ship A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection
ship The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
ship Learn MoreFollow The Expedition map
ship map
Learn More About The U.S. Exploring Expeditionmap

Titian Ramsay Peale and the Great U.S. South Seas Exploring Expedition

On the sunny, breezy morning of August 18, 1838, the six sailing vessels of the South Seas Exploring Expedition, or Ex. Ex. as it was called, were under way from the naval port of Hampton Roads, Virginia. On board the ships, in addition to all manner of navigational and scientific instruments and stores, were 346 men, including nine scientists and artists.

One of the scientists on the nation’s most ambitious expedition of exploration was Titian Ramsay Peale (1799–1885), named after the famous Venetian artist by his father, Charles Willson Peale, the celebrated portrait painter and museum proprietor. Titian’s birth in the Hall of the American Philosophical Society, the family’s living quarters and home of his father’s world-famous Philadelphia Museum, destined him for achievement in both art and science. He benefited from extraordinary on-the-job training as he worked alongside his father in the museum, undoubtedly the best location in America at that time to study natural history. In 1833, Titian was elected to the American Philosophical Society, indicative of his stature in American scientific circles, and became acting manager of the Philadelphia Museum. Although lacking in academic credentials, he was regarded by his peers as a top field naturalist, an expert taxidermist and illustrator, and a superb marksman. Titian had also participated in several exploring expeditions, the most significant being the Long, or Yellowstone, Expedition to the American West in 1819. It was therefore not unexpected when Peale was selected as a naturalist on the South Seas Expedition. Titian Ramsay Peale

The Ex. Ex. was a huge and ambitious undertaking for a republic little more than fifty years old. European naval explorations of this era typically consisted of one or two ships, and were meant to serve the cause of both science and empire. With the Ex. Ex., the United States was eager to show the flag in one of the last uncharted areas of the world, the icy regions of the Antarctic Circle. But commerce, not empire (which America already had in its unexplored western territories), was the expedition’s major goal.

The vast crisscrossing track of the Ex. Ex. still takes one’s breath away: first south to Cape Horn, with a side trip from there to the Antarctic, to the west coast of South America, then to Tahiti and the Fiji Islands and Australia, and from there a more extended exploration of Antarctica. The expedition then backtracked to Australia and New Zealand, to the Fiji and Hawaiian Islands, and from there to another of its prime objectives, the Pacific Northwest, in order to explore that coast and strengthen American claims to the Oregon Territory and the San Francisco Bay. Next, the ships sailed to Manila, Singapore, around Cape Town, and to New York, concluding the last all-sail circumnavigation of the world.

By any objective criteria the Ex. Ex. achieved its goals. The officers produced 241 highly accurate and precise navigational charts for the nation’s merchant and whaling vessels that would sail the Pacific Ocean. For the first time, 1,500 miles of the Antarctic coast was charted, giving the expedition’s commander, Charles Wilkes, rightful claim as the discoverer of that continent, the coast of which still bears his name. Aprosmictus splendensThe collections of exotic, previously unknown specimens, ethnographic objects, fossils, plants, insects, birds, and mammals brought back by the scientists overwhelmed the young nation’s inadequate museum storage capacity, and as a result, helped promote the creation of a new national museum, the Smithsonian Institution.

As an interim measure before the Smithsonian Building was completed, the vast collections were initially stored in the Patent Office Building (now home of the National Portrait Gallery), where they drew huge crowds. Although Titian was later to have difficulty in publishing his account of the voyage, his contributions as a naturalist were prodigious: 2,150 birds, 134 mammals, and 588 species of fish. A multitude of exquisite drawings and paintings also bear his name.

(Originally published in Profile, the National Portrait Gallery's quarterly newsletter, summer 2004.)

Further reading: Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory, America's Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842 (New York: Viking, 2003); Jessie Poesch, ed., Titian Ramsay Peale and His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1961); see also the website of the Museum of Natural History,

The NPG's Peale Family Papers will publish a selection of Titian Peale's images from the Ex. Ex. in volume 6 of The Selected Papers of Charles Willson Peale (forthcoming).

Titian Ramsay Peale Self-Portrait (Above Right)
by Titian Ramsay Peale II, possibly aided by: Rembrandt Peale
Drawing, c. 1845
Pencil, chalk and charcoal on colored paper
Image: 35cm x 24.9cm (13 3/4" x 9 13/16")
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Edgar L.Smith, Jr.

Sidney Hart
Senior Historian & Editor
The Charles Willson Peale Family Papers
National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian Institution
750 Ninth Street, NW
Suite 8300
Washington, DC 20560-0973
202.275.1774 phone
202.275.1899 fax