Publishing the U.S. Exploring Expedition: The Fruits of the Glorious Enterprise

By Boudreau, Joan | Printing History, January 2008 | Go to article overview
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Publishing the U.S. Exploring Expedition: The Fruits of the Glorious Enterprise

Boudreau, Joan, Printing History

IN 1844, swept into office by a campaign promising westward expansion, President-elect James K. Polk was poised to succeed John Tyler in the White House. A confident young United States of America was challenging European nations in international disputes over boundaries from the Pacific Northwest to Texas. Lieutenant John C. Fremont of the Army Topographical Corps had just completed the first U.S. government-sponsored scientific expedition to the Rocky Mountains, and the first wagon train of pioneers had crossed that distant range. As William H. Goetzmann has remarked,

   The nineteenth century, for Americans as well as Europeans, was an 
   age of exploration. During this period all of the islands of the 
   sea were charted, the Antarctic discovered, and the interiors of 
   the continental land masses opened up to the mobile citizens of the 
   Western world, who came to them with Christianity, ideas of 
   progress, new techniques in science, and dreams of romantic 
   imperialism. (1) 


In late March of 1844, an advertisement appeared in two Washington newspapers, the National Intelligencer and the Globe, calling for bids on the largest publishing project ever contemplated. The winner would face the enormous challenge of printing what became the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition and its accompanying scientific volumes. (2)

Congress had already enacted a provision, on 24 August 1842, "for publishing an account of the discoveries made by the Exploring Expedition ... which account shall be prepared with illustrations and published in a form similar to the voyage of the ... Astrolabe, lately published by the government of France." (3) The French publication was considered a high-quality publication, and Congress's provision was a call to America, as the work was to be prepared only by American artisans, (1) to find a way to produce a comparable product. Congress "fully examined all the volumes of Foreign Expeditions that had been presented to our Government and determined to vie with, if not surpass, them." (2)


   The National Intelligencer advertisement [Fig. 1] read: 
   Proposals will be received in Washington by the subscriber, agent 
   of the Joint Library Committee of Congress, until the 20th day of 
   April next, for printing "an account of the discoveries made by the 
   Exploring Expedition under the command of Lieut. Wilkes, of the 
   United States Navy." A full specification of the manner in which 
   the work must be executed may be seen in Boston at the bookstore of 
   Little & Brown; in New York at the bookstore of Wiley & Putnam; and 
   in Philadelphia, at the bookstore of Lea & Blanchard. Persons 
   living in other parts of the country, wishing to make proposals for 
   the work, will receive such specifications by applying to--Beni. 
   Tappan. (3) 


In the 1840s, according to Goetzmann, "the basis of geographical discovery shifted from the simple notation of landmarks and natural wonders, of settlement sites and overland trails, to the scientific assessment of basic resources, the serious study of primitive culture different from our own, and the application to the West of the engineer's calculations so necessary to the advent of a complex and technical civilization into that pristine region." (4) The U.S. Exploring Expedition, commanded by Charles Wilkes, had returned two years previously from its three-year, ten-month, government-sponsored "surveying and exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South seas." (5) The Wilkes Expedition was dispatched to satisfy "an ever increasing demand on the part of American commercial interests for better and fuller information concerning those remote and poorly charted regions." (6) As with Fremont's expedition, Wilkes was also able to assist in the exploration of the Pacific Northwest expedition.

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Publishing the U.S. Exploring Expedition: The Fruits of the Glorious Enterprise


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