The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. By William Stanton. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. Bibliographical Note. Illustrations. Index. Notes.433 pages. $14.95.
Reviewed by Donald C. Cutter, Professor of History, University of New Mexico and current president of the Western History Association. Cutter has written on the earlier Spanish round-the-world expedition of Alejandro Malaspina.
Professor William Stanton traces the origins of the Great United States Exploring Expedition back to a harebrained scheme of John Cleves Symmes, Jr. of seeking the inner earth, access to which would give the discovering nation scientific status and political advantage. Symmes, a veteran of the War of 1812, first promulgated his fanciful concept in 1818 when he publicly declared that “the earth is hollow and habitable within, containing a number of solid concentric spheres, one within the other, and that it is open at the poles twelve or sixteen degrees.” Though the basic thesis lacked acceptance, there were people who felt that a polar expedition would be a worthy national enterprise. Soon to champion the cause was an Ohio editor, Jeremiah N. Reynolds, whose tireless efforts eventually resulted in government sponsorship. Reynolds was even scheduled to accompany the reconnaissance until discharged as unnecessary.
Command of the Ex. Ex., as the exploring expedition was called, was first intended for Thomas ap Catesby Jones but subsequently devolved upon a senior lieutenant, Charles Wilkes. In a day of “wooden ships and iron men,” Wilkes was misplaced. He was neither a master mariner nor a competent leader in circumstances which required both. Perhaps worse yet was his deficient spirit of scientific inquiry. Despite severe command disability, from 1838 to 1842 Wilkes’ task group became the vanguard of U.S. scientific exploration. The Ex. Ex’s. major importance stems from its discoveries in Antarctica, the nature and precise data of which long lay under a cloud of doubt.
Of special interest to readers of the Journal of San Diego History are Wilkes’ visits to the old Oregon Territory and to northern California, though this aspect of activity was of minor importance as compared to the polar and South Pacific portions of the voyage. In two dozen pages concerned with the Pacific coast the reader gets a sharp general view, but the details must be sought elsewhere. Focus rests on incidents such as the loss of the sloop of war Peacock, 680 tons, wrecked crossing the bar of the Columbia; the visits to missionaries and to Hudson Bay Company posts. Students of regional history might be encouraged to amplify the story of the earliest scientific exploration of the interior, particularly the accounts of Lt. Robert E. Johnson’s visit to the “Inland Empire” and Lt. George F. Emmonds’ travels from Fort Vancouver to Sutter’s Fort which are briefly touched by Stanton.
Science was greatly served by the multiple collections made by naval officers and civilian specialists whose combined efforts laid the basis for some of the soon-to-befounded Smithsonian Institution’s oldest artifacts. But all had not been sweetness and light in conduct of the voyage, for discord and bitterness were keynotes of the extended cruise. Much of the book treats the expedition’s aftermath, including the courts martial, the problems of ordering and studying the collections, and the task of getting the final reports published amidst congressional apathy and professional jealousy. In promulgating the results many of the difficulties were of Wilkes’ own making. The aging commander had almost constant problems with his superiors as well as with his subordinates, both afloat and ashore. Epitomizing these difficulties was the permanent bitterness with which Wilkes flavored his Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, a “scissors and paste” production constituting a “national disaster” of prose style.
All lengthy and detailed books have some flaws and Stanton’s is no exception. Most typographical errors might easily have been eliminated, though the one which results in Wilkes exchanging “hot words . . . on the Vincennes quarterback” deserves preservation. More disconcerting, though grammatically correct, are the frequent parenthetical additions, which become tiresome, particularly when the content is digressive or ought to have been relegated to a footnote. On the positive side, this is a worthwhile book. It is very appropriately illustrated including some small reproductions of the artistic work, especially that of the best expedition artist, Alfred T. Agate. That artist’s premature death shortly after the expedition’s return truncated the record of this important aspect of 19th century scientific inquiry. Also included are some zoological and botanical illustrations and two endpaper maps. Written with enthusiasm and sympathy for things nautical by an author who knows the sea, the reader can almost feel the salt spray, hear the creaking masts, see the swell of the sails, and experience the buffeting of small vessels in iceberg laden seas of Antarctica. It is a worthwhile trip.