Expansion of trade in the Pacific captivated American administrations in the 1850s, resulting in diplomatic efforts to establish relations with Japan and scientific ventures to provide accurate charts for merchantmen. A desire to reduce navigational mishaps and to find the shortest trade routes for the American merchant marine in the Pacific propelled Congress to fund U.S. Navy-sponsored scientific expeditions during the antebellum period. From 1838 to 1842 the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, focused on surveying the Antarctic and Pacific. The diplomatic mission of fostering relations with Japan highlighted Captain Matthew Calbraith Perry’s 1852-54 cruise, but charting the western Pacific was also an important result. Congress, anticipating Perry’s success in opening Japan to the West, chartered another naval squadron to follow in his wake and pressure Japan to open its harbors to American commerce. Congress charged this expedition (1853-56) with surveying the North Pacific Ocean, the Bering Strait, and the China Sea.
The Navy Department established the North Pacific Exploring Expedition, also called the Ringgold-Rodgers-Brooke Expedition after its two captains, Commanders Cadwalader Ringgold and John Rodgers, and its astronomer, Lieutenant John M. Brooke, with the mandate “to extend the empire of commerce and science.” With a $125,000 congressional appropriation Ringgold outfitted five ships for the enterprise. Two vessels, the sloop of war Vincennes (flagship) and brig Porpoise had sailed with the Wilkes expedition. The bark-rigged steamer John Hancock, a converted merchantman, John P. Kennedy, and a 95-ton schooner, Fenimore Cooper, rounded out the squadron that departed Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 11 June 1853. The naval squadron traversed thousands of miles in the Pacific, from the Aleutians to Australia, Singapore to Shimoda, and Hong Kong to Hakodate, returning to the Brooklyn Navy Yard in mid-July 1856. Port calls that exposed many provincial tars to their first experience with exotic cultures interrupted the monotony of charting mile after mile of coastlines and recording innumerable depth soundings.
Two objectives motivated Congress to charter this expedition–to respond to the immediate entreaties of American whalers seeking accurate charts and to provide future American commercial interests with the most expeditious and safe trade routes from the West Coast to China and Japan. Unfortunately, the onset of the Civil War prevented the publication of this mission’s findings, thus depriving the crew of the North Pacific Expedition the publicity enjoyed by Wilkes and Perry. The surveys from this venture, however, have proven invaluable during peace and war, saving countless mariners’ lives.