One of America’s Greatest Navy Explorers
The US Exploring Expedition, led by Lt. Charles Wilkes, was the first US exploring and surveying expedition to the South Seas. Six ships carried 346 naval personnel and scientists, who were charged with the task of providing detailed maps of the region for the American shipping industry. The expedition was at sea from 1838 to 1842 in the around-the-world voyage.
Between December 1840 and January 1841, Wilkes took a contingent of scientists to the summit of Mauna Loa (in present day Hawaii Volcanoes National Park). From Kīlauea Crater, the expedition took five days to reach the summit. Once there, a camp was set up with rock walls to buttress tents against the extreme weather conditions, and the expedition could carry out observations and mapping. The expedition mapped the summit region and conducted scientific efforts in the relatively unknown alpine wilderness area. The expedition team was supported by nearly 300 natives who served as porters on the arduous climb to the summit. The contingent broke camp on January 13 and returned to Kīlauea leaving the remains of their camp site behind.
Today, all that is left are the walls of Wilkes’ camp and the site is now on the National Register of Historic Places - a lasting legacy to the incredible voyage of discovery. To say that this voyage was of lasting importance is quite the understatement! In fact, the culmination of the Expedition coincided with the establishment of the Smithsonian Institution and the Natural Museum of Natural History. These facilities eventually became the recipient of the Expedition’s vast collections including over four thousand zoological specimens, over fifty thousand plant specimens, thousands of ethnographic artifacts, and gems, fossils, and corals collected throughout the four year voyage.