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The Scientific Legacy of the U.S. Exploring Expedition

by Nathaniel Philbrick

They called it the U.S. Ex. Ex., or simply the Ex. Ex., shorthand for the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. It was an unprecedented naval operation, especially for a nation with a navy that was less than half the size of Great Britian's. For the young republic of the United States, it was a bold, some said foolhardy undertaking, consisting of six sailing vessels and 346 men, including a team of nine scientists and artists, making it one of the largest voyages of discovery in the history of Western exploration.

With the U.S. Ex. Ex., America hoped to plant its flag in the world. Literally broadening the nation's horizons, the Expedition's ships would cover the Pacific Ocean from top to bottom and bring the United States international renown for its scientific endeavors as well as its bravado. European expeditions-most notably the three voyages of the legendary navigator James Cook in the eighteenth century-had served both the cause of science and empire, providing new lands with which to augment their countries' already far-flung possessions around the world. The United States, on the other hand, had more than enough unexplored territory within its own borders. Commerce, not colonies, was what the U.S. was after. Besides establishing a stronger diplomatic presence throughout the Pacific, the Expedition sought to provide much-needed charts to American whalers, sealers, and China traders. Decades before America surveyed and mapped its own interior, this government-sponsored voyage of discovery would enable a new, determined nation to take its first tentative steps toward becoming an economic world power.

But there was yet another reason for America to launch an expedition. Although most of the oceans of the world had already been thoroughly explored, there remained a region that had so far resisted scientific inquiry: the ice-studded mystery at the bottom of the world. Cook had ventured below the Antarctic Circle and found nothing but snow and ice. Given the dangerous conditions and the slender prospect of significant results, further exploration hardly seemed warranted. But by 1838 there was renewed interest in the high southern latitudes. What had once been regarded as a forbidding wasteland was now one of the few places left where a discovery of Cook-like proportions might still be possible. With the U.S. Ex. Ex., America belatedly joined an international rivalry to discover and explore the last unknown portions of the planet.

The Expedition was to attempt two forays south-one from Cape Horn, the other from Sydney, Australia, during the relatively warm months of January, February, and March. The time in between was to be spent surveying the islands of the South Pacific-particularly the little-known Fiji Group. The Expedition's other priority was the Pacific Northwest. In the years since Lewis and Clark had ventured to the mouth of the Columbia River, the British and their Hudson's Bay Company had come to dominate what was known as the Oregon territory. In hopes of laying the basis for the government's future claim to the region, the Ex. Ex. was to complete the first American survey of the Columbia and would continue down the coast to California's San Francisco Bay, then still a part of Mexico. By the conclusion of the voyage-after stops at Manila, Singapore, and the Cape of Good Hope-the Expedition would become the last all-sail naval squadron to circumnavigate the world.

Getting the Ex. Ex. Off the Ground

The Ex. Ex had begun with the grand, sweeping vision of a former newspaper editor from Ohio named Jeremiah Reynolds. In a stirring speech before Congress in April 1836, Reynolds proposed that America mount an expedition on a scale that had never before been attempted. In keeping with the giant size and boundless ambition of the young nation it represented, the U.S. expedition would "collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable in the whole range of natural history, from the minute madrapore to the huge spermaceti, and accurately describe that which cannot be preserved." In addition, the expedition's scientists would study the languages and customs of the many peoples they encountered, while also collecting data concerning weather, navigation, the earth's magnetism, and other fields of interest.

At a time when a trip to the Pacific was equivalent to a modern-day trip to the moon, a voyage of this kind offered scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate exotic habitats: rain forests, volcanoes, tropical lagoons, icebergs, and deserts. Before cameras and video equipment, the only way scientists could convey the scope and essence of what had been observed, besides field notes and sketches, was to bring the specimens back with them. Whether it involved shooting and skinning animals and birds, preserving delicate marine organisms in bottles of alcohol, pressing and drying plants, collecting seeds, or accumulating boxes of rocks, fossils, shells, and coral, scientists in European expeditions had inevitably returned with staggering numbers of objects. In America, there was not, as of yet, any kind of national scientific organization or museum, begging the question, where were the collections of the Expedition to be stored? Indeed, what Jeremiah Reynolds had failed to mention in his inspirational speech to Congress was that the United States, where the study of science had never been a priority, lacked the institutions required to sponsor and organize an expedition of this scale.

Government-sponsored exploration in America had begun with Lewis and Clark in 1803. Although the expedition succeeded in alerting the American people to the promise of the West, no provision was made to do anything with its results. The journals would remain unpublished for more than a decade; the botanical collection eventually ended up in England, while other specimens and artifacts were scattered among scientific societies throughout America. From an institutional and policy point of view, it was as if the expedition had never happened.

In the years after the War of 1812, there were too many distractions to allow a young, raw-boned nation like the United States to focus on a project as esoteric as a voyage of discovery in the name of science. There were roads, canals, and railroads to be built, while the obvious sponsor of an expedition-the U.S. Navy-was as conservative an institution as the country possessed. Not founded until 1794, the young navy was reluctant to implement any kind of reform-whether it involved corporal punishment, education, or technology. The United States owed its very existence to the discoveries of Columbus and others, but its navy would show a curious and at times infuriating scorn for the concept of exploration.

Even though President Andrew Jackson was an ardent supporter of Reynolds's proposed voyage, his secretary of the navy Mahlon Dickerson shared little of his president's enthusiasm. The man who should have been the Expedition's most zealous proponent was, in fact, its preeminent detractor, applying what little reserves of energy he possessed in deploying strategies to delay its departure. After several years of political infighting, it looked as if the Expedition might never depart. In a last ditch effort to save the operation from disaster, Jackson's successor as president, Martin Van Buren, put Secretary of War Joel Poinsett in charge of organizing the Expedition. Poinsett chose Charles Wilkes, the forty-year-old head of the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, D.C., to lead the Expedition. Wilkes was without comparable command experience, but he was one of the navy's most talented nautical surveyors. He also had a modest reputation as a scientist.

Science in the New Republic

At this time, science in America was largely practiced by amateurs, many of them men of leisure with time to dabble in their favorite disciplines. No American college offered what we could call today a proper, specialized scientific education. As a naval officer, Wilkes had received just a few months of classroom instruction, much of it spent with the "Midshipman's Bible," Nathaniel Bowditch's Practical Navigator. Anyone seeking a more rigorous education must find an expert in his field of interest who was willing to take him on as a student. Wilkes had been mentored by his brother-in-law, James Renwick, a professor at Columbia College and father of the architect who would design the first Smithsonian Institution building. One of the premier engineers in the United States, Renwick played a large role in Wilkes's education, not only offering instruction in topics such as astronomy and magnetism, but also introducing him to America's most passionate practitioner of geodesy (the study of the size and shape of the earth), Ferdinand Hassler.

Prior to the War of 1812, the Swiss-born Hassler had been appointed to head the survey of the Atlantic coast-a monumental undertaking for which there was acute and immediate need. In many regions, mariners were still relying on charts created by the British navy prior to the Revolution. But Hassler was much more than a surveyor; he was a proud geodesist who insisted on using the finest instruments from Europe and the latest trigonometric principles to create a survey that would not only be of immense practical benefit but would also represent an important contribution to science.

After several years of labor, Hassler had measured out a series of huge triangles along the coastline of the United States that would provide the reference points required to survey the coast, but he had not yet produced a chart. Members of Congress began to insist on tangible results, and in 1818 they voted to withdraw support of Hassler's Coast Survey. When Wilkes met him in the 1820s, Hassler was struggling to support his large family by performing routine survey work in New York City. In Hassler, Wilkes found a man who refused to succumb to America's long-standing suspicion of the intellectual. "[H]e had a peculiar tone of voice, crackling and Sarcastic, and with a conceit in his knowledge over those who were ignorant of Scientific principles. Although Wilkes saw himself as the rational one in his dealings with the irascible Hassler, the young naval officer seems to have internalized his master's uncompromising arrogance and almost frantic excitability. Just as the strong-willed Hassler had a tendency to create controversy everywhere he went, so would Wilkes develop a similar reputation for inciting turmoil.

In the beginning, at least, Wilkes's bold, dictatorial approach seemed to be just what the Ex. Ex. needed. In a matter of months he succeeded in putting together a six-vessel squadron. It was also his responsibility to pare down the scientific corps (which had been selected more than a year before) from twenty-seven to just seven. First to go was the head of physical sciences. Wilkes took over that department, along with all subjects related to surveying, astronomy, meteorology, and nautical science. It was a tall order for one man, even without the extra burden of leading the Expedition. Wilkes's choices for the rest of the corps proved to be quite good. The naturalist Titian Peale, son of the famous painter and museum founder Charles Willson Peale from Philadelphia, had already accompanied expeditions to Florida and the West. A capable artist and a crack shot, Peale was a collector par excellence. James Dwight Dana, the Expedition's geologist, was just twenty-five and had already published his System of Mineralogy, the standard text on the subject. Dana's friend the botanist Asa Gray was also chosen for the civilian corps, and like Dana, would rise to the top of his field. Unfortunately, after changing his mind several times, Gray would back out of the Expedition at the last minute and be replaced by the lackluster William Rich from Washington.

Rounding out the scientific corps was the young philologist, or linguist, Horatio Hale from Harvard; the naturalist Charles Pickering from the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia; the conchologist (a collector of mollusks and shells) Joseph Couthouy from Boston; and the horticulturalist William Brackenridge, a Scotsman currently living in Philadelphia, who had once supervised Edinburgh's famed botanical garden. It was a young, diverse group that, for the most part, represented the best American science had to offer in 1838.

Also included in the civilian corps were two artists, Alfred Agate and James Drayton, who had the benefit of a relatively new invention, the camera lucida-an optical device that projected the virtual image of an object onto a piece of paper for tracing. Agate and Drayton, as well as the naturalist Titian Peale, would use the camera lucida to create images of hundreds of specimens and artifacts, as well as portraits of the many different peoples they encountered. They also created drawings and paintings depicting important scenes and events during the voyage, often basing their work on sketches provided by the squadron's officers.

Once amid the islands of the Pacific, Wilkes quickly made it clear to the Expedition scientists that surveying, not science, was his chief priority. To the outrage of the civilian corps, Wilkes only allowed them to venture to an island once he had first completed the survey - an operation that could take up most of a day. After sitting idle within sight of a beckoning island paradise, Titian Peale angrily wrote in his journal, "WHAT WAS A SCIENTIFIC CORP SENT FOR?"

On September 10, 1839, after several weeks of exploring the Tuamota group in the eastern Pacific, the squadron arrived at the Tahiti part of the Society Group. Tahiti proved to be an important crossroads for the scientists. Finally, they were set free. Peale and the conchologist Joseph Couthouy would continue to grumble about Wilkes's dictatorial style, but the nest of scientists found little to complain about. Over the course of the next three years they would visit dozens of Pacific islands, as well as Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific Northwest. Even though Wilkes's relationship with his officers would deteriorate to the point that a series of acrimonious courts-martial marred the Expedition's return to the United States, the scientists had, in the words of the geologist James Dana, "all they desired."

Fantastic Returns

When the U.S. Ex. Ex. returned in 1842, it immediately overwhelmed America's meager scientific resources. The number of ethnographic objects alone was staggering: 4,000 pieces, a third more than the total number of artifacts collected during all three of Cook's voyages. Indeed, the ethnographic collection of the U.S. Ex. Ex.-including war clubs from Fiji, feathered baskets from California, exquisitely carved rattles from Oregon, fishhooks from Samoa, and flax baskets from New Zealand-is now thought to be, according to Smithsonian anthropologist Adrienne Kaeppler, the largest ever made by a single sailing expedition.

Even larger than the ethnographic collection were the number of pressed plants accumulated by the botanist William Rich, the horticulturalist William Brackenridge, and the naturalist Charles Pickering: 50,000 specimens of 10,000 species. There were also more than a thousand living plants, plus seeds for an additional 648 species. Titian Peale had brought back a total of 2,150 birds, their skins ready to be mounted for display, along with 134 mammals and 588 species of fish. The geologist James Dana, who had also taken over the department of the conchologist Joseph Couthouy, had collected 300 fossil species, 400 species of coral, and 1,000 species of crustacea, along with what was described as an "immense" number of duplicates. There were 208 "spirit jars" of insects and zoological specimens, along with 895 envelopes containing 5,100 larger specimens.

In addition to all the stuff brought back by the Expedition, there was an equally awe-inspiring amount of data. The Expedition's linguist Horatio Hale had amassed notebooks of observations that were unprecedented in their scope and thoroughness, while the naturalist Charles Pickering's voluminous and wide-ranging journal stood as a monument to the incredible diversity of the peoples and places visited over the last four years. Then there were the charts-a total of 241 of them, outdoing the achievements of any previous surveying expedition. Laid down in these charts, with a precision rarely before seen, were 280 Pacific islands, including the first complete chart of the Fiji group; 800 miles of the Oregon coast; a 100-mile stretch of the Columbia River; the overland route from Oregon to San Francisco; and 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coast. But Wilkes and his officers had also assembled mountains of meteorological, astronomical, magnetic, and oceanographic information. "The results of the expedition were larger and more complex than anyone could have imagined," writes William Goetzman, the foremost historian of American exploration, "and they outran the intellectual resources of the country."

America's First National Museum

But there was reason for hope. In 1838 an emissary had arrived in New York with the proceeds from the estate left by the Englishman James Smithson for the establishment of a new kind of institution. Beyond Smithson's stipulation that his money-more than half a million dollars in gold coin (worth approximately eleven million in today's dollars)-be used for "the increase and diffusion of knowledge," no one was sure what this institution should be. Some argued that it should be a national observatory; others said it should be a university, a library, perhaps a museum. A stalemate ensued and the Smithson bequest lay idle. In an attempt to force Congress's hand, former Secretary of War Joel Poinsett created the National Institute for the Promotion of Science. Central to Poinsett's ambitions for his fledgling institute were the collections of the U.S. Ex. Ex. If he could establish the Institute as the collections' caretaker, he was hopeful that he could convince Congress to assign the interest from the Smithson bequest to the Institute, which would then become, by default, the nation's museum.

Poinsett, with the help of outgoing Secretary of the Navy Paulding, arranged for the Expedition's collections to be directed to Washington, where he secured space in the newly built Patent Office Building. He then hired a curator and staff to begin the job of unpacking the Expedition's crates and preparing the specimens for display. But as soon as Wilkes arrived in Washington, he realized that the Institute had made a mess of the collections. Prior to being shipped to the United States, each crate of specimens had been carefully catalogued using a color-coded number and letter system that keyed the objects to the scientists' field notes. Since the Institute's curator was without the catalogue lists, he had no way of determining what was in each crate unless he opened it up and looked inside. Soon the Expedition's collections were in chaos. Titian Peale was horrified to find that a taxidermist had combined the skins of a male and female bird of the same species into a single bird. James Dana discovered that some of the more delicate marine organisms he had collected had been taken out of their bottles of preservative, dried, and then stuck with pins.

Even though the Institute's curator was fired in September and Charles Pickering was brought on to supervise the collection, Wilkes and the scientists remained leery. Pickering began to reassemble the Expedition's scientists in Washington. Soon they were unpacking the collections and preparing the objects for exhibition in the Patent Office's huge, 265-foot long Great Hall. Pickering provided an early and much needed rallying point for the Expedition's scientists, but he had little interest in being the head of what was rapidly becoming the country's first national museum. Pickering was a scientist, not a curator. It wasn't the objects themselves that were important, he insisted, it was the knowledge that could be derived from those objects. In Pickering's view, the Expedition's greatest achievements were yet to come, since a scientist's true role was not simply to collect and exhibit objects, but to study them. In July, Pickering resigned as superintendent of the collection so that he could continue researching the book he was planning to write about the races of man.

Pickering was immediately replaced by Wilkes. As his conduct during the voyage amply demonstrated, Wilkes had no apparent fear of over-committing himself. In addition to writing the narrative of the voyage, he was also directing the production of the Expedition's charts-yet another enormous task for which he had assembled a team of officers that included Expedition veterans Thomas Budd, Overton Carr, Joseph Totten, Frederick Stewart, the artist Joseph Drayton, and eventually Henry Eld. Undaunted by his already considerable responsibilities, Wilkes took charge of the exhibition in the Great Hall of the Patent Office.

One of Wilkes's first acts was the installation of a sign over the hall's entrance that read "Collection of the Exploring Expedition" in large gold letters. He then went about overhauling the exhibits-moving the cases into areas of the hall with better light and posting signs that helped visitors find their way around this huge room of specimens and artifacts. Accustomed to the immaculate condition of a man-of-war, Wilkes showed little tolerance for visitors who insisted on using chewing tobacco in this hall of wonders. When the placement of spittoons at the base of columns did little to keep the tobacco juice off the floor, he hired a man, equipped him with a bowl of water and a large sponge, and directed him to follow anyone who dared chew "the weed." "No party could withstand the operation of the man with the sponge," Wilkes proudly reported, "and the custom was greatly abated if not wholly abolished and the Hall kept clean."

The Collection of the Exploring Expedition became wildly popular. Over the course of the next decade, more than a hundred thousand people made their way each year to the Patent Office. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who was in town on a speaking engagement, judged the exhibit to be, with the sole exception of the Capitol building, "the best sight in Washington."

In the back of the Patent Office Building was a greenhouse, where William Brackenridge presided over hundreds of living plants. Many influential Washingtonians, including President Tyler's wife, assumed that these tropical seedlings would be made available to them for their private gardens, but Wilkes instructed Brackenridge to deny all requests for plants. One congressman became so angered that he threatened to stop the Expedition's funding, but Wilkes stood firm. "The restriction was carried out," he wrote, "and our plants preserved."

Wilkes's Narrative and the Expedition's Legacy

Throughout this period, Wilkes labored on his Narrative. While Wilkes wrote the text, Joseph Drayton assembled the hundreds of illustrations that would grace the Expedition's narrative-steel engravings and woodcuts based on paintings and drawings by the artist Alfred Agate. The congressional committee overseeing the publications of the Expedition had decided that the five volumes of Wilkes's narrative were to be volumes of the highest possible quality. Bound in dark green morocco, hand-sewn and gilt-edged, they were to be stamped in gold with the seal of the United States. The Committee insisted that only a hundred copies of the narrative be published, making them, according to the estimates of one historian, "some of the most expensive books in the history of American printing."

Recognizing an opportunity for personal gain, Wilkes insisted that that narrative be copyrighted in his name and that he be given free use of the illustrations in future editions. Since the government had paid for the Expedition, as well as for the writing and illustration of the book, many naval officers viewed this as an outrageous windfall for Wilkes, especially when his own commercial edition of the narrative appeared almost simultaneously with the publication of the government's edition. However, when the matter was finally investigated by Congress, Wilkes was allowed to keep his copyright.

The Narrative would prove to be a disappointment. In addition to settling some personal scores with his officers, Wilkes felt compelled to pad the book with information from secondary sources, much of it with little or no bearing on the voyage. "A work of oppressive dimensions has been constructed," wrote the naval officer Charles Davis in the North American Review, "and the real narrative of the cruise, a story of surpassing interest, is crushed under a weight of irrelevant matter."

Despite its failings, Wilkes's Narrative garnered plenty of positive reviews and sold surprisingly well; fourteen different editions would be published in the years prior to the Civil War. The book would also have an impact on some of America's most important and influential writers. James Fenimore Cooper, an old family friend of the Wilkes's, would integrate information from the Narrative into at least two of his sea novels. Herman Melville would purchase his own copy of Wilkes's book, and scholars have found traces of the U.S. Exploring Expedition throughout his masterpiece Moby-Dick. Melville appears to have been most taken with the book's illustrations. For example, his description of Ishmael's Polynesian companion Queequeg has been attributed to an engraving of a tattooed Maori chief in volume two. In an age before the widespread use of photography, the pages of the Narrative provided a visual link with the exotic world of the South Pacific (as well as Antarctica and the Pacific Northwest) that no other American book could match.

For many readers, it was Wilkes's description of the Oregon territory and California that was of the greatest interest. James Polk had won the Presidential election in 1844, partly on the basis of the expansionist slogan, "Fifty-four forty or fight," which, as Wilkes had urged two years earlier in a report to Congress, called for the annexation of the entire Oregon territory. But events would transpire to distract the American people from a proper appreciation of the Expedition's findings. Almost coincidental with the appearance of the Narrative was the publication of another account of a government expedition to the American West, this one led by the Army officer John C. Frémont. Frémont's narrative about his overland journey to the Columbia River and then on to California was everything Wilkes's wasn't. Ghostwritten by his wife, who had a gift for romantic, overwrought prose, Frémont's tale involved his readers in a glorious quest to unlock the mysteries of the West, and in the spring of 1845 Frémont gained the kind of fame that Wilkes had been craving all his life.

With the publication of his narrative behind him, Wilkes turned his attention to not only writing his own scientific reports, which included his two-volume atlas of charts and the volumes on Meteorology, Hydrography, and Physics, but also overseeing the publication of the other fourteen reports. It would become a life-long endeavor, and with the passing of every year, Congressional funding for the reports became harder and harder to find. "I had more trouble and difficulty in securing the appropriation annually," Wilkes wrote, "than I experienced in the command of the Expedition."

The Rise of Science in America

A nation that had prided itself in its democratic scorn of book-learning was reluctant to acknowledge that publishing volumes about "bugs, reptiles, etc." was a necessary expense. When asked to vote on yet another appropriation to pay for the seemingly never-ending publications of the Exploring Expedition, one vexed senator complained, "I am tired of all this thing called science here." But for decade after decade, the U.S. Ex. Ex. would not go away. Wilkes would often be as much of an annoyance to the scientists he was supposedly championing as he would be to the congressmen he hounded for appropriations, but it is doubtful whether there was anyone else in America who could have accomplished so much.

With the appearance of each new report, the status of the United States in the international scientific community (once nearly nonexistent) climbed a little higher. In its reliance on fieldwork unhindered by the usual Victorian biases, Horatio Hale's report on languages broke new ground in what would eventually become known as the field of ethnography. James Dwight Dana proved to be the "racer" of the scientists, publishing four comprehensive and essential reports over an eleven-year period. His report on Crustacea, in which he identified more than five hundred new species of lobsters, crabs, shrimps, and barnacles, would reinvent the field. Charles Darwin offered Dana his highest praise, insisting that if Dana had "done nothing else whatever, it would have been a magnum opus for life. . . . I am really lost in astonishment at what you have done in mental labor. And, then beside the labor, so much originality in all your works." What makes this all the more remarkable is that Dana, who would eventually become a professor at Yale, was a geologist. When it came to his volume on geology, in which he offered evidence to support Darwin's theory about the formation of coral atolls, the response was just as enthusiastic. None other than Alexander von Humboldt, whose expedition to South America at the end of the eighteenth century had inspired generations of explorers and scientists, claimed that Dana's work represented "the most splendid contribution to science of the present day."

Not all of the reports came as quickly or were as well received. Charles Pickering's long-awaited The Races of Man was judged by Oliver Wendell Holmes to be "the oddest collection of fragments that was ever seen, . . . amorphous as a fog, unstratified as a dumpling and heterogeneous as a low priced sausage." Titian Peale's Zoology would be withdrawn prior to publication in 1848 due to its many taxonomical errors. Ten years later, once the volume had been overhauled by John Cassin of the Academy of Natural Science, the report was reissued as Mammology and Ornithology. It has since been called "a triumph of new science." The biggest disappointment of the scientific corps would be the botanist William Rich, who lacked the erudition and analytical skills to tackle a collection as big as the Expedition's. The botany reports would eventually be divided up among close to half a dozen different scientists, with the renowned Asa Gray at Harvard taking the leading role.

There is no question that Wilkes's unceasing advocacy of the Expedition's publications contributed to a growing realization in Washington that scientific pursuits such as geology, botany, anthropology, and meteorology were crucial to the progress of the nation. Almost in spite of itself, Congress began to see the wisdom and necessity of paying for expeditions on a scale that would have been inconceivable in the era of Lewis and Clark. As the country's population moved west, so did a succession of sophisticated surveying expeditions, all of which, in the tradition of America's first exploring and surveying expedition, took along at least one scientist. Between 1840 and 1860, the federal government would publish sixty works associated with the exploration of the west while subsidizing fifteen naval expeditions around the world. The expenditure for these expeditions and other scientific publications would be enormous, representing somewhere between one-quarter to one-third of the annual federal budget. Not even the race to the moon in the 1960s generated a financial commitment to science that rivaled the decades after the U.S. Ex. Ex.

Gradually, but inevitably, the Exploring Expedition would be overshadowed by the very historical forces that it had helped to set in motion. Foreshadowed by Frémont and made an accomplished fact by the discovery of gold in California in 1848, the interest of the American people shifted from the frontier of the sea to the frontier of the West. Instead of whalers, sealers, China traders, and Polynesian natives, it was now mountain men, pioneers, cowboys, and Indians who captured the American imagination. Even though the Ex. Ex. had had such an early and vital role in the exploration of the Oregon territory and California, the nation would quickly lose all memory of the fact that Wilkes and his men had been the first Americans to chart Puget Sound, the Columbia River, and San Francisco Bay. Turning from the oceans of the world, the American people looked to the interior of their own continent, and in the tales of western exploration and conquest that would soon become part of the nation's mythology there was no place for Wilkes and the U.S. Ex. Ex.

The Expedition's Collection Finds a Home

After more than a decade at the Patent Office Building, the collection of the Ex. Ex. found a new and permanent home. Congress had finally established the Smithsonian Institution in 1846 with the understanding that it would take over stewardship of the Expedition's collection. But the Institution's first secretary, the scientist Joseph Henry, saw the Smithsonian as a research organization, and one of his first moves was to refuse the Expedition's collection. Like Charles Pickering, Henry was for original research, not the maintenance and display of a momentous pile of artifacts that would require a large, expensive building and sizeable staff. Henry was part of a young group of scientists who were replacing the amateur collectors of the previous era, and he wanted to reserve as much as possible of the Institution's resources for the practice of new science-for laboratories and the publication of results, not specimen cases.

But there were some influential Congressmen who were determined that the Smithsonian Institution would become America's national museum. In spite of Henry's protestations, bids went out to architects for a palatial new building. The winner turned out to be Wilkes's nephew James Renwick, Jr., whose ornate Norman design is still known today as the "Castle on the Mall." By 1850, it was clear that Henry needed an assistant to handle museum matters, and although Titian Peale was a leading candidate for the job, Henry hired the much younger Spencer Baird from Dickinson College. Baird's personal natural history collection was big enough to fill two box cars, and he looked with enthusiasm to the possibility of expanding the Smithsonian's holdings, particularly since the many expeditions into the American West were sending back a steady stream of specimens and artifacts to Washington.

Reluctantly, Henry realized that he had no choice but to surrender to the inevitable. In 1858, when the Smithsonian finally acquired the objects of the Exploring Expedition, the Institution's collection had already grown to the extent that the Ex. Ex. objects accounted for just one-fifth of the Institution's total natural history holdings. But no one could deny that the addition of the Expedition's collection added immeasurably to the Smithsonian's importance and prestige. The larger space of the Smithsonian's hall allowed Baird to expand and refresh the original Ex. Ex. exhibit, and much as Wilkes had done at the Patent Office fifteen years before, the words "National Museum of the United States" were placed above the entrance to the hall. In the words of William Stanton, whose book about the Expedition stands as the definitive account of how science in America was forever changed by the Ex. Ex., "[the] Great National Expedition had created a great national museum."

There were other national institutions whose genesis can be traced to the Exploring Expedition. By this point, Brackenridge's plants in the greenhouse behind the Patent Office had been moved to a new structure located at the foot of Capitol Hill that is now the home of the U.S. Botanic Garden, while the more than four million specimens currently in the National Herbarium began with the dried plants brought back by the Ex. Ex. Soon after Wilkes's return to the United States, the Depot of Charts and Instruments and its small observatory were moved from his home on Capitol Hill to a new location in Washington that became the predecessor of the National Observatory and the U.S. Hydrographic Office.

Suddenly it was possible for a scientist to earn a living in the United States-something that had been almost unimaginable when the Expedition had first sailed. This may have been the Expedition's-and its leader's-greatest contribution. "Without Wilkes's incredible energy and Byzantine mind," Stanton writes, "the Expedition's achievements might have been no more lasting than the wake of its ships upon the waters of the world. . . . By putting science into government and government into science he had made it possible for the American scientist to live by his profession-like other respectable people."

Only a hundred copies of the fifteen published scientific reports of the Exploring Expedition were printed by the U.S government. The digitization of these publications, along with Wilkes's five-volume narrative of the voyage, by the Smithsonian Institution Libraries makes these exceedingly rare works available to a general audience for the first time. One hundred and sixty two years after the return of the U.S. Ex. Ex., the published results of this little known yet crucially important voyage are finally on display for all to see.

Nathaniel Philbrick
January 2004

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Further Reading

For anyone wanting to know more about the U. S. Exploring Expedition, the best place to start is William Stanton's The First Great United States Exploring Expedition. Wonderfully written and researched, Stanton's book approaches the Expedition in terms of its contribution to the rise of science in America. Magnificent Voyagers, an illustrated catalogue of a 1985 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution edited by Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis, is much more than a catalogue, containing articles that analyze the Expedition from a multitude of perspectives. An earlier book, David B. Tyler's The Wilkes Expedition is also useful as is the important group of essays about the Expedition published by the American Philosophical Society in Centenary Celebration: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition of the United States Navy, 1838-1842. Daniel Henderson's biography of Wilkes, The Hidden Coasts, makes good use of Wilkes's own writings but seems reluctant to criticize or evaluate its subject. William H. Goetzmann's New Lands, New Men: America and the Second Great Age of Discovery investigates the impulse to explore by sea and land that culminated in the Expedition and the many U.S. expeditions to the West that followed. Echoing observations made by William Stanton in The Great United States Exploring Expedition, as well as Stanton's earlier and seminal investigation of science and race in nineteenth-century America, The Leopard's Spots, Barry Alan Joyce assesses a portion of the scientific legacy of the Expedition in The Shaping of American Ethnography: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Alan Gurney's The Race to the White Continent: Voyages to the Antarctic examines the Exploring Expedition in the context of the other European voyages to Antarctica, while Kenneth Bertrand's Americans in Antarctica and Philip Mitterling's America in the Antarctic to 1840 are also essential reading. Frances Barkan's The Wilkes Expedition: Puget Sound and the Oregon Country provides an excellent account of the Expedition's accomplishments in the Pacific Northwest.

Wilkes's five-volume narrative of the Expedition is a padded, uneven read, but parts of it, particularly his description of the assault on Antarctica, are exhilarating. Wilkes's personality is best revealed in his not always reliable, but always self-serving Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes. William Reynolds is well served by Voyage to the Southern Ocean, a collection of the letters he wrote home during the Expedition edited by Anne Hoffman Cleaver, a Reynolds descendant, and E. Jeffrey Stann. Reynolds's public and private notebooks from the Expedition, as well as his letters written during the Expedition, are at Franklin and Marshall College. An edition of Reynolds's private journal, edited by myself and Thomas Philbrick, will be published by Penguin in 2004.

The scientist and artist Titian Peale's journal has been published in a magnificently illustrated volume edited by Jessie Poesch, while the officer George Colvocoresses and the sailors Joseph Clark and Charles Erskine each published accounts during their lifetimes. Just a year after the return of the Expedition, the surgeon James Palmer published a narrative poem titled Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic about the exploits of the schooner Flying Fish that also includes a prose account of the cruise.

Anyone interested in braving the massive amount of unpublished material connected with the Expedition should consult Daniel C. Haskell's indispensable The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and Its Publications 1844-1874 published by The New York Public Library in 1942. Most of the existing officers' logs, letters, and courts-martial records are at the National Archives in Washington, D.C., although the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution also have much Ex. Ex. material. The twenty-three officer journals at the National Archives are available on microfilm as Records Relating to the United States Exploring Expedition Under the Command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, 1836-1842 (Microcopy 75), Rolls 7-25. A good number of the officers retrieved their journals at some point after the Expedition; as a result, many of the journals are now scattered among various repositories; these journals are also available on microfilm. The courts-martial records related to the Expedition are available on microfilm from the National Archives, Microcopy 75, Rolls 26 and 27.

In 1978 an important cache of Wilkes material was donated to Duke University. Used here for the first time in a book-length examination of the Ex. Ex., the Wilkes Family Papers at Duke contain dozens of letters Wilkes wrote to his wife Jane during the Expedition, as well as letters from Jane, their children, Wilkes's brother Henry, his brother-in-law James Renwick, and others. Other important collections of Wilkes papers are at the Kansas State Historical Society, the Library of Congress, and the Wisconsin Historical Society.