Expeditions and Discoveries Sponsored Exploration and Scientific Discovery in the Modern Age

United States South Seas Exploring Expedition (aka the Wilkes Expedition), 1838–1842

To safeguard American whalers, sealers, and shipping operators, the US Congress authorized the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition in 1836. The authorization established a naval squadron, commanded by Lt. Charles Wilkes, that surveyed the Pacific Ocean and the South Seas, and eventually circumnavigated the globe. The squadron included a small corps of civilian scientists, who made observations and collected specimens and artifacts during the four-year expedition.

Lt. Wilkes provided his vivid accounts of the expedition in his 1844 narrative. Between 1844 and 1872, Wilkes oversaw the publication of 14 additional volumes containing his own nautical surveys and descriptions, provided by the scientists, of ethnographic objects and biological specimens (destined for the developing Smithsonian Institute). Notable among these supplemental volumes are Asa Gray’s Phanerogamia; James Dwight Dana’s three reports Zoophytes (1846), Geology (1849), and Crustacea (1852–1853); and Charles Wilkes’s Meteorology (1851) and Hydrography (1858).

Selected Manuscripts and Records in Expeditions and Discoveries


  • Jenkins, John S. United States Exploring Expeditions: Voyage of the U.S. Exploring Squadron, Commanded by Captain Charles Wilkes of the United States Navy, in 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841 and 1842: Together with Explorations and Discoveries Made by Admiral D’Urville, Captain Ross and Other Navigators and Travellers, and an Account of the Expedition to the Dead Sea Under Lieutenant Lynch. Auburn [N.Y.]. Alden, Beardsley & Co., 1852


The following sources were used in writing this page.

  • "About the U.S. Exploring Expedition Artifact Database." The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection.
  • Haskell, Daniel C. The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842 and Its Publications, 1844–1874: a Bibliography. New York: New York Public Library: 1942.
  • Pfister, Donald, H. Cryptogams of the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853–1856. Cambridge: Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, 1978.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. "The Scientific Legacy of the U.S. Exploring Expedition." The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, A Smithsonian Institution Libraries Digital Collection.
  • Philbrick, Nathaniel. Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842. New York: Viking, 2003.
  • Stanton, William Ragan. The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838–1842. Berkeley: University of California Press, c1975.
  • United States Exploring Expedition. A Brief Account of the Discoveries and Results of the United States Exploring Expedition. New Haven: B.L. Hamlen, 1843.