WITH THE THREE VOYAGES of James Cook, Great Britain had set the pattern for future global exploration: two sturdy and seaworthy ships led by a captain with extensive surveying experience. By 1804, the exploratory efforts of the world’s leading maritime power were coordinated by one man—John Barrow, the second secretary of the Admiralty. Safely ensconced in his office at Whitehall, where he remained insulated from the disruptions of political change, Barrow was free to send out a seemingly continuous stream of wondrously equipped expeditions. Barrow would remain at the Admiralty for the next forty-four years, and over that span of time he would dispatch voyages to just about every corner of the world in a deliberate campaign to extend the bounds of British scientific knowledge and influence.
The United States, on the other hand, was starting from scratch. Government-sponsored exploration in America began with Lewis and Clark in 1803. Although the expedition succeeded in alerting the American people to the promise of the West, no provision was made to do anything with its results. The journals would remain unpublished for more than a decade; the botanical collection eventually ended up in England, while other specimens and artifacts were scattered among scientific societies throughout America. From an institutional and policy point of view, it was as if the expedition had never happened.
In the years after the War of 1812, there were too many distractions to allow a young, raw-boned nation like the United States to focus on a project as esoteric as a voyage of discovery in the name of science. There were roads, canals, and railroads to be built, while the obvious sponsor of an expedition—the U.S. Navy—was as conservative an institution as the country possessed. Not founded until 1794, the young navy was reluctant to implement any kind of reform—whether it involved corporal punishment, education, or technology. Even though the United States owed its very existence to the discoveries of Columbus and others, its navy would show a curious and at times infuriating scorn for the concept of exploration.
In 1825 it appeared as if the newly elected president, John Quincy Adams, might goad the nation to action. In his inaugural address he proposed that the United States embark on an innovative program to further the cause of education and science. In addition to a national university and an observatory (which he poetically referred to as a “light-house in the sky”), he advocated a voyage of discovery to explore the Pacific Northwest. Congress, unfortunately, refused to fund any of Adams’s proposals. If America was ever to follow in the wake of Cook, the impetus would have to come from somewhere beyond the nation’s capital.
In 1818, John Cleves Symmes was a thirty-eight-year-old retired army captain living with his wife and ten children in the frontier town of St. Louis. He was a trading agent with the Fox Indians, but his mind was not on his work. Instead, his dreamy blue eyes were often lost in abstraction as he pondered his own theory of the world, a theory that put him at odds with such scientific luminaries as Sir Isaac Newton. But what the largely self-educated Symmes lacked in intellectual credentials, he more than made up for in audacity and pluck.
Symmes had read somewhere that arctic species such as reindeer and foxes migrated north each winter and returned south in the spring, unaccountably well fed and healthy despite having wintered in what most considered an uninhabitable region of frigid temperatures. Where did these creatures go? After many years of contemplation, Symmes announced his answer in a single-page circular dated April 10, 1818: “TO ALL THE WORLD! I declare the earth is hollow . . . , containing a number of solid concentrick spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles 12 or 16 degrees; I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow, if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”
Symmes was, by no means, the first to invest the unknown portions of the globe with miraculous properties in the name of science. As late as the midpoint of the eighteenth century, French and English geographers had speculated that an immense and temperate continent known as Terra Australis Incognita (The Unknown Southern Land) must exist in the high southern latitudes so as to offset the landmasses to the north and thereby “balance” the earth. But in 1774, when Cook voyaged beyond the Antarctic Circle and found only icebergs and whales, the figment of Terra Australis Incognita appeared to have vanished forever.
Symmes believed that beyond the region of ice surrounding each of the poles lay a mild and navigable sea that flowed into a large portal leading to the interior of the earth. He claimed that the crew of a ship sailing to the edge, or “verge,” of one of these holes would not even be aware that they had begun to sail down into the earth. On either side of the central hole would be successive layers of land, flourishing with wildlife and, perhaps, people. Because of the earth’s tilt, this miraculous new land would be flooded with sunlight. It was up to that former New World, America, to launch the voyage of discovery that would outdo Columbus, Magellan, and Cook.
He was not a particularly good speaker or writer, but Symmes’s theory of the “Holes in the Poles” began to find a following. He lectured tirelessly, traveling by horse and wagon across the states of Kentucky and Ohio. There were even some prominent men of science who gave Symmes their cautious approval. Dr. Samuel Mitchell, an astronomer in Cincinnati, Ohio, spoke in support of the theory. A globe patterned on Symmes’s ideas became part of the collection at the prestigious Academy of Natural Science in Philadelphia. John J. Audubon sketched Symmes’s portrait in 1820, helping to establish his reputation as the “Newton of the West.”
In March 1822, Symmes wrote a petition that was presented to Congress by the state of Kentucky. In addition to pronouncing “his belief of the existence of an inhabited concave to this globe,” the petition, which was ultimately tabled, called for “two vessels of 250 or 300 tons for the expedition.” Thus was born the concept of a voyage that would take another sixteen years to fulfill.
In 1824, during a string of speaking engagements in his native Ohio, Symmes gained the support of an energetic acolyte by the name of Jeremiah N. Reynolds (no relation to Passed Midshipman William Reynolds). Just twenty-four years old, Jeremiah had attended Ohio University before becoming editor of the Wilmington Spectator. Soon after meeting Symmes, he decided to scrap his promising newspaper career in favor of a life on the road promoting the notion of a hollow earth. An articulate and charismatic speaker, Jeremiah also had a flair for making influential friends. Symmes’s theory began to catch hold as never before, and this improbable duo spoke in sold-out lecture halls all across the United States.
Over time, Jeremiah began to develop a different perspective on his master’s theory. Whereas Symmes advocated an expedition north, Jeremiah became increasingly intrigued with the prospect of a voyage south. In 1823, the English sealer James Weddell had sailed farther south than even Cook. Instead of ice he reported to have found open water as far as the eye could see and surprisingly warm temperatures. While Symmes clung to his belief in a hole at the pole, Jeremiah was now willing to entertain the possibility that an American exploring ship might drop anchor at “the very axis of the earth”—an unforgivable heresy as far as Symmes was concerned. In Philadelphia the two visionaries went their separate ways.
Jeremiah continued to broaden his original concept of a voyage of discovery. In addition to searching out the South Pole, the expedition would survey and chart the islands of the South Pacific. This was the voyage that maritime communities in New England and beyond had been pleading for, and Jeremiah soon saw his base of support swell until it had become a force that Washington could no longer ignore. At Jeremiah’s urging, marine and scientific societies began to bombard Congress with memorials, and in May 1828, the House passed a resolution requesting President Adams to send a naval vessel to the Pacific. In addition to collecting information helpful to American commercial interests, the expedition was to have a small scientific corps similar to what had accompanied previous European ventures. Jeremiah was designated a special agent to the navy, and in September he filed a report describing more than two hundred uncharted islands and shoals that should be investigated by the expedition. A few weeks later, the 118-foot sloop-of-war Peacock, almost completely rebuilt for a voyage of exploration, was launched at the New York Navy Yard.
Despite his earlier connection with the pseudoscientist Symmes (who would die the following year in Ohio, a hollow globe attached to his gravestone), Jeremiah was put in charge of finding a qualified naturalist and astronomer for the voyage. That fall he met with a steady stream of scientists and naval officers interested in joining the expedition. One of the applicants was a thirty-year-old lieutenant named Charles Wilkes.
By the fall of 1828, Charles and Jane Wilkes had been married for two and a half years, their wedding date delayed until Wilkes’s promotion to lieutenant in April 1826. Soon after his return from the Pacific in 1823, he attended a public lecture in chemistry. Halfway through the talk, he was startled to see Jane and her mother arriving at the back of the hall. Wilkes sprang to his feet and gallantly offered them his chair and the one next to it. Jane’s mother insisted that Wilkes sit with them. “She afterwards told me,” he remembered, “that she could no longer endure keeping us apart—our attachment was mutual and of very long standing and had undergone the fullest test.”
Wilkes was in no hurry to return to sea. Instead, he was quite content to spend as much time as possible with Jane and her mother while he took in mathematics, languages, drawing, and science. Unlike Cook, Wilkes’s pursuit of scientific expertise would keep him on shore. Except for a year-long cruise to the Mediterranean, his voyage to the Pacific as a midshipman would mark his last significant sea experience for the next fifteen years. Instead of the ocean, Wilkes devoted himself to learning how to navigate what was, given the realties of the peacetime navy, the more significant sea: the swirling riptides and shoals of federal politics.
At this time, science in America was largely practiced by amateurs, many of them men of leisure with time to dabble in their favorite disciplines. This meant that someone such as Thomas Jefferson could not only be president of the United States, he could also be one of the foremost scientists in America. No American college offered what we would call today a proper, specialized scientific education. Someone seeking instruction sought out an expert in his field of interest—like Jane’s older brother James Renwick, a professor at Columbia College. One of the premier engineers in the United States, Renwick played a large role in Wilkes’s education, offering instruction in topics such as astronomy and magnetism as well as introducing him to America’s most passionate practitioner of geodesy (the study of the size and shape of the earth), Ferdinand Hassler.
Prior to the War of 1812, the Swiss-born Hassler had been appointed to head the survey of the Atlantic coast—a monumental undertaking for which there was an acute and immediate need. There were no updated charts of the thousands of miles of bays, inlets, and beaches extending from Maine to Florida. In many regions, mariners were still relying on charts created by the British navy prior to the Revolution. But Hassler was much more than a surveyor; he was a proud geodesist who insisted on using the finest instruments from Europe and the latest trigonometric principles to create a survey that would not only be of immense practical benefit but would also represent an important contribution to science.
Such an approach took an enormous amount of time and money relative to the slapdash and often inaccurate chronometric surveys that the nation had, up until this point, relied upon. Hassler’s system was based on the creation of a series of huge triangles extending along the entire coastline of the United States. Within these triangles, with sides of approximately thirty miles in length, smaller triangles would be determined, creating the network of reference points required to survey the coast. Before this could be accomplished, however, two baselines of almost nine miles in length had to be established with an accuracy never before achieved in America.
After several years of labor, Hassler had laid the groundwork for a first-rate survey of the coast but had not yet produced a chart. Members of Congress began to insist on tangible results. Hassler’s imperious and condescending attitude toward anyone who dared question his methods meant that it was only a matter of time before Congress voted to withdraw its support of the Coast Survey, at least as Hassler had conceived of it, in 1818.
When Wilkes met him in the 1820s, Hassler was struggling to support his large family. With the assistance of Renwick, he had been able to secure some surveying work in the New York area; he also relied on Wilkes’s uncle, the banker, to secure emergency loans, using his vast scientific library as collateral. “His forehead was high and his whole expression intellectual,” Wilkes remembered. “He was very slovenly in his attire, very old fashioned.” Long before there was a national university system to support what would become known as the “mad professor,” there was Ferdinand Hassler, and for a number of years he became Wilkes’s most influential role model.
In Hassler, Wilkes found a man who refused to succumb to America’s long-standing suspicion of the intellectual. “[H]e had a peculiar tone of voice, crackling and Sarcastic, and with a conceit in his knowledge over those who were ignorant of Scientific principles.” Although Wilkes saw himself as the rational one in his dealings with the irascible Hassler, the young naval officer seems to have internalized his master’s uncompromising arrogance and almost frantic excitability. Just as the strong-willed Hassler had a tendency to create controversy everywhere he went, so would Wilkes develop a similar reputation for inciting turmoil.
Wilkes wanted desperately to be a member of Jeremiah Reynolds’s proposed exploring expedition. His unusual naval career was, he felt, ideally suited to such a voyage. In addition to his proven navigational skills and surveying lessons with Hassler, his brother-in-law James Renwick had instructed him in the secrets of the pendulum, a finely tuned instrument used on previous European expeditions to help determine the force of gravity. The fact of the matter remained, however, that Wilkes had not yet established any kind of scientific or, for that matter, naval reputation. And yet, true to his well-to-do background and schooling by Hassler, there was a sense of entitlement about the young naval officer.
Wilkes understood that he was too young to be even considered to command such an expedition. But there had been talk of adding a second vessel. Wilkes made a remarkable proposal to Samuel Southard, secretary of the navy, offering to fund the purchase of an additional vessel—as long as he was given its command and was appointed astronomer. “You [may be] unaware that I have commanded a Ship and Schooner towards the same direction the Expedition is to follow,” Wilkes wrote, “so I think I am able to take any charge you may assign to me.”
When Jeremiah Reynolds finally met Wilkes, he not unexpectedly found him to be “exceedingly vain and conceited.” He also complained to Southard that James Renwick had overstated the case for his brother-in-law as an astronomer. “[Wilkes] is [a] deserving young man, and no doubt an enterprising and ambitious officer,” he wrote, “but Professor Renwick is puffing him for much more than he is. . . . There is a spirit of dictation about Wilkes and Renwick, that I don’t like.”
But the expedition of 1828 was not to be. After being delayed into the new year, by which time John Quincy Adams had lost the presidential election to Andrew Jackson, the voyage met the opposition of Senator Robert Y. Hayne from South Carolina, chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs. Hayne worried that the expedition might encourage the creation of a distant colony, “which could only be defended at an expense not to be estimated.” He also pointed out that since the federal government had not yet produced reliable charts of America’s own coastline, it was unlikely that an expedition with a handful of men was capable of surveying the entire Pacific. As Lewis and Clark had shown, the country’s exploring efforts were best directed toward its own hinterlands. Hayne’s views were in keeping with the isolationist sentiment that had brought Jackson to the White House, and the expedition was quickly killed.
That spring Wilkes, by now the father of both a son, Jack, and an infant daughter, Janey, was ordered to join a naval ship sailing for the Mediterranean. In the meantime, Jeremiah Reynolds did his best to put back together the pieces of his shattered dream. If the government would not sponsor a voyage, he would do it through private enterprise. With the assistance and financial backing of Edmund Fanning and some other sealers from Stonington, he formed the South Sea Fur Company and Exploring Expedition. In October 1829, the Seraph, Annawan, and Penguin set out with Jeremiah, the artist John F. Watson, and the geologist James Eights. Although Eights would eventually publish several important articles based on what he’d observed at the South Shetland Islands, overall, the expedition was a disaster. The seals that were to finance the voyage were few and far between, meaning that the crews, with no prospect of remuneration, had little patience with exploring the frigid waters of the Antarctic Circle. When the men threatened to desert in Chile, the voyage was abandoned.
Wilkes’s tour in the Mediterranean proved mercifully brief. Soon after his return to New York, however, he contracted smallpox. Delirious for days at a time, his face a mass of ulcerous lesions, Wilkes, who was confined to his bedroom due to the contagiousness of the disease, “became almost beside myself that I was deprived of the pleasure of my little ones.” In December 1831, he was ordered to serve as first lieutenant aboard the Boxer, a schooner then at Boston. His poor health made it impossible for him to report for duty, delaying by six years his introduction to a midshipman who had also been ordered to the Boxer, sixteen-year-old William Reynolds.
After a convalescence of almost a year, Wilkes received an assignment that was, short of an exploring expedition, the duty he most desired. He was ordered to join a group of five officers working on a survey of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay. Jane and the children were soon settled in a cottage in Newport. As Hassler’s student, Wilkes suggested to the survey’s leader, Captain Alexander Wadsworth, that they adopt his master’s methods. Before funding had been withdrawn for the proposed exploring expedition back in 1828, Wilkes had been ordered to purchase some surveying instruments. He had taken particular pride in overseeing the construction of a theodolite—a large leg-mounted surveying instrument used to measure horizontal and vertical angles with a telescope. The theodolite was sitting unused at the Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, and Wilkes arranged to have the instrument delivered to Newport.
Wadsworth, an officer from the old school, remained reluctant to attempt a survey of the kind Wilkes proposed. Tensions were mounting until Jane interceded on her husband’s behalf. Jane was, according to Wilkes, “well posted on the subject,” and she soon convinced Wadsworth that her husband actually knew what he was talking about. The couple then offered Wadsworth the use of a room in their cottage as an office for the survey, allowing Wilkes to work up his calculations and draw the charts amid the cheerful bedlam of his young family.
It was during this pleasant interlude in Newport that he responded to a navy circular requesting his ideas on the rehiring of Hassler as director of the Coast Survey. Although praising Hassler’s science, Wilkes was highly critical of his teacher’s organizational abilities and urged that Hassler be required to report to a board of navy and army officers. When presented with this plan, Hassler refused to work under any supervision. After much discussion, he was eventually hired on his own terms. The reinstated director of the Coast Survey soon learned of Wilkes’s disloyalty and let it be known that, in Wilkes’s words, “he was not altogether anxious for my services.”
Wilkes claimed that he could not have worked with Hassler in any event, but his betrayal of his old friend and mentor would trouble him more than he cared to admit. It also robbed him of a career path that was one of the few in the navy that agreed with his talents and personality. But it was also an object lesson. If the Coast Survey could be resuscitated after a hiatus of more than a decade, then why not the exploring expedition?
In the spring of 1833, just a few months after the birth of his third child, Edmund, Wilkes was ordered to Washington to take over the three-year-old Depot of Charts and Instruments. The Depot was where the navy’s fifty or so chronometers were tested and maintained. A chronometer is an exceptionally precise timepiece built to withstand the hostile environment of a ship at sea. Set to Greenwich Mean Time, the chronometer enables a navigator to compare the time of the noon sight with the time in Greenwich and then quickly calculate the ship’s longitude. Even the most accurate chronometers were not perfect. The trick was to determine how much an individual instrument lost or gained per day, which was known as its “rate,” and adjust accordingly. Calculating the rate of a chronometer required several noon sightings at a known location, with the average difference between the chronometer’s time and the mean time producing the error of the chronometer. In addition to an office and a room to store the instruments and charts, the Depot included a tiny observatory where the staff could perform the celestial observations for rating chronometers.
Compared to the bustling intimacy of their native New York, Jane and Charles found Washington a virtual ghost town. “There was not an individual stirring,” Wilkes remembered, “and the Capitol arose before us in all its blankness, a most uninteresting object it then appeared, lifeless and deserted. . . . The Whole impressed us with the most gloomy foreboding.” He and Jane set out to create their own island of happiness within a city that was in 1833 little more than a vast swamp, criss-crossed with dusty dirt roads that became quagmires whenever it rained. Instead of living in the fashionable part of town near the White House, they purchased two large connected brick buildings on wind-swept Capitol Hill. Built in 1799 with funds provided by George Washington to serve as boardinghouses, the structures possessed more than enough room for a family of five and their servants. Just 1,200 feet from the Capitol, it was the perfect home for a naval officer intent on increasing his influence with the nation’s power brokers, and in April, Wilkes moved the entire Depot to his house on the Hill.
At his own expense, he built a new observatory—just a small box, fourteen by thirteen feet and only ten feet high, with two-foot-wide doors on the roof that could be opened to the sky with a system of pulleys. Mounted on granite piers that extended six feet above the floor was a brass transit (an instrument similar to a theodolite that measures horizontal and vertical angles) that Hassler had originally purchased for the Coast Survey back in 1815. The entire building was surrounded by a ditch, five feet wide and deep, to prevent what were termed “the transmission of terrestrial vibrations”—many of them, no doubt, emanating from that big white building atop the hill. Although a meager and unimpressive structure compared to national observatories in England and France, what became known as the Capitol Hill Observatory marked a crucial first step in bringing science to the attention of the federal government.
Wilkes soon found that living on the less fashionable side of town had its advantages. He was able to study at the nearby Library of Congress whenever he wanted, and many members of Washington’s society took to stopping to chat with Jane during their morning carriage rides. Perhaps most important to the couple was that this unusual arrangement gave them the opportunity to be a regular part of their children’s upbringing. “[W]hat we most valued,” Wilkes remembered, “[was that] our Children were Removed from all contact with others, and their lessons & our teaching was Rarely interrupted. This was a great pleasure to us as well as service to them and, as our house was roomy & the garden large, we had the choice of the children to unite with them in their home amusements; at the same time they were under our own eye.”
For the next three years, Wilkes and Jane would also make their mark on Washington society, regularly attending parties given by a wide range of foreign dignitaries and government officials. It was commonly said in naval circles that “a cruise in Washington was worth two around Cape Horn,” and for Wilkes, this was time well spent.
When Andrew Jackson came to office in 1829 and oversaw the abandonment of John Quincy Adams’s exploring expedition, few would have predicted that he would eventually become a fervent advocate of his own voyage of discovery. The president who had railed against the aristocratic merchants of the Northeast, and who portrayed himself as the anti-intellectual advocate of farmers in the South and West, gradually began to see the importance of science and exploration to the United States. Much of his change of heart had to do with the reality of ruling a nation that, like it or not, already had a thriving overseas trade. But there were personal factors as well. Jackson could not help but respect a man like Ferdinand Hassler, who was as ornery and determined as himself. Thus, contrary to all expectations, it was the Jackson administration that presided over the reinstatement of Hassler’s Coast Survey. On the diplomatic front, Jackson’s combative, highly nationalistic nature made it impossible for him to back away when American interests were challenged abroad, interceding with the firepower required to right any actual or perceived wrongs. It was what one historian has called “a frontier sense of honor” transferred from the backwoods of America to the oceans of the world. And it was the navy that must uphold the nation’s international reputation.
In 1831, at Quallah Batoo in Sumatra, a local rajah allowed Malay pirates to attack a Boston ship involved in the pepper trade. Several crewmembers were killed, and the ship was temporarily taken and plundered. In August 1831, Captain John Downes was sent in the frigate Potomac to investigate the incident. Instead of demanding restitution and indemnity, Downes chose to launch a full-scale attack. A force of 250 sailors and marines destroyed the fort, burned the town, and killed more than a hundred natives. Although it was clear Downes had exceeded his orders, Jackson publicly praised the mission for having “increased respect for our flag in those distant seas [while providing] additional security for our commerce.”
Beating the drum for the United States on this particular operation was none other than Jeremiah N. Reynolds. After the disappointing conclusion of his privately financed exploring expedition, Jeremiah jumped at the chance to serve as secretary to Captain Downes of the Potomac. His jingoistic account of the Potomac’s mission to Sumatra was published soon after his return to America in 1834. (He would also publish a short story based on a whaling legend he had heard in Chile titled “Mocha Dick, the White Whale of the Pacific,” which would later attract the attention of Herman Melville.)
Once back in the United States, Jeremiah seized the day. The nation was in the midst of a period of unparalleled prosperity, and his old friend former navy secretary Samuel Southard was now a senator from New Jersey and head of the Committee on Naval Affairs. The time was right for another attempt at an exploring expedition. As he had done eight years before, he encouraged marine and scientific societies to send petitions of support to Congress, and in March 1836 Senator Southard’s committee reported a bill recommending a naval expedition to the Pacific. Two weeks later, on the evening of April 3, Jeremiah addressed Congress in the Hall of Representatives on the subject of the proposed voyage. Fired to an awesome eloquence, he breathed new life into the arguments he had made back in the 1820s. Without once mentioning Symmes, he spoke of the mystery lurking to the south, as well as the continuing need for an expedition as an aid to navigation. But his most passionate plea was in the name of science. His vision of the expedition’s civilian corps had expanded well beyond the naturalist and astronomer who were to have sailed on the voyage in 1828.
At a time when a trip to the Pacific was equivalent to a modern-day trip to the moon, a voyage of this kind offered scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to investigate exotic habitats: rain forests, volcanoes, tropical lagoons, icebergs, and deserts. Before cameras and video equipment, the only way scientists could convey the scope and essence of what had been observed, besides field notes and sketches, was to bring the specimens back with them. Whether it involved shooting and skinning animals and birds, preserving delicate marine organisms in bottles of alcohol, pressing and drying plants, collecting seeds, or accumulating boxes of rocks, soil, fossils, shells, and coral, scientists in European expeditions had inevitably returned with staggering numbers of objects. At the end of the eighteenth century the great German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt had ventured to the interior of South America and proved that a scientist could base an entire career on studying the returns from a single expedition.
Jeremiah Reynolds proposed that America mount an expedition on a scale that had never before been attempted. In keeping with the giant size and boundless ambition of the young nation it represented, the U.S. expedition would “collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable in the whole range of natural history, from the minute madrapore to the huge spermaceti, and accurately describe that which cannot be preserved.” In addition, the expedition’s scientists would study the languages and customs of the many peoples they encountered, while also collecting data concerning weather, navigation, the earth’s magnetism, and other fields of interest.
Jeremiah’s stirring and patriotic call to science resonated with Congress, and an expenditure of $150,000 was approved in both houses. When a slight ripple of protest arose in the House, his ever-loyal Ohio delegation came to his defense. In response to those who claimed the expedition amounted to a “chimerical and hairbrained notion,” Thomas Hamer reminded Congress that the grain-growing states of the West had a “deep interest” in the voyage. America’s farmers needed new places to sell their surplus wheat, and the exploring expedition would help to identify potential foreign markets. Hamer’s remarks were an indication that all Americans, not just merchants from the Northeast, were beginning to appreciate the importance of the nation’s growing economic presence around the world, and it had been the prospect of an exploring expedition to the Pacific that had helped America recognize what its new role had come to be. With his second term ending in less than a year, President Jackson made a personal commitment to seeing that the expedition sailed in the next few months; as early as June 9 he wrote that he was “feeling a lively interest in the Exploring Expedition . . . [and] that it should be sent out as soon as possible.”
Jeremiah Reynolds had called for a scientific corps that amounted to a virtual university afloat, with more than twenty scientists engaged in almost as many disciplines. Instead of two ships, the American squadron would have to include at least half a dozen vessels. Assembling a specially equipped squadron of this size would require an immense amount of planning and cooperation on the part of the U.S. Navy. Unfortunately, Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson shared little of his president’s enthusiasm for the voyage. The man who should have been the Expedition’s most zealous proponent was, in fact, its principal detractor, applying what little reserves of energy he possessed in deploying strategies to delay its departure.
In 1836, Dickerson, a former governor and senator from New Jersey, was sixty-six years old and in bad health. An amateur botanist and member of the American Philosophical Society, Dickerson did not let his personal interest in science interfere with his commitment to a minimalist navy. In addition to the proposed Exploring Expedition, he successfully fended off efforts to create a much-needed naval academy while offering as little assistance as possible to Captain Matthew C. Perry’s nearly singlehanded efforts to demonstate the importance of steam power to the future of the navy.
The Expedition already had a commander, Jackson’s old comrade-in-arms Commodore Thomas ap Catesby Jones. A little man who had been permanently disabled by the musket ball he had taken in the shoulder during the Battle of New Orleans, Jones was given sweeping powers by Jackson to assemble the projected squadron, including the flagship Macedonian. In a directive that Dickerson would do his best to subvert, Jackson insisted that the secretary not assign any officers to the Expedition to whom Jones had “well-founded objections.” Jackson also insisted that Jeremiah Reynolds be included in the Expedition, writing, “this the public expect.” Since Jeremiah was a good friend of Dickerson’s primary political foe back in New Jersey, former navy secretary Samuel Southard, Jeremiah was a man whom Dickerson was predisposed to loathe. From the beginning, Dickerson did everything in his power to exclude him from the planning of the Expedition.
Dickerson had already asked Lieutenant Charles Wilkes at the Depot to assemble a list of the instruments the Expedition would require. Wilkes, who had been through this once before eight years earlier, quickly drew up the requested list. By the middle of July, he had decided that since the Expedition had taken on a “more enlarged scale than I at first conceived,” it would be necessary to go to Europe to procure the necessary instruments. He added that the trip would also provide the opportunity “to obtain a full knowledge of everything that had been already accomplished and attempted in the way of discovery in the Pacific Ocean.”
Given that the Expedition was due to leave that fall, a trip to Europe might have seemed out of the question. But Wilkes, who had spent the last four years as the undisputed master of his own private domain at the Depot, was accustomed to getting his way. He also knew that if he could persuade Dickerson to send him to Europe, he—not Jeremiah Reynolds—would become the public face of the Expedition—at least when it came to the European scientific community. On top of that, Wilkes was an ardent Jacksonian Democrat who had carefully cultivated his relationship with the secretary of the navy. Despite Jackson’s clearly worded instructions that the voyage must depart soon, Dickerson told Wilkes to sail for England.
When he returned five months later in January 1837, the Expedition was still far from ready. Three vessels had been built, but the large timbers used to strengthen them against collisions with icebergs and coral reefs had made them dreadfully slow and difficult to handle. The selection of officers for the Expedition was going just as badly. Dickerson, in a rare instance of taking the initiative, had recommended two lieutenants—one of whom was Charles Wilkes—to command two of the vessels, but Jones felt that both candidates lacked the necessary sea experience. Although Dickerson finally withdrew his suggestions, in the months ahead he and Jones would continue to squabble over virtually every aspect of the Expedition.
For his part, Wilkes felt that his tour of Europe had been an unqualified triumph. In addition to assembling a first-rate collection of navigational and astronomical instruments from the finest makers in England, France, and Germany, he had become personally acquainted with the scientific greats of Europe, culminating in his being an honored guest at a Royal Astronomical Society dinner. Besides “the great magnetic man,” Peter Barlow, known for his pioneering work with compasses, he met Francis Baily, vice president of the Royal Astronomical Society. Baily provided him with two state-of-the-art pendulums and spent several days instructing him in the difficult and painstaking experiments by which the pendulum measures the force of gravity.
Wilkes also met several British naval officers who had led exploring voyages similar to what the United States was contemplating. Robert Fitzroy had recently returned from an expedition to the Pacific that had included a vessel named the Beagle and a young naturalist named Charles Darwin. Arctic explorer James Ross, just thirty-five years old, was already known as the discoverer of the earth’s magnetic North Pole. In 1831, he had located the place at the edge of the Boothia Peninsula in northern Canada where his dipping needle, a sensitive instrument used to measure the vertical angle of the earth’s magnetic field, pointed straight down, and he had planted his country’s flag at the magnetic North Pole. Although no one had yet managed to reach the geographical pole, approximately one thousand miles farther north, interest was mounting to find the earth’s second magnetic pole, and many felt that Ross was the natural choice to lead a British expedition south.
For an aspiring American scientist and explorer, it was a heady four months among the world’s scientific elite. “I feel myself more at ease with these giants,” Wilkes wrote Jane. He was also convinced he had put together an impeccable collection of scientific instruments. But when he returned to the United States in January, he received little of the praise he had anticipated.
By the winter of 1837, more than a dozen scientists had been chosen for the Expedition. Instead of showering Wilkes with compliments, they were quick to point out that he had neglected to purchase a single microscope, as well as many other instruments required in fields outside the area of his own expertise. After being lionized by the intelligentsia of Europe, it was more than the fiercely proud and sensitive lieutenant could tolerate. When Dickerson finally offered him a position as the Expedition’s astronomer, it was under the condition that he report to a civilian scientist who had been a particularly vocal critic of his efforts in Europe. He had been dreaming about sailing on a voyage of discovery for decades, but Wilkes decided he wanted no part of the Expedition as it was presently organized. If he could not go on his own terms, he would not go at all.
The spring of 1837 was not good to the Exploring Expedition. In June, Jeremiah Reynolds decided to make public his grievances against the secretary of the navy. In a series of scathing letters published in The New York Times, he excoriated Dickerson, eventually forcing the secretary to respond with two letters of his own. This war of words did neither man credit, serving only to further tarnish the image of what one wag renamed “the Deplorable Expedition.” In the meantime, the Expedition was denied the services of one of the most talented writers in the country when political infighting made it impossible for the friends of Nathaniel Hawthorne to secure him a position as the voyage’s historiographer.
In May, the Panic of 1837 struck the nation’s economy. For the last six years, state governments had been piling up huge debts to finance the construction of canals and railroads. Land speculation was rife all over the nation, and imports were outpacing exports. Much of America’s economic expansion had been made possible by English capital, and when a financial crisis rocked Europe, many British creditors called in their loans. On May 10, banks in New York suspended the payment of coined money. Soon banks across the country were closing their doors. Just a few months into the presidency of Jackson’s handpicked successor, Martin Van Buren, the American economy was in chaos. In this climate of frightening loss and uncertainty, the U.S. Exploring Expedition, a tenuous enterprise in the best of economic times, struggled to become a reality.
Wilkes decided it was time to embark on a new endeavor. That spring he proposed that the Depot of Charts and Instruments sponsor a survey of Georges Bank, a 10,000-square-mile section of tumultuous shoal water approximately a hundred miles off Cape Cod. A prime fishing ground, the Banks were notoriously dangerous. To provide an accurate chart of this serpentine-shaped shoal would be an immense service to mariners throughout the region. For a thirty-nine-year-old lieutenant who had not commanded a ship in fourteen years, it was a challenging test. It also happened to be an assignment that would demonstrate whether he had the ability to coordinate a survey of the kind that would make up the primary mission of the Exploring Expedition, and on June 14, Dickerson granted his request.
Saying good-bye to Jane and the children, Wilkes traveled to the navy yard in Norfolk, where the eighty-eight-foot brig Porpoise awaited him. He planned to employ what was, for the American navy, a new and revolutionary system of surveying known as the quincunx method. Dickerson had given him permission to borrow some of the instruments he had purchased in Europe. Using two schooners and a fleet of whaleboats, along with specially designed buoys equipped with flags, he and his officers would create a series of interlocking triangles with sides of between a half-mile and three miles in length. Their positions would be established by chronometer and later confirmed by the celestial observations of Professor William Bond at Harvard. The small open boats would be used to measure soundings on shoals that, in some cases, were only a few feet below the water’s surface.
It took longer than he had expected, but Wilkes was able to complete the survey in two months. Sometimes deploying all eleven whaleboats at one time, he insisted that his officers and men meticulously survey even the roughest portions of the bank. No one would improve on Wilkes’s work at Georges Bank until well into the twentieth century.
In September, he and his officers returned to the Boston Navy Yard to finish the necessary calculations and to work on the chart. Word of Wilkes’s survey quickly reached the acknowledged master of American navigation, Nathaniel Bowditch. As a young sailor, Bowditch had taught himself enough mathematics and astronomy to uncover more than eight thousand errors in the leading navigational guide of his day. In 1802 he came out with his own guide, The New American Practical Navigator, immediately recognized as the most accurate and comprehensive text on celestial navigation ever published. At sixty-four, he was revered in maritime circles as the paramount navigator in the world.
Wilkes was invited to Bowditch’s home in Boston, and once in the presence of his idol, the normally self-assured naval officer found himself “greatly abashed.” The two men went for a walk, and Bowditch questioned Wilkes about the survey. Placing his cane in the lieutenant’s hand, Bowditch asked Wilkes to draw a diagram in the dirt. “Oh, I see, I see,” he replied, nodding his head. “That will do.”
Several days later, Bowditch and a friend appeared unannounced at the navy yard to inspect Wilkes’s chart. Wilkes would later remember what followed as “one of the most gratifying incidents of my life”: “The large and rough chart was spread out on the table with each and every station occupied. He took out from his vest pocket a hand full of small change, five & ten cent pieces, and put them on each station on the chart; these were numerous. Then he explained the whole process [to his friend]. . . . [A]fter fully examining all our work which was recorded in a large volume . . . , he passed a very complimentary speech as to the satisfaction he had derived from the whole.” Bowditch subsequently contacted several important government officials about Wilkes’s skill as a surveyor. “To him I think I owe, in part,” Wilkes later wrote, “my appointment to the Command of the Ex. Ex.”
In the months after completing the survey of Georges Bank, some of Wilkes’s staunchest advocates proved to be the passed midshipmen who had served under him. Instead of ruling over his officers in a manner that inspired fear and trembling, Wilkes had acted as if he were one of them. He had accompanied them in the whaleboats and had taken the lead when confronting the worst portions of the Bank. A commander usually dined alone in his cabin; Wilkes chose to mess with his officers in the wardroom. This appears to have fostered a remarkable sense of loyalty and enthusiasm, and most of Wilkes’s passed midshipmen would follow him to his next assignment—a survey of the waters in the vicinity of Savannah, Georgia.
There was one young sailor, however, who chose not to make the voyage south. Charles Erskine, sixteen, had served as Wilkes’s cabin boy. One of five children, whose father had abandoned the family when he was still an infant, Charlie was strikingly handsome, with bright blue eyes and an infectious smile. Late in life, Wilkes would remember him as “one of the most beautiful boys I ever beheld. . . . [T]hough lowly bred, he had a certain refinement of manner and look that drew all hearts towards him.” Wilkes took such a keen interest in the boy that for a time aboard the Porpoise he became the father figure Charlie had never known.
The falling out came in Boston, Charlie’s hometown. They were at the navy yard completing the chart of Georges Bank. Wilkes was anxiously awaiting orders from Washington, and Charlie was directed to make a quick trip to the post office on the other side of the Charles River. On his way back, Charlie decided to stop by his mother’s house for a surprise visit. “I shall never forget her fond embrace,” he later wrote, “and the ‘God bless you, my darling boy!’ when I left her.” While he waited to cross the river to the navy yard in Charlestown, his hat, along with the letters he had carefully placed inside it, was knocked into the water by a schooner passing through the drawbridge. By the time he’d recovered his hat, the letters were wet but still readable.
When Charlie reached the Porpoise, Wilkes was waiting for him, with “a look as dark as a thunder-cloud.” Wilkes asked what had taken him so long. Charlie explained that his hat and the letters had been knocked into the river. Wilkes suspected that Charlie had taken the opportunity to enjoy himself in Boston and decided to teach the boy a lesson. Before Charlie knew what was happening, the boatswain’s mate had laid him across the breech of a cannon and begun whipping his backside with the colt—a three-foot length of half-inch rope. “[W]e were lying not more than a quarter of a mile in a straight line from where my mother lived,” he remembered, “and if she had been at an open window at the front of the house she could have heard my piercing cries.” Charlie would not be able to sit for three weeks. His white duck trousers had been cut through by the colt, and threads of cloth were stuck to his ripped and bleeding flesh. “When I shipped [on the Porpoise] I had made up my mind to try to be somebody and to get ahead in the world,” he wrote, “but now my hopes were blasted. My ambition was gone, yes, whipped out of me—and for nothing.”
By the brutal standards of the U.S. Navy, there had been nothing unusual in Wilkes’s treatment of Charlie. Many a ship’s boy had been whipped for far less. But Wilkes had not consistently operated by the usual standards of the navy. As had been true with the passed midshipmen aboard the Porpoise, he had been more of a friend and mentor than a commander to Charlie. When all was going well, this approach made for what was known as a “happy ship.” But when a sailor needed to be disciplined, it could all fall apart. Since he considered himself the commander’s friend, the sailor tended to resent any attempt to curb his conduct. Long after Charlie had been reassigned to another vessel, he continued to harbor a deep and obsessive hatred for the commander to whom he had once been so close. If he ever got the chance, Charlie vowed he would have his revenge.
Against all odds, the Exploring Expedition seemed about to depart in the fall of 1837. The squadron was now in New York, with more than five hundred officers, sailors, marines, and scientists awaiting orders to sail. The necessary modifications to the overbuilt vessels had been made. The flagship Macedonian had been outfitted with an innovative forced hot-water heating system in anticipation of the Antarctic cold. A new kind of foul weather clothing coated with India rubber had been delivered. There was also a new kind of firearm—a pistol equipped with a Bowie knife that could be used both as a form of defense against hostile natives and for hacking through underbrush. For a city suddenly gripped by economic depression, the Expedition was, at least for a time, a welcome distraction. When some of its naval officers made an appearance at a play, the actors stopped the performance to give “the Lions of the day” three cheers.
But no matter how desperately Commodore Jones might labor to bring the Expedition to fruition, a new problem inevitably threatened its dissolution. Distracted by his feuding with Dickerson, he had failed to take note of an important fact. The instruments that Wilkes had assembled more than a year ago were spread out over three cities. Some of the chronometers were at the Depot in Washington. Other instruments were at Professor Renwick’s in New York, still others in Philadelphia, and then there were all the chronometers and sextants Wilkes had taken with him to survey Georges Bank. For Jones, this was the last straw. By mid-November his health had begun to suffer from what he called “the pain, expense, and mortification, to which I have been daily subjected for the last eighteen months.” He was now regularly coughing up blood. On November 21, he resigned his command.
Jones was the most conspicuous example of how “this great national enterprise” could destroy a person. In the absence of any proper institutional support, the Expedition had become a kind of vortex in which petty personal and professional differences, aggravated by competing political alliances, swirled in a dangerous whirlpool. In waters this fierce, only an individual of extraordinary resilience, passion, and determination had any hope of survival. In his letter of resignation, Commodore Jones complained of “the most determined and uncompromising opposition to me and to my plans up to the latest moment. . . . As regards to myself, I am but the wreck of what I was.”
As if to mock the difficult birth of the American Expedition, word reached Washington that a new French squadron had left Toulon in August. In addition to exploring dozens of Pacific islands, the French, under the command of the veteran voyager Dumont d’Urville, planned to sail as close as possible to the South Pole.
By the winter of 1838, President Martin Van Buren had come to the belated realization that his secretary of the navy, Mahlon Dickerson, was not capable of successfully organizing the Expedition. In an extraordinary move, he put his secretary of war, Joel Poinsett, in charge of finding a commander. Poinsett, a former congressman from South Carolina, was well educated and had traveled extensively. As minister to Mexico, he had been responsible for bringing the poinsettia, the flower that bears his name, to the United States. He also had a reputation for getting things done.
But not even Poinsett could easily fix the Expedition. Over the course of the next few weeks, every navy captain he contacted ultimately refused his offer of command. The Expedition had become an embarrassment, a sure way to scuttle a promising career. On February 9, John Quincy Adams visited Poinsett at the War Department. Now a representative from Massachusetts, the former president had seen his dreams of a similar voyage dashed back in 1828. “I told him,” Adams recorded in his diary, “that all I wanted to hear about the exploring expedition was, that it had sailed.”
Soon after, Poinsett found an officer of suitable seniority willing to consider the possibility of leading the Expedition. Captain Joseph Smith said he’d agree to it if he could have Wilkes as a surveyor. “I think it would be advisable to order Lieutenant Wilkes to report himself to your department at Washington without delay,” Poinsett wrote Dickerson on March 1.
Little did anyone suspect that in less than a month, it would not be Captain Smith who would be appointed leader of the nation’s first exploring expedition, but a forty-year-old lieutenant who was more accustomed to a desk and an observatory than to the open sea. For Charles Wilkes, the voyage was about to begin.