Until the voyage of the United States Exploring Expedition led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the United States government had not funded exploration except the overland expedition of Lewis and Clark to the Pacific Northwest from 1804-1806.
In 1822, an Ohio newspaper editor and journalist by the name of Jeremiah Reynolds began arguing for some sort of exploration by water of the polar regions. The eventual mission for which the Senate approved money in 1836 had lofty goals:
1. Explore the southern Atlantic region and map out navigational hazards;
2. Create more detailed navigational charts of Pacific island groups;
3. Sail south to see if there was a polar land mass as thought; and
4. Explore the Oregon Territory coast.
The Expedition of 1838 to 1842 achieved these results:
1. Shoals around the Madeira area off Africa's coast were mapped, improving navigation in that region.
2. 280 South Pacific islands were either discovered or better-charted. These maps were done so well, they were heavily relied-upon by the United States Navy during World War II.
3. 1500 coastal miles of Antarctica were charted. The area is now called Wilkesland after the commander of the expedition.
4. The treaty made with the Sultan of the Sula Islands allowed American ships to be able to cross the Sula Sea between the Philippines and Malaysia peacefully, so trade could be conducted at the ports of Canton and Manila.
5. The large collections of artifacts, specimens and cultural information that were brought back convinced the United States government that it should continue to fund expeditions of this type.
6. The plant specimens, about ten thousand in all, were the foundation exhibits in the United States Botanic Gardens.
7. Many of the other artifacts and samples were the foundational exhibits for the Smithsonian Institution that got its start about this time.
8. Besides Wilkes, the civilian members of the expedition who were specialists in scientific fields kept journals and wrote reports for a good thirty years following their return. Their written records contributed much to their individual fields. Their journals are kept at such places today as the Library of Virginia.
9. The work on the voyage of John D. Dana, geologist, helped support the theories about the formation of coral reefs that Charles Darwin had begun to formulate during his 1832 to 1836 voyage on the Beagle. Dana and Darwin consulted with each other regarding their findings.
10. When the voyage of the United States Exploring Expedition took them to the coast of the Oregon Territory, Wilkes concluded that the United States should try to get the northern boundary established so that the Puget Sound area was part of the United States. Great Britain was pushing for the Columbia River as the boundary. Wilkes found the mouth of the Columbia River unnavigable but Puget Sound to be a wonderful place for a port. Because of Wilkes' recommendations to this effect, President Polk's administration would argue against the British for the more northerly boundary including Puget Sound and would win.
With all of these accomplishments, one would think that the name of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes would be at least as well known as those of Lewis and Clark or of Captain James Cook (the voyage of the United States Exploring Expedition was compared to Cook's earlier explorations).
But Wilkes, commanding his crew and this expedition in a manner similar to Captain William Bligh of H. M. S. Bounty infamy (1787-1789), was to be known as a man who allowed his position to go to his head. He, too, almost had a mutiny aboard. He ordered the harshest punishments for his men and commanded two Fiji Island villages to be destroyed, their inhabitants massacred because two of his crewmen were killed. Of the six vessels that formed the Exploring Expedition, only four returned.
Wilkes attempted to gain a reputation afterward by publishing thirteen times at his own expense reprints of his expedition journal.
Some researchers suggest that the Captain Ahab of Herman Melville's Moby Dick' had Wilkes-like characteristics. If so, Wilkes did not achieve the type of fame he seemed to desire.