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Sunday, May 06, 2007

Sunday Ship History: The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

May 7 marks the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea, but no discussion of that World War II battle should be had without a review of how the United States came to be involved in the Pacific Ocean to begin with.

Remember that in the early days of the Republic, the original colonies were on the Eastern seaboard, cuddled up to the Atlantic Ocean. Much of the North American continent was unexplored by those colonists, though Spain and Mexico had claims on much of the Pacific coast and the British Empire was working into the Pacific Nortwest. Lewis & Clark set out in 1804 to see if there was a water route to the Pacific and returned 2 1/2 years later having seen only a part of the territory acquired in the Louisana Purchase and starting the great westward migration. Much of country and the world was unexplored and thereby "unknown" the "civilized" world. Countries, as they had since the time of Colombus, mounted expeditions to fill in their gaps of knowledge (and, of course, empire). The voyages James Cook, of the Beagle with Charles Darwin, of Ross to seek the Northwest Passage across Canada. Great explorations fired the imaginations of the leaders of the times.

The United States was not to be left out in this race to explore. After a series of false starts and delay, there came The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842:
On August 18, 1838, six United States Navy ships left Norfolk, Virginia on an expedition to the South Pacific. On board were 424 officers and crewmen and nine scientists, setting off on a mission to explore and survey the islands of that region, investigate their commercial potential, and assert American power. The launch happened after ten years of political debate and personal disputes between various factions, but with the departure finally at hand, those on board felt the excitement of knowing they were making history.
The expedition may have discovered the continent of Antarctica (though that claim may be controversial), explored the Fiji Islands, explored the areas now part of the states of Washington, Oregon and California, including Puget Sound, the Columbia River and more.

Nathaniel Philbrick has written a fine account of the U.S. Ex-Ex, as it came to be known, in Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition. This book describes the voyage as:
A journey on a scale that dwarfed the journey of Lewis and Clark, six magnificent sailing vessels and a crew of hundreds set out to map the entire Pacific Ocean—and ended up naming the newly discovered continent of Antarctica, collecting what would become the basis of the Smithsonian Institution, and much more.
From the Preface:
With the U.S. Ex. Ex., America hoped to plant its flag in the world. Literally broadening the nation’s horizons, the Expedition’s ships would cover the Pacific Ocean from top to bottom and bring the United States international renown for its scientific endeavors as well as its bravado. European expeditions had served the cause of both science and empire, providing new lands with which to augment their countries’ already far-flung possessions around the world. The United States, on the other hand, had more than enough unexplored territory within its own borders. Commerce, not colonies, was what the U.S. was after. Besides establishing a stronger diplomatic presence throughout the Pacific, the Expedition sought to provide much-needed charts to American whalers, sealers, and China traders. Decades before America surveyed and mapped its own interior, this government-sponsored voyage of discovery would enable a young, determined nation to take its first tentative steps toward becoming an economic world power.

The Expedition was to attempt two forays south—one from Cape Horn, the other from Sydney, Australia, during the relatively warm months of January, February, and March. The time in between was to be spent surveying the islands of the South Pacific—particularly the little-known Fiji Group. The Expedition’s other priority was the Pacific Northwest. In the years since Lewis and Clark had ventured to the mouth of the Columbia River, the British and their Hudson’s Bay Company had come to dominate what was known as the Oregon territory. In hopes of laying the basis for the government’s future claim to the region, the Ex. Ex. was to complete the first American survey of the Columbia, and would continue down the coast to California’s San Francisco Bay, then still a part of Mexico. By the conclusion of the voyage—after stops at Manila, Singapore, and the Cape of Good Hope—the Expedition would become the last all-sail naval squadron to circumnavigate the world.

By any measure, the achievements of the Expedition would be extraordinary. After four years at sea, after losing two ships and twenty-eight officers and men, the Expedition logged 87,000 miles, surveyed 280 Pacific islands, and created 180 charts—some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The Expedition also mapped 800 miles of coastline in the Pacific Northwest and 1,500 miles of the icebound Antarctic coast. Just as important would be its contribution to the rise of science in America. The thousands of specimens and artifacts amassed by the Expedition’s scientists would become the foundation of the collections of the Smithsonian Institution. Indeed, without the Ex. Ex., there might never have been a national museum in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Botanic Garden, the U.S. Hydrographic Office, and the Naval Observatory all owe their existence, in varying degrees, to the Expedition.
As noted here:
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes commanded the expedition. At the time of his appointment he was in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, D.C., an organization now known as the Naval Observatory. His experience in coastal surveying and planetary physics made him an ideal candidate for the position, but he was a junior lieutenant in terms of time-in-rank, which in the perquisite-conscious Navy was a serious shortcoming. Several senior lieutenants had to be passed over in appointing Wilkes, some of whom the Navy now assigned to serve under him. He also had relatively little sea duty, only about 6 years, less than many junior officers.

Being a peaceful expedition of discovery, the ships were stripped of heavy armament and its space was given over to scientific exploration. The nine civilian scientists, referred to as the "scientifics" by the sailors, were tasked with observing and describing the resources of the various islands. These men were among the most able in their fields: James D. Dana, Minerologist, Charles Pickering, Naturalist, Joseph P. Couthouy, Conchologist, Horatio C. Hale, Ethnographer, William Rich, Botanist, William D. Brackenridge, Horticulturalist, Titan Ramsay Peale, Naturalist, and Joseph Drayton and Alfred Agate, the two artists, or "draughtsmen."
Wilkes appears to have been a difficult man to work for, but he did get the job done. In 1840, he headed his ships south:
After enjoying Christmas Day in Sydney, the squadron departed on 26 December for Antarctic waters at the height of the summer season. They were stocked with ten months' provisions for their three-month voyage in case they became trapped in the ice and special care had been taken to make sure the ships were well caulked against leaks. Crewmen made hurricane shelters for themselves over their berthing for extra comfort from the weather and Wilkes performed inspections of the crew's uniforms twice a day in order to make sure they were dressed properly for the weather conditions.
Vincennes and Porpoise first saw icebergs on 10 January at 61° 08' S latitude and 162°32' E longitude. They became more numerous and soon formed a barrier preventing passage further south. The ships followed the barrier to the west, looking for an opening. Because of Wilkes' desire to be the first to confirm the existence of an Antarctic continent and the punctiliousness that he practiced and demanded of his officers, some events of the next few days later became controversial. The published narrative of the expedition asserted that on 15 January Lieutenant Ringgold of Porpoise first claimed to see mountains in the distance. The next day all three ships reported that land was visible, and so Wilkes dated the discovery of Antarctica from that date. Eager to maximize the opportunity for gathering information, two days later Wilkes told the other ships that they no longer needed to remain in company and should rendezvous at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand in March. On the morning of 19 January he asserted land was most certainly visible.

The dates of these sightings became controversial after the completion of the expedition because of the manner in which they were recorded, or not recorded, in the ships' logbooks and the fact that a French expedition under Dumont D'Urville was also in the same waters and recorded discovery of land on the afternoon of the 19th. Who was first is still a point of dispute. On the afternoon of 19 January, D'Urville in his ship Astrolabe had sighted an explosed rock on an island, and in a style worthy of the great explorers of centuries before, landed on it with a French flag and claimed the continent for France, naming it Adelie in honor of his wife. They then sailed on, like the Exploring Expedition, seeking a way to it through the ice barrier. On 30 January at 135°E longitude, Astrolabe and Peacock sighted each other. After weeks of sailing in the desolate climate, the sight of another ship was a welcome one - at least at first. The two tried to come within hailing distance, but through a misinterpretation of each other's maneuvers both commanders came to the conclusion that the other wished to avoid contact. They sailed on, each convinced of the other's rudeness.
The voyage may not have ended in the triumph Wilkes would have wanted, but the gain in knowledge of the Pacific was significant.

Just about 100 years after Wilkes brought remnants of his fleet back to New York, the great sea battles of the Pacific erupted in the waters he traveled and mapped. Even Pearl Harbor may owe something to Wilkes:
In 1840... Commodore Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, under orders to chart the islands of the Pacific for the U.S. Government, called at Oahu. During his visit, Kamehameha III requested him to make a survey of Pearl Harbor. The chart resulting from his work represents the first technical work by the U.S. Navy in Pearl Harbor. It is interesting to note that this survey was limited to sounding across the bar and through the channel only as far as Bishop's Point or just within the land-locked area. Some of the landmarks noted on this chart still stand, but the Hawaiian Dredging Company's camp at Watertown occupies the location marked as a "Poi Village."

In referring to Pearl Harbor, Commodore Wilkes stated that "the inlet has somewhat the appearance of a lagoon that has been partly filled up by alluvial deposits" and expressed the opinion that "if the water upon the bar should be deepened, which I doubt not can be effected, it would afford the best and most capacious harbor in the Pacific."
How right he was.

As a beneficiary of the work of the Expedition, the Smithsonian, fittingly, has a nice guide here

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