Scarce London edition of Charles Wilkes' map of Oregon Territory, one of the most important maps of the Northwest after the Lewis & Clark expedition.
Charles Wilkes was the commander of the Wilkes Expedition, from 1838 to 1842. Wilkes carried out a survey of the Columbia River aboard The Porpoise from July to November 1841. The inset of the Columbia River survey on this map was taken from that expedition. It represented a tremendous advance in the mapping of the region.
Wheat refers to the map as in many respects the most detailed of this extensive area yet published, and for the main Oregon region and the Hudson's Bay Company territories in the north it was…a quite extraordinary map. Wilkes sent a party up the Columbia and another south to California. He drew upon the information provided in recent maps by Hood, Arrowsmith and Parker, as well as manuscript information from Jedidiah Smith and the Hudson Bay fur traders. The result is the most important and accurate map of the period and a map of tremendous importance in the history of the cartography of the region.
James Wyld Sr. (1790-1836) was a British cartographer and one of Europe’s leading mapmakers. He made many contributions to cartography, including the introduction of lithography into map printing in 1812.
William Faden, another celebrated cartographer, passed down his mapmaking business to Wyld in 1823. The quality and quantity of Faden’s maps, combined with Wyld’s considerable skill, brought Wyld great prestige.
Wyld was named geographer to His Majesty George IV and William IV, as well as HRH the Duke of York. In 1825, he was elected an Associate of the Institution of Civil Engineers. He was one of the founding members of the Royal Geographical Society in 1830. Also in 1830, his son, James Wyld Jr., took over his publishing house. Wyld Sr. died of overwork on October 14, 1836.
James Wyld Jr. (1812-87) was a renowned cartographer in his own right and he successfully carried on his father’s business. He gained the title of Geographer to the Queen and H.R.H. Prince Albert. Punch (1850) described him in humorous cartographic terms, “If Mr. Wyld’s brain should be ever discovered (we will be bound he has a Map of it inside his hat), we should like to have a peep at it, for we have a suspicion that the two hemispheres must be printed, varnished, and glazed, exactly like a pair of globes.”
Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) was a skilled naval surveyor and the commander of the United States South Seas Exploration Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.), the largest scientific voyage ever mounted by the United States. Wilkes was born in New York City and began to sail in merchant vessels from 1815-1917.
Wilkes joined the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818; by 1826, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant. Fascinated by hydrography, Wilkes studied triangulation and surveying with Ferdinand Hassler, the first superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. This expertise and initiative led him to be named Director of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1833.
After being stalled by the Navy, U.S. Ex. Ex.—the U.S. response to the scientific voyages of Cook and La Perouse—was finally preparing to sail in the late 1830s. Wilkes was offered command, thanks to the heavy surveying focus on the voyage. He was given command of six vessels and nine scientists. However, the ships were not well supplied and the expedition was executed with some difficulty.
The ships left Norfolk in August 1838. They went in convoy to Tierra del Fuego, where they split and some explored in the South Seas and others in the South Atlantic. In late 1830, Wilkes surveyed portions of Antarctica that today are named for him (Wilkes Land). From spring 1840, the ships explored the mid- and North-Pacific. In June 1842, Wilkes returned to New York Harbor with only two of his six ships and a mountain of ethnographic, botanical, and natural historical specimens, as well as reams of observations, drawings, and charts.
Wilkes was met with a court martial; while he was acquitted of most charges, he was convicted of illegal punishment and reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy. Despite this, he was promoted commander in 1843, captain in 1855, and commodore in 1862.
Wilkes spent much of his remaining career overseeing the publications of the expedition. The first official publication to appear was Wilkes’ rambling five-volume narrative of the voyage, accompanied by a folio atlas, in 1844. A further 19 volumes were prepared over the course of 30 years, each on a different scientific topic, although only 14 were ever distributed. Perhaps the most impressive legacies of the expedition were the almost 250 charts Wilkes prepared in two atlases (completed 1858, published 1861, but not distributed until after the Civil War). These formed the basis of the United States Hydrographic Office.
Wilkes served in the Union fleet in the Civil War. In 1864 he was before a court-martial again, this time for the publication of a private letter to the Secretary of the Navy. He was found guilty. He retired two years later, in 1866, and died in Washington D. C. in 1877.