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Great Adventures: US Exploring Expedition

The US Exploring Expedition was one of the most significant episodes in American history, but it has mysteriously slid into relative obscurity. Pat Kinsella reveals how a voyage of discovery was marred by acts of violence
SHAMEFUL SECRET The native Pacific Islanders suffered greatly at the hands of the Americans

The United States Exploring Expedition was an epic undertaking that saw six ships spend four years travelling 87,000 miles around the globe, seeking to advance science and chart new lands.

“When they become aware of the facts, they will see the injustice that has been done”

Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition

By any measure, the Ex Ex, as it became known, was extraordinarily successful. It added many miles of coastline to the international map, stamped American influence and authority across large swathes of the planet – around the Pacific in particular, where whaling interests were paramount – and became the first US expedition to circumnavigate the world.

VOYAGE OF DISCOVERY 1: The Peacock dodges pack ice and fog

Several of the period’s preeminent botanists, biologists and geologists were on board, and these scientists – pioneers in the new fields of ethnography, oceanography and volcanism – gathered 40 tons of animal, mineral, plant and cultural specimens during the trip. is haul dwarfed the combined collections from all three of Cook’s expeditions, and was used to establish the now-famous Smithsonian Institution.

2/3: Sketches of exotic wildlife made by Titian Peale

Under the sometimes ferocious, but always fearless, command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the expedition was arguably the first to find solid land in Antarctica, proving that the South Pole is surrounded by terra firma and can correctly be considered a continent.

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December 2016