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Nice example of the Wilkes / US Ex Ex. map of Hawai'i, drawn from the visit of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1840.

This expedition, which also visited many other parts of the Pacific, was under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes. Among its many firsts, this expedition was the first overseas scientific project financed by the federal government. Its accomplishments were numerous, including the first extensive mapping of the Antarctic coastline, the first comprehensive charting of Fiji Islands, volcanological studies in Hawai'i and elsewhere in the Pacific, and extensive survey work in the area of present-day Oregon and Washington.

Another major accomplishment from this expedition was the first time mapping of the Hawai'i volcanoes, including the summit of Mauna Loa, the crater of Kilauea on the Big Island and Haleakala on Maui.

Charles Wilkes led an important early American exploring expedition conducted almost exclusively at sea. The expedition had numerous accomplishments to its credit, including mapping nearly three hundred islands, a thorough exploration of the American Northwest Coast, and establishing the true nature of Antarctica as a continent. Other scientific works arising from the voyage followed in later years.

Despite the problems caused by Wilkes's infamous temper, the expedition was a highly successful circumnavigation. "The United States equivalent to the voyages of James Cook, Jean François Galaup de Lapérouse, Alejandro Malaspina, and Ivan Fedorovich Kruzenshtern for England, France, Spain, and Russia, and the maritime equivalent of Lewis and Clark" (W. Michael Mathes).

The large format editions of Wilkes' 1845 Narrative are quite rare. The atlas was printed in an edition of 150 copies supplied to Wilkes for presentation and sale and an official edition of 1844, which was printed in 100 copies, of which 25 were destroyed by fire.

Charles Wilkes Biography

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.