On August 18, 1838, six United States Navy ships left Norfolk, Virginia on an expedition to the South Pacific. On board were 424 officers and crewmen and nine scientists, setting off on a mission to explore and survey the islands of that region, investigate their commercial potential, and assert American power. The launch happened after ten years of political debate and personal disputes between various factions, but with the departure finally at hand, those on board felt the excitement of knowing they were making history.
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes commanded the expedition. At the time of his appointment he was in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, D.C., an organization now known as the Naval Observatory. His experience in coastal surveying and planetary physics made him an ideal candidate for the position, but he was a junior lieutenant in terms of time-in-rank, which in the perquisite-conscious Navy was a serious shortcoming. Several senior lieutenants had to be passed over in appointing Wilkes, some of whom the Navy now assigned to serve under him. He also had relatively little sea duty, only about 6 years, less than many junior officers.
Being a peaceful expedition of discovery, the ships were stripped of heavy armament and its space was given over to scientific exploration. The nine civilian scientists, referred to as the "scientifics" by the sailors, were tasked with observing and describing the resources of the various islands. These men were among the most able in their fields: James D. Dana, Minerologist, Charles Pickering, Naturalist, Joseph P. Couthouy, Conchologist, Horatio C. Hale, Ethnographer, William Rich, Botanist, William D. Brackenridge, Horticulturalist, Titan Ramsay Peale, Naturalist, and Joseph Drayton and Alfred Agate, the two artists, or "draughtsmen."
Alfred Agate was about 23 years old, just beginning a career as an artist and miniaturist when the Navy hired him for the expedition. He had studied under Samuel F. B. Morse and later under John Rubens Smith, a landscape artist and engraver who made a niche for himself in American art history by traveling throughout the early republic, capturing and publishing images of the developing nation. Smith was a demanding teacher, as testified to by Charles Wilkes, who had studied with Smith some years earlier than Agate. In his own landscapes, Smith used a camera lucida for accuracy, something that Agate learned and used in his landscapes on the expedition.
Little is known of Alfred Agate's background before the expedition. He was from Sparta, New York and reportedly first learned to draw from his older brother Frederick, who also studied under Smith. Several of his shipmates wrote appreciatively of his kind disposition. His health was fragile and apparently he suffered from bouts of illness during the voyage, though it did not prevent him from signing on, nor from making several interesting side excursions. Originally hired as a botanical illustrator, on the first leg of the voyage Wilkes assigned him to the ship Relief with William Rich, but eventually artistic services became so much in demand that Wilkes decreed that all scientists were to share both Agate and Drayton's time. In his memoirs, James Dana noted the accuracy of Agate's portraits.