"In Behalf of the Science of the Country": The Smithsonian and the U.S. Navy in the North Pacific in the 1850's

Usage Conditions Apply
The Smithsonian Institution Archives welcomes personal and educational use of its collections unless otherwise noted. For commercial uses, please contact photos@si.edu.

Narrow Your Results


Filter Your Results

Smithsonian Secretaries Information

Close Browse records and papers of the Smithsonian Secretaries, from 1846 until today. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by individuals who have held that office.

Expeditions Information

Close Browse records and papers documenting scientific and collecting expeditions either affiliated with the Smithsonian, or with which Smithsonian researchers participated. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by geographic regions predominantly represented in expedition records.

Professional Societies Information

Close Browse records of professional societies closely associated with the Smithsonian, that focus on areas of scientific research and museum studies. Pre-set filters help narrow searches by major topics and disciplines.


  • This article examines the different roles played by the Smithsonian Institution in two expeditions undertaken by the U. S. Navy in the early 1850's. The author notes that the U. S. Army and civilian scientists had a history of cooperating in successful exploring efforts, which he attributes to the training and status of Army officers at that time. He contrasts that success with the inconsistent approaches used by the Navy in its expeditions. For example, the primary mission of the U. S. Naval Expedition to Japan led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry from 1852 to 1854 was the opening of Japan to American trade, with the advancement of scientific knowledge only a secondary goal. The Smithsonian, therefore, played just minor role in this expedition, and only after it was over when it was asked to house the artifact collections that Perry brought back to the U. S.
  • However, the Smithsonian played a central role in the U. S. Naval Expedition to the North Pacific, which launched in 1853. The Institution worked closely with the Navy on all matters relative to the expedition, such as selecting expedition scientists, choosing the reference library, serving as a scientific clearinghouse, and taking charge of the collections. In return, the Navy agreed to defray the Smithsonian's expenses. When these arrangements were jeopardized after national elections brought in a different political party and a change in the Secretary of the Navy, Smithsonian Secretary Joseph Henry worked to retain the intent of the original agreements, and by being successful in his efforts allowed the strengths of the Smithsonian and the Navy to be combined to make the North Pacific Exploring Expedition a major contributor to science and one of the principal factors in the creation of the U. S. National Museum.
  • The number of scientific specimens brought back, along with those from concurrent Army expeditions, vastly increased the number of scientific specimens belonging to the government, and the quantity and quality of those specimens prompted Joseph Henry to work with the government to establish the forerunner of the present-day Smithsonian museum complex.


  • Perry, Matthew Calbraith 1794-1858
  • Henry, Joseph 1797-1878
  • United States Naval Expedition to the North Pacific
  • United States Naval Expedition to Japan, 1852-1854
  • United States National Museum
  • Smithsonian Institution Building (Washington, D.C.)
  • Japan-U.S. Treaty of Amity and Commerce
  • United States Dept. of the Navy


Smithsonian Institution History Bibliography


The author edited volumes 6 through 11 of The Papers of Joseph Henry. Citations are provided at the end of the article.

Contained within

Pacific Science Vol. 52, No. 4 (Journal)

Contact information

Institutional History Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 600 Maryland Avenue, S.W., Washington, D.C. 20024-2520, SIHistory@si.edu




  • Scientific expeditions
  • Secretaries
  • Collectors and collecting
  • Museums
  • Museum exhibits


  • Japan
  • North Pacific Ocean

Physical description

pp. 301-307

Full Record

View Full Record