Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes, 1798–1877, American naval officer and explorer, b. New York City, educated by his father. In 1815 he entered the merchant service and received (1818) an appointment as a midshipman. For his survey (1832–33) of Narragansett Bay he was designated (1833) head of the department of charts and instruments of the navy. Although an inexperienced leader, he was put in command of a government exploring expedition intended to provide accurate naval charts for the whaling industry. Wilkes, then a lieutenant, set sail (1838) from Norfolk, Va., in charge of a squadron of six ships and 346 seamen, and accompanied by a team of nine scientists and artists. They sailed around South America, did important research in the S Pacific, and explored the Antarctic. The portion of Antarctica that he explored was subsequently named Wilkes Land. Wilkes explored Fiji in 1840, visited the Hawaiian group, and in May, 1841, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific coast of the United States, and explored the Pacific Northwest.

After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes returned to New York in June, 1842. In four years at sea he had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 vol. and an atlas) appeared in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (20 vol. and 11 atlases, 1844–74) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XIII (Hydrography). Moreover, the specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection.

Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as an arrogant, cruel, and capricious leader. The impetuosity of his nature, for which he was twice court-martialed, was demonstrated when early in the Civil War, as commander of the San Jacinto, he stopped the British mail ship Trent and, contrary to all regulations, forcibly removed Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason. The incident almost involved the Union in a war with England (see Trent Affair). Promoted to the rank of commodore in 1862, he commanded a squadron in the West Indies.

See biography by D. Henderson (1953, repr. 1971); W. Bixby, The Forgotten Voyage of Charles Wilkes (1966); R. Silverberg, Stormy Voyager (1968); A. Gurney, The Race to the White Continent (2000); N. Philbrick, Sea of Glory (2003).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Stormy Voyager: The Story of Charles Wilkes
Robert Silverberg.
Lippincott, 1968
The Shaping of American Ethnography: The Wilkes Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842
Barry Alan Joyce.
University of Nebraska Press, 2001
Titian Ramsay Peale, 1799-1885: And His Journals of the Wilkes Expedition
Jessie J. Poesch.
American Philosophical Society, 1961
Men from under the Sky: The Arrival of Westerners in Fiji
Raymond Burr; Stanley Brown.
C. E. Tuttle Co., 1973
The Seventh Continent: Antarctica in a Resource Age
Deborah Shapley.
Resources for the Future, 1985
Science in American Society: A Social History
George H. Daniels.
Knopf, 1971
Antarctica: Exploration, Perception, and Metaphor
Paul Simpson-Housley.
Routledge, 1992
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Enigma of Wilkes Land"
Mr. Lincoln's Navy
Richard S. West Jr.
Longmans Green, 1957
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 7 "Wilkes and the Trent Affair"
America's Greatest Voyage of Discovery: He Was the American Naval Officer in Charge of One of the Most Successful Exploration Expeditions of All Time. He Was Revered by Darwin and Seen as Cook's Equal. but in Spite of His Achievements, Charles Wilkes Has Fallen into Obscurity. Best-Selling Author Nathaniel Philbrick Tells His Tale
Philbrick, Nathaniel.
Geographical, Vol. 76, No. 4, April 2004
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