Wilkes, Charles

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Wilkes, Charles

Wilkes, Charles, 1798–1877, American naval officer and explorer, b. New York City, educated by his father. In 1815 he entered the merchant service and received (1818) an appointment as a midshipman. For his survey (1832–33) of Narragansett Bay he was designated (1833) head of the department of charts and instruments of the navy. Although an inexperienced leader, he was put in command of a government exploring expedition intended to provide accurate naval charts for the whaling industry. Wilkes, then a lieutenant, set sail (1838) from Norfolk, Va., in charge of a squadron of six ships and 346 seamen, and accompanied by a team of nine scientists and artists. They sailed around South America, did important research in the S Pacific, and explored the Antarctic. The portion of Antarctica that he explored was subsequently named Wilkes Land. Wilkes explored Fiji in 1840, visited the Hawaiian group, and in May, 1841, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific coast of the United States, and explored the Pacific Northwest.

After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes returned to New York in June, 1842. In four years at sea he had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 vol. and an atlas) appeared in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (20 vol. and 11 atlases, 1844–74) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XIII (Hydrography). The specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed part of the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection as well as the U.S. Botanic Garden.

Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as an arrogant, cruel, and capricious leader. The impetuosity of his nature, for which he was twice court-martialed, was demonstrated when early in the Civil War, as commander of the San Jacinto, he stopped the British mail ship Trent and, contrary to all regulations, forcibly removed Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason. The incident almost involved the Union in a war with England (see Trent Affair). Promoted to the rank of commodore in 1862, he commanded a squadron in the West Indies.


See biography by D. Henderson (1953, repr. 1971); 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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Wilkes, Charles


Born Apr. 3, 1798, in New York; died Feb. 8,1877, in Washington, D.C. American explorer.

In 1838, Wilkes was put in command of a general expedition to explore Oceania and the area around Antarctica. The expedition began by surveying some 260 islands in Polynesia, including three previously unknown islands in the Phoenix and Tokelau groups. In 1840, while searching for the the south magnetic pole, Wilkes sighted land near the antarctic circle at 162° E long. He thereupon made his way westward along the edge of the ice pack for more than 2,700 km to 98° E long., later suggesting that he had traveled along the coast of the Antarctic mainland. This section of Antarctica is now called Wilkes Land. In 1841 the expedition explored part of the Columbia River basin in North America. It returned to the United States in 1842.


Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, vols. 1–5. Philadelphia, 1845.


Treshnikov, A. F. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia Antarktidy. Moscow, 1963.
Svet, Ia. M. Istoriia otkrytiia i issledovaniia Avstralii i Okeanii. Moscow, 1966.
Tyler, D. B. The Wilkes Expedition. Philadelphia, 1968.
The Pacific Basin: A History of Its Geographical Exploration. New York, 1967.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

Wilkes, Charles

(1798–1877) naval officer, explorer; born in New York City. He commanded a naval scientific expedition which surveyed the Antarctic coast, islands of the Pacific, and the American northwest coast (1838–42). He was the first explorer to name Antarctica as a continent, and returned home after circling the globe. He instigated the Trent affair (1861) which nearly brought Great Britain into the Civil War on the Confederate side. He was court-martialed in 1864 for violating neutral powers in pursuit of Confederate ships. Following his suspension from duty (1864–65) he became a retired rear admiral.
The Cambridge Dictionary of American Biography, by John S. Bowman. Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1995. Reproduced with permission.
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