Jun 11

North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856

Saturday, June 11, 2011 12:01 AM


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.

  • Jim Valle

    Ringold’s squadron encountered Perry’s fleet when both converged on China’s coast to protect American merchants and property during the T’ai Ping Rebellion. A furious row erupted between the two men over the best means to employ in defense of American interests. Perry solved the issue by using his status as the senior officer present to convene a board of inquiry which judged Ringold to be “completely insane” and ordered him relieved of command and sent home. The charge was entirely bogus. Ringold served with distinction throughout the Civil War and retired as a Rear Admiral.

  • G. Allin

    Also to note that Ringgold had served on the earlier US Exploring Expediton (US Ex Ex)/Wilkes Expedition from 1838-42. The USS Porpoise, which had also served with the US Ex Ex, was lost with all hands while Ringgold was in command of the NP Ex Ex.

  • ron vasile

    The Porpoise was lost while John Rodgers was in command-Perry appointed him to replace Ringgold. The Porpoise was last seen on September 21, 1854, at N. Lat. 23°30′ E. Lon. 118°25′.

    While Perry was signing his treaties in Japan and Okinawa, Ringgold had invoved the North Pacific Expedition in the Chinese Civil War. This despite his orders that nothing interfere with his surveys. Ringgold had been acting errstically for months, and when he finally reached Hong Kong in August the officers of the expedition pleaded with him to remove Ringgold, which he did.