The Publications of The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1844-1874
In one very important way, the work of the United States Exploring Expedition was only beginning when the ships returned to Washington after almost four years at sea. In addition to Captain Wilkes himself who recorded ocean and weather data and surveyed island groups and coastlines, the Expedition had carried a civilian group of scientists who had collected specimens, artifacts, and observations through the whole voyage. Called the "scientific corps," or just the "scientifics," they were Horatio Hale, ethnographer & linguist; Charles Pickering and Titian R. Peale, naturalists; J.P. Couthouy, conchologist; James D. Dana, mineralogist; William Rich and William D. Brackenridge, botanists; and Alfred T. Agate and Joseph Drayton, artists.
It was crucial to the purpose and success of the Expedition that it publish its findings. Thousands of plant and animal species unknown to Western science had been discovered and collected; thousands of miles of coastline had been accurately surveyed and mapped for the first time; the peoples of the innumerable islands of the Pacific and the lands of northwestern North America had been contacted and studied (some for the first time by Westerners). What good would it do to have spent four years at this work unless the results were published for others to use and learn from? Reports from British, French, Dutch, Russian, and German expeditions had been appearing since the voyages of Captain Cook almost a hundred years earlier. Indeed, most of what was known about the peoples, plants, animals, and lands of North America had been discovered by European explorers and published in European cities. By publishing the U.S.Ex.Ex. reports the United States intended to establish itself as an equal partner in this effort and to take its place in the international scientific and intellectual community.
Congress authorized the publication of "an account of the discoveries" within two months of the Expedition's return. It limited the number of copies to 100 and listed the intended recipients: one copy to each state of the Union (and later, to each new state as it joined); two each to France, Great Britain, and Russia; one each to 25 other foreign countries; two to the Library of Congress; one to the Naval Lyceum, Brooklyn; and one each to the principal ships' commanders Wilkes, Hudson, and Ringgold. The Congressional committee overseeing the project appointed Wilkes to supervise the preparation of the reports and the expedition artist Joseph Drayton to oversee the illustrations.
And so, back in Washington, the second phase of the Expedition project began. As the captain of the Expedition, Wilkes wrote and published his 5-volume narrative of the voyage within two years of his return. But that was only the first of the planned reports, and Wilkes spent far longer overseeing the publication of the others than he had spent at sea during the voyage itself. It was 30 years, in fact, before the publication project finally ended.
The work of publishing the scientific reports was enormous and complex. Wilkes had to struggle on several fronts: to ensure that the collections were properly handled; to find expert scientists in different subjects and keep them on schedule with their reports; and, almost continuously, to obtain adequate appropriations from Congress to pay the costs of publication. As difficult and mis-cast as he had proved as a sea captain, Wilkes's tenacity and determination were major factors in the successful publication of the scientific reports, for which the modern scientific world must be grateful.
The first problem facing Wilkes and the scientists was the poor, indeed sometimes disastrous, handling and disposition of the collections that they had sent home (as cargo on other ships they encountered) during the voyage. Held first by Charles Willson Peale's museum in Philadelphia and then by the fledgling National Institute for the Promotion of Science in Washington, the collections were mishandled in several ways: many of the containers were opened and their preservative value lost; some specimens were prepared hurriedly and incorrectly for exhibition; the identifying data that connected many specimens to their collection records was removed or lost; and a number of specimens were actually given away to (or appropriated by) members of the Institution, of Congress, and of the nation's scientific community. In their reports both James Dana and Titian Peale mentioned the difficulties these conditions had created. Following the Expedition's return, scientist Charles Pickering was put in charge of organizing and maintaining the collections; eventually, in the 1850s, they were deposited at the newly established Smithsonian Institution and its U.S. National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History), where they remain and continue to be studied.
The scientists' work was made more difficult by the Congressional requirement that they live and work in Washington. The kind of work they needed to do - taxonomy: the identification and classification of new species - requires comparing what has been found with what is already known and thus requires access to large collections of specimens and a good library of the scientific literature. Washington at this time had neither, and several of the scientists complained of this restriction. After it became apparent that not all of the "scientifics" on the voyage would be able to write the desired reports, it proved impossible to find experts who would comply with this condition, and in later years, for the later volumes, it was not enforced.
The early plans for the reports intended each one to be written by the "scientific" who had traveled with the expedition. The plan included volumes on the peoples and languages of the Pacific by Hale; on mineralogy, geology, corals, and crustacea by Dana; on mollusks by Drayton; on birds and mammals by Peale; on fishes, reptiles, and insects by Pickering; on botany by Rich and Brackenridge; and on hydrography, meteorology, physics, and magnetism by Wilkes himself. Many were to be accompanied by folio atlases of maps and illustrations.
As the years rolled on and it became clearer how much new information had been collected, the number of volumes grew to a total of 24 plus nine atlases and two volumes of charts. Over time some participants left or were replaced by better-qualified scientists and experts in the relevant fields, and in one case Wilkes actually had a published volume re-done 10 years later (Peale's Mammalia and ornithology 1848, replaced by John Cassin's Mammalogy and ornithology 1858). Fires in 1851 at the Library of Congress where a number of printed volumes were stored, and in 1856 at the binder's in Philadelphia, were among other problems that impeded the production of the reports. Through the 1850s Congress repeatedly attempted to close off funding for the project. And of course, as the Civil War loomed and then erupted in the early 1860s, Congress had little time or, more importantly, money to spare for the Expedition reports. Although a few continued to be written and printed during this period, distribution was delayed in the case of Wilkes's Hydrography (v.XXIII, 1861) by many years. In the end, two of the 24 projected volumes were never officially distributed, and three were never printed. In 1874, after 30 years and $360,000 (in 19th-century dollars), the publication project was terminated by Congress.
The following chart summarizes the reports' publication information, giving the volumes in their numerical sequence:
* Never officially
distributed, although printed and bound official copies exist; individual
authors distributed the unofficial issues of their parts. There were plates,
distributed with the unofficial parts, but they were never issued collectively
in an atlas.
The following chart gives the volumes in their subject groups:
*, **, etc.
- see table above.
In the early stages of the publication project the government did not have its own printing office, and Congress put the job out for bids. C. Sherman of Philadelphia was selected as the printer, and Gaskill, also in Philadelphia, was selected as the binder. Since printers bid on jobs at a minimum of 250 copies (called a "token") and the government wanted only 100, it was arranged that the remaining 150 copies would be purchased and sold in the trade by commercial publishers.
Thus, the reports were issued in two versions: an official issue for governmental distribution, and an unofficial issue under various publishers' imprints for sale in the trade. As the two issues were made up of the same (Sherman's) printed sheets, simply with different title pages and covers, the texts are identical in both issues (see the bibliographic descriptions below for specifics by volume). The official issue can be distinguished by the following characteristics:
Only 100 copies of the official issue were printed, and 150 of the unofficial. For various reasons, explained in the bibliographic descriptions that follow, the total number for most volumes was rather fewer than this. Given the low original number of copies and subsequent loss and attrition, the volumes are fairly scarce, and yet they are of great importance to modern scientists, both here at the National Museum of Natural History and around the world. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries is pleased to be able to make them more widely accessible through this digital edition.
It is my pleasure to acknowledge the great debt owed by this digitizing project as a whole, and by my introduction and bibliographic descriptions of the volumes in the report series in particular, to the work of Daniel C. Haskell, Bibliographer of the New York Public Library, as embodied in his book The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, and its publications, 1844-1874 (New York: The New York Public Library, 1942).