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The Wilkes Expedition and Southern Puget Sound:
An 1841 Encounter With Lasting Effects
by Drew W. Crooks
The City of DuPont, Washington, is blessed with a rich heritage. One particularly fascinating episode in the area’s history concerns the Wilkes Expedition of the mid-19th century. In 1841 this group of American explorers came to the Southern Puget Sound region while on a world wide voyage of discovery. They met three different peoples living near Puget Sound: Native Americans, Hudson’s Bay Company employees, and American missionaries. It proved to be an encounter with lasting effects.
Euro-Americans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were expanding their activities around the world. Sometimes this expansion took the shape of exploring expeditions sent out by governments for scientific, commercial and political reasons. Famous examples of such expeditions include the voyages of James Cook (1768-1778), La Perouse (1785-1788), and George Vancouver (1791-1795).
The United States naturally became interested in joining the wave of exploration. In fact, the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-1806) that crossed the North American continent can be seen as part of this movement. Years of planning by the American government also resulted in a maritime venture that went beyond North America and circumnavigated the globe. This endeavor came to be known as the United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842). Today the United States Exploring Expedition is often referred to as the Wilkes Expedition, named after its capable, but cantankerous commander Charles Wilkes. On one hand, this intelligent naval officer worked hard to carry out assigned tasks. On the other hand, his behavior revealed a difficult individual who combined stubbornness with a short-fused temper. It did not help that Charles Wilkes, extremely sensitive about his leadership position overseeing the Expedition, officially held only the rank of lieutenant during the voyage, not captain as he requested.
The Wilkes Expedition was a major governmental expedition that started with six ships. In addition to the naval crews, a number of civilian scientists accompanied the enterprise. Nicknamed the “Scientifics,” they included experts in geology, languages, biology, botany, and art. One member of this group, mineralogist James Dwight Dana, later became an outstanding American scientific leader.
On August 18, 1838, the U. S. Exploring Expedition left Hampton Roads, Virginia with great expectations of discoveries. Productive explorations of Antarctic waters and the Pacific Ocean followed. Then two of the Expedition’s ships, the sloop of war Vincennes and brig Porpoise, came to the Northwest Coast in the spring of 1841. At this time the Pacific Northwest, then commonly known as the Oregon Country, was jointly claimed by Great Britain and the United States. Few Americans resided in the region, but the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), a British corporation, operated a network of trading posts.
The Vincennes and Porpoise sailed into Puget Sound and anchored off Fort Nisqually, a HBC station located near Sequalitchew Creek. The date was May 11, 1841. Alexander C. Anderson (then commander of Fort Nisqually) and William McNeil (captain of the Company steamship Beaver) welcomed Charles Wilkes and his men. The American naval officer would later name two local geographical features after his HBC hosts: Anderson Island and McNeil Island.
Charles Wilkes was pleased to receive the hospitality of the Hudson’s Bay Company. He used the Fort Nisqually area as a base for both maritime and land explorations. In the Expedition’s final report or Narrative Wilkes wrote, “The establishment of an observatory also claimed my attention: a suitable site was found on the top of the hills [the bluff to the south of Sequalitchew Creek], within hail of the ship. Here the instruments and clocks were landed, and put up in a small clearing, when the trees had been cut in order to supply the steamer with fuel.”
Coastal surveying of Southern Puget Sound by the Wilkes Expedition produced detailed charts. In addition, overland parties sent out from Fort Nisqually explored the region. One party traveled down to Fort Vancouver and the Columbia River, and further into the Willamette Valley. Another ventured by Puget Sound, rivers and portages to Grays Harbor and on to the Columbia River. A third explored over the Cascade Mountains and deep into what is presently Eastern Washington.
Lieutenant Wilkes was impressed by the Puget Sound region, a view shared by many members of the United States Exploring Expedition. In the Expedition’s Narrative, for example, botanist William D. Brackenridge described the Fort Nisqually area in favorable terms:
“Fort Nesqually lays inland a good half mile from the Bay on the plains or margin of the extensive prairies which stretch back into the interior 15 or 20 miles. . . . The plains were at this season one complete sheet of flowers . . . intersected with and broken in upon by belts or clumps of spruce trees, with a dense undergrowth . . . with a few scattered oaks. . . . Near several of the fresh water lakes I observed two kinds of ash . . . solitary examples of a Yew . . . a wood which the Natives prefer for making their bows . . . .”
Numerous Indians were encountered by the United States Exploring Expedition in the Pacific Northwest. Among these Native Americans were the Sequalitchew Nisquallies who lived near the HBC trading post. Wilkes and his men had peaceful relations with Native people. Indian guides provided key assistance to the overland parties. However, the racism so common in that era sometimes marred the descriptions of Native Americans in Expedition reports.
Members of the Wilkes Expedition also depended on advice and supplies from another group of people that they met in Southern Puget Sound —Hudson’s Bay Company employees. A cooperative relationship with the HBC greatly assisted the exploring activities of the Wilkes Expedition. Still, there remained an underlying tension between the two groups caused by conflicting political claims to the Oregon Country.
Furthermore, Charles Wilkes and his men encountered the American missionaries from the Nisqually Methodist Mission. Established in 1839 near Fort Nisqually, this Mission served as home for the first United States citizens to settle in the region. Reverend John P. Richmond was the group’s leader. Both missionaries and Wilkes Expedition members supported the strengthening of American influence in the Pacific Northwest.
All the various peoples came together for a special occasion in July 1841. According to the Expeditions’ Narrative, Charles Wilkes decided then to grant his men a break from their work: “Wishing to give the crew a holiday on the anniversary of the Declaration of our Independence, and to allow them to have a full day’s frolic and pleasure, they were allowed to barbecue an ox, which the [Hudson’s Bay] Company’s agent had obligingly sold me.”
The festivities took place on July 5th since the 4th that year fell on a Sunday. In the morning the Expedition’s crew marched inland to Fort Nisqually where they gave three cheers outside of the post, but few HBC employees responded with cheers of their own. The sailors continued on to a prairie where they engaged in a day full of playing games, eating food, and listening to speeches. American missionaries, HBC workers, and Native Americans were all present. The event concluded with a dinner for high-level representatives of the Expedition, missionaries, and Hudson’s Bay Company.
This celebration of Independence Day saw much American nationalism. Indeed, patriotic sentiments characterized the occasion’s speeches. At one point, for example, Dr. John Richmond of the Methodist Mission declared that “Upon Fourth-of-Julys, especially, we are irresistibly impelled to entertain the belief that the whole of this magnificent region . . . is destined to become one of the physical ingredients of our beneficent [American] Republic.”
On July 17th, the Wilkes Expedition left Southern Puget Sound and Fort Nisqually. The explorers first sailed to California. Then the Expedition crossed the wide Pacific Ocean to Asia. Further travels brought the Americans to the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. Finally, the long trip around the world ended with arrival at the Port of New York on June 10, 1842.
Controversy clouded the return of the United States Exploring Expedition. Deep divisions among the Expedition’s officers originating during the stressful voyage resulted in a series of courts-marital that resulted in much discord and a public reprimand for Charles Wilkes. Furthermore, President John Tyler, who had taken office in 1841, seemed indifferent to the Wilkes Expedition’s achievements.
Still, the great accomplishments of the Expedition can not be denied. The United States Exploring Expedition’s mapping and scientific work proved of lasting value. In addition, natural history specimens and anthropological artifacts gathered during the voyage were added to the collections of the Smithsonian Institution for future studies. Finally, the explorers on their trip successfully showed the American flag around the globe.
The immediate effects of the Wilkes Expedition on Southern Puget Sound were minimal. Yet, the venture definitely increased American interest in the area. The U.S. Government took a strong position on claiming the Puget Sound region during the British-American negotiations over the Oregon Country. A resulting 1846 treaty set the new border at 49th degree parallel. All land below this line, including the Puget Sound area, went to the United States.
Another legacy of the United States Exploring Expedition was the place names they bestowed on explored landscapes. Some names have not lasted, but others have endured to the present day. In Southern Puget Sound remaining place names include Anderson Island, Budd Inlet, Commencement Bay, Eld Inlet, Fox Island, Gig Harbor, Henderson Inlet, McNeil Island, Point Defiance, and Toliva Shoal.
The Wilkes Expedition was certainly a dramatic episode in the history of DuPont. This encounter between members of the Expedition and Native Americans, Hudson’s Bay Company employees, and American missionaries lasted only a short time in 1841. The consequences of the meeting, however, continue to the present day.
Further Information on the Wilkes Expedition
Barkan, Frances B., edited, The Wilkes Expedition: Puget Sound and the Oregon Country (Olympia, WA: Washington State Capital Museum, 1987).
Carpenter, Cecelia Svinth, Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction (Tacoma, WA: Tahoma Research Service, 1986).
Rainier Media Center, “DuPont’s Roots: Pathways to Fort Nisqually,” DVD, 2009.
Viola, Herman J. and Carolyn Margolis, edited, Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1985).
Wilkes, Charles, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition. During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, Vol. 4 (Philadelphia, PA: [s.n.], 1849).