American Literature of the Sea and Great Lakes

U.S. EXPLORING EXPEDITION. From 1838 through 1842 a U.S. naval squadron under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes in the flagship Vincennes traveled over 87,000 miles around the world on the largest government-sponsored exploring expedition ever undertaken. Expedition members included scientists, artists, and more than 400 crew, who explored Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand, the Hawaiian Islands, the Oregon territory, and California. Among the participants were naturalists

Titian Ramsey Peale and Charles Pickering and geologist James Dwight Dana. Many uncharted islands were encountered, and Antarctica* was established to be a continent. Significant contributions were made in the fields of botany, zoology, geology, anthropology, and navigation, launching the United States’ sponsorship of scientific research; natural history collections and ethnological specimens from the expedition formed the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution.

In addition to Wilkes’ five-volume Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (1844), nineteen other volumes of official scientific studies were prepared. Many hundreds of additional books and papers were published about experiences, discoveries, and experiments made on the voyage. Unofficial reminiscences and musings were published by officers and crew members, such as the narrative Twenty Years before the Mast (1890) by mizzen-topman Charles Erskine and a volume of poetry and song by U.S. Navy surgeon James C. Palmer entitled Thulia: A Tale of the Antarctic (1843). Following the voyage, accusations of misconduct at sea led to a court-martial and reprimand for Wilkes.

Daniel Finamore