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United States Exploring Expedition


Detail of Muthuata drawing by A.J. Agate
Collected in Feegee [Fiji], undated

The United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the Wilkes Expedition, was the first effort by the United States government to mount an expedition for scientific and navigational investigations similar to those supported by the British and the French.

The expedition was delayed for several years because of political, financial, and personal disputes. In 1836 Asa Gray agreed to serve as one of the scientists, but frustrated by the delays and the selection some unqualified scientists, he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in July of 1838.

Six ships sailed from the Chesapeake Bay on August 18, 1838 under the command of Charles Wilkes and headed into an adventure that would be remembered not only for remarkable naval and scientific achievements, but also for scandal, betrayal, and human tragedy.

The Expedition ended in New York in June of 1842, but the struggles continued around efforts to preserve its collections and publish the reports. The botanical reports ran into particular difficulties due to the incompetence of William Rich, the botanist replaced Gray on the expedition. His collections were of poor quality and he was incapable of writing the botanical report to describe them or the specimens collected by the other naturalists, William Dunlop Brackenridge, Horticulturist, and Charles Pickering, Chief Zoologist, and others including the naval officers. Matters were further complicated by the death of the Expedition's botanical artist, Alfred T. Agate, in 1846. Joseph Drayton, who was hired to draw other specimens, also made a few botanical illustrations.

By 1848 Wilkes was forced to ask Asa Gray take on the task of publishing the botany volume. Gray negotiated a reasonable salary and convinced Wilkes that he needed to study specimens in European herbaria in order to accomplish the project

The first volume of Gray's botanical report, accompanied by illustrations by Isaac Sprague, was published in 1854. Wilkes was unable to secure funds to publish the second part of the botanical report, although special reports on narrower botanical area as were published: Brackenridge's report on ferns was published in 1854; William S. Sullivant's report on mosses, Edward Tuckerman's report on lichens, Jacob Whitman Bailey and William Henry Harvey's report on algae, Moses Ashley Curtis and Miles Joseph Berkeley's report on fungi, and John Torrey's report on Phanerogamia of Pacific North America were published officially in 1874.

Haskell, Daniel C. The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and its Publications 1844-1874. New York: New York Public Library, 1942.
Standon, William. The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975.
Pfister, Donald, H. Cryptogams of the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856. Cambridge: Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany, 1978.

Vitex drawing by A.J. Agate
Collected in the Bay of Islands




The United States Exploring Expedition papers were part of Asa Gray's papers and left in the Gray Herbarium.

The receipt for Isaac Sprague was given by Susan Loring, June 27, 1984, with other Jane & Asa Gray manuscript materials.


Scope and Content:

The U. S. Ex. Ex. papers fall into two main categories: manuscripts and drawings.

The manuscripts include lists, in several handwritings, of plants collected on the expedition; some of the lists appear to have been prepared during the expedition, and some appear to have been prepared later. A letter from Brackenridge encloses a brief catalog of phanerogamous plants collected in Hawaii, and a letter from Francis Boott accompanies notes on Carices and Unciniae. There are a variety of rough notes by Asa Gray, some relating to plants of Hawaii, and most important, his manuscript for the unpublished portion of the botanical report, some 1650 pp. Grouped with the manuscripts are a few published materials, including separates of an article by James Dwight Dana about the Expedition and a large map of Oregon prepared by the Expedition.

There are a number of colored drawings of varying sizes which seem to be field sketches. Most of these are by Alfred Agate, but a few are by Joseph Drayton. There are also several sets of larger black and white drawings shich seem to be the originals for plates to be published. There is a series of such drawings by Alfred Agate with a plate proof of one drawing; a series by W.R. Hutton; a small series by Joseph Drayton, with 2 plate proofs; and a series of drawings by Isaac Sprague for published and unpublished plates. There are also a few miscellaneous items and a small drawing with a letter from Charles Wilkes.


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Other United States Exploring Expedition materials in our collections

United States Exploring Expedition Web Resources

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Last updated June 2009
Copyright 2008 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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