Aug 18

Navy-Marine Corps First Exploring Expedition

Thursday, August 18, 2011 12:01 AM


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.

  • Jim Valle

    After his return Wilkes was assigned to the Bureau of Charts and Instruments and spent several years writing up his findings and collating his specimens. Several bulky volumes resulted but there was no unifying theme to tie it all together so the mass of material was essentially unreadable. Wilkes’contemporary, Charles Darwin, did have a theme and it resulted in an engaging book, “The Voyage of the Beagle” and a scientific revolution which continues to this day.

  • Jason Smith

    The Fiji incident was in July 1840. Two officers, including Wilkes’ nephew were killed. In response to the first response, Wilkes had headed the Depot of Charts and Instruments prior to his appointment to command the US Ex. Ex., but he did not return to it after the voyage. By then, Matthew Fontaine Maury, no fan of Wilkes, had begun his long tenure in command of the depot, which became the Naval Observatory in 1844.

  • Jim Valle

    Hi Jason: It’s hard to believe that Wilkes had no contact with the Bureau of Charts and Instruments after his voyage since part of the reason for it was to produce charts of previously uncharted or poorly charted areas. In addition he needed office space and facilities to work up his journals and findings. Where did he find these?

  • G. Allin

    Marine Quartermaster Sergeant Simeon Albert Stearns (and occasionally another Marine or two) accompanied the survey of Maunal Loa in Hawaii and in 1841 the three overland mapping expeditions throughout the Oregon territory and down into California. Numerous references to him in the official Narratives and the journals of others in the US Ex. EX. mention him. His presence and assistance during a number of tense and potentially dangerous situations most likely materially contributed to the success of the Expedition.

    I understand that all, or a portion of Sgt. Stearns’ personal journal kept durig the Expedition is in the archives of the New York Public Library. If anyone knows of the how to obtain a transcription of the journal, I would appreciate learning how to get it. I would also welcome any information someone may have of Sgt. Stearns’ origins and what became of him after the Expedition. I understand he may have left the Marine Corps after returning to the States at the end of the voyage. There is a reference that he testified in some of the 1942 courts-martial and the later lawsuit brought against Charles Wilkes.

  • John

    Jason I am doing my AP US history report on the Expedition and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about it over email. I’ve had a hell of a hard time finding anyone in my locale who knows much about it.