Graphical timeline from Smithson to Smithsonian
From Smithson to Smithsonian - The Birth of an InstitutionA National Collection

Who Was James Smithson?
Sccepting Smithson's Gift
All-American Compromise
The Smithsonian Building
An Institution Emerges
A National Collection
Smithson's Legacy

United States Exploring Expedition
Notes on botanical specimens
Notes on botanical specimens


When Lieutenant Commander Charles Wilkes and the United States Exploring Expedition (USEE) returned to the country in 1842, after four years of mapping and studying the natural world, many Americans spoke out for a national museum.

Lieutenant Wilkes published his 5-volume narrative of the voyage in 1844. An additional twelve scientific volumes were produced, the last appearing in 1874.

Vincennes in Disappointment Bay
Wilkes, Narrative of the Expedition

Map of the World
Map, Wilkes, Narrative, Vol. 1

Sea shells
USEE Mollusks


The Smithsonian acquired and displayed specimens and artifacts from the expedition in 1858. In so doing, it established itself as a showcase for the country's first major international scientific venture and as a guardian of national treasures.

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