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Explorers of the Pacific: European and American Discoveries in Polynesia

Charles Wilkes

Charles Wilkes

1838 to 1842

The purposes of the Wilkes Expedition, which was approved by the Government of the United States, were set forth as follows: "The Expedition is not for conquest, but discovery. Its objects are all peaceful; they are to extend the empire of commerce and science; to diminish the hazards of the ocean, and to point out to future navigators a course by which they may avoid dangers and find safety." The ships commissioned for the expedition were six, as follows:

  • Vincennes, sloop of war, 780 tons; Charles Wilkes, Commander of the Expedition.
  • Peacock, sloop of war, 650 tons; William L. Hudson commanding.
  • Porpoise, gun brig, 230 tons; Cadwalader Ringgold, Lieutenant Commandant.
  • Sea Gull, tender, New York pilot-boat, 110 tons; Passed Midshipman James W. E. Reid.
  • Flying Fish, tender, New York pilot-boat, 96 tons; Passed Midshipman S. R. Knox.
  • Relief, store ship; A. K. Long, Lieutenant Commandant.

The scientists appointed to the expedition were Horatio Hale, philologist; J. P. Couthouy, conchologist; William Rich, botanist; J. D. Dana, mineralogist; Charles Pickering and T. R. Peale, naturalists; and J. D. Brackenridge, horticulturist.

page 107

The expedition sailed from Hampton Roads on August 18, 1838. After observations on the way, the ships rounded Cape Horn in March 1839. While they worked up the coast to Valparaiso, the Sea Gull with a crew of fifteen was lost in a gale. At Callao, expeditions were made, into Peru. In July the fleet left for the Tuamotu Archipelago, where various atolls were surveyed. On August 13 Clermont Tonnerre (Reao) was surveyed, and the following islands were examined in sequence: Serle (Pukarua), Honden (Pukapuka), and the Disappointment Islands (Napuka and Tepoto). On August 29 the expedition saw the islands of "Tai-a-ra" (Taiaro) and "Kawahe" (Kauehi), the islands previously sighted by Fitz-Roy on the Beagle; but they were now more closely examined and located. To Taiaro, Wilkes gave the name of King, after the man at the masthead who had first sighted it. Kauehi, he called Vincennes after his ship. Raraka, in their vicinity, was visited and Aratika (or Carlshof), to the west, was examined. The King George group was visited, but as weather conditions prevented a survey, Wilkes sailed on to Waterlandt Island or "Manhii" (Manihi). Ahii, the Vlieghen of Le Maire and Schouten, was named Peacock Island after one of the ships to indicate that the expedition had marked its true position. The Peacock surveyed Arutua, or Rurick, Island and made magnetic observations at Makatea. The Vincennes surveyed the north side of Deans Island, or "Nairoa" (Rangiroa), and then passed between it and Krusenstern Island (Tikahau). Aurora Island (Makatea) was visited and pigs, poultry, vegetables, and fruit were obtained. On September 10, the ships reached Tahiti and anchored in Matavai Bay. The Flying Fish arrived after surveying the King George group (Tiokea and Oura, or Takapoto and Takaroa). On September 29 the ships sailed past the various islands of the Society group, including Bellingshausen (Motu-one).

Rose Island was sighted on October 7, and the ships visited Manua (Tau), Olosenga, Ofu, Aunuu, and Tutuila, then passed on to Upolu, Manono, and Savaii. At Upolu, a Samoan named Tuvai was tried for the murder of a New Bedford man named Cavenaugh, and Wilkes sentenced him to be exiled. They sailed from Samoa on November 10, visited Uvea (Wallis), where Tuvai was left, and the Horne Islands and reached Sydney on November 29. From Sydney, the ships went south into the Antarctic, where Wilkes sailed along miles of a coast held to be part of a continent termed Antarctica. The Peacock was damaged and returned to Sydney for repairs, and the Vincennes arrived at the same port on March 11, 1840. A rendezvous at Tonga was made with the Peacock, and on March 30 the Vincennes reached the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, where the Porpoise and Flying Fish were waiting. On April 6 they sailed for Tongatabu, passing Raoul, or Sunday, Island in the Kermadecs, and on April 22, arrived at Eua, Tonga, where the Peacock joined them.

On May 4 they left Nukualofal, Tonga, for the Fiji Islands, where they page 108engaged in a survey until August 10. The Porpoise was sent on a mission, and the Vincennes and Peacock sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. On the way, they called in at the Phoenix Islands, where they saw Gardner, and described and named McKean Island. They could not make Sydney Island, but discovered an uncharted island 60 miles west of Sydney on August 26 and named it Hull Island, after a prominent officer in the United States Navy. They passed Birnie Island and surveyed Enderbury Island, then sailed for the Hawaiian Islands. The ships arrived at Kauai on September 20 and four days later anchored in the Honolulu roads. The visit coincided with the visits of Captain Belcher in H.M.S. Sulphur and Du Petit-Thouars in the Venus. Some months were spent in Oahu, Maui, and Hawaii for scientific observations, and the Vincennes did not leave for the Columbia River until April 5, 1841. The Vincennes arrived off the Columbia River on April 28, but owing to the breakers on the bar, Wilkes sailed north and continued surveys of the coast and sounds through May and June.

Meanwhile, the Porpoise reported at Honolulu on March 24, 1841. She had continued the survey of the Tuamotu Archipelago, having visited Manihi, Ahii (Peacock), Rurick, Aratika (Carlshof), Kauehi (Vincennes), Raraka, and Saken [Katiu?]. Three small islands south of Saken were surveyed, and Lieutenant Commandant Ringgold designated the cluster as the Seagull Group and named the individual islands Reid (Tuanake), Bacon (Hiti), and Chute (Tepoto) after Passed Midshipmen Reid and Bacon and quartermaster Chute. The other Tuamotuan islands visited were Raroia, Takurea, Tauere, Nukutipipi, Teku (Four Crowns of Quiros), Heretua, San Pablo (Hereheretue), Tahanea, and Aratika. A boring party had been left at Aratika and they were picked up on the return of the Porpoise. The ship called at Tahiti, at Flint Island, and at Penrhyn (Tongareva), where the position was corrected and barter took place with the people who came out in canoes. The ship stood north from Penrhyn on February 16, sighted New York Island (Washington, wrongly named New York), and duly arrived at Honolulu.

The Peacock and the Flying Fish sailed south from Oahu on December 2 on a special project. They surveyed Washington Island and visited Jarvis Island near the equator but failed to find other islands on the reported positions. In January 1841 the Phoenix Islands were examined, and then the ships moved on to the Tokelaus. Duke of York Island (Atafu) and Duke of Clarence Island (Nukunono) were visited, and on January 29, the uncharted island of Fakaofu was discovered by Captain Hudson and named Bowditch Island. Gente Hermosa (Olosenga) was seen and Hudson named it Swains Island after the master of a whaler who informed him of its direction. There was no evidence of inhabitants. In February Upolu and Savaii were visited, and on March 6 the ships sailed for the Ellice Islands, sighting Funafuti on March 14. On page 109March 16 De Peyster Island (Nukufetau) was sighted and surveyed, and on the 18th Tracys Island (Oaitapu) was seen. On the same evening, the small island of Niutao was discovered and named Speiden after the purser. On March 24 the inhabited island of Nanomanga was discovered and named Hudson Island after Captain Hudson. On the following day St. Augustines Island (Nanomea) was passed on the way to the Gilbert, or Kingsmill, Islands.

Drummonds Island (Tabiteuea) was reached on April 3, and during the month of April surveys were carried out on the islands of the Gilberts north of Drummond. In May a visit was paid to some of the Marshall Islands, and on June 16 the Peacock anchored in Honolulu Harbor. She sailed for the Columbia River on June 21, and on July 18 was wrecked on the bar in attempting to enter the river. In spite of heavy seas, Captain Hudson and the crew were saved by three trips of the ship's boats to the land. The papers and charts were saved, but the ethnological collection was lost.

Wilkes shifted his pennant to the Porpoise, which had been able to sail into the Columbia River because of her lighter tonnage. He sent the Vincennes under Lieutenant Commandant Ringgold to San Francisco to survey the Sacramento River. With the Porpoise and the boats from the Peacock, Wilkes carried out a survey of the Columbia River. The brig Oregon was attached to the fleet to replace the wrecked Peacock. With the surveys completed, the fleet sailed for Hawaii on November 1 and the Vincennes, Porpoise, Flying Fish, and Oregon all arrived at Honolulu on November 17. After a stop of ten days, the ships sailed west, the Porpoise making a survey on the way of Necker and Wake Islands, but the weather proved too rough to examine French Frigate Shoal. After visiting various islands, the ships arrived at Singapore in February 1842 and made their way back to the United States via the Cape of Good Hope. The Vincennes anchored off Sandy Hook on June 10, 1842. Commodore Wilkes addressed the men, hauled down his pennant; and handed the ship over to Captain Hudson, who took her to the Navy Yard. The Expedition had lasted three years, ten months, and twenty-three days.