200 Years. 200 Stories. Story 168: “United States Exploring Expedition ”

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portraits of Charles Pickering and Titian Peale
Charles Pickering (left) and Titian Ramsay PealeEwell Sale Stewart Library and Archives Coll. no. 457.

United States Exploring Expedition

Two early Academy members, Titian Ramsay Peale and Charles Pickering, served as scientists on the first international expedition officially sponsored by the U.S. government, the United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1842). The expedition was the last fully sail-powered circumnavigation of the globe and included geographic surveys, cartography, ethnographic studies, and the collection of biological specimens. Though it advanced the nation’s scientific reputation and its collections formed the foundation for many of the Smithsonian’s collections, the expedition nearly did not take place. Unfavorable public opinion and political hesitation threatened the project’s existence, and the U.S. Navy had difficulty securing a commanding officer. Command eventually fell to an inexperienced Navy Lieutenant named Charles Wilkes, and the trip, originally proposed in the 1820s, set sail in 1838. For four years, the expedition’s fleet of six ships logged more than 87,000 miles and explored parts of North America’s northwest coast, Antarctica, and a number of Pacific islands from Fiji to Hawaii.

Echoing its wobbly start, life on the expedition was not always smooth sailing. The expedition’s leader, Wilkes, was known for his strong, often harsh, personality. Wilkes disliked civilian scientists, dismissing them as “clam diggers” and “bug catchers.” He often limited their work, despite the scientific nature of the expedition. Peale, Pickering and the other scientists onboard frequently were not allowed ashore, leading Peale to lament in his journal, “What was a scientific corps sent for?” Nonetheless, approximately 60,000 floral and faunal specimens were collected during the voyage, many of which formed the foundation of the national collections that are now part of the Smithsonian.

Early Academy scientists such as Peale and Pickering were involved in many thrilling expeditions in addition to the seafaring U.S. Exploring Expedition. Learn more about one of Peale’s other adventures.

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