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The Alfred Agate Collection: The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

Vincennes spent 30 April at St. Helena, arriving and departing the same day, and found that Porpoise and Oregon had already come and gone. There were, however, other Navy ships in the harbor that gave them news from home. Expecting to be more impressed with the island that had imprisoned Emperor Napoleon, Wilkes was disappointed with its barrenness. He and a party ventured out to see Napoleon's house, Longwood, and his tomb, the site of which had been selected by the Emperor himself, but had been emptied two years before when the French took him for re-interment in Paris.

The day of water replenishment at St. Helena was Vincennes' last sight of land before crossing the Atlantic. It arrived at New York on 10 June 1842 in the afternoon. Wilkes called his crew together, thanked them for their service, and then hauled down his pennant and turned command of the ship over to Captain Hudson, who took the ship to Brooklyn Navy Yard and dismissed the crew. Oregon arrived on 29 June and Porpoise on 2 July, when their crews were similarly dismissed.

Wilkes hoped that the voyage would bring accolades to him and his men, but through news and communications received from the United States knew that he might have difficulty on his return. The government administration had changed hands from the Democratic to the Whig Party in the last election, and the Whigs were indifferent to the expedition. Also, those who returned early from the expedition - the crew of Relief, Joseph Couthouy, Horatio Hale and others - told harrowing tales of Wilkes' tyrannical temper. Wilkes received a cool reception when he presented himself to Secretary of the Navy Abel Upshur and President John Tyler, but the tenacious spirit that brought him through four years of leading the expedition now turned to the task of fighting for its just recognition. Wilkes soon received an order from the Secretary to turn in all specimens and records, but believing it to be a sure consignment to oblivion, took the order to acquaintances in Congress who established a Joint Committee of the Library, which oversaw what is now known as the Library of Congress. The Joint Committee charged Wilkes with overseeing the writing and publication of the narrative of the expedition and its scientific reports. Wilkes was also brought before a court martial to answer charges of illegal punishment and scandalous conduct relating specifically to assuming the uniform and style of captain without a promotion and changing the Antarctic discovery logs to be able to supersede the French claim to discovery. The trial was more of an opportunity for revenge by the discontents of the voyage, by being able to tell tales of Wilkes' temper in a public forum. But Wilkes also had defenders who attested to his hard work and zeal for the success of the expedition. In the end he was convicted of two charges of improper punishment and sentenced to a public reprimand by the Secretary of the Navy. It was a light sentence, but it wounded Wilkes' pride.

Wilkes now set to work writing the narrative of the voyage, a task in which he drove himself as hard as when at sea. It was published in five volumes in 1844, less than two years after the expedition's return. To illustrate it, he had the assistance of Joseph Drayton and Alfred Agate, who settled in Washington. Agate also contributed some drawings to a book called "Thulia," an epic poem which was based on the adventures of the Flying Fish on its Antarctic voyages. The book also contained a poem called "The Bridal Rose," which was based on some adventures of Peacock. Both were written by James Croxall Palmer, an acting surgeon on the expedition who had served on the same ships on which Agate had, and probably tended him through some of his bouts of sickness. Following the publication of the expedition report, some of the incidental drawings were returned to Agate, but some, especially scientific drawings of specimens became property of the U.S. government or went to other repositories of the expedition's collections. Those returned to Agate are the source of this exhibition.

Flying Fish
Alfred T. Agate
Ink wash


Agate's health continued to decline after his return from the expedition, but it did not prevent his marriage in September1845 to Miss Elizabeth Hill Kennedy. The marriage was short-lived, however. Agate died of consumption in January 1846 just a month short of his 34th birthday.

Charles Wilkes remained in the Navy, working in Washington on the publication of the scientific reports of the Expedition. By 1861, when he was detached from that duty to serve in the Union Navy in the Civil War, 18 volumes, including the five-volume narrative of the expedition, had been published. An additional five scientific volumes were never completed, including Wilkes' volume on Physics. During those years he received two promotions, first to commander in 1843 and then captain in 1855. His activities during the Civil War were both famous and infamous and he ended his Naval career in 1864 after being convicted of insubordination in another court martial following his publication of derogatory remarks about Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles. After a year's suspension he was promoted to Rear Admiral on the retired list. He spent most of his remaining years trying to get the final volumes of the United States Exploration Expedition's report published, but failed. He died in 1877.


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27 March 2004