United States Exploring Expedition

"Andes near Alparmarca, Peru: Sketched from an Elevation of 16,000 Feet". Illustration by Alfred Agate from the South American portion of the United States Exploring Expedition, digitally restored.
Date1838 - 1842
Result Successful expedition, victory in battle against aborigionals.
 United States Fiji
Commanders and leaders
Charles Wilkes
William L. Hudson
2 sloops-of-war
1 brig
1 ship
2 schooners
Casualties and losses
~30 killed or wounded
1 sloop-of-war sunk
1 schooner sunk[1]
~80 killed or wounded
12 killed

Template:Nineteenth century Asia/Pacific conflicts involving the United States

The United States Exploring Expedition was an exploring and surveying expedition of the Pacific Ocean and surrounding lands conducted by the United States Navy from 1838 to 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, 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.


USS Vincennes at Disappointment Bay, Antarctica in early 1840.

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 Ocean. 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 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 Roads on August 9, 1838. On August 17, after being joined by the tenders Sea Gull and Flying-Fish which delivered Lieutenant Wilkes 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 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 Lieutenant 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 American 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 naturalists, botanists, a mineralogist, taxidermists and a philologist, and was carried by the sloops-of-war USS Vincennes, of 780 tons, and USS Peacock of 650 tons, the brig USS Porpoise, of 230 tons, the full-rigged ship Relief, which served as a store-ship, and two schooners, Sea Gull, of 110 tons and USS Flying Fish of 96 tons which served as tenders.

Route of the expedition

The attack on Malolo by Alfred Agate.

Upon clearing the Cape Henry Light at 09:00 on Saturday, August 19, 1838, Wilkes laid in his course for Rio de Janeiro. 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 in the Madeira Islands 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 Brazil taking 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 Janerio until January 6, 1839. From there they moved southward to Buenos Aires and the mouth of the Río Negro, passing a French naval blockade of the Argentine Republic'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 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 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, 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 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.[2]

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 80 Fijians were killed in the resulting American reprisal and two villages were burned to the ground.[3]

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 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.

In April of 1842 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 Hudon 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 retuned 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 pary 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, 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. [4]

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 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.

A warrior of Drummond's Island by Alfred Agate.

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.[3] 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 of 1845 and the volumes Hydrography and Meteorology of 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, of 1846, Geology, 1849, and Crustacea of 1852 to 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 of 1856. The Smithsonian Institution digitized the five volume Narrative and the accompanying scientific volumes.[5]

Significance of the expedition

The Wilkes Expedition played a major role in 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.

With the help of the expedition's scientists, derisively called "clam diggers" and "bug catchers" by navy crewmembers, 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.[6]

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.[7]

The expedition in popular culture

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


Members of the expedition

Naval Officers

Engravers & Illustrators

Scientific Corps


  1. ^ Philbrick
  2. ^ "...a disastrous circumstance for the natives...", Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, Vol2, p376
  3. ^ a b Philbrick, N., Sea of Glory, Viking, 2003
  4. ^ Ellsworth, pg. 172-174
  5. ^ 'Follow the Expedition' http://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/usexex/
  6. ^ 'Follow the Expedition', Volume 5, Chapter 2, pp. 35-75, 'Ellice's and Kingsmill's Group', http://www.sil.si.edu/DigitalCollections/usexex/
  7. ^ "Planning a National Museum". Smithsonian Institution Archives. Retrieved 2 January 2010.
  8. ^ Google Answers
  9. ^ "Charles F. Guillou papers, 1838-1947". The College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Retrieved March 4, 2011.
  10. ^ a b Smithsonian Institution Digital Collection, United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (website) SIL.si.edu accessed 5 September 2010
  11. ^ a b "Domestic Intelligence - Exploring Squadron - List of officers and scientific corps", In: Army and Navy chronicle, Volume 6, p.142 a Google Books, accessed 5 September 2010
  12. ^ Edmond S. Meany, History of the State of Washington, (1909) pp.74-5 at Archive.org, accessed 5 September 2010
  13. ^ a b c SIarchives.si.edu
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