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From the Ends of the Earth
The United States Exploring Expedition Collections

Estimates are that the collections amassed between April 1838 and June 1842 by the United States Exploring Expedition, under the command of Charles Wilkes, weighed nearly 40 tons. The naval officers, crew, and nine civilian scientists, who sailed on six small ships for four years, gathered specimens of natural history at nearly every stop, including several thousand zoological specimens, 50,000 plant specimens, thousands of shells, corals, fossils, and geological specimens, even jars of sea water from different localities (Viola 1985:22). They also collected 2,500 ethnological and archaeological specimens, which they generally referred to as “curiosities,” to illustrate the varied cultures with whom they came in contact.

The official collection was first catalogued and exhibited in the Great Hall of the Patent Office during the 1840s. In 1858 it was transferred by order of the United States Congress to the Smithsonian Institution. The result of the transfer of the government’s collections was the establishment of the United States National Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, which until that time had been devoted almost exclusively to research. Today, the specimens constitute the core of nearly every collection in every scientific department in the National Museum of Natural History. The “curiosities” are in the collections of the Department of Anthropology, constituting the earliest and, in some cases, rarest and most important objects the Institution possesses. Despite the preciousness of this collection, Spencer Baird began giving away sets of Exploring Expedition objects, which he viewed as “duplicates,” as early as 1859. In the spirit of James Smithson’s original mandate to increase and diffuse knowledge, the Institution exchanged more than 500 objects, which found their way to more than forty museums in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

The officers, crew members, and scientists, known to the crew as “the scientifics” all participated in gathering the anthropological artifacts. The principal scientific collectors included the two naturalists Charles Pickering, a physician, and Titian Ramsay Peale, an artist and museologist; the geologist, James Dwight Dana; and Horatio Hale, a recent Harvard graduate, who was a linguist and philologist. William Rich and William Dunlop Brackenridge, the botanist and horticulturist on board, also collected artifacts, as did Joseph Drayton and Alfred T. Agate, the expedition’s artist and illustrator.

The scientifics were so industrious that their collections began to crowd and overwhelm the vessels’ already cramped quarters. Officers and crew alike complained about the smell of dead birds, animals, and fishes, along with the odor of mollusks and plants being dried and preserved. One solution to this problem was to bundle specimens for shipment home via American sailing vessels met along the way. When their voyage had only just begun, the expedition shipped some 50,000 specimens from Rio de Janeiro. The government in Washington was not prepared to deal with the vast scope of the collections, lacking the space to store them or the personnel to care for them. In the beginning the government seemed to take little interest in the specimens, distributing them to a variety of scientists for their personal collections. This seemed expedient since there was no museum of any size or significance in Washington that could handle the amount of material being shipped home by the expedition.

The shipping lists and bills of lading presented to the government by numerous sailing vessels carrying the Exploring Expedition’s collections give an idea of the variety and quantity of material shipped home by the scientifics. These lists are now housed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives. One example is a bill of lading from the schooner Palestine, lying in New York harbor in April 1841, bound for Washington City. It carried the following freight for the government: “Twenty five boxes and ten barrels of shells; twenty five boxes and one barrel containing botanical and other specimens; Seven boxes containing curiosities from Fiji Islands; One box containing seeds and roots and eight boxes containing coral; One box containing Deep Sea water. One Fiji Drum; Thirty-six bundles and one Box containing spears and clubs; One box containing wheat. One box containing flower seeds; One box containing log books, one box containing a sleigh; One box containing books for philological department.” The bill for this freight was $55.60, figured at the rate of ten cents per cubic foot; thus the Palestine had stored and shipped 556 cubit feet of Ex Ex collections (SIA RU 7058).

As the amount of material arriving at American ports began to reach overflow capacity, the stop-gap solutions initially applied became increasingly problematic, and the difficulty of keeping track of the collections became evident. Joel Roberts Poinsett, the first U.S. ambassador to Mexico and the outgoing Secretary of the Navy, from the beginning closely involved with the expedition, had founded the National Institution for the Promotion of Science in 1840. Poinsett and what became known as the National Institute offered to take charge of the rapidly expanding Exploring Expedition (often referred to as Ex Ex or Exp. Exp.) collections, arranging for them to be housed in the newly completed Patent Office building. The Ex Ex collections dwarfed all other government collections, and while they were initially curated by the National Institute, the institute’s involvement was quickly dispensed with when the Expedition returned in the summer of 1842. Reclaiming the fruits of their efforts, the scientific gentlemen, headed by Charles Pickering, began to unpack, sort, and catalogue the material that they had carefully labeled and listed. William Brackenridge the botanist, Horatio Hale the philologist, and James Dana the geologist eventually joined Pickering in this effort. Together, they began the tasks of listing and numbering birds, reptiles, fishes, quadrupeds, and curiosities (Evelyn 1985:234). Pickering resigned as chief curator in 1843, when Charles Wilkes took command of the entire Exploring Expedition collection, making certain that all specimens were scientifically arranged and beautifully displayed in newly purchased glass cases.

In 1846 the U.S. Congress created the Smithsonian Institution, in response to the $500,000 dollar bequest of James Smithson, and within a very few years began pressuring it to take charge of all of the government’s collections. The Institution’s first Secretary, Joseph Henry, resisted the inevitability of acquiring the enormous collections amassed by the government, principally because his vision for the Smithsonian was that of a research center. In contrast, Spencer Fullerton Baird, who became Henry’s assistant, dreamed of the Smithsonian’s becoming the National Museum of the United States. Baird had written to James Dana in 1849, hoping for a job recommendation to the Smithsonian Secretary. Dana cautioned Baird that, as he understood it, the Secretary was not looking for a curator and “wanted nothing to do with the Exp. Exp. collections, or any other government property.” Dana, presumably aware that he was preaching to the choir, continued, “ I regret that he takes this stand - for collections are better than books to the naturalist, they contain the whole that was ever put in words on the subjects they illustrate a thousand times more" (RU 7002, SIA, Box 19).

In 1857 the U.S. Congress transferred the government’s collections in their entirety to the Smithsonian Institution, along with $15,000 for the “construction and erection of exhibit cases, $2,000 to cover the cost of moving the specimens, and an annual appropriation of $4,000” (Reingold & Rothenberg 1985:250). The Exploring Expedition collection, also known as the Wilkes collection, represented the largest single collection belonging to the people of the United States. In terms of the Smithsonian Institution’s collections, it represents the earliest collected material in nearly every department in the National Museum of Natural History, including botany, geology, vertebrates, invertebrates, and anthropology.

The handwritten catalogue from the Patent Office, entitled “Collections of the United States South Sea Surveying and Exploring Expedition, 1838, 9, 40, 41, & 42” is now in the Department of Anthropology’s National Anthropological Archives. It contains 2,487 entries with 29 duplicate numbers for a total of 2,516 ethnological and archaeological specimens. The collection covers most of the world they explored -- North and South America, Asia, Australia, Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia, including the island groups of Hawaii, New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Tahiti, the Tuamotus and many others.

Titian Peale presented his copy of the catalogue to the United States National Museum in 1877. More than a century later, when I began to reassemble the original official collection with Adrienne Kaeppler, I realized my Smithsonian predecessors, who’d catalogued the Patent Office collections beginning in 1859, hadn’t had access to Peale’s catalogue. It appears that the government’s collections were listed and described in the order in which they were unpacked after the transfer. Employing the original Smithsonian inventories contained in the first three volumes of handwritten ledgers begun in March 1859, I attempted to construct a master list of Exploring Expedition objects. The Smithsonian ledgers record all the ethnological and archaeological collections, but do so in no apparent order. Some artifacts are grouped together in collections; for instance, 30 or 40 objects collected in Japan by Matthew Perry are followed by 20 or so royal gifts from the King of Siam, then the Perry collection picks up again. The first object collected by the Exploring Expedition is number 759, which is then followed by a series of artifacts collected by the National Institute and a variety of other collectors. The second Ex. Ex. artifact doesn’t appear until number 1359.

The ledgers yielded a list of nearly 2,000 catalogue numbers describing Exploring Expedition objects, with which storage locations could then be associated. In the 1980s, the Department of Anthropology’s entire collection was housed in the National Museum of Natural History, in cabinets stacked three high in the hallways outside research offices, in the single climate controlled room located on the fifth floor of the east wing, and in storage units scattered throughout the basement and several vast rooms in the building’s attic. Once I located the objects with the assistance of several interns, I began the task of associating each artifact with its original description and number in the Peale catalogue. This original catalogue became the collection’s bible since, unlike the Smithsonian catalogue, it was organized by the country or region where each artifact was collected, as well as by artifact type.

Titian Peale’s catalogue begins with an enumeration of human remains collected by the Expedition throughout the world, including three Peruvian mummies from Arica and Pachacamac and a variety of crania and other skeletal remains from Hawaii, Fiji, Oregon, and California. It lists the cranium of Veindovi, the Fijian chief of the island of Kantavu, whom Wilkes had taken prisoner for the crime of cannibalism. Veindovi had died hours after arriving in New York, where his body was buried, but they added his skull to the Ex.Ex. collection. They collected another Fijian skull from a native group who had recently feasted on it, constituting the Ex. Ex.’s physical proof of this much-feared Fijian custom. There are also two preserved, tattooed Maori heads from New Zealand, which Charles Wilkes purchased from a British vessel in the Bay of Islands.

Despite the fact that Peale’s listing of anthropological material contains only a few items from Asia, these are the first curiosities mentioned. In Singapore the expedition obtained models of Bugis pirate sailing ships, a number of Javanese knives and daggers called krises, and Malay baskets and coins. They also collected one large, round, wooden shield, several war spears, and a musical instrument from the Sooloo islands in the Philippines. Hatchets, known as head axes, and swords came from Luzon. Peale also lists a Siamese shirt made of slips of bamboo, which has never been located. Dr. Judd of Honolulu provided Japanese clothing, writing implements, coins, chopsticks, books and medicine for the Expedition’s collection. He obtained them from the shipwrecked crew of a Japanese vessel, rescued in the north Pacific. The coins and medicinal products were transferred to the divisions of numismatics and history of medicine in the National Museum of American History.

Another artifact, presented to the Expedition at Honolulu, was a dog sled from the island of Kamchatka. Captain Joy of the ship Hero from Nantucket donated it to the official collection, and it is the sled listed on the Palentine’s bill of lading, and is unique in the Department of Anthropology’s collections.

The expedition collected North American material along the California, Oregon, and Washington coast before any of these territories belonged to the United States. The most common items are about 80 bows and arrows and dozens of eel and halibut hooks. They obtained colorful blankets and belts woven of sheep’s wool and dog hair from the Salish, and carved wooden combs used in weaving. Tightly woven cedar bark capes with sea otter trim from the Classet people of the Oregon Territories were prized, along with full-size canoe paddles and a variety of model canoes, kayaks and cradles. The scientists collected dentalium shell necklaces, beautifully woven baskets and mats and dice made from beaver teeth for a gambling game. Carved and painted wooden masks from this northern region represent women with lip plugs and nose ornaments; the scientists wrote the latitude at which they were collected in sepia ink on each of them.

In California they collected two extraordinary feather blankets made from iridescent feathers of water fowl somewhere in the vicinity of Johan Suter’s (aka John Sutter) fort, along with a raven feather cape and dance headdress collected near San Francisco. These are some of the rarest and most beautiful objects from the North American continent. To my knowledge there are only three raven feather capes is museum collections, and the California feather blankets are 2 of 14 in the world (McLendon 2001:132). When I first saw the feather blanket, neatly folded in a drawer in the attic, I initially thought it couldn’t possibly be part of the Ex Ex collection because it looked brand new and in perfect condition. Other treasures are items made of waterproof seal intestine, decorated with feathers and otter skins, including one extraordinary Aleut cape made to look like a Russian military cape. They brought back dishes and smoking pipes carved from argillite, a kind of black slate, with carvings like those on totem poles. Other pipes were made of wood and bone, and depict peaceful scenes of people in wooden houses surrounded by picket fences. Hudsons Bay Company employees donated masks and one beautiful painted rattle, carved in the shape of a bird.

Titian Peale listed the South American objects after the North American collection despite the fact that these were the first artifacts the Expedition collected. As they sailed down the east coast of South America, the Scientifics made a small, but significant collection in Tierra del Fuego. They bartered for tools, bows and arrows, fish spears, shell and bird-bone necklaces and other ornaments with Fuegians, whom they encountered in dugout canoes along the coast. The canoes, to the surprise of all, were filled with scantily clothed people who sat around small fires in the boats to keep warm. On the Pacific coast of South America, near Lima, Peru, they obtained archaeological materials from excavations at the pre-Columbian site of Pachacamac. Additionally, they purchased native clothing and saddle accouterments in Chile and Peru. A few of the “pre-Columbian” ceramic vessels that they purchased in Lima shops turn out to be early 19th-century copies.

In New Zealand expedition members gathered numerous embroidered cloaks woven by Maoris from native flax, nephrite adornments called heitikis, carved wooden boxes and staffs, stone clubs called patus, and an elaborately carved and painted canoe prow. At the Bay of Islands, the captain of a whaling ship from Boston presented them with some fifty bows and arrows from Bougainville in the Solomon Islands. Each of these bows has “NEW ZEALAND” written on it in white ink, initially causing some confusion, since the Maori are among the only people of the world who never used bows and arrows.

From Australia, the young philologist Horatio Hale shipped home a small, but relatively complete, collection of Aboriginal material culture including boomerangs, clubs, spears and spear throwers, two wooden shields, and one beautifully decorated cloak made from the skins of 23 opossums and one kangaroo. The cloaks were also used in burials, and as a result are exceedingly rare artifacts. It is one of only seven in existence (Kaeppler 1985:122)

In the myriad South Pacific islands, they collected a wide variety of fishing gear, including bone and shell hooks, fishing lines and nets made from woven and twisted vegetable fibers, along with basketry, mats, adornments, and household implements from Searles, Clermont Tonnerre, and the Disappointment Islands of the Tuamotuan group. At Kingsmille Island, the expedition encountered fearsome warriors. They were dressed in armor made of sticks wrapped with coconut fiber cordage and wore helmets made from the skins of porcupine fish. Here, they collected knives, swords, and spears shaped like tritons, all made with razor-sharp sharks teeth lashed in rows onto wooden shafts. On Penrhyns Island they collected necklaces made from tightly woven and twisted human hair. One sample of beautifully decorated bark cloth from Tahiti is stenciled with delicate fern leaf designs.

More than thirty large pieces of decorated tapa, or cloth made from the pounded inner bark of the paper mulberry tree, were collected in Hawaii, along with tortoiseshell fish hooks, fishing lines and nets, and stone adzes and chisels. In addition to the usual shell and stone implements, Hawaiians produced poi pounders, or stone pestles, used to make their national dish, and ulu maika, which were stone disks for a popular game. Complimenting the painted and beautifully decorated tapa are examples of bark cloth in varying stages of production, along with carved and incised wooden bark pounders used in their manufacture. Alfred Agate, the expedition artist, sketched a scene of a group of women in the communal activity of pounding out bark cloth in unison (Kaeppler 1985:128). Large calabash gourd containers, some of which were used on the expedition’s climb up Mount Kilauea, and a smaller, canteenlike water gourd appear in Peale’s catalogue, along with bunches of yellow feathers (paid as tax to chiefs), and human-hair necklaces with carved whale or walrus ivory ornaments called pelaoas, which are uniquely Hawaiian. One of these necklaces, Titian Peale noted, was “formerly the property of Madam Boki, wife of Governor Boki, who accompanied King Tamahamaha [Kamehameha] on his visit to England in the year 1823. [It was] presented to the Expedition by William French, Esqr. Honolulu Nov 30, 1840.” Charles Wilkes made a small collection of items produced by Hawaiian children, who were being educated in Christian missionary schools. The objects, he believed, would illustrate their industry and the civilizing influence of the missionaries. Off the Island of Hawaii, the scientifics also collected several fragments of the rock on which the great English explorer, Captain James Cook, had been killed more than a half-century before.

In Tonga, the Friendly Islands, they found coconut -fiber fly whisks, combs, fans, beautiful, and finely woven mats made of pandanus, a type of screw pine tree with dagger like leaves. These mats are very highly valued by Tongans and are passed down from generation to generation. The expedition also brought back graceful, wooden, neck rests and a beautifully carved, wooden bowl in the shape of a double out-rigger canoe, which was used for holding coconut body oil.

In Samoa they amassed piles of shaggy mats woven from hibiscus fiber, very different from the fine Tongan mats. The shaggy mats came in an off white and a deep reddish brown color. They also collected about 60 large pieces of bark cloth, many of them painted in solid colors and individually decorated, some used as ponchos, and others as wraparound skirts. The Samoan collection also includes large, wooden bowls for mixing the drink kava, neck rests, outrigger models, bamboo nose flutes, pigeon arrows and pigeon roosts, fans, fishing lines by the dozens, and numerous spears and war clubs.

Titian Peale left the largest and most important part of the collection for last; with number 1285 he began a list of more than 1200 artifacts collected in the Fiji Islands. It was perhaps the least known and most forbidding place they visited. They spent more than four months exploring, mapping, and recording Fijian customs. It was also the place where tragedy struck the expedition when two of their crew were killed in a battle with islanders.

The official collections contain 120 Fijian skirts or broad belts woven from grasses, swamp sedge, hibiscus fibers, and strips of pandanus leaves (Clunie 1986:156), in addition to more than 150 examples of bark cloth used as clothing, covers, room dividers and, in its most finely beaten varieties, as turbans to protect the natives’ carefully coifed hair. The expedition managed to acquire rare carved wooden idols, large wooden kava bowls for the ritual drink of the same name, and a provision safe--a large wooden hook covered by a flat disk used for suspending food out of the reach of rodents. Fijians made highly individualistic glazed pottery in a large variety of unusual shapes, including drinking vessels that appear to represent outrigger canoes. The Ex. Ex. collected a large assortment of ornaments and jewelry made mostly of shell, although several necklaces are composed of individually strung human teeth. A huge drum (or slit gong) carved from a hollowed-out tree trunk was carried back to the United States on the Palestine, along with other musical instruments, including bamboo nose flutes.

Fijians took great care with their hair, and expedition members made a point of collecting combs, hair picks (some as long as 18 inches), feathered headbands, and even wigs. Titian Peale noted that when relatives died, Fijian mourners were required to cut off their hair, and at the end of mourning, theey wore wigs until the hair grew back. There are also two, rare, ceremonial masks, with faces made of coconut bast and tightly curled human hair. They collected woven palm-leaf mats, sun shades that look like oversized fans, and actual fans, along with about 45 flat, woven, wallet-like baskets used to carry tobacco leaves.

The previously listed items account for approximately two-thirds of the Expedition’s Fijian collection. The remaining third consists of some 450 weapons, many of which they presumably collected during several deadly battles with Fijian warriors. These include more than a hundred large, often intricately carved, war clubs, some of which may have been insignias of office or rank. In addition to those weapons captured in battle, Fijians presented some of the larger clubs to the Expedition’s officers as a initial gesture of friendship following the performance of a club dance in Vanua Levu (Kaeppler 1985:123-125). Peale lists an impressively large variety of more than two hundred iulas or throwing clubs; these weapons were called “handy billies” by Ex Ex crew members. Fijians used them in battle to stun their victims, moving in later for the kill with the larger, heavier war clubs. One musket was also collected at Mololo, where Charles Wilkes’s nephew, Wilkes Henry, and Lt. Joseph Underwood were killed; the musket’s stock is covered with the same intricate carving the clubs display. Sixty war spears, some as long as 18 feet, and about 130 bows and arrows fill out the impressive inventory of Fijian armaments. One of the final items listed in Titian Peale’s catalogue is a headdress that was presented to the expedition by the king of Somo Somo, a Fiji island state, in 1840.

Locating all the items described in Peale’s catalogue and associating his numbers with objects bearing Smithsonian catalogue numbers took many, many months of reassembling the official collection. Since the anthropology collections are arranged geographically and by culture, the Exploring Expedition objects were stored in cabinets widely distributed throughout the Museum of Natural History. After more than a century of storage and exhibition, many of the objects had lost their identifying marks, their Peale numbers, their Smithsonian catalogue numbers, and any labels that might have been glued on or attached in some manner. After months of opening cabinets and searching for objects, my interns and I developed a familiarity with the type and look of the Expedition collections. I found that I could identify many artifacts simply from type, appearance, even a particular patina, often despite a lack of numerical confirmation, . Sometimes, we were able to identify items with the help of modern technology. For instance, one of my principal interns, Molly Coxson, and I would use ultraviolet and infrared light to bring out numbers, initials, or other identifying marks written in sepia-colored ink, which had long ago been absorbed by the wood.

Eventually I discovered that about a third of the collection, nearly 800 objects, seemed to be missing. Reading through annual reports of the National Museum from the 1860s and 1870s, I found numerous references to an “Office of Distribution,” as well as lists of natural history specimens and items of “ethnologica” it had disbursed. The records of this defunct office, now housed in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, provided an explanation for the missing and unaccounted for portion of the collection. Spencer Baird set up the office to fulfill James Smithson’s mandate of increasing and diffusing knowledge. Baird, a naturalist, had formed large collections of natural history specimens, widely trading duplicate specimens of his own. In the 1850s he embarked upon the task of broadening the Smithsonian’s collections by exchanging what he viewed as duplicate specimens for specimens the Institution lacked.

Interestingly enough, one of the first gifts of Exploring Expedition objects was a series of Fijian war clubs, decorated bark cloth, and grass skirts sent to Charles Erskine, who is featured in Nathaniel Philbrick’s Seas of Glory. Erskine had once been Charles Wilkes’s cabin boy and had served as an ordinary seaman during the entire Exploring Expedition voyage. He received these artifacts early in 1859, not long after they had been transferred from the Patent Office, but before they had been catalogued in the Smithsonian. Erskine was living in Roxbury, Massachusetts, at the time, and his collection eventually found its way to the Peabody Museum in Salem, where the artifacts were identified by their original Peale numbers.

The Distribution Office ledger provided a record of some 25 sets of artifacts that had been chosen from the main collection, assembled, listed, packed, and sent to museums, universities, and state cabinets of natural history beginning in 1867. The page which lists these sets is entitled, "Distribution of Miscellaneous series of Curiosities,” consisting of “N. W. Coast Arrows & bows; Fejee clubs & cloth; Fejee baskets, shell bracelets, etc. in each about 14 specimens contained in a long neat box (see invoice for numbers)" (SIA RU:7058). The only “Fejee” artifacts the Institution had in 1867 belonged to the Exploring Expedition’s collection, and this single page now explained why at least 350 objects were missing from the attic, and gave indications of their present whereabouts as well. The same ledger, a few pages later, listed the Royal Ethnological Museum in Copenhagen as the recipient of 188 "Polynesian and Esquimaux" specimens and, below this, the Chicago Academy of Sciences, the recipient of about 100 more.

In 1983 I sent a series of letters requesting information about the exchanged artifacts, and eventually received replies and photographs from museums throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe. The similarities among these l867 museum starter kits were truly striking, and in most cases, one could see why Spencer Baird considered them to be duplicates. Each set consisted of an eel or halibut hook with a bow and arrows from Washington, Oregon, or northern California (these two classes of objects were the only North American artifacts collected in any great number); a selection of Fijian war clubs, usually two or four large ones and two or three smaller throwing clubs or iulas; one Fijian grass skirt (out of total 130); one Fijian shell bracelet, one Fijian basket (a generous act since there were originally only 40), a Bougainville bow and arrows, nearly all of which bore the NEW ZEALAND notation, some Polynesian fish hooks; and a selection of tapa, mostly from Samoa and Fiji. The tapa pieces often appear to be sections of much larger samples, which had been cut up; sometimes several institutions reported the same catalogue number for their piece of tapa, and photographs indicate that they came from the same item.

Some responses recorded the multiplicity of problems facing l9th-century collections, fire being a particularly serious one. An Exploring Expedition set sent to Amherst College in l867 was destroyed by a fire in the l880s; another sent to the University of Toronto burned up a decade later. But the worst tragedy to befall the Expedition’s diffused collections was the Great Chicago Fire, when more than fifty Exploring Expedition artifacts sent to the Academy of Sciences in l867 went up in flames in l871.

The good news was that most of the sets that hadn’t met an untimely end still existed. The Royal Ethnological Museum in Copenhagen, now the National Museum of Denmark still holds nearly the entire inventory of Exploring Expedition objects that it received in 1867, except for a few pieces they themselves exchanged with other museums. Their “duplicate” collection contains several unique artifacts, however, including a Fijian “oracle”--a carved coconut covered with red seeds. They were also the recipients of the other California feather blanket collected near Sutter’s fort.

As time went by we were able to account for more and more of the missing pieces. Some museums and university collections had lost documentation regarding their sets, and appreciated the data now being supplied them. More missing objects also turned up in the attic of the Natural History building, with the help of George Washington University interns and the aid of ultraviolet and infrared light. Occasionally, these examinations brought to light the signature of the objects collector, TRP (Titian Peale) or WMW (William Walker, the ships purser), or CW (Charles Wilkes), and occasionally a note in the Charles Pickering’s fine hand. On some wooden artifacts, clubs, bowls, plates and the like, interns and I discovered under ultraviolet light examination entire sentences, even paragraphs, written on them supplying details of when, where, and by whom they were first collected. Occasionally, ultraviolet or black light revealed a number completely different from what was prominently displayed on the surface, and upon further research we discovered that some artifacts had been catalogued more than once. One such catalogue number was listed in the ledger with the explanation that the original number had been lost; so this artifact was assigned a new number, and then "reentered to avoid confusion."

Exploring Expedition artifacts over the century had become mixed up in storage, with some objects misidentified as to culture or region of origin. For example, we found two cedar bark cloaks from the North West Coast of North America in a miscellaneous section of African storage. And as familiarity with the collection increased, we located pieces of broken artifacts in what were known as “hospital drawers” in storage cabinets, which we then reattached or at least reassociated with the original artifact. One of the most interesting objects to regain its identity was the headdress presented by the king of Somo Somo. It rested in a wooden tray, a jumbled pile bark cloth strips wound around reeds, some with remnants of feathers, and intertwined with coconut-fiber cord and bark cloth cut into fringe. A handwritten note from Robert Elder, a Department of Anthropology collections specialist for many decades, accompanied this artifact. Mr. Elder wrote that he had found a corner of an old label tied to the object, which he believed to be one of the old printed Exploring Expedition labels. Having come across a drawing of the headdress in Volume III of the published Narrative, I presented the wooden tray of bark cloth tubes to Cathy Valentour, a Department of Anthropology conservator, and asked her if they might be part of the headdress. At first dubious, she eventually was able to restore and reconstruct this unique headdress, using the drawing as a guide.

While the passage of 150 years has taken some toll on the Exploring Expedition’s anthropological and archaeological collection, it is a tribute to the Smithsonian Institution and the National Museum of Natural History’s long legacy of stewardship that so many of these objects can still be studied and appreciated today. Objects of exceeding rarity, beauty, and fragility, such as the California feather blankets, the seal-gut cape bordered with otter fur, piles of finely decorated, pliant bark cloth, intricately woven grass skirts and mats, as well as flax-and cedar-bark blankets were never meant to last more than a few years at most; certainly not more than 170 years! As James Dana wrote in 1849, these unique and valuable collections are indeed “better than books.” The collections are the tangible result and product of the first government-sponsored scientific expedition, and represent as well the diligent care, hard work, and research of many generations of Smithsonian curators, specialists, conservators, and technicians who safeguarded this legacy for future generations.


Clunie, Fergus
1986 Yalo i Viti Shades of Viti: A Fiji Museum Catalogue. Fiji Museum, Suva.

Evelyn, Douglas E
1985 The National Gallery at the Patent Office in Magnificent Voyagers. The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L.
1985 Anthropology and the U.S. Exploring Expedition in Magnificent Voyagers. The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Sally McLendon
2001 California Feather Blankets: Objects of wealth and status in two 19th century worlds. Studies in American Indian Art: A Memorial Tribute to Norman Feder. Christian Feest, ed. European Review of Native American Studies Monograph II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, pp. 132-161.

Philbrick, Nathaniel
2003 Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Viking.

Viola, Herman J & Carolyn Margolis
1985 Magnificent Voyagers. The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Viola, Herman J
1985 The Story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition in Magnificent Voyagers. The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Walsh, Jane MacLaren
2002 Collections as Currency in Anthropology, History, and American Indians: Essays in Honor of William Curtis Sturtevant. Editors William L. Merrill and Ives Goddard. Smithsonian Contributions to Anthropology - Number 44. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Dr. Jane Walsh
Museum Specialist
Anthropology Outreach Office
Department of Anthropology
National Museum of Natural History
March 29, 2004