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Rare chart of Charles Wilkes' final command prior to embarking upon his famous Expedition in 1838.
The first recorded contact with George's Shoal was by Giovanni da Verrazzano, a Florentine navigator, who sailed in 1524 under the flag of France in an attempt to find a mid-latitude passage to the Orient. On the homeward passage, he encountered Georges Bank and named it Armelline Shoals (after a villainous papal tax collector). Variously called the Great Rise, and the Great Bank of Malabarre, early English colonists re-named Armelline Shoals after St. George, the patron saint of England.
Over time, Georges Bank became an important fishery. By 1832, virtually every square foot of Georges Bank had been sounded and charted. Charles Wilkes' "Chart of Georges Shoals and Bank," with over 1,000 soundings, and multitude of bottom composition recordings, was so thorough (in the area surveyed) that not until 1930 was a new survey undertaken.
The present map is one of only two maps upon which Wilkes name appears prior to his departure on his famous expedition in 1838 (along with a 4 sheet charting of Narrangansett Bay, published in 1832) and the only map where Wilkes is identified as the leader of the expedition.
Lt. Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. Navy expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean in 1838. As commander of the first United States Exploring Expedition, Wilkes conducted one of the most important early scientific expeditions taken on by an American crew.
Wilkes joined the Navy as a mid-shipman in 1818 and became a Lieutenant in 1826. In 1833, he headed the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments, out of which developed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office and undertook a survey of Narrangansett Bay.
From an early point in time, Wilkes sought a command to explore and survey routes in the Pacific. In 1838, he took command of a small fleet of six vessels carrying up-to-date scientific instruments and experts in the fields of botany, philology (the comparative science of language), horticulture, conchology (the scientific study of shells), and mineralogy. The Wilkes Expedition surveyed Antarctica, visited Hawaii, and encountered the wild entrance to the Columbia River, in Wilkes' words, "one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor." Unable to cross the bar, he decided to first chart Puget Sound, then return to the River of the West (Columbia).
After almost losing two ships, the Vincennes and the Porpoise, on the rocky Washington coast at Point Grenville, Wilkes' dropped anchor in (Port) Discovery Bay near the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula on May 2, 1841. Wilkes then commenced a detailed survey of Puget Sound, naming or re-naming dozens of landmarks, including Elliott Bay. Upon arrival in Puget Sound, Charles Wilkes visited his British counterparts at Fort Nisqually, then set his men to work surveying the Sound, and dispatched an expedition eastward to Fort Okanogan, Lapwai, and Walla Walla under the command of Lieutenant Robert Johnson. He also sent a party overland to California, which met with Captain John A. Sutter at his fortress on the American River.
Wilkes conducted overland explorations of the route south of Puget Sound. He crossed the portage to the Cowlitz River, rented a canoe, and paddled down the river, then up the Columbia to pay wher he visited the Hudson's Bay Chief Factor, Dr. John McLoughlin. He also visited Astoria and several Columbia River mission stations.
Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) was a skilled naval surveyor and the commander of the United States South Seas Exploration Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.), the largest scientific voyage ever mounted by the United States. Wilkes was born in New York City and began to sail in merchant vessels from 1815-1917.
Wilkes joined the United States Navy as a midshipman in 1818; by 1826, he had risen to the rank of lieutenant. Fascinated by hydrography, Wilkes studied triangulation and surveying with Ferdinand Hassler, the first superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. This expertise and initiative led him to be named Director of the Navy’s Depot of Charts and Instruments in 1833.
After being stalled by the Navy, U.S. Ex. Ex.—the U.S. response to the scientific voyages of Cook and La Perouse—was finally preparing to sail in the late 1830s. Wilkes was offered command, thanks to the heavy surveying focus on the voyage. He was given command of six vessels and nine scientists. However, the ships were not well supplied and the expedition was executed with some difficulty.
The ships left Norfolk in August 1838. They went in convoy to Tierra del Fuego, where they split and some explored in the South Seas and others in the South Atlantic. In late 1830, Wilkes surveyed portions of Antarctica that today are named for him (Wilkes Land). From spring 1840, the ships explored the mid- and North-Pacific. In June 1842, Wilkes returned to New York Harbor with only two of his six ships and a mountain of ethnographic, botanical, and natural historical specimens, as well as reams of observations, drawings, and charts.
Wilkes was met with a court martial; while he was acquitted of most charges, he was convicted of illegal punishment and reprimanded by the Secretary of the Navy. Despite this, he was promoted commander in 1843, captain in 1855, and commodore in 1862.
Wilkes spent much of his remaining career overseeing the publications of the expedition. The first official publication to appear was Wilkes’ rambling five-volume narrative of the voyage, accompanied by a folio atlas, in 1844. A further 19 volumes were prepared over the course of 30 years, each on a different scientific topic, although only 14 were ever distributed. Perhaps the most impressive legacies of the expedition were the almost 250 charts Wilkes prepared in two atlases (completed 1858, published 1861, but not distributed until after the Civil War). These formed the basis of the United States Hydrographic Office.
Wilkes served in the Union fleet in the Civil War. In 1864 he was before a court-martial again, this time for the publication of a private letter to the Secretary of the Navy. He was found guilty. He retired two years later, in 1866, and died in Washington D. C. in 1877.
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