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Lived: in the 1798-1877
Explored California in: 1841
Exploring for: United States
Explored: by sea and land in northern California

France, Spain, England and Russia had all sent scientific expeditions to the Pacific, and particularly to California, between 1792 and 1816. It was 1841 when the United States financed a similar expedition.


Charles Wilkes was born in New York City in 1798, the son of John De Ponthieu and Mary Seton Wilkes. He entered the merchant service at the age of 17, and received an appointment to the U.S. Navy three years later. Wilkes had a strong interest in exploring, and took some training at the U.S. Coast Survey. There he began to build an astronomical observatory, which was the forerunner of the Naval Observatory.


For some years, various groups in the U.S. had been asking the government to organize an exploration of the Pacific, such as other countries had done. Those who were making money as whalers, sealers, fur traders, and cattle-hide traders wanted the U.S. to be in control of the Pacific. Others felt that the U.S. wasn’t keeping up with other countries if it did not conduct scientific expeditions.

In 1836 Congress finally responded to these concerns by setting aside $300,000 for “a surveying and exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas.” The main purpose of the expedition was to aid commerce and navigation, but the trip was also “to extend the bounds of science and to promote knowledge.”

Though he was not the Navy’s first choice as leader, Captain Charles Wilkes was appointed to command the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition of 1838-42, later called simply the Wilkes Expedition.

The U.S. government, now concerned about the future of California, included it in the plan. Wilkes was to sail around the world, giving special attention to Antarctica, the South Pacific islands, and the Pacific coast of North America. There were six ships (four naval vessels and two pilot ships) under his command.


The Wilkes Expedition left New York in April 1838, heading south in the Atlantic Ocean. They rounded South America through the Strait of Magellan, exploring as far as possible into the Antarctic regions. Wilkes spent several years in the South Pacific, visiting the Antarctic a second time in 1840. He is credited with being the first to give proof that there was actually an Antarctic continent.

In August 1841, Wilkes sailed into San Francisco Bay. He had been surveying the coast to the north, in what is now Washington State. There Wilkes planted an American flag, claimed to be the first American flag flying west of the Rocky Mountains. Wilkes left part of his group near the Columbia River with orders to travel overland through Oregon. The overland group was to locate the headwaters of the Sacramento River and follow it south to San Francisco, where Wilkes and the ships would be waiting for them.

While the four ships (two had been lost during the voyage) were in harbor at San Francisco, Wilkes traveled by land across much of California. He and his scientists collected data and made observations. Titian Ramsay Peale, an artist with the expedition, made drawings and paintings of the landscape and people.

Wilkes also took the opportunity to get information from other people, especially on places or events that he could not visit personally. By this means, his final report covered much history. Because of the manner in which he got his information, however, there were many errors.

Leaving California, Wilkes took his fleet back across the Pacific to the Philippines, then south around the Cape of Good Hope and across the Atlantic to the U.S. He reached New York on June 9, 1842, having sailed completely around the world. The expedition had taken almost four years.


The Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition was published in 1845 and was widely read in the U.S. The maps he included were the most comprehensive yet done of northern California.

In the report Wilkes praised California but said that there was a “total absence of all government in California, and even its forms and ceremonies thrown aside.” He described the San Francisco Presidio: “the building was deserted, the walls had fallen to decay, the guns were dismounted, and every thing around it lay in quiet.” Wilkes predicted: “The situation of Upper California will cause its separation from Mexico before many years.”

Wilkes was impressed with the fancy dress of the Mexican vaquero (cowboy). He described the “elegantly embroidered” shirt, the velvet pants with the red sash, and the huge broad-brimmed sombrero….”

In 1847 Wilkes was honored by the Royal Geographical Society for his exploratory work. The scientific information collected by the Wilkes Expedition was the foundation for much of American science in the areas of geology, botany, and zoology.


Despite his successful expedition, Wilkes was accused of illegally whipping his crew and was placed on “desk assignment” from 1843 to 1861. In command of the USS San Jacinto in 1861, Wilkes seized two Confederate agents from the British ship Trent, thus violating the principle of the freedom of the seas and causing tension between the U.S. and England. More trouble came his way during the Civil War, when he was accused of “conduct unbecoming an officer.”

Wilkes is buried at Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C.

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