In the early years of the 19th century, the young United States developed a self-image as a continental power with interests that stretched to North America’s west coast. After the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition, the most important expression of the US’s international aspirations was the Wilkes Expedition of 1838-1842, which established the country’s naval and scientific interests in the Pacific Ocean. The expedition was led by Charles Wilkes, who played a key role in the exploration and settlement of the Pacific Northwest.
Born in New York City in 1798, Charles Wilkes’ mother died when he was three years old. Raised by his aunt, he entered the Navy as a midshipman at age 18. He taught himself how to survey and map coastlines, a skill that earned him the appointment as commander of the United States Exploring Expedition. The government ordered six ships fitted out for a mission that would take now-Lieutenant Wilkes around the world. As well as a military and diplomatic mission, the flotilla also included nine scientists and an artist to collect specimens and record the journey.
After departing Hampton Roads, Virginia, and stopping at Rio de Janiero, Wilkes visited Antarctica and mapped an area now called Wilkes Land, proving that Antarctica is a continent and not an island. Moving on to the South Pacific, Wilkes and the expedition had a number of tragic encounters with indigenous people. On Fiji, Wilkes’ men killed about 80 natives in retaliation for the killing of two seamen, one of whom was Wilkes’ nephew. Wilkes was later court-martialed for the action, but acquitted.
In 1841, Wilkes mapped portions of the west coast of North America. Entering Puget Sound, he dropped anchor in Discovery Bay on the Strait of Juan de Fuca 50 years to the day after Capt. George Vancouver visited the area. Wilkes sailed south in Puget Sound and surveyed much of the estuary, including naming Elliott Bay, the deep water harbor for Seattle. While in Puget Sound, he learned of the loss of the sloop-of-war USS Peacock, which foundered on the Columbia River bar, though most of the scientific samples and drawings were saved. Wilkes eventually traveled overland to San Francisco Bay, which he declared one of the finest harbors in the world, along with Puget Sound.
Wilkes returned to the US in 1842 after circumnavigating the globe. Until the Civil War, he worked on the enormous 19-volume history of his expedition. The narrative and atlas became one of the most important US scientific works of its time. His reputation as a strict disciplinarian was sealed when he was convicted in a court-martial of illegally disciplining his men during the expedition. With the outbreak of the war, Wilkes was given command of a squadron to combat blockade runners. He caused an international incident when he arrested two Confederate diplomats aboard a British Royal Mail ship. It took a disavowal by President Lincoln to smooth things over and avoid a war with Great Britain.
After the war, Wilkes retired and died a rear admiral in 1877. Though controversial, Wilkes established the United States as a naval power in the southern and eastern Pacific Ocean, and he strengthened US claims to the Oregon Territory, paving the way for further exploration, settlement, and annexation of the region by America.