WILKES, Charles

Author Tags: 1800-1850, Forts and Fur, Place Names

Renowned as a stern disciplinarian with an obsessive person-ality, Charles Wilkes became an influential character in the political history of the Pacific Northwest when he served as the young commander for the U.S. Surveying and Exploration Expedition of 1838–1842, leading a hydrographic survey of the Columbia River from its mouth to the Cascades, about 160 miles from the river mouth.

The Columbia River was integral to the overland fur trade on the Western Slope during the first half of the 19th century, but for many years nobody was certain who ought to control the route. The American sea captain Robert Gray, who named the Columbia River after his ship Columbia Rediviva, is usually cited as the Euroamerican “discoverer” of the Columbia River in 1792, but the first European to record evidence of the river was Spanish navigator Bruno de Hezeta in 1775.

Only five months after Gray had crossed the bar of the Columbia in 1792, Captain George Vancouver’s second-in-command, Lieutenant William Broughton of the HMS Chatham, sent two survey boats upriver for one hundred miles, producing the first reliable map of the Columbia as far as the future site of Fort Vancouver.
After fur trader David Thompson became the first man to map the Columbia River almost in its entirety for the Canadian-owned North West Company and the British warship, Racoon, ceremoniously took charge of the river mouth in 1813, the American warship Ontario returned the favour in 1818. By the time British naval commander Edward Belcher led Starling and Sulphur upriver as far as Fort Vancouver in 1839, the issue as to whether Great Britain or the United States ought to pursue claims to the Columbia waterway was thoroughly perplexing.

Charles Wilkes first undertook a personal reconnaissance of the area north of the Columbia in May of 1841 by travelling overland from Nisqually (Puget Sound), down the Cowlitz River to the Columbia, passing Mount St. Helens along the way, and reaching the river’s mouth.

In July he returned to the river mouth in his flagship Vincennes. He then sent it southward to California and took charge of another vessel, the 224-ton brigantine Porpoise, better suited to exploring the river and crossing the bar. At Fort George he also bought a 250-ton merchant brig, the Oregon, to follow his survey boats upriver.

By August, Wilkes’ expedition reached Fort Vancouver where he dined with Dr. John McLoughlin and George Simpson, Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Wilkes confided to Simpson that he planned to recommend to the U.S. government that it should claim all territory northward as far as 54° 40' north. This was alarming and important news to Simpson who promptly wrote to the British Foreign Office advising them of the need to retain control of all land north of the Columbia River.

Lieutenant William M. Walker completed another American naval survey upriver as far as the Cascades; Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry undertook similar work along the Willamette River. Concurrently Charles Wilkes visited 40 American settlers in the Willamette Valley and discussed with them the logistics of eventually establishing a civil government under the U.S. flag.

Although Wilkes eventually advised the American government that the Columbia River harbour was too dangerous for anchorages and safe passage, and the Puget Sound area of Seattle ought to be deemed more essential to U.S. interests, his invasive presence for most of 1841 in an area largely under the administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company greatly undermined the confidence of the British.
In 1841 Wilkes published an important map of the Oregon Territory that included the British Columbia coastline. Describing the Pacific Northwest, he once wrote: “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.”

Wilkes’ survey work established many place names within Washington State (such as Elliott Bay, Maury Island, Hale Passage, Hammersley Inlet) and he named McNeill Island for Hudson’s Bay Company sea captain William Henry McNeill.
Although he twice faced a court martial for his alleged over-use of the cat-o’-nine-tails (and was acquitted), Wilkes was awarded the Founders Medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 1847.

The capricious Wilkes had a varied and controversial naval career, rising from Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, D.C., to the rank of Rear Admiral. He is credited with the discovery of Antarctica in December of 1839 (hence Wilkes Land in Antarctica) and his personality influenced Herman Melville’s depiction of Ahab in Moby Dick. In fact, Melville included details of Wilkes’ Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition in the famous novel.

Born in New York City on April 3, 1798, Wilkes died on February 8, 1877, in Washington, D.C. His remains were re-interred in Arlington National Cemetery in 1920. Among his admirers was Charles Darwin.


Wilkes, Charles. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (Philadelphia, 1845; abridged ed., New York, 1851).
Wilkes, Charles. Western America, including California and Oregon (Philadelphia, 1849).
Wilkes, Charles. Theory of the Winds (New York, 1856).


Stanton, William. The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975).

Tyler, David B. The Wilkes' Expedition: The First United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1968).

W. Bixby, The Forgotten Voyage of Charles Wilkes (1966)
R. Silverberg, Stormy Voyager (1968)
A. Gurney, The Race to the White Continent (2000)
N. Philbrick, Sea of Glory (2003).

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2006] "1800-1850" "Forts and Fur" "Place Names"