FOR YEARS TO COME mariners around the world would rely on the charts of the U.S. Exploring Expedition. The British and French governments incorporated Wilkes surveys into the charts issued by their hydrographic offices. As late as the 1920s, the U.S. Navy was still using Wilkes charts of the Pacific. During World War II, when battle plans were being drawn up for the invasion of a speck of coral known as Tarawa, it was discovered that the only available chart of the island was made by the Ex. Ex. more than a hundred years before.
And yet, when it came to what Wilkes considered “the greatest discovery of the century,” his efforts were almost universally dismissed well into the 1900s. In truth, Wilkes hadn’t technically discovered Antarctica since British and American sealers had glimpsed, and even ventured on, the Antarctic Peninsula as early as the 1820s, if not before. What Wilkes had done was much more difficult. By mapping a 1,500-mile section of coastline, he became the first to provide compelling evidence that a continent existed.
Unfortunately, the controversy surrounding Wilkes’s court-martial made it impossible for his own country to take any pride in his accomplishment. Then, in 1847, Wilkes’s British rival James Ross published a narrative of his own voyage south. Taking up where the doubts raised by the court-martial had left off, Ross questioned whether Wilkes had really found a continent. “I feel myself quite unable to determine in a satisfactory manner,” he wrote, “how much of the land was really seen by him with the degree of certainty that gives indisputable authority to discovery.” Ross was willing to credit Dumont d’Urville (who died in a tragic train accident soon after his return to Paris) with having set foot on land (whether it was a continent or an island remained to be seen), but he refused to acknowledge any of Wilkes’s claims.
With the exception of the Expedition’s own charts, no British or American maps referred to Wilkes’s findings throughout the 1860s. If it hadn’t been for German mapmakers, who were the only ones to record the American claims and adopted the name of Wilkes Land, all trace of Wilkes’s achievement might have been lost. Even as a series of British and Australian explorers—including Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Douglas Mawson—walked across the continent that Ross had thought did not exist, Wilkes received no credit for his discoveries. What these explorers only gradually came to appreciate was the difficulty of judging distances in the clear, dust-free atmosphere of Antarctica. Objects that look just three to four miles away can be as many as thirty to forty miles distant. There is also the phenomenon of “looming,” in which a temporary refraction of light makes it possible to see objects that are far below the horizon—sometimes as many as two hundred miles away. When in 1929 Mawson returned to a section of Wilkes Land that he had charted the year before, he was dismayed to discover that he had been off by as many as seventy miles in latitude. By this time the coordinates of many of Ross’s land-sightings had also proved in error, and Mawson would begrudgingly acknowledge that Wilkes “had come in for an undue amount of censure.”
Finally, in 1958-59, the Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition made an aerial reconnaissance of a portion of Wilkes Land. As was to be expected, it was found that Wilkes had consistently underestimated the distance between the Vincennes and the coast. However, where he had been able to get close to land, in the case of the Knox Coast and Piner Bay, his chart had been dead on. What impressed the Australians was the accuracy of Wilkes’s estimate of longitude—an extremely difficult thing to calculate at high latitude, not to mention aboard a storm-tossed sailing vessel. The photographic evidence also indicated that Wilkes had faithfully distinguished between what he took to be the overall contours of a continent and where he had actually seen land. Contrary to Ross’s insistence that his chart was nothing more than a fabrication, Wilkes was found to have “adhered to high standards of cartographic integrity.”
“After more than a century,” writes Antarctic expert Kenneth Bertrand, “during which disparagement was most often his reward, there can now no longer be any doubt of the greatness of his achievement.”
Wilkes had been his own worst enemy. His aching need for praise and control drove him to some astounding accomplishments but had also led him to commit acts that earned him almost universal censure and scorn. Wilkes needed, more than anything else, someone to rein him in, to be, as he described his wife Jane, “my moderation.” Once the Expedition left Norfolk, Wilkes found himself alone with the torment and compulsions that had seethed within him since childhood. Without Jane to domesticate his demons, he could no longer play the part of the talented, passionate man of good feeling—the role that had won him the affection and loyalty of Reynolds and his fellow officers. He must be who he actually was—a scared and needy lieutenant of very limited experience and nautical ability and yet who yearned to be a hero. If he had any hope of seeing the Expedition to its conclusion, he must reinvent himself. The leader who emerged from the breakdown in Rio de Janeiro was almost unrecognizable to his officers: a haughty, unfeeling tyrant who abused and mocked the very men he had once treated as his friends.
But would the Expedition have been more successful if it had been led by a cooler, more capable captain? Probably not. The scientist James Dana was in a unique position to judge such things. Prior to the Expedition, he had served as a teacher to midshipmen in the Mediterranean and was therefore highly knowledgeable when it came to the workings of the U.S Navy. He had had four years to observe Wilkes as a leader and several more to see how he supervised the publication of the Expedition’s reports when he answered his friend Asa Gray’s queries about his former commander: “Wilkes although overbearing with his officers, and conceited, exhibited through the cruise a wonderful degree of energy and was bold even to rashness in many of his explorations. I know so well what Naval officers very generally are, that I much doubt if with any commander that could have been selected, we should have fared better, or lived together more harmoniously and I am confident that the navy does not contain a more daring explorer, or driving officer.”
It wasn’t the Expedition or its long and fruitful aftermath that went wrong; it was what happened immediately following its return to the United States. If Wilkes had been able to handle the return in a more calculated and tactful manner, everything might have worked out differently. Even at that late hour, even after all the outrages he had committed, it would have still been possible for him to save the Expedition’s reputation. But for Wilkes to have accomplished this late-inning rescue, he would have needed the right kind of advice—especially in the last critical months prior to the Vincennes’s arrival in New York. There are strong indications that as the survey of the Columbia River drew to a close, Wilkes began to realize that he needed just this kind of assistance, and the person he turned to was William Reynolds.
Reynolds possessed all the sensitivity, charm, and discretion that Wilkes lacked. He was also a talented writer. With Reynolds acting as Wilkes’s partner rather than foe, the Expedition might have had the reception and the narrative it deserved. But it was not to be. If it was not too late to save the Expedition, it was too late to reclaim Wilkes’s and Reynolds’s friendship. And so, on a rainy summer night on the Columbia River, as Wilkes and a jacketless Reynolds stood side-by-side on the deck of the Flying Fish, the United States Exploring Expedition began its long, sure slide into obscurity.