THE WEST COAST of North America was up for grabs in 1841. Al- though American citizens had begun to settle throughout the region, both California to the south and the Oregon territory to the north (extending well beyond the present border between Washington and British Columbia) were under the control of foreign powers. Mexico, which had won its independence from Spain in 1821, possessed California while Oregon, although officially under joint occupation by the United States and Great Britain, was in effect ruled by the powerful English conglomerate, the Hudson’s Bay Company. Given the HBC’s extensive system of trading posts, farms, and forts, the British had even had the audacity to suggest that their boundary should extend as far south as the Columbia River.
The history of discovery in the region, particularly when it came to the Columbia, favored the United States. Cook had spent a considerable amount of time in the Pacific Northwest, but had not found the Columbia River. In 1792, one of Cook’s junior officers, George Vancouver, returned to lead a survey of the coast. Although Vancouver would explore the Strait of Juan de Fuca and discover and name Puget Sound, he sailed past the wall of breakers at the mouth of the Columbia without suspecting that a huge river existed on the other side. “The sea had now changed from its natural to river-coloured water,” Vancouver wrote, “the probable consequence of some streams falling into the bay. Not considering this opening worthy of more attention, I continued our pursuit to the northwest.”
Later that same year, in May 1792, three hundred years after Columbus arrived in America, a humble sea otter trader from Boston by the name of Robert Gray also detected evidence of a strong flow of freshwater along the coast. Unlike the British explorer, Gray thought it was worthy of more attention, particularly if it might yield him some additional otter pelts. Taking advantage of a break in the weather, the thirty-seven-year-old captain managed to sail the 212-ton sloop Columbia Rediva over the wave-whipped bar. Once within the six-mile-wide river mouth, Gray found a new world that rivaled anything discovered by Columbus.
At that time of year, the river would have been roiling with salmon, many of them more than five feet long. As he gradually felt his way up the river, Gray was astounded by the size of the trees—some as high as three hundred feet. A merchant instead of an explorer, Gray was most interested in the pelts offered to him by the Clatsop, Tillamook, and Chinook Indians living along the river. By the time he had sailed just fifteen miles, Gray had accumulated 150 otter, 300 beaver, and several hundred other animal furs. Later that summer, after successfully recrossing the bar, Gray encountered Vancouver and told the explorer about the river. Vancouver dispatched a lieutenant to the bar, who eventually ventured almost a hundred miles upstream. The fact remained, however, that an American merchant captain had outdone a government-sponsored explorer from the most powerful maritime nation on earth.
By the time Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1805-6 at Fort Clatsop near the mouth of the Columbia, the river had been visited by close to a dozen American ships. In 1811 the New Yorker John Jacob Astor launched his plan to establish the trading post of Astoria. Although the War of 1812 forced Astor to sell Astoria to the British, who renamed it Fort George, the recorded history of the river, as its name would suggest, began with Captain Gray’s Columbia.
Wilkes’s awkward meeting in Fiji with Captain Belcher had made it clear that the British considered the region their own. “The Officers of Belcher’s vessels, like true Englishmen, heard with surprise that we intended to Survey that Coast . . . ,” William Reynolds wrote. “You may be sure that when Belcher reaches England his Government will do something towards increasing the Colony they have there already. . . . They want a large slice of the Main and if we do not take care, they will be in the Columbia River before us, and we may get them out, if we can.”
When the Porpoise returned from her sweep through the Tuamotu and Society Islands on March 24, 1841, Wilkes was seething with more than his usual anxiety and impatience. If it had been possible, he would have left immediately for the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, the Porpoise’s bottom was in need of recoppering, requiring that they remain in Honolulu for another ten days.
Ringgold and his officers soon realized that their commander was motivated by something more than a need to reach the Columbia River in a timely fashion. Word had made its way to Oahu that the U.S. naval vessels St. Louis and Yorktown were due to arrive shortly. No one knew for certain if Wilkes had improperly assumed his rank, but everyone had his suspicions and could only wonder what would happen if the squadron were to encounter a naval vessel commanded by a legitimate captain. “I feel curious to know the fate of the proud Swallow tail,” wrote the Porpoise’s first lieutenant Robert Johnson, referring to the commodore’s pennant.
The Yorktown was captained by John Aulick, an officer who had objected so vehemently to Wilkes’s appointment that he had attempted to intimidate Wilkes during a private meeting in Washington. If there was an officer in the U.S. Navy who would delight in calling Wilkes’s bluff, it would be Captain Aulick. In a letter to Jane, Wilkes claimed to be unconcerned about the possible threat. “I should rejoice to meet him with my broad Pendt. Flying,” he insisted. “Before I get home I shall be fairly set down as Comdr.” As of the end of March, however, Wilkes’s promotion had not yet come through, and he apparently thought it best to postpone, if not avoid altogether, a meeting with his nemesis. On April 5, the Vincennes and the Porpoise escaped safely from Honolulu and were on their way to the Columbia River, where they were to meet the Peacock and the Flying Fish at the end of the month.
After a passage of just twenty-two days, Wilkes sighted the fog-shrouded fist of basalt known as Cape Disappointment on April 28. Stretching for six miles to the south was a continuous line of breakers, where the milky waters of the Columbia River collided with the blue swell of the Pacific. “Mere description can give little idea of the terrors of the bar of the Columbia,” Wilkes wrote. “[A]ll who have seen it have spoken of the wildness of the scene, and the incessant roar of the waters, representing it as one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor.”
Even today, now that a series of dams has done much to tame the fury of the Columbia, the waters between Cape Disappointment and Point Adams are a war zone. The river might be compared to a colossal 1,243-mile-long water cannon firing, on average, 150 billion gallons of water a day into the ocean surge of the Pacific. The resulting impact is stupendous. A modern-day Columbia River pilot likens it to “two giant hammers smashing into each other.” It is the only river in the United States where incoming vessels are required to use a river-bar pilot. Navigational guides rank it as the third most dangerous river entrance in the world, and the Coast Guard station at Cape Disappointment today averages one rescue mission a day. Since Captain Gray first discovered the river, the chaotic waters stretching across its mouth have claimed more than two thousand shipwrecks; at least seven hundred people have drowned.
In 1841, before dams, jetties, channel buoys, and motor power had begun to domesticate the river, mariners regarded the Columbia as nothing less than a malevolent monster. Waves at the bar were known to reach a hundred feet, and ships had waited as many as eleven weeks before conditions moderated to the extent that their captains dared to risk crossing the bar. Even then, things could go terribly wrong. Two of the thirty-five ships supplying the Hudson’s Bay Company had been lost and twenty-six sailors drowned. “Perhaps there have been more lives lost here, in proportion to the number of those who have entered this river,” a traveler wrote in the 1830s, “than in entering almost any harbor in the world.”
Wilkes had brought along a man from Honolulu who claimed to be a Columbia River pilot. He also had sailing directions that had come to him indirectly through Captain Belcher. On Cape Disappointment and Adams Point, the Hudson’s Bay Company had trimmed the branches of several tall, conspicuously situated trees to help mariners locate the elusive channel across the bar. Unfortunately, the high seas raging across the river mouth when Wilkes arrived made it impossible to attempt a crossing.
That night, as the Vincennes and the Porpoise wallowed in the turbulence outside the bar, Wilkes decided on a change of plan. Too impatient to wait for conditions to moderate at the bar, he would head north up the coast. Even though his orders limited him to the Columbia River and San Francisco Bay, he would sail to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and, heading east and then south, survey the inland coastline all the way to Puget Sound. It was an audacious, typically impulsive decision on Wilkes’s part. But before he could begin to survey the region that would one day contain the cities of Seattle, Tacoma, and Olympia, Wilkes nearly lost it all on the appropriately named Destruction Isle.
At night in a dense fog, both the Vincennes and the Porpoise were sailing up the coast with their studdingsails set. When sailing along a dangerous shore, it was common practice to ready the anchor cables in case of emergencies. Wilkes, who judged the coast to be at least forty miles to the east, ordered that the hawse holes (through which the anchor cables were led) be closed; it would make the deck drier in the high seas. That night Wilkes was awakened by the cry of “Rocks Ahead!” An undetected current had swept them to the east. The two vessels were immediately rounded up and were soon struggling against mountainous seas that threatened to dash them against the rocks. “The moment we found ourselves in deep water,” William May later wrote Reynolds, “a tremendous bustle of bending cables and giving orders ensued.”
On May 2, at 6:30 P.M., exactly forty-nine years after Vancouver, the Vincennes and the Porpoise anchored in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They were soon surrounded by canoes of natives in conical grass hats who asked “whether we were Boston or King George’s ships”—national designations that dated back to the days when American fur trading was dominated by Boston merchants. Over the last few months, Wilkes’s attitude toward the captive Fijian chief Veidovi had softened considerably, and Veidovi was now allowed on the Vincennes’s deck. “It was amusing to us,” Wilkes wrote, “to observe the contempt our prisoner . . . entertained for these Indians, which was such that he would hardly deign to look at them.”
As the two vessels made their way through Admiralty Inlet and into Puget Sound, Wilkes marveled at the contrast between this inland waterway and the mouth of the Columbia. “Nothing can exceed the beauty of these waters, and their safety: not a shoal exists . . . that can in any way interrupt their navigation. . . . I venture nothing in saying there is no country in the world that possesses waters equal to these.” Today, there are no fewer than four U.S. Navy bases on Puget Sound; none exists on the Columbia River.
At the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost of Fort Nisqually, situated between modern Tacoma and Olympia, Wilkes made initial contact with the powers-that-be in the Pacific Northwest. Relations would prove surprisingly cordial between the Americans and the HBC throughout the squadron’s time in the territory, and Wilkes quickly went to work, sending surveying parties throughout Puget Sound and beyond, as two log cabins were built to replace the pendulum houses damaged on the summit of Mauna Loa. When Wilkes received word from an HBC employee that the Peacock had arrived at the bar, he resolved to travel overland down to the Columbia, where he would lead the officers of the Peacock and the Flying Fish in the survey of the river.
But when he reached Astoria on May 23, after an arduous five-day journey by horse and canoe, he was disappointed to discover that he had received erroneous information. The Peacock and the Flying Fish had not yet arrived. They were now more than a month overdue.
Wilkes would later admit to having felt a strong sense of trepidation back in early December when he drew up the sailing instructions for the Peacock’s and the Flying Fish’s cruise to the central Pacific. He was well aware of Hudson’s deficiencies as a surveyor. He was also concerned that his second-in-command lacked the discipline, judgment, and determination to complete the cruise in the allotted time. As they all knew, the Expedition’s highest priority was the survey of the Columbia River, and Wilkes could only hope that Hudson would break off the cruise in time to reach the Pacific Northwest between April 15 and May 1. His orders could not have been more explicit: “it must not be later than the latter date.”
By May 1, the Peacock and the Flying Fish were still thousands of miles from the west coast of North America. “This cruise of now, more than six months,” Reynolds wrote, “has had less to redeem it, than any other, I ever made.” Hudson had wasted days searching out nonexistent islands and spent just hours surveying new discoveries. At Tabiteauea (known to them as Drummond Island) in the Gilbert or Kiribati Group, the squadron encountered hostile natives armed with stingray-tipped spears and swords studded with shark teeth. Despite unmistakable evidence to the contrary, Hudson insisted that the natives were harmless and led a party ashore. Sure enough, a sailor was lured away from the group and never seen again. In retaliation, Hudson attacked the village the next day, killing an estimated twenty natives. “More War!” Reynolds wrote. “It seems to me, that our path through the Pacific is to be marked in blood.”
The cruise was particularly exasperating for those aboard the schooner. While the officers of the Peacock were allowed to visit native villages, Hudson almost never permitted those aboard the Flying Fish to go ashore. In the last 180 days, Reynolds had spent exactly twelve hours and fifteen minutes on land. “This Schooner kills me,” he wrote. “No more exercise to be had, than a large bird might find in a small cage, and without this I cannot enjoy life. No society & no books. It worries my very soul, with nothing around us, but Sea & sky.”
There was one member of the Expedition, however, for whom the last six months had provided plenty of food for thought: the geologist James Dana. Having seen what an extremely young volcanic island looked like in Hawaii, Dana could now identify the relative age of an island by the amount of erosion it exhibited. By the end of the cruise, he had begun to recognize an unmistakable pattern: each island chain possessed a distinct chronology, with the oldest island at one end of the chain and the youngest at the other. “There is a system in their arrangements,” he wrote, “as regular as in the mountain heights of the continent.” It is now believed that chains of volcanic islands are formed as the Pacific plate moves over what are called “hot spots”—stationary heat sources emanating from deep within the earth. Although the theory of plate tectonics would not be posited until the twentieth century, Dana’s recognition of the linear pattern of island chains was a first, crucial step toward formulating this revolutionary concept.
Not until May did the lethargic Hudson finally order the Peacock and the Flying Fish to start sailing east. Contrary to Wilkes’s instructions, which insisted that he sail directly to the Pacific Northwest, Hudson decided to stop at Honolulu for provisions before continuing on to the Columbia River. On June 13, they spied the green island of Oahu. It was, Reynolds wrote, “as good a sight for our eyes, as ever the first glimpse of the New World, was to the vision of Columbus.” They were now almost two months behind schedule, with more than two thousand miles between them and the Columbia River.
By the end of May, Wilkes decided to leave Purser Waldron at Astoria to wait for the Peacock while he and Drayton visited Hudson’s Bay Company headquarters at Fort Vancouver, approximately one hundred miles up the Columbia. There he met Dr. John McLoughlin, a tall, imposing figure who served as the company’s chief factor. Wilkes, traveling by canoe with just a handful of servants and an artist, met McLoughlin in a deceptive guise. Instead of the commodore of a four-vessel squadron, Wilkes looked more like a curious fact-gatherer intent on visiting American settlers in the Willamette River valley to the south. For McLoughlin, it was a most nonthreatening introduction to the Ex. Ex. By the time the survey of the Columbia River was under way in August—an undertaking that was hardly in the HBC’s best interests—enough goodwill existed between the company and the Expedition that the squadron was allowed to do as it pleased. All in all, it would prove to be a masterful, even if inadvertent, diplomatic performance on Wilkes’s part.
As Drayton continued up the Columbia, Wilkes traveled south up the Willamette River, where he met with recently arrived American missionaries and farmers who complained of the HBC’s unchallenged authority in the region. By the middle of June, he was back at Fort Vancouver. There was still no word from the Peacock and the Flying Fish. Wilkes was becoming convinced that they had met with some kind of accident. As soon as he completed his survey of the Columbia, he would have to mount a massive search operation. For now, he would return to Fort Nisqually and finish his pendulum experiments.
By the beginning of July, his experiments had been completed. Excellent progress had also been made on the survey of Puget Sound. It was time for a Fourth of July celebration. That morning, two brass howitzers were brought ashore to the observatory, where they were fired twenty-six times, once for each state of the union. “The reports of the guns not only astonished the natives,” Charlie Erskine remembered, “but waked up the red-coats in the fort, who came running up to the observatory with the Indians, nearly out of breath, to inquire the cause of the racket. We pointed to our country’s flag, which was so proudly waving in the breeze over the observatory. . . . They then called us a crew of crazy Americans.”
Around nine o’clock, the officers and men of the Vincennes, dressed in white shirts and trousers, were mustered on the deck and landed on shore. A procession was formed, with Wilkes and his officers at the head, followed by the port and starboard watches, the marines, and a fifer and drummer. Striding proudly beside the master-at-arms, clearly enjoying his first time ashore since his arrest, was Veidovi, along with Wilkes’s dog Sydney.
For Wilkes, whose relations with his officers and men had been so acrimonious and difficult, it was a day like no other. “It was truly gratifying,” he wrote, “to see them all in such good health and spirits, not a man sick, and their clothes as white as snow, with happy and contented faces.” That night, he and his officers had dinner together for the first time in more than a year. The pendulum house had been transformed into a banquet hall and the feasting continued until well past midnight. What might have been a night of unalloyed celebration was inevitably tempered with talk of the Peacock. “It was impossible to conjecture her fate,” Wilkes wrote, “yet her continued absence and detention beyond the time of her anticipated arrival, naturally excited many fears and surmises, which as the time passed on, made each one [of us] more certain that some disaster had befallen them.”
The Peacock and the Flying Fish left Honolulu on June 2. Prior to their departure, Hudson had told Reynolds and the schooner’s commander, Passed Midshipman Samuel Knox, that he intended to use the schooner to locate the channel across the Columbia River bar before he risked the much larger, and deeper, Peacock. As a consequence, the two vessels sailed to the Pacific Northwest in tandem, with the ship carrying short sail so as not to lose the Flying Fish. Not until Sunday, July 18, after a passage of forty-six days—more than twice as long as it took the Vincennes and the Porpoise—did the Peacock and the Flying Fish finally reach the mouth of the Columbia. They were now almost three months late.
As the fog began to clear that morning, the officers of the Flying Fish made preparations for the arrival of Captain Hudson. When Knox discovered that his dress uniform had been eaten by mice, Reynolds gloated that he had left his uniform safely tucked away in a drawer aboard the Peacock;but Knox was to have the last laugh.
As far as the officers of the schooner were concerned, the conditions were not favorable for crossing the bar. There was a heavy swell running, and the breakers at the river mouth were dangerously high. The Peacock was well to weather of them, and instead of sailing down to deliver Hudson to the Flying Fish, the ship steered straight for the breakers ahead. “[I]t would be useless to deny that we had a presentiment that disaster & distress, or death, would happen to some of the vessels, or to some of us . . . ,” Reynolds wrote. “I never could get rid of this feeling, and, like the others, could only hope for the best.”
A sense of foreboding also seems to have possessed the Peacock’s captain. Hudson had told Wilkes of his concern about the Columbia River bar as early as the previous fall in Honolulu. His dread of the Columbia may have contributed to his now being three months behind schedule. But the Peacock’s lateness only added to her captain’s anxieties, especially given the prospect of having to explain himself to the judgmental Wilkes. When finally faced with the breakers that had been figuring so prominently in his thoughts for the last eight months, Hudson appears to have panicked. Instead of using the schooner to search out the channel as he had previously planned, he decided to save a few hours by sailing boldly across the bar in the Peacock. His rashness in Antarctica had nearly sunk the ship; his officers and men could only hope that they would be luckier this time.
At 11:30 A.M., approximately seven miles from Cape Disappointment, Hudson called “All Hands to Work Ship into Port.” With his copy of the sailing directions in his hand, he walked to the forward part of the ship, where he would divide his time between the forecastle and the foreyard, as Lieutenant George Emmons climbed up to the foretop yard. The directions indicated that they should head east for Cape Disappointment until Chinook Point bore east-northeast. But just as they reached the proper bearing, they encountered a steep, violent sea. Hudson became convinced that they were too far to the south. He wore the ship around and headed for a section of smooth water that he took to be the channel.
The Peacock forged ahead against the ebbing tide. After five minutes, they were almost abreast of Cape Disappointment, approximately two miles to the north. Some of the men had even begun to believe that they just might make it, when the Peacock’s keel struck bottom as the bow burrowed into the sand. The helm was immediately put a-lee in an effort to turn the ship back out to sea. The yards and sails were also brought into play, but there was no longer any way to control the Peacock; she was stuck fast on the bar as waves burst against the ship’s sides. All the sails were quickly furled, and Lieutenant Emmons was dispatched in the cutter to see if there was any hope of pushing the ship through to deeper water. The building seas nearly capsized Emmons’s boat, but he did manage to cast the lead. The Peacock, he regretted to inform Hudson, was aground for good.
As the waves continued to build, the ship began to bounce up and down on the hard sand of the bar. Part hobbyhorse, part jackhammer, the Peacock was pounding so severely that Hudson feared the ship might soon begin to break apart. Behind them, they could see the Flying Fish hovering just beyond the breakers, “like a child watching the agonies of its parent without being able to afford any relief.” “We saw the sea of wild foam she was among,” Reynolds wrote, “& we gave her up for lost, from that moment.” Knox ordered the helmsman to steer for the disabled ship, but Hudson would have none of it and raised the signal flag indicating danger. “With very sad & heavy hearts we stood to seaward & hove to,” Reynolds wrote.
Back aboard the Peacock, conditions were worsening. The bucking of the hull was whipping the masts back and forth, and to ease the strain, the royal and topgallant yards were lowered to the deck. By now the waves were too wild to permit them to take to the boats. Until the seas moderated, they were trapped aboard the Peacock. Hudson was tempted to cut away the masts to ease the motion of the hull, but since the yards were used to lower the boats, this would have left them with no way to escape from the wreck—assuming that the waves would eventually begin to diminish. The hold had begun to fill with water, and Hudson organized two gangs to keep the pumps working around the clock.
The ship was now broadside to the waves, which crashed against the topsides and drenched the men on deck. In hopes of relieving the strain on the hull, Hudson used the port fore yardarm to lower an anchor over the side. With the anchor in place, the sea pushed the Peacock ’s stern around, and she was soon bow-first to the waves. By now the tide was approaching dead low and there was only nine feet of water under the main chains. The shoaling sand began to raise havoc with the rudder, wrenching it back and forth so severely that the iron tiller broke off seven inches from the rudder head. Soon the rudder had gnawed a gaping hole through the bottom of the hull.
At 8:45 P.M. the anchor cable broke. The ship swung sideways to the seas and was soon being blasted by the waves. This time the starboard anchor was let go, and once again, the Peacock swung gradually into the swell. This provided some temporary relief, but by midnight the ship was being tossed about so violently that the timbers and planking had begun to pull apart. They could see sand in the hold of the ship, and Hudson determined that it was useless to keep the pumps going. At two A.M. a huge wave broke over the port bow, stoving in the port bulwarks at the waist of the ship and flooding the spar deck. In an attempt to drain the water, they chopped a hole in the starboard bulwarks.
What the officers and crew of the Peacock didn’t know was that they had a special advocate among the small crowd of onlookers gathered at the bluff on Cape Disappointment. Although the Vincennes’s purser Robert Waldron had long since left Astoria, his black servant John Dean had remained to keep an eye out for the ship and schooner. As dawn approached, Dean organized a rescue party of Chinook Indians that included one of the river’s two native pilots. At daybreak they headed out in a canoe, and by six A.M. they were alongside the Peacock. Perhaps miffed that a boatload of Indians led by a young African American had been able to venture across seas that he had considered impassable, Hudson did not choose to mention Dean’s rescue party in his official report. Dean would take the artist Alfred Agate and his portfolio of drawings and paintings; the purser William Speiden, who clutched the ship’s accounts and moneybox; and the dismissed surgeon Charles Guillou. By seven A.M. the waves had quieted to the point that Hudson judged it safe to begin launching the ship’s boats.
Hudson insisted that the officers and men take only the clothes on their backs. The scientifics were the one exception, and with their journals in their arms, Dana, Peale, Hale, and Rich climbed into one of the boats. The charts and surveying equipment were loaded into another while the marines and some of the sailors were crowded into the third and fourth boats, and they were off. The more than sixty officers and sailors left aboard the ship watched the boats’ progress across the turbulent river with the knowledge that their own lives depended on the boats’ safe—and speedy—return.
Later that morning Emmons was able to get another load of people ashore, but by noon, when he returned to pick up the remaining officers and sailors, the seas had built back up again. The Peacock’s side-to-side motion had become so severe that she was in danger of capsizing. Hudson ordered that the masts be cut away with an ax. Beginning with the foremast, the spars fell, one after the other. On the stump of the mizzen, Hudson raised the American flag union down—a sign of distress.
“This led me to believe that the ship was going to pieces,” Emmons wrote, “and I redoubled my efforts to get through the surf to her.” One of the boats reared so high on a wave that it toppled end over end, tossing the crew headlong into the boiling sea. One sailor broke a hip, several others were also injured, but all were rescued by the boat led by Lieutenant DeHaven. Realizing that there was no hope of reaching the Peacock in these conditions, Hudson had his men switch the flag to union up. Emmons understood immediately that he and the others were to return to shore. “Seeing how useless my efforts were,” he wrote, “and that by continuing to persevere, I was not only risking the means but jeopardizing the lives that were looked to for success, I turned back. And with feelings that I will not attempt to describe nor shall I soon forget.”
Even without her masts, the Peacock continued to beat against the bar. Hudson could only wonder how much longer the ship would last, but this did not prevent him from ordering his men to eat their dinner on the wave-washed deck. Ever so gradually, the waves began to diminish until Emmons was able to reach the ship in the early evening. Only after all the remaining officers and sailors had been transferred into the boats did Hudson leave the ship. It was dark by the time they reached the sanctuary of Bakers Bay, tucked inside Cape Disappointment. In the glow of several shoreside fires, the Peacock’s officers and crew gathered together and gave their captain three heartfelt cheers.
The next morning Emmons ventured out to see what was left of the ship. The hull and deck had been pulled apart, scattering hundreds of specimens and artifacts to the wind and waves. Only the ship’s bowsprit could be seen above the water, pointing pathetically into the sky. For Emmons, who as a midshipman had been assigned to the Peacock back in 1828 when she had been first launched in New York, it was a particularly moving sight. “Thus have I witnessed the beginning and end of the Peacock . . . ,” he wrote. “[T]here is some consolation in knowing that after the many narrow risks she has run this cruise that her fate has finally been prolonged until reaching her native shore.”
For the last two days, the officers and men of the Flying Fish had been left to flit nervously back and forth along the outskirts of the bar, helpless witnesses to the destruction of the Peacock. The immense height of the seas had made it impossible for them to determine how many, if any, had escaped from the wreck alive. But when they saw Emmons’s boat rowing toward them on July 20, they knew, for the first time, that at least someone had survived. “I was too impatient to wait,” Reynolds wrote, “& jumping on the taffrail, screamed at the top of my voice, to know if all were saved? There was one moment of silence & suspense, ere the answer came back. The very sea seemed stilled. All hands safe on shore & well! Hurrah! Hurrah! There was no controlling it. The feeling would burst out, and there was another hearty cheer!”
With the help of Old George, a one-eyed Chinook Indian whom Reynolds described as “the queerest looking pilot I ever put my eyes on,” the Flying Fish soon crossed the bar and joined the castaways at Bakers Bay. John Dean had presented Hudson with the orders Wilkes had prepared weeks before, instructing him to begin the survey of the river. It was an opportunity for Hudson to redeem himself, in some measure, for the loss of the ship. Instead, he chose to take the majority of his crew up the river to Astoria, where they would wait in idleness until Wilkes’s arrival. “If Captain Hudson possessed the gumption to conduct a survey,” Reynolds wrote, “his place would have been on board this Schooner, at once, driving on with all the boats & finishing [the survey of the] bar, while the weather was fine.” Instead, Reynolds and Knox were left alone at Bakers Bay.
Ever since the Fourth of July, Wilkes had been in seemingly ceaseless motion. With his observations at Nisqually completed, he took over the leadership of the surveys of Puget Sound. As each day brought no word of the Peacock, he drove himself and his men harder and harder since it now looked as if they would have to perform the survey of the Columbia on their own. “In this state of feeling,” Wilkes wrote, “the officers of the Vincennes showed a highly commendable spirit, and aware that additional labors were thus to be thrown upon them, strained every nerve to avoid any further loss of time.”
Although Vancouver had surveyed much of the region forty-nine years earlier, Wilkes would leave his own indelible, if largely unappreciated, stamp upon the land. Almost three hundred Washington place names can be attributed to the Ex. Ex. For example, Elliott Bay along the eastern shore of Puget Sound was named for Midshipman Samuel Elliott and is the site of modern-day Seattle. Even Veidovi (whom Wilkes called “Vendovi”) would have an island named for him. Despite Wilkes’s reputation for self-glorification, not a single island, cove, or strait is named for the commander of the Ex. Ex.
By July 27, the squadron had made its way to the San Juan Islands, the labyrinth of more than 450 islands and reefs that lay scattered over the international water boundary between British Columbia and the United States. The forty-ninth parallel had already been discussed as a possible boundary between the two countries, and Wilkes quite rightly realized that if this did become the case, these islands would be of special interest. That afternoon Passed Midshipman William May arrived from Nisqually with a letter informing Wilkes of the loss of the Peacock. “This news, although bad,” Wilkes wrote, “was a great relief to me; for I had feared not only the loss of the vessels, but had apprehensions for the lives of the persons on board. A heavy load that had long hung over my mind was removed.”
Wilkes spent the next day finishing up the survey of the San Juans and deciding how the squadron should spend the rest of its time in the Pacific Northwest. He had once hoped to send an overland party as far east as the headwaters of the Yellowstone River on the other side of the Rocky Mountains. This would have allowed him to connect the Expedition’s surveys with previous surveys of the interior. He now realized it was too late in the season to attempt such a journey. Lieutenant Johnson had returned from a trip across the Cascade Mountains. Prior to leaving on another overland expedition, this time to Grays Harbor on the coast, Johnson fell into an altercation with Wilkes similar to what used to happen on an almost continual basis in the early days of the Expedition. Johnson had given a Bowie knife pistol belonging to the naturalist Charles Pickering to an HBC employee as a gift. When Pickering complained, Wilkes insisted that Johnson clear all subsequent gift-giving with Passed Midshipman Eld. Since this would require him to defer to a subordinate officer, Johnson refused to embark on the expedition to Grays Harbor, and Wilkes had him arrested.
Johnson was now confined to quarters and Eld was on his way to Grays Harbor, but there was yet another, much more important expedition to organize: a more than eight-hundred-mile-long overland journey from the Columbia River to San Francisco Bay. Wilkes decided that Lieutenant George Emmons was the man to lead this expedition, and as the Vincennes and the Porpoise made their way out of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and down the coast, he drew up the necessary orders. Then, of course, there was the matter of the survey of the Columbia River, which he assumed Hudson and his officers would have already begun by the time he reached the bar.
On August 6, Hudson received word in Astoria of Wilkes’s arrival at the bar. That evening, after the Flying Fish delivered him to the Vincennes, Hudson had a long talk with the Expedition’s leader. In his official report, Wilkes would have nothing but praise for his second-in-command’s handling of the cruise to the Central Pacific, even finding no fault with Hudson’s conduct during the wreck of the Peacock. In his journal, however, he would record his frustrations. It was Hudson’s inability to prioritize the Expedition’s goals that truly rankled him. “[S]uch a waste of force, time and object,” he wrote, “I would not have believed it.” Wilkes had vowed to himself that he would not allow his dissatisfaction with Hudson’s performance to interfere with their friendship, but future events would make it a difficult promise to keep.
Given what had happened to the Peacock, Wilkes decided it was too much of a risk to bring the Vincennes across the bar. Instead, he would use the Porpoise during the survey of the river while Ringgold sailed the Vincennes to San Francisco Bay, where the squadron would reconvene once the survey had been completed. The next morning Knox was temporarily transferred to the Porpoise to act as her pilot, leaving Reynolds in command of the Flying Fish for the first time in the Expedition. The schooner was to follow the brig across the bar, and both vessels were to sail to Astoria. For a twenty-five-year-old passed midshipman, this was a position of considerable responsibility, especially since it involved negotiating the waters of one of the world’s most dangerous rivers. Making the assignment all the more tension-filled was that Reynolds had a considerable audience; the Flying Fish had been crammed with sailors from the Vincennes. Luckily, he had the help of George, the one-eyed Chinook pilot.
They made it safely across the bar, but with all the people aboard, the little schooner was so weighted down that she was having a difficult time keeping up with the brig, which soon disappeared in the mist up ahead. Then George, with a broad grin stretched across his face, tapped Reynolds on the shoulder. There was the Porpoise, aground beside a sandbank. “George was much elated . . . ,” Reynolds wrote. “[A]s we passed near to the Brig I sent the Launch to her assistance, & I chuckled as much as George did, to find myself sailing ahead of the grand Commodore.”
As they approached Astoria, the sun began to show through the clouds. Although Astoria was the oldest nonnative settlement in the region, the trading post had fallen on hard times. Fort Vancouver (not far from modern Portland) had become the trading center on the river, reducing Astoria (renamed Fort George by the British) to just a few permanent structures. For Americans, however, Astoria—recently popularized in a best-selling book by Washington Irving—was visible proof of the impressive breadth of American mercantile ambitions. “It did certainly hurt my eyes to see the red banner of England flying over our possessions,” Reynolds wrote, “and I do most devoutly trust that the day will soon come for it to be struck in [this] region forever.”
In the last few days, an inspiring change had come to Astoria. The officers and men of the Peacock had been busy erecting a collection of crude buildings that included a barbershop, a ninepin alley, and a bakery. Reynolds could see the houses “spread over the sunny side of the hill, with the big ensign of the Peacock, waving over the largest shantee.” With considerable pride, Reynolds guided the Flying Fish into the anchorage. “And so I had the honor of anchoring the first public vessel of the United States, in the waters of this famous place.”
Wilkes soon discovered that Hudson had done virtually nothing when it came to furthering the survey of the river. It also became apparent that the Peacock’s officers and men had not yet recovered from the trauma they’d experienced at the bar. “I at once inaugurated the strictest discipline,” Wilkes wrote, “and with all my energies thrown into the work, I soon made an impression upon them.”
They began at Bakers Bay just inside the bar. One evening early on in the survey, Wilkes learned that the HBC’s chief factor Dr. McLoughlin had arrived in Astoria to negotiate the sale of a brig that might serve as a replacement for the Peacock. Even though it was almost dark and fog had begun to appear about the edges of the shore, making navigation on the river virtually impossible, Wilkes resolved to sail immediately for Astoria in the Flying Fish.
It had been almost two years since Reynolds had last been on a vessel with the Expedition’s commander. “I really felt the cold shiver run all through me,” Reynolds wrote, “on finding myself once more alongside of C.W. You might as well bring holy water, near the Devil. He, that is, C.W. or the devil either, for there can’t be much difference.” Then Wilkes—the unfeeling, tyrannical demon—did a surprising thing. By now it had begun to rain, and noticing that Reynolds was without a coat, Wilkes turned and asked “if I had no Pea Jacket?” It was an unmistakable and, coming from Wilkes, extraordinary gesture of concern, but Reynolds was having none of it: “as if he could wheedle me into the belief that he cared for my comfort,” he wrote in his journal.
Wilkes quickly negotiated the purchase of the brig, which he renamed the Oregon, then continued with the survey. While Knox and Reynolds surveyed the bar in the schooner, Wilkes would survey the river between Astoria and Fort Vancouver. On August 18, he left Astoria with a group of boats, leaving Hudson to follow close behind in the Porpoise. A few hours later, Hudson ran the Porpoise so hard aground that it was feared she would not be floated off till the following spring tide. Finally, after a delay of two days, Hudson managed to free the brig. “I would be happier and more efficient doing the work myself with two assistants,” Wilkes grumbled in his journal.
Although Wilkes and Hudson continued to avoid a direct confrontation, there was little doubt that tensions were simmering between the two officers. Beginning with the near sinking of the Peacock in Antarctica, Hudson, initially regarded as the best seaman in the squadron, had experienced mishap after mishap. His inability to learn even the rudimentary principles of surveying had made him an object of derision even among his own officers. “[I]t is a truth that the boys in this Squadron,” Reynolds wrote, “are employed on duties, that are beyond the capacity of . . . Cap H.” For Hudson, whose son William Junior was a midshipman in the squadron, the last few weeks had been especially humiliating, and on August 25, he attempted to strike out at the man whose undeniable proficiency cast a glaring light on his own failings.
When Wilkes boarded the Porpoise after a long day of survey work, he was shocked to discover that his broad blue commodore’s pennant had been replaced by the coach whip of a lieutenant commander. He asked the officer of the deck why the change had been made. The officer explained that Hudson, who was standing just a few feet from Wilkes, had ordered the switch. By replacing the swallow-tail pennant, Hudson had publicly confirmed what all suspected to be the case—that Wilkes was a commodore in name only. Barely able to contain his rage, Wilkes ordered that his pennant be immediately hoisted to the masthead. “It shows,” he wrote that evening, “how much [Hudson] feels his situation under me. . . . I little thought he would venture upon such an expedient with me, after all that has passed between us. . . . I have little doubt myself that he is ashamed of it.”
At the end of August, Emmons, along with Eld, who had just completed his survey of Grays Harbor, left on their overland journey to San Francisco. In early September, Wilkes agreed to the linguist Horatio Hale’s request that he be detached from the Expedition so that he could continue his work among the native peoples of the region. It wasn’t just the amazing variety of languages that Hale wanted to explore further; there was also a storehouse of oral traditions unlike anything else he’d encountered. Given that the region was soon to be overrun by thousands of white settlers, Hale’s work with the native peoples of the Pacific Northwest would prove to be one of the most enduring achievements of the Expedition.
As Wilkes pushed on with the survey between Astoria and Vancouver, eventually charting close to a hundred miles of river, Reynolds and Knox struggled to make sense of the ever-shifting sands and currents of the Columbia’s lower reaches. “For more than three weeks we toiled on, solitary and alone . . . ,” Reynolds wrote. “[W]e were sick & tired of the Mouth of the Columbia, as well we might be. Besides the duty was very dangerous. Once we came within an ace of having to abandon the Schooner & take to the boats, and in fact almost every moment was attended with infinite risk.”
They had a brief respite when they took the schooner up to Astoria for provisions. Previous to the arrival of the squadron, Astoria had been the somewhat lonely residence of the Birnie family. In recent days the Birnies’ many young children had become closely attached to the surgeon Charles Guillou and the Expedition’s newest outcast Robert Johnson, who renamed the collection of temporary shacks “Bobville.” In early October, with the arrival of Wilkes and the rest of the squadron, Bobville came to a sudden end. Now that the survey of the upper part of the river was complete, it was time to sail for San Francisco.
Once the Porpoise and the Oregon had been safely taken across the bar, Wilkes ordered that they wait until he finished the survey of the inner portion of the river mouth in the Flying Fish. Over the course of the next few days Wilkes continued to make unmistakable overtures to Reynolds. “He seemed at this time,” Reynolds wrote, “to manifest great consideration towards me, as if desirous to obliterate the remembrance of the past. We had no intercourse together, since he hurried me out of the Vincennes, and now as the cruise [w]as near its end, he imagined that a few smooth words, false & hollow though they be, will be sufficient to wipe away all sense of the thousand outrages, we have groaned under during his tyrannical reign.”
One morning Wilkes sent out Knox and Midshipman Blair to record soundings, leaving Reynolds in command of the schooner. “Now, the duty on which he sent Knox,” Reynolds wrote, “belonged to me, and it was evident to all, that he was trusting the Schooner to me, to flatter me up to the top of his bent. I thank my stars, that I am not of so gullible a nature, as to be so easily duped.” Reynolds, as passionate as the man he had come to loathe, would never forgive Wilkes for not being the ideal leader he had naively believed him to be at the beginning of the voyage. Even though Wilkes had proven himself as capable as Hudson was ineffectual during the survey of the Columbia, Reynolds refused to alter his opinion of his commander.
Reynolds’s feelings were surely encouraged by the surgeon Charles Guillou, who had become one of his closest friends in the squadron and who was already preparing to bring charges against Wilkes at the end of the voyage. But there were others, such as Henry Eld and the geologist James Dana, who would come to recognize that Wilkes, despite his obvious faults, was a remarkably resilient and resourceful survivor. “The more I see of him,” Eld would later write his father, “the more I am impressed with his indomitable perseverance & tenacity[,] ‘like a cork he cannot be sunk.’”
Why then did Wilkes attempt to win over Reynolds—a lowly and still very angry passed midshipman? There is always the possibility that Wilkes honestly regretted that relations between the two of them had become so embittered, especially in light of his deteriorating relationship with his former confidant William Hudson. But there is also the possibility that, as Reynolds suspected, Wilkes had belatedly come to realize that for political reasons he now needed all the friends he could get—particularly if they were as articulate and popular as William Reynolds.
Events were unfolding back in Washington that did not bode well for Wilkes’s return to the United States. A packet of mail had recently arrived at Fort Vancouver containing letters from several of the officers whom Wilkes had dismissed. They gleefully reported to their friends in the squadron that the secretary of the navy was lending a sympathetic ear to their tales of Wilkes’s outrages. In recounting this unsettling development to Jane, Wilkes insisted that “my conscience . . . acquits me of having done anything that would cause even a tinge to my cheek.” Still, if there should be charges brought against him, no matter how frivolous, “I should be rather inclined to court a full investigation of all my acts [if] it became necessary.”
For his part, Reynolds already took for granted that charges would be brought against the commander of the Ex. Ex. “Captain Wilkes has preferred charges against so many of his Officers (and they in return have done him the like favor),” he wrote his father, “that the difficulties can only be settled by a General Court Martial, after our return.” As far as he was concerned, there was no question which side was going to win: “The Evidence in every case will I am sure be dead in favor of the Officers.”
On October 9, the Flying Fish crossed the Columbia bar for the last time. Wilkes had decided that the schooner would not be accompanying the Porpoise and the Oregon to San Francisco. Instead, Knox and Reynolds were to put the finishing touches on the survey of the outer edge of the bar, then survey a portion of the coast to the south before sailing to Oahu. After rendezvousing in Honolulu, the squadron would return to the United States via Singapore and the Cape of Good Hope, a voyage of some 22,000 miles. (Wilkes had hoped to stop at Japan, but now realized that there wasn’t sufficient time if they were to return by May 1842.)
As Wilkes was being rowed from the schooner to the Porpoise, Knox asked if he might take the Flying Fish back to Astoria to refit. The last year of near-constant service had reduced her sails to rags; almost all her running rigging needed to be replaced. Having been so forcefully rebuffed by Reynolds, Wilkes was not about to assent to Knox’s request, no matter how legitimate it might be. “Refit at sea” was his lofty reply. “This was about as practicable,” Reynolds wrote, “as it would be for a half drowned man to mend his clothes in the water.” Reynolds seemed almost relieved by his commander’s return to his old despotic ways; it was so much easier to hate a man who was, as he recorded in his journal, “a headstrong, obstinate, ignorant fool.”
Two weeks later the officers and men of the Flying Fish were, in Reynolds’s words, refitting “with a vengeance.” With no other vessels to help them, it had taken ten days to complete the survey of the bar. By then it was too late in the season to survey the Oregon coast. They had already decided to sail for Oahu when, in a furious gale on October 25, their forestay broke. Since the forestay held up both of the schooner’s masts, they were in imminent peril of becoming a dismasted wreck. “We did not think it too uncharitable,” Reynolds wrote, “to wish that ‘the man’ who told us ‘to refit at sea,’ had been lashed to the said stay, when it blew away.”
Once they’d repaired the stay, the wind shifted to the west, transforming the rocky coast of Oregon into a lee shore. Over the next few days, a succession of gales would shred their already tattered sails to ribbons and push them terrifyingly close to the wave-battered rocks. Only after they’d patched together a makeshift mainsail were they finally able to put Oregon behind them for good.
By that time, Wilkes had already arrived at Sausalito Bay. The town of Yerba Buena, now known as San Francisco, comprised just a few out-of-repair buildings that were, according to Wilkes, “not calculated to produce a favorable impression on a stranger.” But if the town wasn’t much, the harbor was “one of the most spacious, and at the same time safest ports in the world.” Wilkes predicted that if it did not become a part of the United States, the region would one day combine with the Oregon territory to become “a powerful maritime nation [that would] control the destinies of the Pacific.”
By the end of October the overland party led by Emmons and Eld had arrived and the survey of San Francisco Bay had been completed. Wilkes had learned that recently elected president William Henry Harrison had died, putting John Tyler in office. “This is all the news we have,” he wrote Jane, “and amuse ourselves with wise and potent arguments as to what our fate will be under the newcomers into power.” Whatever the situation in Washington, Wilkes was convinced that he now had the Expedition firmly under control, ending a letter to his wife with these supremely confident, eerily impersonal words: “For myself, I am ready to meet all and everybody. . . . I am superior and master now of all & the storms are hushed. Few will venture to put themselves in array against me. The Expedition I go for and he who attempts to frustrate its actions or course must and shall rue the day he ever made the attempt.”
On November 1, against the advice of the harbor pilot, who warned of the possibility of seas breaking at the bar, Wilkes ordered the squadron to depart with the ebbing tide. Around sunset, the already light wind deserted completely. As the tide began to change, the squadron anchored, with the Porpoise and the Oregon just beyond the bar and, as it would turn out, with the Vincennes, which was once again flying Wilkes’s commodore’s pennant, coming to rest almost precisely over it. The seas remained quiet until ten P.M., when “without any apparent cause,” according to Wilkes, the swell began to increase ominously. By midnight, the Vincennes was in the midst of her own private tempest: huge rollers pitched the ship so violently that when she swung broadside to the swell, Wilkes feared for the masts. By two A.M. waves of over thirty feet were battering the ship, bursting over the bow and threatening to tear loose the anchor chain. At 3:30 A.M. an immense breaker flooded the spar deck, stoving in boats and hurling spare spars in every direction. Just at that moment a marine named Joseph Allshouse was climbing up a ladder to the deck. A spar slammed into him, and three hours later he died of internal injuries.
Not until eight A.M. did it become possible to raise the anchor. A few miles away, the Porpoise and the Oregon had been blessed with a quiet night, and both crews were amazed to learn of the Vincennes’s ordeal. Allshouse was quickly buried at sea, and Wilkes, the Stormy Petrel, ordered the squadron to begin the first leg of the long sail home.