Wilkes, Charles (1798-1877)

  • By Junius Rochester
  • Posted 2/17/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5226
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Lt. Charles Wilkes led the first U.S. Navy expedition to explore the Pacific Ocean in 1838. He surveyed Puget Sound and named dozens of landmarks, including Elliott Bay, in 1841. Wilkes' obsessive behavior and harsh code of shipboard discipline reportedly shaped Herman Melville's characterization of Ahab in Moby Dick.

A Man With a Mission

In 1838, Lieutenant Charles Wilkes of the U.S. Navy proudly received his assignment as commander of the first United States Exploring Expedition to the wide Pacific Ocean. Born in New York City, he joined the Navy as a midshipman in 1818. In 1833, he headed the Navy's Department of Charts and Instruments, out of which developed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office.

He accepted the job of exploring and surveying routes in the Pacific and took command of a small fleet of six vessels carrying up-to-date scientific instruments and experts in the fields of botany, philology (the comparative science of language), horticulture, conchology (the scientific study of shells), and mineralogy. The Wilkes Expedition surveyed Antarctica, visited Hawaii, and encountered the wild entrance to the Columbia River, in Wilkes' words, "one of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor." Unable to cross the bar, he decided to first chart Puget Sound, then return to the River of the West (Columbia).

Following in Vancouver's Wake

After almost losing two ships, the Vincennes and the Porpoise, on the rocky Washington coast at Point Grenville, Wilkes' shrunken flotilla dropped anchor in (Port) Discovery Bay near the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula on May 2, 1841, following George Vancouver by 49 years to the day. Wilkes then commenced a detailed survey of Puget Sound, naming or re-naming dozens of landmarks, including Elliott Bay.

Upon arrival in Puget Sound, Charles Wilkes first made peace with his British counterparts at Fort Nisqually. He then set his men to work surveying the Sound, and dispatched an expedition eastward to Fort Okanogan, Lapwai, and Walla Walla under the command of Lieutenant Robert Johnson. He also sent a party overland to California, which dined with Captain John A. Sutter at his fortress on the American River.

Wilkes left the bridge to explore the route south of the Sound. He crossed the portage to the Cowlitz River, rented a canoe, and paddled down the river, then up the Columbia to pay his respects to the Hudson's Bay Chief Factor, Dr. John McLoughlin. He also visited Astoria and several Columbia River mission stations.

Harsh Discipline

Upon returning to the Vincennes, he enforced harsh discipline, including lashes of the cat-o'-nine-tails (a whip consisting of nine knotted cords fastened to a handle that leaves marks like a cat scratch) on the bare backs of several disobedient men.

Lieutenant George Sinclair, sailing master of the Porpoise, surveyed the area near today's Seattle and King County. Looking at Sinclair's work, Wilkes concluded that the Elliott Bay anchorage was not impressive due to "the great depth of water as well as the extensive mud flats … [that] are exposed at low water." He noted the westerly prevailing winds and occasional heavy seas at the entrance to the bay. (Of course, Wilkes' 1841 observations were in the context of sail, not steam, vessels.) However, Wilkes also noted, with some exaggeration, that "Not a shoal exists within the Straits of Juan de Fuca, Admiralty Inlet, Puget Sound, or Hood's Canal ... no country in the world ... possesses waters equal to these."

Getting Along with the Natives

Charles Wilkes had no "Indian policy," but he issued a general order to his officers reminding them of the fates that had befallen previous explorers to the Pacific Northwest. He added that care should be taken when dealing with the region's "savage and treacherous inhabitants." He stressed that no force should be used against Indians except in self-defense.

Wilkes' apprehensions proved groundless. Except for minor pilfering, the Indians never threatened the Wilkes party on land or at sea. Sadly, expedition members expressed pity and concern for the aboriginal inhabitants, most of whom appeared to be in poor condition as a result of mistreatment and diseases introduced by European and American visitors.

Name That Bay

Naming everything in sight was one of Wilkes' avocations. For example, Elliott Bay could have been named for one of three men named Elliott on the expedition. Jared Elliott, ship's chaplain, was unpopular with the men and disliked by Wilkes. George Elliott, a ship's boy, had been in trouble for insubordination. Midshipman Samuel Elliott was a member of the Porpoise survey crew that charted the bay. In his Puget's Sound, Murray Morgan concludes that Midshipman Elliott earned the privilege of having the bay named for him. Wilkes added the name West Point to the north cape of Elliott Bay.

Charles Wilkes also provided monikers for other sites:

  • Maury Island (Vashon), honoring William L. Maury, nephew of a Navy hydrographer;
  • Hammersley Inlet near Shelton for Midshipman George Hammersly;
  • Totten and Budd Inlets near Olympia for cartographers George M. Totten and Thomas A. Budd;
  • Agate Passage between Bainbridge Island and the Kitsap Peninsula for draftsman Alfred T. Agate -- a name which to this day causes confusion and argument among rockhounds;
  • Hale Passage between Fox Island and the mainland honors Horatio Hale, the expedition's linguist;
  • Dana Passage for geologist James Dwight Dana.

Wilkes did not overlook crewmembers as he peppered his maps with names. For example Quartermaster Harbor between Vashon and Maury Islands honors his petty officers as a group. Individuals such as Henderson and Southworth found their names on portions of islands. On a rampage, he even saluted the British with Anderson Island for the chief trader at Fort Nisqually, Alexander Canfield Anderson, and McNeill Island for a Hudson's Bay "chief factor" named William Henry McNeill.

Like George Vancouver, Charles Wilkes spent a good deal of time near Bainbridge Island. He noted the bird-like shape of the harbor at Winslow, hence, Eagle Harbor. Continuing his fascination with winged creatures, he named Bill Point and Wing Point. Port Madison and Points Monroe and Jefferson honor former U.S. presidents. Port Ludlow was assigned to honor Lieutenant Augustus Ludlow who lost his life in an 1813 sea battle. When he named Appletree Cove at Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula, he might have been fooled by the dogwood -- not apple -- blossoms.

Less Than a Hero's Homecoming

Upon learning that one of his ships, the Peacock, had foundered on the Columbia River bar, Wilkes interrupted his work in the San Juan Islands and sailed south. He never returned to Puget Sound. His account of the expedition was published in abbreviated editions soon after his return to Washington, D.C. in 1842. Many years later, only 100 sets of his complete works were published and distributed to friendly powers and to each state and territory then in the Union.

Having spent less than two weeks in California, Wilkes did not hold a very high opinion of that area -- except for the great San Francisco Bay as a shipping and commercial entrepot. He concluded that San Francisco and Puget Sound were destined to become "the finest ports in the world."

The publication of Wilkes' detailed map of the Oregon Territory gave Americans a new image of that unknown land, but upon his return Charles Wilkes faced a somewhat indifferent Congress, an apathetic public, and criticism from former expedition officers. In fact, courts-martial were held over Wilkes' alleged excessive zeal with the cat-o'-nine-tails and other matters, but nothing came of the inquiries.

Interestingly, Herman Melville incorporated details of Wilkes' Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition into his masterpiece Moby Dick-or The Whale, and borrowed aspects of Wilkes' personality and conduct for his characterization of Captain Ahab.


Murray Morgan, Puget's Sound (Seattle & London: University of Washington Press, 1979). Also see: Clarence B. Bagley, History of King County, Washington (Chicago-Seattle: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1929); Herman J. Viola, "The Wilkes Expedition on the Pacific Coast," Pacific Northwest Quarterly, January 1989.
Note: Many sources give Lt. Wilkes the title "Captain." After leaving the U.S., Wilkes summarily appointed as "Captain" himself and another Lieutenant, a move the Navy never approved. The master of a ship can be called "captain," but in the Navy at the time, the officer in charge was addressed by his rank. Wilkes had a point. He was in charge of a large and complex expedition, but he held the same rank as most of his officers and the failure to promote him, even temporarily, was not only unfair, but generated one of many unproductive controversies over the next four years. See Nathaniel Philbrick, Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (New York: Viking, 2003), 67.

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