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Charles Wilkes, Explorer and Commander of an Epic Expedition

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A great explorer in our American history and contributing scientific discoveries to the Smithsonian.

Flagship Vincennes of Wilkes Expedition

Flagship Vincennes of Wilkes Expedition

Commander Charles Wilkes

Commander Charles Wilkes

An Epic Exploration of Our History

One of the most important achievements of U.S. expeditions happened in 1838 and lasted until 1842 and commanded by Charles Wilkes. Yet he was never to achieve the fame of other notable explorers. His contributions surpassed expectations of the scientific community and the US Navy. Perhaps it was partly due to his controversial abusive nature and his strict discipline of his crew and officers. Wilkes was known to be obnoxious and vain, but navigation and mapping allowed him to accomplish several firsts in exploration.

Some of the firsts attributed to Wilkes include; the Antarctic and cite it as a separate continent, mapping the Pacific northwest with detailed information and maps. He held the very first July 4th celebration at Ft Visqually, Puget Sound. Here he sighted Ft Shasta and planted the American flag.

Charles was born in 1798 in New York and by 1818 he had joined the U.S. Navy as a midshipman. By 1933 he headed the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments. This later became the Navy Observatory and Hydrographic Divisions.


Ft. Visqually

Ft. Visqually

Mount Shasta

Mount Shasta

US Navy Observatory

US Navy Observatory

Ariel View of US Navy Observatory

Ariel View of US Navy Observatory

Wilkes Epic Expedition 1838-1942

Wilkes was not the first choice of Congress as he had little experience for an expedition. Still, his vision, intelligence, determination, and superior navigation skills would be invaluable, and so he was given command. Congress approved the expedition in 1836, and it would be the most extensive of all time. Before the expedition ended after four years, Wilkes would have collected forty tons of material, four thousand zoological specimens, fifty thousand plants and birds, gems, and artifacts. Most of the specimens would be housed in the National Galley of the patent office but later would become the foundation for the Smithsonian Museum.

Expedition Departs Virginia August 8, 1838

Before the expedition departed Wilkes left for London to secure navigational equipment including the best of Chronometers. Wilkes and his fleet consisted of the flagship, Vincennes, the smaller, Peacock, the supply ship, Relief, three smaller ships, Sea Gull, Flying Fish, and Porpoise. His orders were to explore the Pacific, Antarctic, and the Northwest coast of America. Including on the expedition were naturalists, botanists, taxidermist, a ship's doctor, and artists.

Marine Chronometer

Marine Chronometer

The Return of the Wilkes Expedition

In June 1842, after four years at sea, they arrived in New York to a subdued welcome. Wilkes would be faced with a court-martial for "scandalous conduct" and exceeding punishment standards in his discipline. The Navy had a regulation of no more than twelve lashes with a cat-o-nine tail whip. But Wilkes had on at least one occasion exceeded that with ordering fifty lashes. With the ship's doctor as a witness, he was convicted, fined but remained in service.

The expedition had circled the globe of 87,000 miles, surveyed some 280 islands in the southern seas, charted 800 miles of the pacific northwest, and surveyed 1500 miles of the Antarctic. He explored Puget Sound, San Francisco Bay, the Sacramento River, and the Columbia River. Here at the Columbia River, the Peacock was wrecked on the dangerous sandbars of the river.

The expedition was not without problems. The ship Sea Gull was lost with all the crew in a storm off Antarctica.

Burial in Arlington National Cemetery

Wilkes also served during the Civil War and retired as Rear Admiral. He died in 1877, Washington, D.C., and was buried there. It would take years before he was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery, Sec. 2. His gravestone is marked, "he discovered the Ant-artic continent."

It has been suggested that Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of discipline shaped the character of Captain Herman in Herman Melville's Moby Dick.

Wilkes narrated five volumes of his epic expedition and included maps that were so detailed they even surpassed Charles Fremont and the Oregon Trail. His papers and manuscripts can be found in the Library of Congress and Duke University.

With all the epic achievements of Wilkes, it seems ironic it took America so many years to acknowledge him. But the British Royal Society did award him the Founders Gold Medal in 1847.

Charles Wilkes Marker

Charles Wilkes Marker

Founders Gold Medal

Founders Gold Medal

Comments

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 31, 2020:

Rosina, thanks so much for your visit. Hope you liked it.

Rosina S Khan on October 31, 2020:

I enjoyed reading about Charles Wilkes and his expeditions. It is great that he discovered the Ant-artic continent. Thanks for sharing, Fran.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 31, 2020:

William Bligh was interred after death in the family tomb close to the front door of the small church of St Mary's on Lambeth Road near Lambeth Palace (opposite end of Lambeth Bridge from Millbank and in view of the Tate Gallery). It's a grand looking piece of 'architecture', about 5'-0" tall, 6'-6" long, white with the names of his nearest and dearest.

The church has become the Garden Museum, I'm informed.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 31, 2020:

Jeremiah, thank you for your visit. I'm glad you liked the article. I appreciate the visit.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 31, 2020:

Alan, thank you for reading. Love your comments! I agree Bligh was one of the best navigators and didn't get the credit he deserved. We are lucky for the great of America. Thanks so much for your visit.

Alan R Lancaster from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire) on October 30, 2020:

America's answer to Lieutenant, then Captain William Bligh. Informative piece, Fran. I've learned something here Fran. Interesting that in the US it was (is still?) under the auspices of Congress that a major expedition of exploration and mapping be launched.

William Bligh took over Cook's ships 'Resolution' and 'Discovery' after Cook's death in Kealakakekua Bay, Hawaii on 14th February, 1779. He was commissioned by the Admiralty to take 'Bounty' to Tahiti to collect breadfruit (yams) and other exotic specimens. He had learned his craft from Cook but overdid the punishment for petty misdemeanours.

When Fletcher Christian took over the ship supported by the majority of the crew Bligh and those who wished to stay with him were put in a longboat with basic supplies. That he navigated the Pacific and Indian Ocean without losing a man said much of his navigating and man-management skills but he was court-martialled at Admiralty House (opposite St James' Park, London SW1, close to the Army HQ Horseguards). He was exonerated with a warning not to overstep the mark with regards discipline. He too was brusque, but a good learner with Cook as master. Also, like Wilkes he was broadly disliked and later found himself stationed as Governor of New South Wales (as far from Admiralty and - almost - out of reach as they could get him. Only New Zealand was further away).

JEREMIAH MWANIKI KILUNDA from Nairobi on October 30, 2020:

A well written story that is captivating.

fran rooks (author) from Toledo, Ohio on October 30, 2020:

Liz, I so value your reading and comment. Thank you so much.

Liz Westwood from UK on October 30, 2020:

This is an interesting biographical account. It's a shame that Wilkes' harsh discipline overshadowed his achievements.