On 18 August 1838, 31 Marines were attached to the first U.S. exploring expedition, which sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, under command of Navy Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. Over the next four years, the courageous squadron (Vincennes, Peacock, Porpoise, Sea Gull, Flying Fish and Relief) surveyed and charted hundreds of Pacific islands like Samoa and parts of the Philippines, the Oregon territory, and proved the existence of the seventh continent Antarctica. The Marines were under the command of Quartermaster Sergeant Simeon Stearns who was joined by 15 others on the Vincennes; 11 Marines served on board the Peacock and the four remaining on the Porpoise.
During the exploration, the experiences of the sailors and Marines were not altogether peaceful. In 1838, the natives of Fiji were found to be especially hostile to any encroachment upon their domain and attacked a small party in a boat making scientific observations; the party narrowly escaped. In the summer of 1841 the expedition had similar difficulties with hostile natives—this time on Drummond Island in the Kingmill Group. Despite the difficulties with unreceptive inhabitants, the Wilkes Expedition established trade regulations with chieftains in the Samoa Islands in 1839 and conducted surveys of Hawaiian volcanoes, Mauna Loa and Kilauea from September 1840 to April 1841. While the expedition did confirm the existence of Antarctica, it regrettably took later explorations to vindicate Wilkes’ findings.
The explorers returned in 1842 to a seemingly uninterested public, an unfriendly Congress, and doubts about their accomplishments, particularly in Antarctica. Courts-martial, the result of trivial charges, clouded the expedition’s notable achievements. Nonetheless, the extensive collections and numerous specimens collected during the voyage proved a foundation for the new Smithsonian Institution in 1857.