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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
August 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 5
∗ 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.