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“Ice Ahead!”

July 2024
36min read

One of his ships was rotten, his cold-weather gear was totally inadequate, and his officers resented him. But Lieutenant Wilkes had his orders—and off into the unknown Antarctic he sailed

The squadron of six ships that made up the United States Exploring Expedition, outward bound from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on the morning of August 19, 1838, dropped its pilot as it passed Cape Henry Light and soon after held divine service. “The day was beautiful, the sea smooth, the wind light, and the squadron around, with the land sinking from our view,” wrote Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, U.S.N., commanding. “I shall never forget the impressions that crowded on me during that day in the hour of service. It required all the hope I could muster to outweigh the intense feeling of responsibility that hung over me. I may compare it to that of one doomed to destruction.”

Lieutenant Wilkes had good cause for gloomy forebodings, for he commanded what may well have been the sorriest flotilla ever sent forth on the nation’s business. It had been racked by dissension from its inception—and still was. One of its vessels was quite literally rotting away. All were crowded beyond comfort, and all were underequipped and criminally inadequate for one of the most difficult and dangerous assignments ever given to a Navy expedition in peacetime: to explore and survey the Antarctic Ocean, then virtually an unknown part of the globe, and in the process “to extend the bounds of science, and promote the acquisition of knowledge” of the Antarctic, with particular attention to hydrography, astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, and meteorology.

There had been a fey quality about this enterprise from its first stirrings years earlier, when one John Cleves Symmes, Jr., had somehow “learned” that the earth is not solid rock but is composed of five concentric hollow spheres. Of these, the outer sphere on which we live has an opening several thousand miles in diameter at each pole, and after a ship made its way through subpolar ice it would enter warmer waters again, and eventually sail over and around the lip of the opening, to the underside of the outer shell, there to cruise upside down in strange seas among uncharted islands forever bathed in a sourceless light.

Eccentrics are no novelty, but Symmes captured public imagination. His following became so strong that half a dozen bills were introduced in Congress in 1823-24 to send a Navy expedition through the south polar opening, to claim lands for the United States and establish trade with any natives way-down-under. None passed, but, unbelievable as it may seem, a Symmes disciple, John J. Reynolds of Ohio, had influence enough to obtain the approval of John Quincy Adams’ Navy and Treasury secretaries for a three-ship expedition to the inside of the earth. This fantastic expedition to the Land of Never-Never was actually in preparation when Andrew Jackson succeeded Adams and the project was shelved.

But in 1836 the concept of an American expedition to explore southern seas was reactivated. Maritime interests—whalers and merchants—needed better charts of the myriad islands and shoals of the South Pacific. The old plans were dusted oft and greatly revised, Symmes and his hole in the earth having been with some embarrassment forgotten.


To head the expedition President Jackson appointed Captain Thomas ap Catesby Jones, one of his lieutenants at the Battle of New Orleans. Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson chose Lieutenant Wilkes to supervise the surveying work and the so-called nautical sciences: meteorology, astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, hydrography. Charles Wilkes was probably without equal in scientific training in the Navy. He had done outstanding geodetic and hydrographie work and had studied astronomy and magnetism; his private backyard observatory in Washington was said to have been the first in the country. At the time of his appointment, he was head of the new Naval Depot of Charts and Instruments, established to free this country from dependence for charts and maps on foreign sources. (It was later to become the Navy Hydrographic Office.)

A very prickly personality went with these talents. Wilkes was autocratic, uncompromising, and tactless. He was an impetuous, hot-tempered martinet, although he did not always give his superiors the absolute obedience he expected from those below him. This was not due to any willful insubordination but to a serene certainty that in any difference of opinion he was always right and the rest of the world wrong. But he was an officer of great drive and resolution, with an unswerving devotion to duty. Thin-faced and austere, he looked every bit the authoritarian.

He quickly became involved in controversy with Captain [ones over his place in the expedition. He insisted on command of one of the ships and a free hand in his scientific work; Jones saw him as a staff officer carrying out his duties on Jones’s flagship under Jones’s ultimate authority. Wilkes’s resignation was headed off only by sending him to Europe to purchase charts and instruments.


It was only one of unnumbered dissensions. The project became riddled with jealousies, bickerings, feuds, and intrigues. Officers resigned by the score in anger, resentment, or disillusionment, an escape open to them because all members were volunteers. When funds ran out, the Senate pettishly refused more because it had not—so it claimed—been kept sufficiently informed by the Navy. The enterprise became a national scandal.

Captain Jones himself resigned when the Navy rejected his demands for bigger and better ships, and one after another, two commodores and three captains refused the command. Navy Secretary Dickerson obtained—partly by default—the appointment of Wilkes to head the expedition, a selection that set off a new wave of resignations: in 1838 when he took command, Wilkes was forty years old but only a lieutenant in an expedition full of lieutenants. It was a very junior rank for such an important command; he was not even the senior officer, for his second-in-command, Lieutenant William L. Hudson, had two more years in grade than Wilkes and agreed to serve under him only after being given written assurance that it would not prejudice his future promotion. Even the enlisted men objected, and sent a letter to the Secretary of the Navy protesting against being put under such junior leadership. Wilkes moved to shore up the collapsed morale. One of his first acts was to give the enlisted men their first leave in months, in order, he wrote later, to “show entire confidence in them. To my great surprise, they returned to a man. …”

On Navy orders, he thinned out the expedition’s corps of civilian scientists. There had been great talk of making this a co-operative effort in the broadening of man’s knowledge, and learned societies had nominated scientists to accompany the expedition. But the Navy, in the ancient way of the military, was suspicious of civilians. Wilkes cut the scientific corps from almost thirty down to nine. “In these selections I omitted all departments appertaining to physics, surveying, astronomy, or nautical science which I determined to fill myself. …”

In spite of the drastic curtailments, an impressive group was left, including several men who went on to become prominent in their fields. The most outstanding was James Dwight Dana, later one of the nation’s leading geologists. Another unusually interesting member of the scientific corps was Titian Ramsay Peale of the famous family of artists; he came aboard as a naturalist but spent a considerable part of his time as a recording artist.

Of the ships assembled by Captain Jones only the Relief , a storeship, was retained. (It proved to be a poor choice.) Two sloops of war—the Vincennes , 780 tons, and the Peacock , 650 tons—and a gun brig, the Porpoise of 230 tons, were acquired. Wilkes had another deck added to the Vincennes and the Peacock to protect the men and to provide more room. But not the slightest work was done by the navy yard to reinforce the hulls against the buffetings of antarctic ice.

The Vincennes and the Porpoise were otherwise in reasonably good condition, but the Peacock was another matter. Her commander, Lieutenant Hudson, reported, “Taken as a whole, the Peacock has been fitted out, (so far as the navy-yard was concerned) with less regard to safety and convenience, than any vessel I have ever had any thing to do with.” Extensive areas of decayed wood were later discovered that must surely have been deliberately ignored during the overhaul. What could not be ignored xvas hidden; early in the voyage it was discovered that a large rotten spot in a mast had been taken care of by chiseling out the most obvious decay, stuffing the hole with oakum, and smoothing over the surface with putty. Fortunately, the hole was only eighteen inches from the top of the mast and could be eliminated by shortening the mast and rerigging.

At the last minute, Wilkes obtained two more vessels, the Sea Gull of 110 tons, and the Flying Fish of 96 tons, very recently New York pilot boats, to use for inshore survey work. The Navy took them over only three days before the expedition sailed, and in that short period reduced their masts and sails and otherwise made them ready.

The squadron, six ships with 82 officers and 342 men, left Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838, anchored in the channel overnight to await favorable tides, and was on its way in the morning. Wilkes, on the Vincennes , and Lieutenant Hudson, his second-incommand on the Peacock , had both assumed the temporary rank of captain. Wilkes had realized that a mere lieutenant would be at a great disadvantage representing his country abroad and had asked that he and Hudson be given captain’s stripes for the cruise. He had, it appears, been led to believe that the matter would be taken care of; even President Van Buren had seemed full of assurances when he had come aboard on an inspection trip and Wilkes had anxiously approached him.

But as sailing time neared, both Van Buren and Secretary of War Joel Poinsett, like true politicians, avoided committing themselves. Wilkes wrote later: “Finding I had been deceived by the non-action of the President and Mr. Poinsett I came to the conclusion that it was necessary to do what they had omitted and decided with Lieutenant Hudson, to assume the acting rank myself, directing him also to do the same and to do it as an inviolable secret, as no one connected with the Expedition would be any the wiser. …”

The expedition’s first port of call was Madeira, from where Wilkes reported that the Peacock had developed leaks which her pumps could do nothing about because the iron hoops around them had rusted through and the pumps had fallen apart. It was another shocking example of laxness in navy-yard inspection and repair procedures, and Wilkes not only reported it as such but added some reflections on the diligence and competence of the navy-yard command.

The Vincennes arrived at Rio de Janeiro on November 23, 1838, and was greeted by “Hail Columbia” played by the band of the U.S.S. Independence , 54 guns, flying the flag of Commodore John B. Nicholson. Wilkes, having no band, could not respond in kind, and he refused to fire gun salutes for fear the concussions might disturb the ship’s chronometers and upset his scientific observations. “I waited upon Commodore Nicholson and fully explained to him the circumstances,” Wilkes later noted in a personal account of his career written for his children, “but he appeared somewhat put out, and it was industriously circulated that I had intentionally treated him with disrespect.” (There were always plots going on behind Wilkes’s back; how many of them took place only in his imagination it is impossible to say.)

The Brazilian government allowed Wilkes to use a small island in the bay for his scientific observations. When Commodore Nicholson came visiting in full dress uniform, Wilkes would not permit him to approach the magnetic instruments until he removed his sword, at which the Commodore “seemed somewhat vexed.” For that reason, Wilkes prudently declined when invited to be Nicholson’s guest a few evenings later at a function where foreign officials would be .present; he was certain the Commodore planned to give him some deliberate affront in retaliation for the sword incident.

The cat-and-mouse game continued, with the Commodore no match for Wilkes. The bread stores on the Relief began to go weevily, and were landed and over- hauled under Hudson’s direction, to separate the good from the bad. While the work was going on, Nicholson chanced by and gruffed that the weevily bread would have been good enough for his crew and should not be wasted. When Wilkes learned of the visit, he remarked that if the bread was good enough for the Commodore’s crew, then his crew should have it. After obtaining a supply of fresh bread, he sent the bad stuff with an official letter to the Commodore. “Captain Hudson and myself had much fun and many a hearty laugh over the circumstances,” he wrote in his personal account.

But while he was having hearty laughs about putting one over on a commodore, he was not relaxing his iron grip on the expedition. At times he seems to have imposed discipline for the sake of discipline. When Lieutenant George Emmons of the Peacock and some friends heard that no Americans had climbed Rio’s famous Sugarloaf Mountain, they made the difficult ascent. Emmons was under the delusion that Wilkes would actually praise their initiative, especially since they collected a large number of botanical specimens on their way down. Instead, Wilkes sent off a formal letter to Hudson: I learn with surprise & regret that an officer of your ship made an excursion to an important height in this vicinity without obtaining the necessary instruments for its correct measurement; as it results only in the idle and boastful saying that its summit has been reached, instead of an excursion which might have been useful to the expedition.

There were other incidents at Rio de Janeiro which Wilkes felt required disciplinary action. He discovered —or thought he did—that some of the officers were not only deliberately slighting their scientific observations, but were ridiculing those who were zealous. He took care of that, so he wrote, by assembling all officers and warning them he would tolerate nothing that affected the accuracy of his scientific work.

On another occasion, when the Relief was due to sail, Wilkes received a note from her captain, Lieutenant A. K. Long, saying that he would not be ready because of certain essential repairs. Wilkes demanded to know the nature of the repairs; they were, in his opinion, trivial, and he sent boats from the other ships and told Long that his ship would be towed out of the harbor at the scheduled departure time if he did not sail. Long sailed. Wilkes already had a low opinion of Long, who had required a hundred days, an inordinately long time, to sail from the United States to Rio de Janeiro. Although the Relief was a sluggish ship, most of the delay was Long’s fault for not taking advantage of the trade winds. Wilkes found it hard to believe an officer could be so stupid.

A month had been spent at Rio de Janeiro making extensive repairs to the ships, and it was January before the squadron started south again. Almost two more months were required to reach and establish a base at Orange Harbor in Nassau Bay, near the tip of Tierra del Fuego. There, carrying out his orders, Wilkes left the Vincennes and took command of the Porpoise . The Relief was also left behind, and with it all the civilian scientists except Titian Peale.

A few days before the reduced squadron was to sail into the Antarctic, Wilkes learned that one of Hudson’s officers, a Lieutenant S. P. Lee, had coolly informed Hudson that he would no longer address him as “Captain” but would use only the “Mister” which was all his true rank of lieutenant rated. “My first question to Hudson,” wrote Wilkes, “was, ‘Why did you not cut him down? If an officer of mine had said that to me I should have done so.’ ” Wilkes proceeded to cut Lee down. He ordered him to report to the Relief and in less than an hour shifted eleven other officers to different vessels and duties to compensate for Lee’s departure. Hudson was one of the few officers with whose loyalty and dependability Wilkes never found the slightest fault; nevertheless, he did suggest several times that his second-in-command could do with a little more iron in his character.

The four ships headed for polar waters on February 25, 1839. The date was dangerously late. The brief Antarctic summer was ending and soon there would be a very real possibility of being frozen in for the winter. The ships carried neither food nor fuel enough to bring them through a polar winter—although it hardly mattered, for the unreinforced vessels would have been crushed long before anyone starved.

Antarctica was almost entirely terra incognita at that time. Only Palmer Peninsula, the north-thrusting finger that rises toward the tip of South America, was at all known; it had been named for Nathaniel Palmer, a Connecticut sea captain who had sighted it in 1820 while chasing seals along the Antarctic coast. One other spot had a name: far across on the other side of the Pole, another sealing captain, a Britisher named James Briscoe, had sighted a coast and called it Enderby Land in honor of his ship’s owners; but it was an isolated strip on a blank map without relation to anything else.

The Porpoise and the Sea Gull headed down the east side of Palmer Peninsula but found an ice pack so heavy they were able to pick their way only a short distance southward. Spray coated the vessels with ice; ropes were so stiff and thick with ice that they passed through the sheaves of their pulley blocks with difficulty. The gun ports of the Porpoise let icy spray and wind enter, and with his other troubles, Wilkes found still another deficiency in the misbegotten expedition the first time he called for an issue of cold-weather clothing. “Although purchased by the government at great expense,” he wrote in his published Narrative of the expedition, “it was found to be entirely unworthy the service, and inferior in every way to the samples exhibited. This was the case with all the articles of this description … provided for the Expedition.” The crowding ice and increasingly stormy weather soon caused Wilkes to give the word to turn back. In the meantime, the Peacock and the Flying Fish had been driving southwestward far to the west of Palmer Peninsula, under orders to attempt to equal or exceed the existing “farthest south” record, made by Britain’s Captain James Cook in 1774.

The people on the Peacock were more eloquent than Wilkes. Titian Peale wrote in his journal: “The gun deck has been constantly afloat since we left Orange Bay, even my room and the Pursers opposite to it, and furthest forward of the cabins, have been almost untenantable, the floor being all the time covered and swashing as the ship rolls. …”

On Sunday, March 17, Lieutenant Hudson held divine services, but the sea was so high the men had to lie on the deck and hold on to whatever was handy. Hudson observed in his log that the Episcopal service had been said, “perhaps the first time it was ever done within the Southern Antar[c]tic circle,” and added, “I must again repeat how wet and uncomfortable our gun deck is—enough of itself to make all hands sick- most of the water passing over it freezing . …”

Despite the late start, the ill-suited vessels, and the gales and snowstorms, the Peacock and the Flying Fish very nearly achieved their mission. The little Flying Fish became separated from the Peacock and picked her way through channels in the ice pack to latitude 70° 14′ S, only seventy miles short of Cook’s southernmost point, but there she was forced to turn back.


The squadron regrouped at Orange Harbor, all but the Relief . Lieutenant Long, who seems to have been almost as inept as Wilkes makes him out, was supposed to have taken the scientists for field work into the Strait of Magellan. But, as Wilkes put it, Long’s course “was entirely at variance with common sense or a knowledge of the navigation on this coast.” Instead of hugging the coast as ordered, Long had gone beyond sight of the shore, lost his bearings, and finally taken shelter behind an island where winds and seas had almost driven the Relief on the rocks. He lost all four of his anchors in the fight to save the ship; one of them had not been fastened to the cable before it was let go over the side. Once the danger had passed, Long sailed directly to Valparaiso without letting the Vincennes at Orange Harbor know of his action.

When the squadron sailed north, therefore, Wilkes had no way of knowing the Relief was safe. Fearing the worst, he ordered the Sea Gull and the Flying Fish to follow behind the other three vessels, searching the grim coast for the missing storeship. As they coursed among the sheer islands and reefs, one of the terrible Cape storms lashed the area. The Flying Fish found shelter and suffered no harm, but the Sea Gull was never heard from again; three officers and eight men disappeared with her.

The expedition stopped at Valparaiso, where the Relief joined up again, and at Callao in Peru. There was sightseeing, scientific work, and the inevitable repair work on the ships. On one occasion it was necessary to punish two recaptured deserters, and also a working party and its marine guard who had become overly absorbed in their work while transferring liquor from the Relief . Wilkes did not convene a courtmartial, but himself ordered the men lashed—thirtysix and forty-one stripes for the two deserters, twentyfour each for the bibulous members of the working party. The number is important, for, while a commanding officer of that day had authority to order a flogging, Navy Regulations strictly limited it to twelve stripes unless a court-martial recommended more. Wilkes would hear about this incident later.

The Relief had been a hindrance to the squadron because of her slowness. Wilkes at last got rid of her and of Lieutenant Long by sending the vessel home, by way of Australia, where she was to leave her stores for the squadron’s later use. Twice as much time was allowed as Long needed, according to Wilkes, but he barely got to Australia ahead of the expedition. The squadron, now reduced to the Vincennes , Peacock , Porpoise , and Flying Fish , sailed west into the South Pacific.

Its first objective was the Tuamotu Archipelago, whose eighty-odd atolls and islets it spent more than a month charting. Boats tried to land on one island, Réao, but the natives came to the beach shouting (according to John Sac, Wilkes’s Tahitian interpreter) “Go to your own land; this belongs to us.” Apparently they had had previous meetings with whalers or other bearers of the white man’s culture. When the landing party persisted, it was driven back by brandished spears and a shower of coral rocks. One of the scientists, trying to swim in with gifts, was also put to flight.

There was nothing of importance on the island, and Wilkes had been instructed that the expedition was not to interfere with native customs or to commit any hostile act except in self-defense. But it became very important to him to show these people that they could not defy the United States Navy. He ordered Titian Peale and an officer, both excellent marksmen, to load their guns with mustard seed, a very fine shot, “which caused the chief and all the rest to retreat, rubbing their legs.” The officers in the party landed very briefly, and Wilkes had made his point that a group of Polynesians were no match for the U.S. Navy.

From the Tuamotu Archipelago the expedition moved on to Tahiti, to Pago Pago in Samoa, and finally to Sydney, Australia, arriving there at the end of November, 1839. On the way, Wilkes had nipped another incipient mutiny. One dark night “Old Piner,” the signal quartermaster, one of the oldest in the service “and a very faithful and tried seaman,” stole up to Wilkes to relate that he had overheard one of the scientists, Mr. Couthouy, inciting some of the officers to oppose Wilkes’s authority. At the first opportunity, Wilkes called a meeting of all officers involved and confounded them by revealing that he knew their plans. He threatened to drop Couthouy on the first desert island if he did not behave himself, and he warned the officers that nothing was going to interfere with the work of the expedition. That completely ended the attempt. Or at least, that was the way Wilkes remembered it when he wrote his personal account for his children years after the event.

At Sydney, the squadron made ready for another try at the Antarctic. Half a year in the blue waters and soft airs of the South Pacific had done wonders for all aboard, but it had not helped the vessels, especially the decaying old Peacock . After her carpenter had gone over her carefully, Lieutenant Hudson reported the grim details to Wilkes: “[I] feel it is my duty to state to you … that the Peacock’s sheer-streak, to which the channels are bolted and ports hung, is perfectly decayed, fore and aft, and that all the stanchions of the upper-deck bulwarks, are either rotten, or in an advanced state of decay. Against these defects, however, I feel it is my duty to contend, without anticipating any thing but favourable results, but at the same time prepared for the worst that may occur.” It requires no understanding of the almost-forgotten terminology of sailing-ship days to get the import of Hudson’s report: the Peacock had no business going into the Antarctic. But Wilkes was obsessed with carrying out the letter of his orders at whatever cost, and the Peacock was patched as well as possible.

As the work of preparing the ships proceeded, the people of Sydney were an interested audience. Britain’s James Clark Ross, discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole, was expected soon in Australia on his way to have a go at the Antarctic and the South Magnetic Pole, and advance accounts had told how marvelously equipped his expedition was. The Australians looked for comparable equipment on board the American squadron.

“They inquired whether we had compartments in our ship to prevent us from sinking?” Wilkes wrote in the published Narrative . “How we intended to keep ourselves warm? What kind of antiscorbutic we were to use? and where were our great ice saws? To all of these questions I was obliged to answer, to their great apparent surprise, that we had none, and to agree with them that we were unwise to attempt such service in ordinary cruising vessels; but we had been ordered to go, and that was enough! and go we should. … [although,] as a gentleman told me, most of our visitors considered us doomed to be frozen to death.”

The four ships left Sydney the day after Christmas, 1839. Work was still going on to prepare them for their season in the cold seas. Hatches were fitted with doors made self-closing by weights, so they could not be carelessly left open. Cracks were caulked; seams were covered with tarred canvas over which strips of sheet lead were nailed. Wilkes planned to keep living spaces no higher than 50° F. “in order to prevent the injurious effects which might be produced by passing suddenly from below to the deck. I conceived it far more important to keep the air dry than warm, particularly as a lower temperature would have the effect of inducing the men to take exercise for the purpose of exciting their animal heat.” Only Wilkes would have thought of arm-swinging as a substitute for fuel in the stoves.

The squadron, following its orders, was heading into a segment of the Antarctic almost across from the area of the previous year’s brief operations. It met its first iceberg, an isolated one a mile long and 180 feet high, at 61°, but soon there were many, the characteristic tabular or flat-topped bergs of the Antarctic, huge and looming high above the tiny ships that moved along their enormous flanks.

On January 11 the edge of the ice pack was sighted, the everlasting belt of floating ice that, except on rare occasions, guards the southern continent from near approach. The Flying Fish was not with the other ships now; she had lost contact in the fog at the beginning of the month. Lieutenant Wilkes had realized that ice and weather would cause such separations and had instructed his captains to attempt to rejoin as soon as possible in such cases, but the days passed and the continued absence of the Flying Fish caused growing apprehension.

A first hazy and indeterminate sighting of land was made on January 15, but the next day there was no uncertainty. Lieutenant Cadwalader Ringgold, captain of the Porpoise , described “an object, large, dark and rounding, resembling a mountain in the distance. … I watched for an hour to see if the sun in his decline would change the color of the object; it remained the same.” On the Peacock , two officers climbed to the main-topmast with a long-glass, and sent word to Wilkes that they clearly saw mountains stretching to the southwest: “Two peaks, in particular, were very distinct … rising in a conical form.” With the sighting confirmed by the other two ships, Wilkes marked land on his chart and wrote in his log, “From this day we date the discovery that is claimed for the squadron.” The peak first sighted was named Ringgold’s Knoll; others were sighted and named.

Three days later, the next definite landfall was made. Wilkes named it Cape Hudson, the name it still bears, and wrote in his log, “Antarctic land discovered beyond cavil.” If it seems odd that there should be doubt and debate over whether a mountainous coast actually was land, it must be remembered that the observing mariners were usually kept some miles at sea by ice, and that the rock faces of mountains were usually clothed in ice and snow and blended into the glare of white foreground and white sky beyond.

The squadron continued to sail west, sighting land from time to time. The Flying Fish was still missing, and most of the men assumed she had probably met the same fate as the Sea Gull . The other three ships sometimes cruised together but more often separately; it was nearly impossible to maintain contact as each picked its way through changing channels among ice floes and bergs.

On January 23 the Peacock , while engaged in such delicate navigation, was thrown back against the floes, badly damaging her rudder. The shifting ice closed in on her, and while she lay thus imprisoned, a vicious polar gale arose. Lieutenant Hudson tried to secure the ship as much as possible by putting out ice anchors, but before the lines could be made taut a sudden surge tore them out of the men’s hands and the ship crashed into the ice again, further damaging the rudder and almost knocking it off.

Ice anchors were at last put out at great peril amid the heaving, tossing ice which towered above the ship. At one point a boat carrying an anchor to be set into a floe was passing between two masses of ice when they began to move ponderously together; the boat’s crew watched in horrified fascination as the sides of their craft actually bent inward from the pressure. But before anything cracked, the ice moved apart again and the boat went on through the narrow passage.

The shattered rudder was brought aboard, and the carpenter got out of a sick bed to take charge of repairs, although it appeared unlikely a rudder would ever be needed again. For the gale heightened, the grinding of the ice increased, and the ice anchors and spars put out as fenders were torn loose. While the Peacock wallowed in this unhappy condition, another strong surge caught her and set her aback into a towering floe with a force that made all aboard fear she would be stove in and sink. At Sydney, Lieutenant Hudson had reported the rottenness of the stanchions that supported railings, boat davits, and other structures. Now, as the ship struck with a shudder, all these weak parts crumbled away. Sections of the upper-deck bulwarks collapsed, carrying away railings, a boom, and davits, and dropping the stern boat onto the ice, where it was crushed ta bits.

But the shock was the beginning of their salvation. The rebound pushed the Peacock into a small area of open water just as a mass of ice large enough to have sunk her dropped into the spot where she had been. The open space provided a bit of room for maneuvering—not much, and especially not for a rudderless ship—but Hudson seized the small opportunity, hoisted sail, and for hours the Peacock half threaded, half buffeted her way through the floes while pieces of her upper structure continued ta be torn off. After some twenty hours of being beaten about by wind and ice she reached open water. The carpenter had repaired the rudder enough to make some of the officers believe it was strong enough for further exploration, but Hudson felt their luck had already been pushed beyond its limit and turned north toward Sydney.

The Vincennes and the Porpoise continued on, in weather sometimes bright and sunny, sometimes howling with sleet, snow, and bitter cold. The Porpoise , on January 30, was astonished to sight two strange vessels in this, one of the loneliest parts of the earth. Her captain, Lieutenant Ringgold, assumed they must be the ships of Captain James Clark Ross. He altered course toward them “to cheer the discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole,” whereupon the vessels ran up the French colors and put on more sail without “exchanging the usual and customary compliments incidental to naval life.” Ringgold, convinced he had been deliberately insulted, struck his own colors and drew away.

The ships were, in fact, those of Jules Sébastien César Dumont d’Urville, a French gentleman of many capabilities and achievements, including the discovery of the Venus de MiIo. He had made notable explorations in several parts of the world, and with his two ships was now leading France’s first venture into the Antarctic. Captain d’Urville had sighted land on January 19, the same day Wilkes had seen and named Cape Hudson, and had found a rocky islet where a landing party went ashore to hoist the tricolor and claim the entire coast for France. D’Urville named the land Adélie Coast, the name it still bears, in honor of his wife.


Wilkes completely supported Lieutenant Ringgold when he learned of the incident. “[It] cannot but excite surprise,” said he, “that such a cold repulse should have come from a French commander, when the officers of that nation are usually so distinguished for their politeness and attention.” But, like most stories, this one has two versions, and d’Urville’s was completely different: he had sighted a ship, identified as an American man-of-war, approaching rapidly through the fog, and fearing that it would pass by without making contact, the French vessels at once made more sail to keep up. Whereupon, to their astonishment, the American struck its colors and changed course to avoid them. The affair was plainly a misunderstanding that would not have occurred if the two officers had not been too stiff-necked to signal or give a hail.

While this small international incident was taking place, the Vincennes was having her troubles. On January 28, lulled by fine weather and an ocean so smooth that, as Wilkes put it, “a yawl could have passed over in safety,” he had taken his ship many miles into an archipelago of monster icebergs, each one a mile to three miles long. Then the wind freshened, the weather turned bad, and when he tried to return to the safety of the open sea, he lost his bearings. By 9 P.M. the blown spray was turning to ice, and he was completely confused.

It was midsummer, the equivalent of the end of July in the northern hemisphere, but here the storm brought temperatures that coated deck, yards, and rigging with so much ice that the ship became almost unmanageable. Shortly after midnight Wilkes called out all hands; one man, coming up from below, slipped on the ice-sheeted deck and broke several ribs. Although the vessel was not carrying much more than a few handkerchiefs of canvas—trysails and reefed topsails- she still drove rapidly through the water, sweeping by mammoth icebergs almost as soon as they became visible in the gloom. Fortunately, at that season and in that high latitude, night was only a dipping of the sun below the horizon, a twilight of three or four hours.

“The gale at this moment was awful,” Wilkes wrote. “We found we were passing large masses of drift ice, and ice-islands became more numerous. At a little after one o’clock it was terrific, and the sea was now so heavy that I was obliged to reduce sails still further.”


One seaman was trapped on a yardarm when a sail blew over the yard and blocked his return. By the time his plight was noticed and an officer and several men had gone aloft and hauled him to safety with a line, he was stiff and almost dead from exposure. Other men, exhausted from cold, fatigue, and “excitement,” were sent below.

“We were swiftly dashing on, for I felt it necessary to keep the ship under rapid way through the water, to enable her to steer and work quickly. Suddenly many voices cried out, ‘Ice ahead!’ then, ‘On the weather bow!’ and again, ‘On the lee bow and abeam!’ All hope of escape seemed in a moment to vanish; return we could not, as large ice-islands had just been passed to leeward; so we dashed on, expecting every moment the crash.”

It was a situation straight out of melodrama: the ship rushing toward seemingly certain destruction and so hemmed in by icebergs it could not turn aside to avoid collision. The towering ice walls cut off the wind so that the wild gale was only a distant roar although the sea was still wildly agitated. “Both officers and men were in the highest degree excited,” wrote Wilkes in nice understatement.

“The ship continued on her way, and as we proceeded, a glimmering of hope arose, for we accidentally had hit upon a clear passage between two large ice-islands, which in fine weather we should not dare to have ventured through. The suspense endured while making our way between them was intense, but of short duration; and my spirits rose as I heard the whistling of the gale grow louder and louder before us, as we emerged from the passage. We had escaped an awful death, and were again tempest-tost.”

For some thirty-six hours the storm poured its fury on the ship, and then the Vincennes rode once more on a sparkling sea. It was January 30; the long run in the storm had brought the ship near the coast, and it sailed into a large indentation which Wilkes named Piner’s Bay, for the alert signalman who first sighted it. Here for the first time they saw naked coastline, wavewashed volcanic rocks, and Wilkes was able to bring the ship to within half a mile of them. Mountains three thousand feet high, extending east and west sixty miles or more to the limit of sight, rimmed the bay.

The expedition had sailed over four hundred miles from its first landfall, sighting land frequently, and Lieutenant Wilkes was convinced that what they were seeing was more than a succession of islands. By now the last skeptics aboard agreed with him, and in Piner’s Bay he put his conviction into words in his log entry: “I make this bay in longitude 140° 30′ E., latitude 66° 45′ S., and now that all were convinced of its existence, I gave the land the name of the Antarctic Continent.”

Wilkes had hoped to land on the rocky islets, but the wind, instead of abating, increased again to a gale and the Vincennes was once more running for her life. When the storm died, Piner’s Bay was sixty miles behind and they could not afford the time to go back. In the meantime, the Porpoise was following behind, making her own landfalls, fighting frequent snowstorms, but having no serious difficulties.

As for the Flying Fish , there had not been a sign since she disappeared early in January. But those who supposed her sunk were wrong. She had been struggling along the edge of the ice, though making poor progress. She was leaking badly; water dripped down even through cracks in the deck as icy waves broke over the little vessel. All aboard lived constantly in cold, wet clothing and slept in wet beds; not surprisingly, they sickened till hardly enough to man the ship were still fit for duty. At last the twelve men in the crew petitioned Lieutenant Robert F. Pinkney, the captain, to turn back; Pinkney’s three officers agreed that it would be useless to try to push on much farther. On February 5 the Flying Fish turned toward Australia.

Lieutenant Wilkes was faced with a similar decision. Fifteen men on the Vincennes were on the sick list, mostly with boils and ulcers, and the ship’s two assistant surgeons warned that if the voyage continued more would undoubtedly be afflicted, until the handling of the ship would be endangered. Wilkes called for the opinions of his officers and of the chief surgeon, Dr. Gilchrist, whom he had suspended from duty in Sydney for a letter “disrespectful and insubordinate to the President of the United States and the Secretary of the Navy, reflecting in gross terms, on their appointment of myself and others, to conduct the Expedition.”

Gilchrist and the officers, almost to a man, advised Wilkes ta end the polar cruise. But the lean-jawed disciplinarian, for whom the word “duty” gleamed in star-spangled letters against a red-white-and-blue sky, had been directed to proceed as far as possible toward Enderby Land, and he was not there yet. “After full consideration of the matter, I came to the conclusion, at whatever hazard to ship and crew, that it was my duty to proceed, and not give up the cruise until the ship should be totally disabled, or it should be evident to all that it was impossible to persist any longer.”

So the cruise continued, through frequent snowstorms and gales that kept the men always cold, wet, and miserable. The surgeons’ warnings were borne out as more and more men fell sick, until thirty were unable to work. Then skies cleared, spirits and health improved in sunny weather, and clothing and bedding dried for the first time in many days.

Wilkes wanted desperately to reach Enderby Land, but while he could disregard sickness among his crew, even this single-minded man could not risk being caught by the approaching winter. On February 21, at longitude 97° E and still about four hundred miles short of Enderby Land, he gave the word to turn north. The Porpoise , meanwhile, had gone only as far as 100° E, then on Wilkes’s orders had back-tracked to examine some places on the coast missed on the westward track. On February 24 she too headed north.

Although Wilkes had failed to join Enderby Land with his own discoveries, he had not the slightest doubt they were part and parcel of one continent which “exists in one uninterrupted line of coast, from Ringgold’s Knoll in the east, to Enderby’s Land, in the west.” The expedition had sailed along 1,500 miles of that coast, the part marked Wilkes Land on maps today, and had proved that an Antarctic continent exists.

At Sydney, Wilkes made copies of his chart of the expedition’s polar discoveries and of his observations on winds, currents, ice, and other phenomena, and left them for James Clark Ross, soon to arrive in Australia. “You have so much knowledge of the ice, and the manner of treating it, that it appears almost presumptuous in me to sit down and give you any hints relative to it,” he wrote to Ross with a humility foreign to him. “But, believing as I do, that the ice of the Antarctic is of a totally different character than that of the Arctic, I venture to offer you a few hints that may be helpful to you.” Ross never acknowledged the unusual courtesy. The reunited squadron, its wounds repaired, left Sydney in March, 1840, cruising first east and then north, surveying and charting as it went, weaving a spider’s web of tracks through the Fiji Islands, the Tongas, the Ellice Islands, the Marshalls, and finally the Sandwich Islands.

The way there was not all white beaches and coral atolls during the day and starlit waters at night. Icebergs and polar storms may have been left behind, but the blue lagoons of the South Seas held their own dangers. The survey of the Fijis had been proceeding without incident because the expedition had been forewarned that the natives were belligerent and carefully avoided contact with them. But at Malolo, the last island in the group, Lieutenant Alden, in charge of a survey party, foolishly sent two boats ashore to try to obtain some pigs, fruit, and other provisions. The natives attacked the landing party and killed two officers, one of whom was Midshipman Wilkes Henry, nephew of the squadron’s commander. In retaliation, Wilkes put ashore a punitive force which attacked the island’s main village with rifle and rocket fire. Many of the native men were killed; women and children were permitted to escape, but the town itself was reduced to ruins.

The expedition had been charged, among many other things, with making the seas safe for American whalers and merchantmen by drawing up commercial treaties with chiefs, by acting as peacemaker in native wars, and by administering punishment to teach natives to respect American mariners (nothing was said about teaching American mariners to respect natives). A specific case for which Wilkes had been directed to obtain satisfaction had occurred seven long years before, in 1834, at Rewa in the Fijis. A native chief named Vendovi had led an attack on the brig Charles Doggett from Salem, Massachusetts, and killed ten of the crew. Vendovi was still around and active; Lieutenant Hudson captured him by inviting the entire royal family of the island aboard the Peacock and then seizing the chief.∗

∗ It was less than a glorious victory. Chief Vendovi turned out to be the most tractable of prisoners; he showed no anger or resentment, but in all good nature and gentleness he simply weakened as his home was left farther behind. When the expedition reached the United States he was placed in the Naval Hospital. There he died of what the doctors of the time could only describe as a gradual decline in health. He is remembered in a small way; very shortly after he died, item No. 30, “Cranium of Vendovi,” was added to the collections of the expedition, and the skull is today part of the ethnological collections of the Smithsonian Institution.

After its long months of cruising and island charting, the squadron arrived in September at the Sandwich (Hawaiian) Islands, where it spent several months because it was—so Wilkes thought—too late in the year to go on to the northwest coast of North America. He used the time for making gravitational measurements on the summit and base of Mauna Loa; he sent Hudson and the Peacock , with the Flying Fish , all the way back to Samoa to check some surveys that did not look quite right to him, and also to examine little-known parts of the Ellice and Kingsmill islands. In the latter group a seaman disappeared one day under circumstances that made it almost certain he had been murdered. When the natives refused to give any information, Hudson dispatched a landing party of about eighty men who routed some eight hundred warriors, killing about twenty and destroying their village.

On April 3, 1841, Wilkes with the Vincennes and Porpoise left for the Pacific Northwest, where they arrived in May. They explored Puget Sound and the Juan de Fuca Strait before ascending the Columbia River, where the scientists happily sketched unfamiliar birds and measured giant trees. The Peacock and the Flying Fish arrived in July to join them, but the weary old Peacock was nearing her end. Lieutenant Hudson, trying to enter the Columbia, ran his ship aground on the great bar at the river’s mouth. The vessel began beating herself apart in the cross-flow of surf, tide, and river current. The first boat put into the water was stove to pieces. By the next morning the sea was a little quieter and all aboard were taken off, though with nothing but the clothes they wore. One of the boats capsized on the beach, not by rolling over but by pitching end over end, the men spilling out like peas shaken out of a pod. Yet not a life was lost, although several men were injured.

The shipwrecked mariners were aided by the Hudson’s Bay Company agent, by people from a nearby Methodist mission, and by Indians who brought salmon for them. Some were later taken aboard the Vincennes and the Porpoise; others were sent overland to San Francisco in the company of hired guides. After an exceedingly difficult journey of two months they reached San Francisco about October 29, to find the expedition waiting. It sailed on November 1. The squadron then consisted of the Vincennes , the Porpoise , and the Flying Fish , and the Oregon , which had been purchased at Astoria to replace the lost Peacock . At Honolulu the expedition split up. Wilkes with the Vincennes and the Flying Fish headed directly for the Philippines; the Porpoise and the Oregon sailed toward Japan before turning south to rejoin the other two ships at Singapore.

There the Flying Fish was sold; the charting was completed and there was no more need for a small ship to work in shallow waters. The remaining vessels continued through the East Indies and the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and across the Atlantic to arrive in New York on June 8, 1842.

The expedition had accomplished much, very much. It had surveyed 280 islands and drawn 180 charts, so accurate that many were still in use during World War II. It had surveyed some 800 miles of coast and inland waters of the Oregon country, thereby greatly strengthening the hand of the United States government a few years later when the boundary question was being negotiated. And it had sailed along some 1,500 miles of Antarctica, and had recognized that it had found the coast of a continent.

But no hero’s welcome awaited Wilkes. John Tyler and his Whigs were too mean-minded to praise a project conceived during a Democratic administration. The story is that Wilkes, after waiting in vain for some acknowledgment of what he had done, called one evening at the White House, where he found Tyler gathered with some friends. The President invited Wilkes to come in and have a chair, but then he and his cronies picked up their conversation and no one even mentioned the expedition.

Worse yet, Wilkes soon found himself facing a courtmartial, on charges raised by two officers he had disciplined and sent home. There were eleven charges, containing thirty-five separate specifications; among them: he had illegally worn a captain’s uniform (that promised authorization had never come), he had lied about his discoveries, he had murdered natives, he had exceeded his authority, he had inflicted illegal punishment on his men.

Most of the charges collapsed when tested against the broad discretionary powers that had been given Wilkes at the outset of the expedition: “In the prosecutions of these long and devious voyages, you will necessarily be placed in situations which cannot be anticipated, and in which … your own judgment and discretion must be your guide.” The charge that he had lied about his discoveries was rendered ridiculous when officers and men of his own and other ships corroborated his sightings. But he could not effectively defend himself from the accusation that he had inflicted illegal punishment on his men. He tried to claim that his discretionary powers relieved him from the normal restrictions on punishment, but it was no use; he was found guilty of the single charge of having exceeded Navy Regulations in giving out too many lashes to the deserters and the drunken working party in Valparaiso. He was sentenced to a public reprimand which was entered in his service record; no compensating commendation for his unique accomplishments was ever put there.

The scientific corps fared no better than the rest of the expedition. Its collections of specimens had been sent back to Washington from various ports along the way, carefully packed in barrels and cases with warnings that they were not to be unpacked except by the scientists who had packed them. But people in Washington could not wait. Specimens were taken out, and once out were strewn about, mixed up, damaged, or lost. The Secretary of the Navy tried to have a qualified curator appointed, but inertia and congressional niggardliness intervened; the best custodians that could be hired to care for the priceless results of four years of work in far corners of the world were an old janitor, a couple of taxidermists, and a clergyman.

This quartet did mayhem to science. The conchologist of the expedition had carefully identified each of his preserved specimens with a numbered tin tag. The clergyman-curator noticed that the tin tags were turning the alcohol milky and conscientiously removed all of them and put them in a separate container—leaving the specimens without any identification. Titian Peale found that 180 of the bird specimens he had collected were lost, and many of those that came through might just as well have been. Some time after returning from the expedition the recollection was still bitter as he wrote a friend: I cannot forget the late Exploring Expedition,—my two birds (male and female) made into one,—the legs of one put onto another body.—hundreds of fine insects put into ‘families’ without localities, although they came from all parts of the world.—bows in one end of the room,—arrows in another, with their ends sawed off to make them fit into fancy stands, etc.—all for the great end,—promotion of science.


For a number of years Wilkes was assigned to desk work in Washington, preparing the official report of the expedition. The Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in five volumes came from his own hand in 1845, an account whose interest for a reader today is not entirely staled by more than a century of library dust. The reports of the scientific work of the expedition were also Wilkes’s over-all responsibility; there were to have been twenty-eight volumes but only nineteen were completed, of which he wrote two himself, Hydrography and Meteorology . For eighteen years he was occupied in this slow-moving project which removed him from all serious controversy, though of course he constantly badgered Congress for more money to print better editions of the reports.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilkes (a captain since 1855) was sent to Norfolk to take command of the U.S.S. Merrimac , but arrived after that famedestined vessel had been scuttled to keep her out of Rebel hands. He was then given the San Jacinto , and almost at once precipitated an international incident by halting the British steamer Trent in the Caribbean and taking off two Confederate commissioners, James Mason and John Slidell. He was briefly a national hero and Congress voted him its thanks, but an outraged Great Britain talked of war and Lincoln had to disavow an act which was clearly in violation of international law.

A year later, during 1862-63, Wilkes—then an acting rear admiral—was in command of a Caribbean squadron searching for the Confederate commerce raider Alabama . He not only conducted his chase in a way that brought protests of neutrality violations from other nations, but at one point he blandly commandeered three vessels from another American squadron, claiming he needed their speed in the pursuit. It appears never to have occurred to him that in strengthening his own squadron he was weakening the other, which was also out to destroy the Alabama .

Before long, Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles transferred Wilkes to other duties. In his annual report to the President, Welles categorically stated that it was Wilkes’s fault that the Alabama had escaped.

Wilkes’s response was predictable. He shot off an intemperate letter to Welles, with copies to the newspapers. It was an unwise act, which brought him before another court-martial, charged with insubordinate conduct, disobeying the lawful orders of his superior, disrespect to a superior, and conduct unbecoming an officer. The evidence against him was indisputable this time, and he was found guilty on all counts and suspended from active duty for three years.

After one year President Lincoln, an admirer of Wilkes’s accomplishments, reviewed the charges and voided the remainder of the sentence. But Wilkes was ill and did not return to active duty. He was made a rear admiral on the retired list in 1866. In 1877, almost seventy-nine years old, he died.

Wilkes was robbed of rightful recognition partly by circumstances, partly by the pettiness of others, partly by his own bristling pride. A jealous administration had deprived him of a triumphal homecoming and in every other way minimized his accomplishments, even to aiding and abetting his court-martial. Soon after, Britain’s James Clark Ross had made his own Olympian pronouncements, which cast a shadow over Wilkes’s discoveries. Wilkes, it will be recalled, had left charts and other data in Australia to help Ross. Although Ross never offered the slightest thanks, he did assert that he had sailed over a position where land had been indicated by Wilkes, and had found nothing but water. He also offered the gratuitous opinion that the “scraps of land” sighted by Wilkes did not make up a continent.

Wilkes was dead long before Antarctic exploration was resumed, and then the new generation of explorers did little to rescue him from oblivion. In several cases they, too, found only ocean where Wilkes had charted land—although none could deny that the polar continent Wilkes had discovered was there, even though it might sometimes be fifty or a hundred miles from where he had charted it. But, for that matter, nothing but water was found at one or two positions where the godlike Ross had reported land.

The cause of these discrepancies was revealed only as polar phenomena came to be better understood. Under certain conditions, atmospheric refraction over polar ice is so pronounced that a mountain peak more than a hundred miles away may appear to be only a few miles distant. Without doubt it was this that caused Wilkes to chart some of his land in the wrong position; more than one later explorer has had the experience of cruising a hundred miles from the Antarctic continent while seeing the coast apparently a dozen miles away.

But no cold and scientific explanation is going to bring Wilkes any recognition at this late date. Moreover, it has been chiefly Australians who have explored along the shores of Wilkes Land and have taken the lead in re-establishing Wilkes’s reputation (see note on page 101). In his own country he is still a footnote in most histories, or at best a brief paragraph. Eccentric, prickly, occasionally wrongheaded, he was nevertheless one of his country’s great explorers. He deserves a better place in her pantheon of heroes.

After 120 Years, Vindication

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