when they passed Cape Henry Light. By 11:00 the small fleet was standing to open seas.

Originally the Expedition was first organized under Commodore Thomas Ap Catesby Jones, however he subsequently resigned the station. Several more senior officers had either resigned from or indicated their unwillingness to accept command of the expedition. Command was finally vested in U.S. Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. The three duties laid down were daunting to officers trained only in fighting ships. In addition to exploration, the naval squadron was tasked with the duties to survey both the newly found areas and survey other areas previously discovered, but about which there was insufficient knowledge. As well, a scientific corps, of all civilians, was to be included an additional command responsibility. There were few officers in the U.S. Navy at that time with any surveying experience and none with a background of working alongside scientists. The United States Coast Survey, where most of the surveyors were employed and learned their trade, was a civilian organization. Wilkes, who had largely trained himself in surveying work, cut the excessively large number of scientists down to nine. He then reserved for himself, and other naval officers, some of the scientific duties, including all those connected with surveying and cartography.

Personnel included naturalist, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists and a philologist, and was carried by the sloops-of-war Vincennes (780 tons) and Peacock (650 tons), the brig Porpoise (230 tons), the store-ship Relief, and two tenders, Sea Gull (110 tons) and Flying Fish (96 tons).

Route of the expedition

Upon clearing the Cape Henry Lightmarker at 09:00 on Saturday, August 19, 1838, Lt. Wilkes laid in his course for Rio de Janeiromarker. By orders, he was to survey certain reported vigias, or shoals at latitude 10° south and between longitudes 18° and 22° west. Due to the prevailing winds at this season, the Squadron made an easterly tack of the Atlantic.

The Squadron arrived at the harbor of Funchal Madeira Islandsmarker on September 16, 1838. After completing some repairs the group moved southward and arrived on October 7 at the bay of Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands eventually arriving at Rio de Janeiro on November 23. The entire passage from the United States to Brazilmarker taking 95 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 Janerio until January 6, 1839. From there they moved southward to Buenos Aries and the mouth of the Río Negromarker River, passing a French Naval blockade of the Argentine Republicmarker's seaport. The European powers at the time, with the aid of Brazil, were involved in the internal affairs of the Argentine Republic. However, since the US Squadron had reduced its military profile prior to its departure from the United States, they were not molested by the French warships.

Following this beginning, the Squadron visited Tierra del Fuegomarker, Chilemarker, and Perumarker. 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 Tuamotumarker Archipelago, Samoamarker and New South Walesmarker, Australia. In December 1839, the expedition sailed from Sydneymarker into the Antarctic Oceanmarker and reported the discovery "of an Antarctic continentmarker west of the Balleny Islands". That part of Antarcticamarker 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, it is uncertain whether the Wilkes expedition, or the French expedition of Jules Dumont d'Urville, 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 Ringgold, who, after sighting d'Urville's Astrolabe deliberately avoided contact.

Following this, the expedition visited Fijimarker. In July 1840, two members of the party, Lieutenant Underwood and Wilkes' nephew, Midshipman Wilkes Henry, were killed while bartering for food in western Fijimarker'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 shore party. Close to 80 Fijians were killed in the resulting American reprisal and some villages were burned to the ground. After Fiji, the expedition sailed to Hull Island, later known as Oronamarker, and the Hawaiian Islands.

In 1841, the expedition explored the west coast of the United States, including the Strait of Juan de Fucamarker, Puget Soundmarker, and the Columbia River.

Like his predecessor, Britishmarker explorer George Vancouver, Wilkes spent a good deal of time near Bainbridge Islandmarker. He noted the bird-like shape of the harbor at Winslowmarker and named it Eagle Harbor. Continuing his fascination with bird names, he named Bill Point and Wing Point. Port Madison, Washingtonmarker and Points Monroe and Jefferson named in honor of former U.S. presidents. Port Ludlowmarker was assigned to honor Lt. Augustus Ludlow, who lost his life in an 1813 sea battle.

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 Barmarker, Wilkes interrupted his work in the San Juan Islandsmarker and sailed south. He never returned to Puget Soundmarker.

From the area of modern-day Portland, Oregonmarker, an overland party headed by George F. Emmons was directed to proceed via an inland route to San Francisco Baymarker. 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 Shastamarker, in northern California.

The Emmons party rejoined the ships, which had sailed south, in San Franciscomarker. The expedition then headed back out into the Pacific, including a visit to Wake Islandmarker in 1841, and returned by way of the Philippinesmarker, the Sulu Archipelagomarker, Borneomarker, Singaporemarker, Polynesia and the Cape of Good Hopemarker, reaching New York on June 10, 1842.

The expedition throughout was plagued by poor relationships between Wilkes and his subordinate officers. 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. 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

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. Of these Wilkes wrote the Narrative (1845) and the volumes Hydrography and Meteorology (1851). 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 (1846), Geology (1849) and Crustacea (1852–1854).

In addition to many shorter articles and reports, Wilkes published the major scientific works Western America, including California and Oregon (1849) and Theory of the Winds (1856).

Significance of the expedition

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

With the help of the expedition's scientists, derisively called "clam diggers" and "bug catchers" by navy crewmembers, 280 islands (mostly in the Pacific Oceanmarker) were explored, and over 800 miles of Oregonmarker 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 Institutionmarker. 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 Gardenmarker.

The Expedition in popular culture

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


Some members of the United States Exploring Expedition

Naval Officers

Engravers & Illustrators

Scientific Corps


  1. Philbrick, N., Sea of Glory, Viking, 2003

Books and publications

  • Viola, H.J. "The Wilkes Expedition on the Pacific Coast," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, January 1989.

External links

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