The Wilkes Expedition
uthorized by Meriwether Lewis's friend, the Hon. Mahlon Dickerson, Secretary of the Navy from 1834 to 1838, it was the first naval expedition "fitted out by national munificence for scientific objects, that has ever left our shores." Lieutenant Charles Wilkes was the commander of the naval squadron that embarked from Norfolk, Virginia, in August of 1838, on a voyage of exploration to Antarctica, the South and Central Pacific Ocean, and the Oregon coast. The contentious Wilkes promoted himself to the rank of captain as soon as he was at sea. The journey of the "Everlasting Expedition," as its detractors dubbed it, ended with its return to New York in 1842.
In the spring of 1841 one contingent of "Captain" Wilkes's expedition explored the Columbia River to the mouth of the Snake River, while another went up the Willamette River and thence cross-country to San Francisco Bay and vicinity. After one of his vessels ran aground on the Columbia Bar, Wilkes proposed that the U.S.-Canada boundary be set at 50 degrees, 40 minutes north. That would ensure U.S. control over better ports in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, together with San Francisco, dominance over North American trade with the Pacific Rim.
This expedition's most important achievements were to confirm that Antarctica is a continent, and to chart islands in the South and Central Pacific that were to be used by naval and marine units in World War II. The team of scientists included Titian Ramsay Peale and James Dwight Dana. Three artists--Joseph Drayton, Raphael Hoyle, and Alfred Agate--provided the American public with some of the first widely circulated pictures of the remote and exotic Northwest. Congress authorized the publication of only one hundred copies of the six-volume Narrative, but Wilkes acquired publication rights and reprinted them himself thirteen times between 1845 and 1858.