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United States South Seas Exploring Expedition (aka the Wilkes Expedition),
1838–1842

Drawing by A. T. Agate, Sandwich Islands Honolulu Oct. 11 1841, from Records of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University

Drawing by A. T. Agate, "Sandwich Islands Honolulu Oct. 11 1841," from Records of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University.

Chart of the World, Showing the Tracks of the U.S. Exploring Expedition ... In Charles Wilkes, Esq., Synopsis of the Cruise of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, During the Years 1838, ‘39, ‘40, ‘41, & ‘42 [Washington? : s.n.], 1842, Harry Elkins Widener Library, Harvard University

To safeguard American whalers, sealers, and shipping operators, the US Congress authorized the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition in 1836. The authorization established a naval squadron, commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes, that surveyed the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas, and eventually circumnavigated the globe. The squadron included a small corps of civilian scientists, who made observations and collected specimens and artifacts during the four-year expedition.

Lt. Wilkes provided his vivid accounts of the expedition in his 1844 narrative. Between 1844 and 1872, Wilkes oversaw the publication of 14 additional volumes containing his own nautical surveys and descriptions, provided by the scientists, of ethnographic objects and biological specimens (destined for the developing Smithsonian Institute). Notable among these supplemental volumes are Asa Gray’s Phanerogamia; James Dwight Dana’s three reports Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849), and Crustacea (1852–1853); and Charles Wilkes’s Meteorology (1851) and Hydrography (1858).

Expeditions and Discoveries Resources on the Wilkes Expedition

Selected Manuscripts and Records in Expeditions and Discoveries

Chart of the Antarctic Continent: Shewing the Icy Barrier Attached to It: Discovered by the U.S. Ex. Ex. Charles Wilkes Esq. Commander, 1840. [Washington: U.S. Hydrographic Office, 1890], Harvard Map Collection, Harvard University Library.
Historic Letter Collection, 1796–1940; William Brackenridge letters, 1850–1856. HL Brack 1. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Historic Letter Collection, 1796–1940; James Dwight Dana Letters, 1836–1866. HL Dana 1–2. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Historic Letter Collection, 1796–1940; Joseph Drayton Letters, 1850–1856. Wilkes Expedition Publications, folder 1. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Historic Letter Collection, 1796–1940; George Lewis letters, 1856–1857. Wilkes Expedition Publications (HL), folder 2. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Historic Letter Collection, 1796–1940; James Alfred Pearce letters, 1850–1852. Wilkes Expedition Publications (HL). Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Phanerogamia, pt. II: Caprifoliaceae, Rubiaceae, Valerianeae, Calycereae, Compositae, Suborder I Tubuliflorae. WE 13.1-13.6. Gray Herbarium Archives, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Sullivant, William Starling. Drawings of the Bryophytes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition Under the Command of Captain Wilkes. OVERS S949dr. Farlow Reference Library of Cryptogamic Botany, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
Sullivant, William Starling. Drawings of the Hepaticae of the U.S. Explo. Expedition under Capt. Wilkes. Spec. Farlow Library, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.
United States Hydrographic Office. Samoan Islands or Navigator Islands. Washington, D.C.: Hydrographic Office, 1889. Map Coll (Pusey) MAP-LC G9556.S12 1889, Harvard Map Collection, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass.

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Publications

Jenkins, John S. United States Exploring Expeditions: Voyage of the U.S. Exploring Squadron, Commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, in 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841 and 1842: Together with Explorations and Discoveries Made by Admiral D’Urville, Captain Ross and Other Navigators and Travellers, and an Account of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Under Lieutenant Lynch. Auburn [N.Y.]. Alden, Beardsley & Co., 1852

Wilkes Expedition Resources at Other Sites

Smithsonian Institution

The Smithsonian Institution provides comprehensive access to information on the United States Exploring Expedition.

References

The following sources were used in writing this page.

"About the U.S. Exploring Expedition Artifact Database." The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection.
Haskell, Daniel C. The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842 and Its Publications, 1844–1874: a Bibliography. New York: New York Public Library: 1942.
Pfister, Donald, H. Cryptogams of the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853–1856. Cambridge: Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, 1978.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. "The Scientific Legacy of the U.S. Exploring Expedition." The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection.
Philbrick, Nathaniel. Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. New York: Viking, 2003.
Stanton, William Ragan. The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1975.
United States Exploring Expedition. A Brief Account of the Discoveries and Results of the United States Exploring Expedition. New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1843.

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