By almost any measure, America's first ocean-going voyage of discovery, the US Exploring Expedition (widely known as the US Ex Ex) of 1838, was an extraordinary success. After four years at sea, and having covered 140,000 kilometres, this six-vessel, 346-person fleet returned with more specimens and artefacts than all three of James Cook's voyages combined. The expedition's scientific reports were so comprehensive that none other than Charles Darwin looked upon them with admiration while developing his theory of evolution.
Just as impressive were the expedition's contributions to geography. The fleet's officers surveyed 280 Pacific islands, creating 180 charts that were still being used as late as the Second World War. In addition to surveying 1,300 kilometres of coastline in the Pacific Northwest, the US Ex Ex was the first to chart a significant portion of the Antarctic coast, which was subsequently named Wilkes Land in honour of the expedition's commander, Charles Wilkes. In 1849, seven years after the expedition's return, the Royal Geographical Society presented Wilkes with its Founders medal "for the talent and perseverance he displayed in a voyage in the Antarctic regions".
But despite these achievements, the US Ex Ex was quickly forgotten. This was partly because of the USA's growing infatuation with the wilderness of its own interior. As the West emerged as the nation's predominant frontier with the discovery of gold in California in 1848, there was no place in the collective US imagination for an ocean-going voyage of discovery--no matter how remarkable.
But there is another reason why the US Ex Ex is so little known today: the personality of its leader. Charles Wilkes was no James Cook. Pugnacious and egotistical rather than self-effacing and confident, Wilkes had a talent for creating conflict. Instead of being honoured with speeches and parades upon his return, he was court-martialled for cruelty to his officers and men and a variety of outrages, including the massacre of a Fijian village. Even though he'd achieved more than anyone could ever have expected, Wilkes made it impossible for his own nation to recognise the magnitude of his accomplishments. And yet, there was something quintessentially American about Wilkes and the brash, boisterous, overreaching expedition that he forged in his own tormented image.
Wilkes was born to affluent parents in New York in 1798. When his mother died just two years later, he was placed in the care of an aunt, Elizabeth Ann Seton, who later converted to Catholicism, become an abbess and was canonised as the USA's first native-born saint. Wilkes's exposure to sainthood proved short-lived, however. At just four years of age, he was sent away to boarding school. When he realised he was about to be abandoned at the school, Wilkes clung to his father's leg and refused to let go. "Young as I was," he later wrote, "the impression is still on me and it is the first event of my life that I have any distinct recollection of." For the next ten years, Wilkes was, in his own words, "a poor castaway boy", attending a series of boarding schools that he hated, always yearning to be at home with the father he loved. "I had no other companions than my books and teachers," he remembered.
But there was always the sea. Manhattan was surrounded by water, and hull to hull along the waterfront was a restless wooden exoskeleton of ships, their long bowsprits nuzzling over the busy streets, drawing the eyes of even the most jaundiced New Yorker irresistibly skyward into a complex forest of spars and rigging. This was where a boy might turn his back on all that he had once known and step into an exotic dream of adventure, freedom, opportunity and risk.
For children of Wilkes's generation, the sea was what the Wild West later became--a wilderness where a man might make his mark. Of all the heroes of this watery frontier, none stood taller than James Cook. …