Every school child knows of Lewis & Clark, right? But what about Charles Wilkes? Who is Charles Wilkes, you say? Well, he was the leader of the U.S. Exploring Expedition (also known as the Ex. Ex.) from 1838 to 1842. What?!? You've never heard of the U.S. Exploring Expedition? But it accomplished so much:
- Confirmed the presence of Antarctica as a continent at the bottom of the earth and mapped 1,500 miles of its coast.
- Charted 800 miles of coast in the Pacific Northwest and 100 miles of the Columbia River.
- Mapped dozens of islands in the South Pacific, and some of those maps were still being used a hundred years later during WWII.
- Brought back 40 tons of scientific specimens which included: 4,000 ethnographic artifacts; 50,000 botanical specimens including over a thousand living plants; and thousands of birds, mammals, fish, coral, insects, etc. (much of which became the foundation of the Smithsonian).
- Collected a tremendous amount of information and data on the diversity of people and places, languages and customs, and scientific observations.
But fortunately, Philbrick didn't ignore it and he does a good job of analyzing the relationships between Wilkes and his men. And the account of Wilkes' time atop Mauna Loa was pretty inspiring. I only wish the scientific accomplishments had played a more central part of the narrative and had been explained better. There's also a lot of nautical terminology which was hard for a landlubber like me to follow. Still, it’s a very interesting bit of history, and the next time you see a map of Antarctica look for a part called Wilkesland, and now you'll know who named it.