Saturday, March 28, 2015

The U.S. Exploring Expedition


I have just finished reading Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 by Nathaniel Philbrick. The book is a description of  the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838 to 1842, an exceptional effort for its time. On a scale that dwarfed the journey of Lewis and Clark, five U.S. Navy sailing vessels and a crew of hundreds set out to map island groups of the Pacific Ocean and the Oregon coast. The expedition also mapped a substantial part of the coast of the continent of Antarctica and collected what would become the basis of the Smithsonian Institution -- and much more.
Science and Technology

The Exploring Expedition (Ex. Ex.) took place at a time when modern science was in its infancy in Europe and was hardly known in the United States. The emphasis of the time was, I think, on learning about the world we live in at a rather practical level -- what were the plants and animals, how did they come to be; where was the land, what was it like, how did it get that way, and how was it changing in real time; what were the other natural resources, how abundant were they, and how could they be used.

From the point of view of many of those who sponsored the Ex. Ex., its primary purpose was charting the reefs and islands of the Pacific. U.S. whalers and sealers roamed the seas in search of their prey; they provided vital raw materials for the industry of the time, were an important economic activity of the nation, and had come to dominate an international industry. However, whalers were being lost in the uncharted waters of the Pacific. The Ex. Ex. would charted the waters off the Oregon Territory -- something important in the dispute between Britain and the USA over the border between Canada and the United States. It would chart San Francisco Bay, and it would chart 1500 miles of the coast of Antarctica. It also appears to have charted parts of the South American coast, notably the dangerous waters of Cape Horn. Apparently the charts were fully state of the art for the time; while the quality of the effort in Antarctica was not fully appreciated until the 20th century, others were widely used for considerable time; the chart of Tarawa, the site of an important battle during World War II, was still the best available in 1943. There were 241 nautical charts made in total.

There were important scientific findings by the small group of scientists included on the expedition. 
  • It was observed that volcanic island chains seemed to be located in straight lines, with the most active volcanoes at one end of the line and the most weathered at the other end; this would prove an important clue to the phenomenon of the shifting of tectonic plates.
  • Three coral reefs were observed at different geological ages, showing the pattern predicted by Darwin -- as time passed, the land under the island and reef subsided, and the corals grew. Eventually this would lead to a situation in which there was a coral reef surrounding a lagoon, but no island. This was the first and an important confirmation to Darwin's hypothesis.
  • And of course, the discovery that Antarctica was a continent -- to which several explorers and expeditions of several countries contributed -- was a significant advance.
  • The expedition created a considerable ethnographic collection, including dictionaries of several of the languages of the Pacific Northwest and Micronesia. These I suppose had considerable value as they predated many of the contacts of the native speakers with other cultures,
On return to the United States in 1842, Charles Wilkes, the commander of the Ex. Ex., led a successful effort to gain public attention for the work done during the four year voyage. He began with a talk on the expedition that was attended by some 400 people, including at least one key Senator and one cabinet officer. The collections made by Ex. Ex. far exceeded in volume those of previous expeditions. A major exhibition of objects that had been collected was put on display in the Patent Office, where it remained for 15 years, drawing 100,000 visitors per year. Collected plants were also put on display in a nearby greenhouse, and later in a larger structure near the Capitol. A five volume report of the expedition was published, which went through some 15 editions before the Civil War. Following that, a number of books were published until the Civil War containing individual reports on the scientific and technical findings of the expedition (making the point that it takes time for scientists to fully study the materials and data that they collected before reporting the results).

The U.S. Patent Office (now used as gallery space)
United States Botanical Garden

While Smithson had bequeathed the equivalent of some $11 million to the United States, by 1842 the appropriate use for the funds had not yet been determined. It was decided in the mid 1850s that the funds would be used to create what is now the Smithsonian Institution to serve as a research facility and as a repository and display place for the nation's scientific and other collections. The collections from the Ex. Ex. were moved there, and their display revised. Thus the Ex. Ex. was an important element in the creation of the Smithsonian Institution as well as of the United States Botanical Garden. It was also important to the creation of the United States Hydrographic Office and the Naval Observatory.

Perhaps most important, the Ex. Ex. marked a point at which the federal government recognized that support for science and technology would be a fundamental part of its function, and began to regularly allocate funds for that purpose. The many government sponsored exploring missions that would soon open the west benefited from the legacy of the Ex. Ex., as the Smithsonian and the American scientific community benefited from those expeditions.

Before the Ex. Ex. there were Americans who did science. Benjamin Franklin is perhaps the outstanding example, but Benjamin Thompson was also an important American 18th century scientist, less known here because he was a loyalist who did most of his important work in Europe after having left America as a result of the revolution. Joseph Priestly moved to the United States after the Revolution. William Bartram was an important 18th century American naturalist and botanist. Even John James Audubon can be seen as an ornithologist (although his work was done in the early 19th century). John Bartram was an early but internationally known botanist. Thomas Jefferson, that polymath, certainly had scientific interests. Even Lewis and Clark, and their famous expedition early in the 18th century can be seen as scientific, even if its science was not published and its collections not maintained. However, author Philbrick tells us that before the Ex. Ex. an American could not make a living doing science. After the Ex. Ex. it became possible to earn one's bread and have a career as a scientist.

The Route of the U.S. Exploring Expedition

The Adventure

A strong point of Sea of Glory is its description of the adventure lived by the officers and crews of the ships of the Ex. Ex. It might seem obvious that people who sailed around the world from 1838 to 1842 -- in the small wooden sailing ships of the time -- lived had an adventure. Author Philbrick's book makes it clear that the facts of the journey were more than most of us could have imagined.

Traversing the cape at the southern extreme of South America was perilous for sailing ships, but the Ex. Ex. not only sought to get past the dangerous shores and terrible weather, but also to chart the area. One of the ships of the Ex. Ex., the Sea Gull, was ordered to meet with the remainder of the squadron at Valparaiso after the charting of Cape Horn had been completed. It failed to arrive, and is assumed to have been lost with all hands aboard. This was one of the two smallest ships of the expedition, chosen specifically for its utility in chart making.

Antarctica is completely surrounded by ocean and not only is it very cold, but the topography makes the weather especially fierce. Three ships of the Ex. Ex. were ordered to pass through that ocean in order to seek out land on the Antarctic continent, and if land could be found to chart a significant stretch of that land. In order to do so, the ships had to find a path through a barrier of ice, and when they did so it was through a channel jammed with icebergs of various sizes. The charting then was done with frequent storms that threatened to drive the ships against the lee shores. Think about dealing with a violent storm, at night, with icebergs looming out of the dark, in ships not made for such duty, with the sure knowledge that death would follow for the crew of any wrecked ship -- adventure enough for anyone. The Ex. Ex. charted some 1500 miles of the Antarctic coast under such conditions.

In the Fiji Islands, the charting was done under threat by hostile Fijian natives who were cannibals. In one encounter, members of the crew of the flagship were killed. The men of the Ex. Ex. retaliated brutally, utilizing the superior weapons of their warships.. Still, sailing in uncharted waters with hidden reefs, beset by cannibals again should be adventure enough for anyone.

In Hawaii, it was decided to establish an outpost on the top of the tallest volcano -- more than 13,000 feet in altitude. The snow covered higher altitudes were so cold that the Hawaiian natives helping to carry supplies and the scientific equipment had to be sent back, to be replaced by a significant portion of the ship's crews. The climb up the huge volcano was itself difficult , especially for men who had been at sea for many months and had perhaps lost the physical conditioning appropriate for such exertions, Moreover, the volcanic surface over which they climbed made the climb difficult and tended to destroy shoes (and the feet of the unshod native Hawaiians). Arriving at the top, the explorers built a village to withstand the cold, and stayed for days to complete their measurements. In the process they encountered hurricane force winds that were icy cold. They also braved the dangers of a very active caldera of the volcano as part of the exploration.

As the Ex. Ex. charted the shores of North America, it was decided that the ships should sail some distance up the Colombia River. Where the flow from the huge river meets the sea with its tides and large waves, the channel is especially dangerous. With sand banks and shoals, not to mention very high and violent surf, this is still judged to be one of the three most dangerous river entrances in the world; some 2000 ships have been lost attempting to pass the mouth of the Colombia. One of the larger ships of the Ex. Ex., the USS Peacock, ran aground attempting the channel, and was battered to pieces. One small boat managed to make several trips to the Peacock to remove the crew and carry it so safety.

Starting with five ships (one of which was sent home early in the voyage), two were lost at sea; and one was replaced as untrustworthy for the remainder of the voyage; repairs on ships were made at several ports during the voyage. There was turnover among the members of the expedition, but the company that started with just over 350 men had 28 die during the voyage; many more were injured or ill over the four years.


Sea of Glory seems to emphasize discord among people involved in the expedition. That discord was evident in the years of negotiations it took to approve and fund the effort, and in the years that followed as high government officials sought to blame rather than praise the members of the expedition. Originally authorized under Andrew Jackson's administration, the expedition returned in 1842 under the Whig administration of John Tyler to a less than friendly reception.

Charles Wilkes
Much of the book seemed to me to be devoted to the discord between Charles Wilkes, the commander of the Ex. Ex. and a group of the officers serving under him. Since Wilkes brought these officers to Courts Martial after the voyage, and since they testified against him in his own Court Martial, the discord is on the record -- more so since it is documented in memoirs of the participants and in letters and journals that the kept at the time.

I found it hard to understand the situation at the time. This seems to have been a time when the discipline considered appropriate for navy ships at sea was changing. Navy discipline had been very brutal in the 18th century, was less so by 1840, but was then still far more brutal than today. Wilkes, quite young and very inexperienced for the magnitude of the command of the Ex. Ex., used his authority forcefully, but was judged not to have exceeded that authority (with one exception) by the senior officers serving as his judges during his Court Martial.

The voyage also took place after a relatively long period of peace since the war of 1812. In 1838, few young men were being accepted as midshipmen and promotions for officers were few and fat between. The officers of the Ex. Ex. were almost without exception young, relatively junior officers; they were worried about their careers. Many would be given responsibility during the Mexican American war, and gain affluence and senior rank in the Civil War when the navy was greatly expanded, but that was in the unknown future as of 1842.

So we have young officers, frustrated by lack of career opportunities, cooped up on sailing ships for years at a time, often under profound stress but also very bored some of the time. While many senior officers had turned down offers to sail with the Ex. Ex., these young men -- often chosen for their unusual experience in marine surveying -- accepted challenges that they may not fully have understood.

While author Philbrick justifies his portrayal of discord among officers in the expedition with notes on his sources, and while there were not and could not have been independent observations of the interpersonal relations, I was unsatisfied by this aspect of the book. It was for me rather like an overlong exposure to the comic strip Dilbert.

The Narrow Leadership Class

I was struck in the book by how many of the principle characters were drawn from what must have been a small aristocratic class. President William Henry Harrison (who died after a month in office in 1841) was not only from a distinguished Virginia family, but was the grandfather of President Benjamin Harrison. Senator Thomas Hart Benton, whose father was wealthy, married into a distinguished Virginia family and was the father-in-law of John C. Fremont; Thomas Hart Benton, the painter was his Great-Nephew.

Charles Wilkes was himself from a well known family. His aunt was Elizabeth Ann Seton, and she took care of him for some time after the death of his mother; known as Mother Seton, she was the first American to be declared a saint by the Catholic Church. Wilkes Henry, a young midshipman on the Ex. Ex., was Charles' nephew; he was killed in the Fiji Islands. James Renwick Jr., another nephew, was the architect who designed the first building of the Smithsonian Institution -- the Castle; hes work is very well known in the nation's capitol as he also designed the Corcoran and Renwick Galeries. Wilkes and his wife eventually became influential members of Washington society, living in the house on Lafayette Square once occupied by Dolly Madison/

Portrait of George Washington
by Charles Wilson Peale
Among the scientists on the expedition. James Dwight Dana came from a distinguished New England family; his cousin, Richard Henry Dana, at roughly the same time as the Ex. Ex., was making a voyage to California that he described in the memoir, Two Years Before the Mast, which is still in print. Titian Peale was a member of the Peale family of artists, the son of  Charles Wilson Peale.

Final Comments

I found this book most interesting. I have a long standing interest in science policy, and this book told me about events in the history of science policy in the United States that I had not even suspected. It strongly makes the case that the Ex. Ex. was a seminal event in the growth of science in what has been for many years the strongest scientific power on earth.

I think almost anyone will enjoy the book. The adventure alone will carry most readers to another time. It is a book in which brave men travel to distant, exotic places.

The book portrays a time in which the history of the United States is little known nor understood. The nation still faced toward the sea, and its population was still concentrated on the Atlantic side of the continent. It was transforming itself from its former colonial status to the international power it would become. Modern institutions were being created. Sea of Glory tells a part of the story, and tells it well!

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