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Wilkes Expedition


WILKES EXPEDITION. The Wilkes Exploring Expedition began life as the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1836, authorized by Congress to chart the southern Pacific beyond Hawaii. After delays, Commander Charles Wilkes led six ships into the area in 1838. He was accompanied by several scientists, including a geographer, a geologist, and a naturalist. It was an amazingly comprehensive voyage, touching Antarctica and Australia in the south, and then ranging northward to the Oregon coast. In between, he completed his charge by not only enumerating and describing the Marianas and Fijis, but other islands as well. The scientific data and samples of that expedition were important enough to later studies that the artifacts he collected ultimately wound up in the permanent collections of several national museums, including the Smithsonian and the U.S. Botanical Garden.

His charts have proven invaluable as well, even during World War II. By planting the American flag on several previously unknown islands, Wilkes provided the basis for later nineteenth-century American possession of several of them, including Wake Island of World War II fame. His explorations and charting of the northern Pacific and his landfall at the tip of Puget Sound at Fort Nisqually immediately bolstered American claims to what later became the Oregon Territory. The Expedition thus played a part directly in all American involvement in the Pacific for the century following his return to the United States in 1842.

A competent scientist in his own right as well as a naval officer, his wide-ranging Pacific explorations between 1838 and 1842 also helped to bolster later American claims in Antarctica, including Wilkes Island.


Dupree, A. Hunter. Science in the Federal Government: A History of Policies and Activities. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.

Merk, Frederick. Manifest Destiny and Mission in American History: A Reinterpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Carl E.Prince

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