United States Exploring Expedition

Grainy grayscale illustration of shore

During the United States Exploring Expedition, thousands of plant and animal species unknown to Western science had been discovered and collected; thousands of miles of coastline had been accurately surveyed and mapped for the first time; the peoples of the innumerable islands of the Pacific and the lands of northwestern North America had been contacted and studied (some for the first time by Westerners). Previous reports from British, French, Dutch, Russian, and German expeditions had been appearing since the voyages of Captain Cook almost a hundred years earlier. Indeed, most of what was known about the peoples, plants, animals, and lands of North America had been discovered by European explorers and published in European cities. By publishing the U.S.Ex.Ex. reports the United States intended to establish itself as an equal partner in this effort and to take its place in the international scientific and intellectual community.

Congress authorized the publication of "an account of the discoveries" within two months of the Expedition's return. It limited the number of copies to 100 and listed the intended recipients: one copy to each state of the Union (and later, to each new state as it joined); two each to France, Great Britain, and Russia; one each to 25 other foreign countries; two to the Library of Congress; one to the Naval Lyceum, Brooklyn; and one each to the principal ships' commanders Wilkes, Hudson, and Ringgold. The Congressional committee overseeing the project appointed Captain Charles Wilkes to supervise the preparation of the reports and the expedition artist Joseph Drayton to oversee the illustrations.

For more information, see The Publications of The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1844-1874, an online essay by Leslie K. Overstreet, Curator of Natural History Rare Books. [All volumes of the United States Exploring Expedition are also available in the Biodiversity Heritage Library, including the unpublished v.18 manuscript held by Harvard University.]