Originally printed in the July 21, 2004 edition of the Illinois Valley News
In August 1838 the United States Exploring Expedition sailed from Chesapeake Bay. Like the Lewis and Clark expedition, it was composed of military personnel as well as civilians. Unlike Lewis and Clark, the group contained several scientists as well as artists. Their purpose was to collect information and specimens and to record the scenes as they were encountered. The Ex. Ex., as it is sometimes called, was under the command of Lt. Charles Wilkes, and is usually called the Wilkes Expedition, but most historians ignore it altogether and so it is seldom mentioned in history books.
The main function of the expedition was to make charts of river mouths, harbors, bays and other areas significant to U.S. sailing ships. They were to collect specimens of plants, animals, and items dealing with native cultures. The expedition visited and charted many places in South America and made, what was thought, the first land sightings of Antarctica. Today, a large section of Antarctica below the Indian Ocean is called Wilkes Land. They also stopped at many islands in the Pacific Ocean and Hawaii.
On April 28, 1841, Wilkes and part of his team were off the mouth of the Columbia River. His orders instructed him to chart the lower Columbia River and then move south for the San Francisco Bay. Rather than risk running aground on the Columbia sand bars, Wilkes went north to Puget Sound and commenced to chart the islands and passageways around the south end of Vancouver Island. One of his ships, the Peacock, had not yet arrived from Hawaii so Wilkes went by land back to the Columbia River to meet the ship when it arrived. During his wait Wilkes traveled to Fort Vancouver and south into the Willamette Valley in order to meet the settlers and encouraged them to attempt to join the United States.
By mid June the Peacock had still not made it to the Columbia River, so Wilkes returned back to Puget Sound to continue the mapping work. On July 18, 1841 the Peacock finally arrived at the Columbia. Instead of sending a small boat ahead to plot a route around the sand bars, the captain had the ship move directly into the mouth of the river and consequently ran aground on a sand bar. All the crew were able to safely reach shore as giant waves battered the Peacock to pieces. Many collections, journals, and other vital records were lost, as well as the vital stores the Peacock carried. Lt. George Emmons was on the Peacock and was instrumental in saving the lives of the crew members. On hearing the news of the loss, Charles Wilkes returned by sea to the Columbia River and began the process of charting the lower river area using small boats which could cross the bars more safely.
At the end of August, 1841 Wilkes assigned Lt. Emmons to lead a party overland from Fort Vancouver to San Francisco. This group included William Brackenridge, three other scientists, and several settlers wanting an escort to San Francisco. It was during this journey that the Pitcher Plant, or Cobra Lily was first collected. On the 26th of September this group reached the Rogue River where they had a brief skirmish with Rogue River Indians. They reached San Francisco or Yerba Buena, as it was called then, at the end of October and joined with the main party which had come by sea.
The visit of Wilkes to Oregon helped the settlers stay loyal to the United States.
Because it was the first U.S. military visit to Oregon it greatly helped to support the claim of the United States to the territory. It did little to encourage new settlers because of difficulties created by Wilkes in getting information published and it was years before the public knew of the success of the expedition.