Finding Aids to Personal Papers and Special Collections in the Smithsonian Institution Archives
Record Unit 7186
United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)
United States Exploring Expedition Collection, 1838-1885
The United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the Wilkes Expedition, was authorized by an act of Congress in 1836 as "a surveying and exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas." It was prompted by a desire to obtain information concerning an area which was rapidly becoming of interest to American traders and whalers. A contingent of scientists accompanied the expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, including Charles Pickering, Titian Ramsay Peale, Joseph P. Couthouy, James Dwight Dana, William Rich, William Dunlop Brackenridge, and Horatio Hale. In addition to the scientists, two illustrators, Joseph Drayton and Alfred T. Agate, also accompanied the expedition.
The expedition, which consisted of five ships and crews provided by the United States Navy, sailed from Norfolk, Virginia, in August 1838. By the time it returned to New York in June 1842, it had visited and explored Madeira, both coasts of South America, Tierra del Fuego, the South Pacific islands, Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, the Hawaiian Islands, Oregon, California, the Philippine Islands, Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, and St. Helena. Wilkes' voyage along the Antarctic coast during the expedition established the existence of that continent.
During the voyage, the scientists gathered specimens and studied the flora and fauna of each place visited. At various points along the route specimens were packed and sent back to the United States. Eventually, the specimens were placed in the custody of the National Institute in Washington, D.C., and installed in the Great Hall of the Patent Office. They remained there until their removal to the Smithsonian Institution in 1858.
Several reports covering the scientific work of the expedition were made, and most were published. One of the exceptions was the ichthyology report, which Charles Pickering was originally assigned to prepare. It was delayed, however; and by the middle of 1849, Jean Louis Agassiz had been placed in charge of the work. Due to the pressures of his many other commitments, and to the growing reluctance of Congress to appropriate additional funds after 1862, Agassiz never completed the project. In 1885, twelve years after Agassiz's death, the fish specimens, his manuscript, and its illustrations were sent to the United States National Museum.
The two illustrators, Joseph Drayton and Alfred T. Agate, produced numerous drawings of fishes during the expedition, many of which are in this collection. Drayton also helped supervise the illustrations and engraving work for a number of the scientific reports which were published.
A number of the items covering the ichthyology of the United States Exploring Expedition have been held, along with the specimens, by the Division of Fishes of the United States National Museum of Natural History. This record unit includes an unsigned manuscript on the fishes of the expedition, apparently the work of Jean Louis Agassiz which was sent to the United States National Museum in 1885; notes on the fishes and echinoderms collected by the expedition, either by Charles Pickering or based on his notes; a number of items concerning the drawings, specimens and the itinerary of the expedition; and drawings and illustrations of fishes done during the voyage or as illustrations for the ichthyology report. An unpublished manuscript on the fishes of the United States Exploring Expedition by Henry Ward Fowler has been placed in Record Unit 7180.
In addition to the ichthyological materials some items in this collection were held by the Smithsonian Library. These items consist of a letter from R. R. Waldron to Mrs. Sarah Jane Hale concerning her son Horatio Hale's travel plan, 1841; a manuscript on the expedition by Titian Ramsay Peale, which was published by the American Historical Records, 1874; notebooks on botany, mostly by William Dunlop Brackenridge; catalogues and annotated lists of ethnological, geological, mineralogical, and natural history specimens collected by the expedition; drawings of echinoderms by Drayton; original invoices and other official papers of the expedition, mostly shipping lists of specimens sent to the United States; and some loose sheets from the purser's account book, 1838-1842.
This collection is indexed under the following access terms. These are links to collections with related topics, persons or places.
- Peale, Titian Ramsay, 1799-1885
- Agassiz, Louis, 1807-1873
- Pickering, Charles, 1805-1878
- Wilkes, Charles, 1798-1877
- Couthouy, Joseph Pitty, 1808-1864
- Dana, James Dwight, 1813-1895
- Rich, William
- Brackenridge, William D. (William Dunlop), 1810-1893
- Hale, Horatio, 1817-1896
- Drayton, Joseph
- Agate, Alfred T., 1812-1846
- National Institute
- Patent Office Building (Washington, D.C.)
- United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842)
- Invertebrate zoology
- Natural history
- Scientific expeditions
Physical Characteristics of Materials in the Collection
Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7186, United States Exploring Expedition Collection