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U.S. Ex. Ex. 1838-1842
October 25, 2008 3:26 AM   Subscribe

The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842Authorized and funded by the U.S. government, six ships sailed with 346 men (including officers, crew, scientists, and artists) on a four-year scientific and surveying mission, logging 87,000 miles around the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans. Two ships and 28 men were lost, and the Expedition's contentious commander Charles Wilkes was court-martialled for his erratic behavior, and was sued by former officers and crew members. During the Civil War in 1861, he boarded a British ship, seized two Confederate agents, and nearly provoked military retaliation by England (he was court-martialled once again in 1864 for insubordination.) Wilkes' 1845 Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition and the Ex. Ex.'s journals were published by Congress, and some 40 tons of Expedition specimens and artifacts became the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution's collections. [Nathaniel Philbrick (video lecture) chronicles this almost-forgotten voyage in his 2003 book Sea of Glory (NYT review).]
posted by cenoxo (21 comments total) 40 users marked this as a favorite

 
On a side point, it might be slightly interesting to know that the Smithsonian was founded by an Englishman who never once visited America and apparently never knew anyone who lived there.
posted by SamuelBowman at 3:38 AM on October 25, 2008


Incredible post. I need a couple of hours to get all the way through, just bookmarked the whole thing. You win best of the blue for the past year. Bravo.
posted by nax at 6:04 AM on October 25, 2008


Based strictly on Wilkes' behavior and command style, it is my scientific opinion that his great-great-grandson is running the McCain campaign.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 6:35 AM on October 25, 2008


Great post! I'll have to come back and look at all the links. Thank you!
posted by vibrotronica at 6:47 AM on October 25, 2008


Awesome post. I once got to see an illustrated talk on the Wilkes collection, and it was fascinating. Thanks!
posted by Miko at 7:10 AM on October 25, 2008


I kiss you for this!
posted by Busithoth at 7:20 AM on October 25, 2008


Very nice post! I have a reprint of the Ethnography and Philology volume, which is full of good things.
posted by languagehat at 9:09 AM on October 25, 2008


You win the Blue Ribbon for this amazing post. Thanks!
posted by Pecinpah at 9:36 AM on October 25, 2008


excellent post!
posted by madamjujujive at 11:32 AM on October 25, 2008


Based strictly on Wilkes' behavior and command style...

Imagine sailing a squadron of wooden ships tens of thousands of miles from home at the mercy of wind, wave, and weather; navigating with incomplete charts and maps, no radar, no GPS satellites, no radio, and no electrical power; expecting little or no hope of outside rescue in case of catastrophe; consuming and resupplying limited stocks of food, water, medicine, and supplies; controlling disgruntled officers and crewmen (however justified they were); confronting alien cultures (however arrogantly); and not knowing what might lie over the next horizon (or up the next river). Yet Wilkes returned safely with over 90% of his ships' company and a bounty of new knowledge that helped put America on the scientific map.

The results of the Ex. Ex. might have been far different if he hadn't been such a zealous, self-righteous, self-promoting SOB.
posted by cenoxo at 12:25 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


Point taken, cenoxo. I'd probably get as far as Key West, fire everyone, and spend the rest of my life on the beach.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 12:34 PM on October 25, 2008


Hah. My elementary school was named after Capt. Wilkes. (The rest of the schools in the district were also named after various explorers of the region from that era.)
posted by hattifattener at 1:11 PM on October 25, 2008


In our world where companies come and go in weeks if not days, and everyone is in the quick-fix-instant-gratification-gotta-have-it-now mindset of modern life, it's impressive and sobering that these few hundred people left on a voyage where they:

a) did not know how long they would be gone
b) did not know what dangers they would face
c) did not know what they would find
and
d) did not even know if they would survive the trip.

The common (and, yes, uncommon) men of that era would sneer at us should they somehow pop out of a time warp and see the effete fools we have become.
posted by pjern at 1:27 PM on October 25, 2008


pjern, you remind me of this Shackleton advert he posted looking for his expedition crew.

posted by Busithoth at 2:07 PM on October 25, 2008 [2 favorites]


IIRC, the Ex Ex accidentally burned down one of the Galapagos.
posted by drezdn at 4:19 PM on October 25, 2008


Not sure what you're referring to, drezdn. If you zoom in on the Expedition's track (on the Equator off the northwest coast of South America), they passed south of the Galapagos Islands in late July 1839 but never made landfall. There's also no mention of the Galapagos in Sea of Glory.
posted by cenoxo at 5:56 PM on October 25, 2008


...this Shackleton advert he posted looking for his expedition crew.

The jury is still out as to whether Shackleton actually placed such an ad (in another online life, I posted this Google Answer to that question several years ago), but it's a great bit of copy.
posted by cenoxo at 6:12 PM on October 25, 2008


Not sure what you're referring to, drezdn

I think I may have been thinking of something from In the Heart of the Sea, but now it seems like it might not have been a fire, but that someone from the ship the Essex was responsible for releasing goats on one of the islands.
posted by drezdn at 6:27 PM on October 25, 2008


The Essex — what an incredible story of survival that is! Melville based Moby Dick (1851) on the fate of that whale ship, and may have used Charles Wilkes' obsessive quest for Antarctica as a model for Captain Ahab.
posted by cenoxo at 7:11 PM on October 25, 2008


it's impressive and sobering that these few hundred people left on a voyage where they:

a) did not know how long they would be gone
b) did not know what dangers they would face
c) did not know what they would find
and
d) did not even know if they would survive the trip.


Your point is a good one, but keep in mind that thousands and thousands of men did exactly that every year, but without the celebrity, in the whaling trade. An average voyage was 3.5 years and it was not uncommon to be away from home for four to five years. Though many waters were charted, captains continually pushed to explore new areas, such as the western Arctic, that were not yet known. Their ventures were commercial and the heroic acts of the sailors in that trade generally went unsung, but were no less impressive.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on October 25, 2008


...the sailors in that trade generally went unsung...

One of the most beautiful a cappella recordings is Judy Collins' 1970 version of an 1850 Scottish whaling song, Farewell to Tarwathie (with humpback whales singing backup).
posted by cenoxo at 7:45 PM on October 25, 2008


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