The Wilkes Expedition in the Antarctic, 1840



Here, in the words of its commander, set down day by day in his diary, is the little-known story of how a handful of hardy US Navymen took on a whole continent, its gales and ice packs, its uncertainties and mysteries, making important contributions to modern science and geography.

A century ago folks knew little if anything about the Antarctic. True, a handful of explorers and a few whalers had flirted with the drifting ice and howling gales to get a closer look at the frozen wasteland, but accurate information was hard to come by. Charts of the area bore large blanks.

Even basic questions about the place remained unanswered. Was there any land there? Any vegetation? Any animals? What was the weather like? These and many other questions were on the lips of naturalists, Navymen and curious people everywhere.

To get some of the answers, the Navy in 1838 sent off the "Wilkes Expedition," a collection of not very well-equipped windjammers under the command of the brilliant, sometimes temperamental, Lieutenant (later Rear Admiral) Charles Wilkes. The expedition was to stay at sea for four years and number among its accomplishments the first defining of the reaches of the Antarctic continent and the first accurate charting of some 280 islands in the Pacific and great stretches of coastline along the shores of South America and the west coast of the US.

By the time Wilkes and his tiny fleet sailed back into New York Harbor, in 1842, the expedition hydrographers were to turn out 180 charts and contribute volumes of nautical knowledge to the Navy. Wilkes is credited with proving the existence of Antarctica as a land continent, a vital contribution to world geography.

In this Book Supplement are set down some of the experiences of the expedition to the Antarctic. Here, in Wilke’s own words, is the exciting story of how the three vessels, Vincennes, Porpoise and Peacock beat their way southward into the polar seas; how the crews endured heavy fog and dogged icebergs to nuzzle up to the giant ice masses and thread their way gingerly along the crystal coastline; and finally, how ships and crews rode out a screeching Antarctic storm.

This account is excerpted and freely arranged from the explorer’s report of the historic expedition, entitled the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, by Charles Wilkes, USN.

26 December 1839 – After leaving Sydney we had, until the 31st of December, fine weather and favourable winds.

During this favourable weather, all hands were employed in tightening the ports, in order to secure the interior of the vessels as much as possible from the cold and wet, which were to be apprehended in the region to which we were bound. For this purpose, after caulking all the openings, the seams were covered with tarred canvass, over which strips of sheet-lead were nailed. The sailors exhibited great interest in these preparations, and studiously sought to make everything snug; all useless articles were stowed away in the hold, for we were in truth full to overflowing.

Among other preparations, rough casings of boards were built around all the hatches, having doors furnished with weights and pulleys, in order to insure that they should not be left open. Having thus provided for the exclusion of cold air, I contented myself with preparations for keeping the interior of the vessel at a temperature no higher than 50 º. I deemed this preferable to a higher temperature, in order to prevent the injurious effects which might be produced by passing suddenly from below to the deck. I conceived it far more important to keep the air dry than warm, particularly as a lower temperature would have the effect of inducing the men to take exercise for the purpose of exciting their animal heat.

Aware that warm and dry clothing was an object of the first importance, inspections of the men’s feet and dress were held morning and evening, in which the wearing of a suitable number of garments was insisted upon, as well as the greatest personal cleanliness. With the same views, the drying-stoves were particularly attended to; and that every part under deck might be effectually and quickly freed of moisture, additional stoves had been procured at Sydney. Thermometers were hung up in proper places, and frequently consulted, in order by following their indications to secure an equable temperature, and at the time to ascertain when the use of stoves might be dispensed with, in whole or in part. The latter was an important consideration, for we were under the necessity of husbanding our stock of fuel, by expending it only when absolutely necessary.

We also took advantage of the fine weather to bend all our best sails, and to shift our top-gallant masts.

9 January – We passed the site of Emerald Island, but saw nothing of it, nor any indications of land, which I therefore infer does not exist in the locality where it is laid down. We again experienced the southeast current of twenty miles a day. Our variation had increased to twenty-two degrees easterly. Making our course with all sail set, the Porpoise in company, we passed today some pieces of kelp. The temperature continued at 38 º. Numerous flocks of gray petrels around us.

10 January – We encountered the first iceberg, and the temperature of the water fell to 32 degrees. We passed close to it, and found it a mile long, and one hundred and eighty feet in height. We had now reached the latitude of 61º 8′S., and longitude 162º 32′E. The second iceberg seen was thirty miles, and the third about fifty-five miles south of the first. These ice-islands were apparently much worn by the sea into cavities, exhibiting fissures as though they were ready to be rent asunder, and showed an apparent stratification, much inclined to the horizon. The weather now became misty, and we had occasionally a little snow. We continued to meet icebergs of different heights, some of which, though inclined to the horizon, had a plane upper surface.

11 January – We were all day beating in a thick fog, with the barrier of ice close to us, and occasionally in tacking brought it under our bow; at other times we were almost in contact with icebergs. During the whole day we could not see at any time further than a quarter of a mile, and seldom more than the ship’s length. The fog, or rather thick mist, was forming in ice on the rigging. From the novelty of our situation, and the excitement produced by it, we did not think of the danger.

16 January – On this day appearances believed at the time to be land were visible from all three vessels, and the comparison of the three observations when taken in connection with the more positive proofs of its existence afterwards obtained, has left no doubt that the appearance was not deceptive. From this day, therefore, we date the discovery which is claimed for the squadron.

On board the Peacock , it appears that Passed Midshipman Eld and Reynolds both saw the land from the mast-head, and reported it to Captain Hudson: he was well satisfied on examination that the appearance was totally distinct from that of ice-islands, and a majority of the officers and men were also satisfied, that if land could exist that was it.

In Passed Midshipman Eld’s journal, he asserts that he had been several times to the mast-head during the day, to view the barrier; that it was not only a barrier of ice, but one of terra firma. Passed Midshipman Reynolds and himself exclaimed, with one accord, that it was land. Not trusting to the naked eye, they descended for spyglasses, which confirmed, beyond a doubt their first impressions. The mountains could be distinctly seen, over the field-ice and bergs, stretching to the south-west as far as anything could be discerned.

Two peaks, in particular, were very distinct (which I have named after those two officers), rising in conical form; and others, the lower parts of which were quite as distinct, but whose summits were lost in light, fleecy clouds. Few clouds were to be seen in any direction, for the weather was remarkably clear.

On board the Vincennes there was on the same day much excitement among the crew. All eagerly watched the flight of birds, together with the whales and penguins, and spoke of the proximity of land, which, from the appearance of the never-failing signs, could scarcely be doubted.

The field-ice is composed of a vast number of pieces, varying in size, and separated from one another, the long swell keeping the outer ones always in motion. The smallest pieces are about six feet in diameter, while the largest sometimes exceeded five or six hundred feet. Their depth below the surface varies still more, and some appear to be soft, whilst others were hard and compact.

This night we were beating with frequent tacks, in order to gain as much southing as possible. Previous to its broad daylight, the fog rendered everything obscure, even at a short distance from the ship. I knew that we were in close proximity to icebergs and field-ice, but, from the report of the look-out at sunset, believed that there was an opening or large bay leading to the southward. The ship had rapid way on her, and was much tossed about, when in an instant all was perfectly still and quiet; the transition was so sudden, that many were awakened by it from sound sleep, and all well knew, from the short experience we had had, that the cessation of the sound and motion usual at sea, was a proof that we had run within a line of ice – an occurrence from which the feeling of great danger in inseparable.

The watch was called by the officer of the deck, to be in readiness to execute such orders as might be necessary for the safety of the ship. Many of those from below were seen hurrying up the hatches, and those on deck straining their eyes to discover the barrier in time to avoid accident. The ship still moving rapidly along, some faint hope remained that the bay might prove a deep one, and enable me to satisfy my sanguine hopes and belief relative to the land.

The feeling is awful, and the uncertainty most trying thus to enter within the icy barrier, blindfolded as it were by an impenetrable fog, and the thought constantly recurring that both ship and crew were in imminent danger; yet I was satisfied that nothing could be gained but by pursuing this course. On we kept, until it was reported to me, by attentive listeners, that they heard the low and distant rustling of the ice; suddenly a dozen voices proclaimed the barrier to be in sight, just ahead. The ship, which a moment before seemed as if unpeopled, from the stillness of all on board, was instantly alive with the bustle of performing the evolutions necessary to bring her to the wind, which was unfavourable to a return on the same track by which we had entered.

After a quarter of an hour, the ice was again made ahead and the full danger or our situation was realized. The ship was certainly embayed; and although the extent of sea-room to which we limited was rendered invisible by the dark and murky weather, yet that we were closely circumscribed was evident from having made the ice so often so soon on either tack, and from the audible rustling around us.

It required several hours to extricate the ship from this bay. Few are able to estimate the feelings that such an occasion causes to a commander, who has the responsibility of the safety of the ship and crew operating as a heavy weight upon his heart, and producing a feeling as if on the verge of some overwhelming calamity. All tends to satisfy him that nothing could guide him in safety through, or shield from destruction those who have been entrusted to his charge, but the hand of an all-wise Providence.

20 January – This day, on board the Peacock they witnessed a sea-fight between a whale and one of its many enemies. The sea was quite smooth, and offered the best possible view of the whole combat. First, at a distance from the ship, a whale was seen floundering in a most extraordinary way, lashing the smooth sea into a perfect foam, and endeavouring apparently to extricate himself from some annoyance. As he approached the ship, the struggle continued and becoming more violent, it was perceived that a fish, apparently about twenty feet long, held him by the jaw, his contortions, spouting, and throes all betokening the agony of the huge monster. The whale now threw himself at full length from the water with open mouth, his pursuer still hanging to the jaw, the blood issuing from the wound and dyeing the sea to a distance around; but all his flounderings were of no avail; his pertinacious enemy still maintained his hold, and was evidently getting the advantage of him.

Much alarm seemed to be felt by the many other whales around. These "killers," as they are called, are of a brownish colour on the back, and white on the belly, with a long dorsal fin. Such was the turbulence with which they passed, that a good view could not be had of them to make out more nearly the description. These fish attack a whale in the same way as dogs bait a bull, and worry him to death. They are armed with strong sharp teeth, and generally seize the whale by the lower jaw.

23 January – The Peacock stood into a bay which the Vincennes had found closed the day before, and saw the same appearance of high land in the distance. The water was much discoloured, and of a dark dirty green. They hove-to, for the double purpose of getting a cast of the lead, and of lowering the boats to carry the instruments to a small iceberg, on which it was possible to land, for the purpose making magnetic observations. A line of one thousand four hundred fathoms was prepared to sound, and to the lead was attached a cylinder wit Six’s thermometer. The wind, being fresh, several leads at different distances were attached to the line.

They were not aware that the lead-line had touched bottom, until they bean to haul in, when it was found that the lead bent on at five hundred fathoms was filled with blue and slate-coloured mud. Attached to the lead also was a piece of stone, and a fresh bruise on it, as though the lead had struck heavily on the rock.

The boats now returned, and on approaching the ship the persons in them were much startled by hearing the crew cheer ship in consequence of finding soundings. This was a natural burst of joy, on obtaining this unquestionable proof that what they saw was indeed the land; a circumstance that, while it left no doubt, if any had existed, in the mind of any one on board the Peacock that what they had previously seen was truly terra firma.

23 January (On board Vincennes) – After passing around this group of icebergs, the sea was found comparatively clear, and a large open space showed itself to the southward. Into this space the course of the Vincennes was immediately directed. While this steering to the south, the appearance of land was observed on either hand, both to the eastward and westward.

Pursuing this course, we by midnight reached the solid barrier, and all approach to the land on the east and west was entirely cut off by the close packing of the icebergs. I was, therefore, reluctantly compelled to return, not a little vexed that we were again foiled in our endeavour to reach the Antarctic continent. This was a deep indentation in the coast, about twenty-five miles wide: we explored it to the depth of about fifteen miles, and did not reach its termination. This bay I have called Disappointment Bay: it is in latitude 670º 4′ 30″ S., longitude 147º 30′ E. The weather was remarkably fine, with a bracing air: the thermometer in the air 22 degrees, in the water 31 degrees.

24 January – The next day, we stood out of the bay and continued our course to the westward.

25 January – The weather proved delightful, with light airs from the southward, and I determined to take this opportunity to fill up the water-tanks with ice. The ship was hove-to, a hawser got in readiness, the boats lowered, and brought alongside of an iceberg well adapted to our purpose.

The same opportunity was also taken to make the magnetic observations on the ice, and to try the local attraction of the ship.

Many birds were seen about the ship, of which we were fortunate in obtaining specimens. The day was remarkably clear, and the same appearance of land was seen. We filled nineteen of our tanks with ice, after having allowed it to remain for some time on deck for the salt water to drain off in part, and it proved very potable.

At about 5 pm, we had completed our required store of ice, and cast off, making sail to the northward.

In threading our way through the many icebergs, it occurred to me that they might be considered as islands, and a rough survey made of them, by taking their bearings at certain periods, and making diagrams of their positions. This was accordingly done, and every few hours they were inserted on the chart which I was constructing in my progress.

This I found to be very useful, and it gave me confidence in proceeding, for I had a tolerable chart to retreat by in case of need, at least for a few hours, during which time I had reason to believe that there was not much probability of the icebergs changing their relative positions.

The dip observed on the ice was 87º 30′, and the variation 12º 46′ easterly. The compasses were found to be very sluggish, having but little horizontal directive force.

26 January – At 6 am, we again made sail, and at 8 am, we discovered the Porpoise, to whom we made signals to come within hail. We found them all well, and compared chronometers.

As it still blew fresh from the south-east, and the weather became a little more clear, we both bore away, running through much drift ice, at the rate of nine knots. We had the barrier in sight; it was, however, too thick to see much beyond it. Sailing in this way I felt to be extremely hazardous; but our time was so short for the examination of this icy coast, that while the barrier was to be seen, I deemed it my duty to proceed. We fortunately, by good look-outs, and carefully conning the ship, were enabled to avoid any heavy thumps.

27 January – We again had the wind from the south-south-west. The floe-ice had become so thick, that we found it impossible to get through it in the direction I wished to go, and we were compelled to pass around it. The Porpoise was in sight until noon. The weather proved beautifully clear. A long ranger of tabular icebergs was in sight to the southward, indicating, as I have before observed, that the coast was near. I passed through these, losing sight of the Porpoise to the northwest about noon, when we were in longitude 142º 40′ E., latitude 65º 54′ 21″ S., variation 5º 8′ easterly.

28 January – I found myself completely surrounded by the tabular icebergs, through which we continued to pass. Towards midnight the wind shifted to the south-east, and enabled me to haul more to the southward. At 9 ½ am we had another sight of the land ahead, and every prospect of nearing it, with a fine breeze. The sight of the icebergs around us, all of large dimensions, was beautiful. The greatest number in sight at one time was noted, and found to be more than a hundred, varying from a quarter of a mile to three miles in length.

We took the most open route, and by eleven o’clock had run upwards of forty miles through them. We had the land now in plain view, but the weather soon began to thicken and the breeze to freshen. At noon it was so thick that everything was hidden, and no observation was obtained. The ship was hove-to, but shortly after again put under way, making several tacks to keep my position, which I felt was becoming a critical one, in case a gale should ensue. I therefore looked carefully over my chart, and was surprised at the vast number of icebergs that appeared on it. At 2 pm the barometer began to fall, and the weather to change for the worse. At 5 pm a gale was evidently coming on, so we took three reefs in the topsails. It appeared now that certain wreck would ensue, should we remain where we were; and after much consideration, I made up my mind to retrace my way, and seek the open space forty miles distant, taking for a landmark a remarkable berg that had been the last entered on the chart, and which would be a guide to my course out.

I therefore stood for its position. The weather was so thick, that it was necessary to run close to it, to be quite sure of recognizing it, for on this seemed to depend our safety. About the estimated time we would take to pass over the distance, an iceberg was made (we were within one thousand feet of it) which, at first view, I felt confident was the one sought, but was not altogether satisfied afterwards. I therefore again consulted my chart, and became more doubtful of it.

Just at that moment I was called on deck by an officer, who informed me that there were icebergs a short distance ahead. Such proved to be the case; our path was beset with them, and it was evident we could not regain our route. To return was worse, so having but little choice left, I determined to keep on. To encounter these icebergs so soon after seeing the other, was in some respects satisfactory, for it removed all doubts, and showed me that we were not near the track by which we entered.

Nothing therefore, was to be done but to keep a good look-out, and the ship under sufficient way to steer well. My safest plan was to keep as near our former track as possible, believing it to be most free of these masses.

At 8 pm it began to blow very hard, with a violent snow-storm circumscribing our view, and rendering it impossible to see more than two ship’s lengths ahead. The cold was severe, and every spray that touched the ship was immediately converted to ice. At 9 pm, the barometer still falling and the gale increasing, we reduced sail to close-reefed fore and main-topsails, reefed foresail and trysails, under which we passed numerous icebergs, some to windward, and some to leeward of us. At 10 h. 30 m., we found ourselves thickly beset with them, and had many narrow escapes; the excitement became intense; it required a constant change of helm to avoid those close aboard; and we were compelled to press the ship with canvass in order to escape them, by keeping her to windward. We thus passed close along their weather sides, and distinctly heard the roar of the surf dashing against them.

After many escapes, I found the ship so covered with ice, and the watch so powerless in managing her, that a little after midnight, on the 29th, I had all hands called. Scarcely had they been reported on deck, when it was made known to me that the gunner, Mr. Williamson, had fallen, broken his ribs, and otherwise injured himself on the icy deck.

The gale at this moment was awful. We found we were passing large masses of drift ice, and ice-islands became more numerous. At a little after one o-clock it was terrific, and the sea was now so heavy that I was obliged to reduce sail still further; the fore and main-topsails were clewed up; the former was furled, but the latter being a new sail, much difficulty was found in securing it.

A seaman, by the name of Brooks, in endeavouring to execute the order to furl, got on the lee yard-arm, and the sail having blown over the yard, prevented his return. Not being aware of his position until it was reported to me from the forecastle, he remained there some time. On my seeing him he appeared stiff, and clinging to the yard and lift.

Spilling lines were at once rove, and an officer with several men sent aloft to rescue him, which they succeeded in doing by passing a bowline around his body and dragging him into the top. He was almost frozen to death.

Several of the best men were completely exhausted with cold, fatigue, and excitement, and were sent below. This added to our anxieties, and but little hope remained to me of escaping; I felt that neither prudence nor foresight could avail in protecting the ship and crew. All that could be done was to be prepared for any emergency, by keeping every- one at his station.

We were swiftly dashing on, for I felt it necessary to keep the ship under rapid way through the water, to enable her to steer and work quickly. Suddenly many voices cried out, "Ice ahead!" then, "on the weather bow!" and again, "On the lee bow and abeam!"

All hope of escape seemed in a moment to vanish; return we could not, as large ice-islands had just been passed to leeward; so we dashed on, expecting every moment the crash. The ship, in an instant, from having her lee guns under water, rose upright; and so close were we passing to leeward of one of these huge islands, that our trysails were almost thrown aback by the eddy wind. The helm was put up to pay the ship off, but the proximity of those under our lee bade me keep my course. All was now still except the distant roar of the wild storm, that was raging behind, before, and above us; the sea was in great agitation, and both officers and men were in the highest degree excited.

The ship continued her way, and as we proceeded, a glimmering of hope arose, for we accidentally had hit upon a clear passage between two large ice-islands, which in fine weather we should not dare to have ventured through. The suspense endured while making our way between them was intense, but of short duration; and my spirit rose as I heard the whistling of the gale grow louder and louder before us, as we emerged from the passage. We had escaped an awful death, and were again tempest-tost.

We encounter many similar dangers that night. At half-past 4 am, I found we had reached the small open space laid down on my chart, and at five o’clock I hove-to the ship. I had been under intense excitement, and had not been off the deck for nine hours, and was now thankful to the Providence that had guided, watched over, and preserved us. Until 7 am all hands were on deck, when there was some appearance of the weather moderating, and they were piped down.

This gale was from the south-east, from which quarter it blew during the whole of its strength; and when it began to moderate, the wind veered to the southward. By noon we felt satisfied that the gale was over, and that we had escaped.

Riding out this and similar storms along the way, Wilkes and the expedition continued their explorations along the ice barrier, finding additional evidences of land. Finally, with the weather worsening and his crews in ill-humor, Wilkes gave up the punishing reconnaissance on 17 February, and turned northward to warmer climes, heading for the southern Pacific area and other discoveries.

But, as a result of this hazardous expedition, the Navy and the US gained new facts about the mysterious "Seventh Continent." Other expeditions (the latest was "Operation Highjump" in 1948) have added more Antarctic lore but the recognition of Wilkes’ contribution can be seen by looking at a polar map and noticing the large letters "Wilkes Land" which covers a good portion of the cold continent.




Source: Wilkes, Charles. "Exploring the Antarctic, 1840." All Hands. 446 (April 1954): 59-63.




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