Charles Wilkes collection

Scope and Content

The collection comprises of material relating to the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 of which Wilkes was the senior commander.

Administrative / Biographical History

Charles Wilkes was born in New York City on 3 April 1798. He had his first experience of maritime life in merchant vessels between 1815 and 1817. In January 1818, he joined the United States Navy as a midshipman and by 1826 had been promoted to lieutenant. Whilst on leave, he studied triangulation and hydrography with Ferdinand Hassler, the first superintendent of the United States Coast Survey. He was made Director of the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington DC in 1833.

In 1828, the United States Congress had taken the first steps to authorize an exploring expedition and ten years later, Wilkes was offered command of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. With a fleet of six vessels, the expedition was commissioned on a world voyage of hydrography and exploration that would include forays into the Southern Ocean. Through no fault of his own, the expedition was ill conceived, ill-equipped, and certainly ill prepared for Antarctic exploration. In August 1838, Wilkes, in command of the sloop of war Vincennes, left Norfolk, Virginia, and arrived at Tierra del Fuego in February 1839. From there, the squadron divided and Wilkes onboard the brig Porpoise, accompanied by Sea Gull, went south and east to the South Shetland Islands and Antarctic Peninsula, while Peacock and Flying Fish sailed southwest to a point off Thurston Peninsula, without sighting land. Following work in the Pacific Ocean, the vessels returned to the Antarctic in December 1839, sailing west along the coast of what is today called Wilkes Land, discovering and charting a series of land-falls and appearances of land between longitudes 160°East and 98°East. After a most difficult voyage in appalling conditions, covering some 1500 miles of ice-bound coast, Wilkes turned north on 21 February and on 11 March re-entered Sydney Harbour. The rest of the expedition was conducted in the warmer waters of the central and northern Pacific Ocean. Only two of the six original vessels, Vincennes and Porpoise, survived to reach New York in June 1842. Wilkes thus became the first explorer to delineate a substantial length of Antarctic coastline, enough to establish that immediately behind lay a landmass of continental size. The published charts of the expedition were the earliest to use the term Antarctic Continent.

However, on his return to New York, Wilkes faced a court-martial and, although acquitted on most charges, was found guilty of illegal punishment and sentenced to public reprimand by the Secretary of the Navy. His career did not appear to suffer and he was promoted to commander in 1843, to captain in 1855, and to commodore in 1862. He was placed in charge of the expedition's publication programme, producing a report of twenty volumes that was published in a limited edition. He served with the Union fleet in the Civil War, intercepting the British mail steamer Trent in 1861. In 1864, he faced a second court-martial, following the publication of a private letter to the Secretary of the Navy and was found guilty on all charges. He retired from the Navy as a rear admiral in 1866, and died in Washington DC on 8 February 1877.

Published work, Autobiography of Rear Admiral Charles Wilkes U.S. Navy 1798-1877 Department of the Navy Naval History Division Washington DC (1978) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Wilkes, C.]

Biographical works, The hidden coasts, a biography of Admiral Charles Wilkes by Daniel Henderson William Sloane Associates New York (1953) SPRI Library Shelf 92[Wilkes] Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, during the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Condensed and abridged edition Whittaker & Co. London (1845) SPRI Library Shelf Special Collection Folio (7) 91(08)[1838-1842 Wilkes]


The collection is arranged chronologically.

Access Information

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Descriptions compiled by N. Boneham, Assistant Archivist with assistance from R. Stancombe and reference to Charles Wilkes, 1798-1877 Geographers Bibliographical studies number 19 p91-104 SPRI Library Shelf Pam 92[Wilkes] and Encyclopaedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans ed. Bernard Stonehouse, John Wiley & Sons, Chichester (2002) ISBN 0471986658 SPRI Library (7) and Robert Keith Headland Antarctic Chronology, unpublished corrected revision of Chronological list of Antarctic expeditions and related historical events,(1 December 2001) Cambridge University Press (1989) ISBN 0521309034

Other Finding Aids

Clive Holland Manuscripts in the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, England - a catalogue. Garland Publishing New York and London (1982) ISBN 0824093941.

Additional finding aids are available at the Institute.

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