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"Memorandum, for Admiral John B. Heffernan, Director of Naval History Division (Op-29)," ZO Expeditions file, Navy Department Library.

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Expeditions, Diplomatic and Scientific Activity, and Operations Against Native Americans and Pirates

Selected 19th Century U.S. Navy Operations 

27 February 1953

Memorandum for Admiral John B. Heffernan, Director of Naval History Division (Op-29).

I am enclosing herewith a list of events and subjects concerning which there is considerable data in the files of RG [Record Group] #45 [located at the National Archives in Washington, DC], enough in fact, to write articles with a minimum of research in other collections of records in the National Archives or elsewhere.

I have omitted to mention our wars because it must be very obvious to anyone that the records pertaining to these would be available. Records needed to prepare a history of logistics, ship construction, etc., except in the early navy, have not been given emphasis because the research needed to make a study of such subjects would be greater than this office could, at any time, undertake.

The records relative to many of the subjects listed are printed as Congressional Documents, in the annual Reports of the Secretary of the Navy, and as books and magazine articles. The clerks of this office housed in the National Archives Building are the only naval personnel who are free to use RG#45 without assistance from the National Archives and are well qualified to do research in the group but there are too few of them to undertake or handle an influx of requests on such subjects as are suggested by the enclosed list. [There are no longer any US Navy personnel working in the National Archives building in downtown Washington, DC.]

Many other incidents, records of which are in RG#45, could be added to the enclosed list but this seemed to be enough for the present. Many of them tie in with events taking place in the world at the present time. Nothing between 1900 and 1940 has been included for the records required to answer questions relative to events falling in that period are, for the most part, not available in RG#45, and to a great extent lack popular appeal except as background material for World War II history.

Alma R. Lawrence.

Naval Exploring and Surveying Expeditions:

Wilkes Exploring Expedition (also called South Seas Exploring Expedition), 1836 - 1842. Most of the preparatory period (November 1836 to December 1837) under the command of Captain Thomas Ap Catesby Jones. He was succeeded by Captain Charles Wilkes. This was both an exploring and a surveying expedition. By it the United States established a claim to a part of Antarctica and the Oregon country. Surveying in the South Seas and on the California coast was of material assistance to commerce and the whaling industry.

Mission to Japan by Captain Matthew C. Perry, 1852 - 1854. This expedition was a combination of diplomacy and surveying with the furtherance of our commerce the main objective. It was highly successful because, in addition to making a treaty with Japan, a study of the Japanese people, their trade, industry, agriculture, and living conditions, generally, was made. Commerce and whaling benefited by the opening of certain ports where whips could make repairs and secure provisions.

North Pacific Surveying Expedition, 1853 - 1856, under Commanders Cadwalader Ringgold and John Rodgers, respectively, with some of the work in the Behring Strait and on the Alaskan coast done by Lieutenant John M. Brooke, US Navy. In some respects the work of this expedition was a "follow up" on the Perry expedition. The most of it, however, was surveying.

Water Witch Incident, 1855. While the Water Witch under the command of Thomas J. Page, US Navy, was surveying in the La Plata River she was fired upon by Paraguayans. Page, being unable to finish the survey, returned home. After considerable correspondence between our government and Paraguay with no settlement arrived at, a squadron of twenty-one assorted vessels was sent to Paraguayan waters, 1858 - 1859, when a friendly conclusion was reached.

African Exploring Expedition, 1852 - 1853, under Commander Wm. F. Lynch, US Navy, in John Adams. The purpose of the expedition was to explore the west coast of Africa, including Sierra Leone and Liberia. A comprehensive study of the country and its inhabitants was made and reported on by Commander Lynch.

Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, 1851 - 1852, by William L. Herndon, US Navy. His report of this expedition was instrumental in helping to open up the Amazon River to merchant ships of all nations.

Isthmus of Darien, 1870 - 1874. On 10 January 1870, Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was ordered to command the expedition for the survey of the Isthmus of Darien for an interoceanic canal route. He was engaged on this work until 1874, and explored and reported upon all the country south of Panama to the headwaters of the Atrata River.

Amazon and Madeira Rivers, 1878. Commander Thomas O. Selfridge, Jr., was ordered to survey the Amazon and Madeira Rivers. Ascended them in USS Enterprise thirteen hundred miles before returning to the United States.

Darien Expedition, 1854. Survey for an isthmian canal route by Lieutenant Isaac G. Strain, US Navy.

Other surveys for the isthmian canal routes were:

  • Nicaragua Expedition, Commander E. P. Lull, 1872 - 1873.
  • Nicaraguan route mapped by A. G. Menocal, CE, USN, 1872 - 1874.
  • Panama Expedition, Lieutenant Fred Collins, US Navy, 1875.
  • Exploration of Isthmus of Tehuantepec by Captain Robert W. Shufeldt, US Navy, 1870 - 1871.

Exploration of the Dead Sea and River Jordan, 1847 - 1848, by Lieutenant William F. Lynch, US Navy.

Polar Expeditions Manned Wholly, or in Part, by Naval Personnel:

Wilkes Exploring Expedition, 1836 - 1842. See Naval Exploring and Surveying Expeditions.

First Grinnell Expedition, 1830 - 1831, search of Sir John Franklin. Fitted out by Henry Grinnell of New York. Lieutenant E. J. De Haven, US Navy, commanding ship Advance in charge. Acting Master B. P. Griffin, US Navy in command of the ship Rescue.

Second Grinnell Expedition, 1853 - 1855. Fitted out by Mr. Grinnell and others to search for Sir John Franklin. Dr. Elisha Kent Kane, a surgeon in the US Navy was in charge with ten volunteers from the US Navy serving as seamen on his ship.

Kane Relief Expedition, 1855, under Lieutenant H. J. Hartstene, US Navy, commanding USS Release and Lieutenant C. C. Simms, US Navy, in command of the Arctic.

Expedition for the relief of Polaris lost in the Arctic, under the command of Commander J. A. Greer, US Navy, 1895. Greer was in command of USS Tigress, Commander D. L. Braine commanded Juniata and Lieutenant George W. DeLong, Little Juniata.

Jeannette Arctic Expedition, 1879 - 1881, Lieutenant George DeLong, US Navy commanding Jeannette, in command. Fitted out by James Gordon Bennett. Crushed in the ice in June, 1881.

Jeannette Relief Expedition, 1881, Captain G. H. Wadleigh, US Navy, in command of USS Alliance and Lieutenant R. M. Berry, US Navy, commanding Rodgers which was destroyed by fire in St. Lawrence Bay in November, 1881.

Voyage to Siberia in 1881 by Lieutenant Giles B. Harber, US Navy, for the relief of Jeannette.

Greely Relief Expedition, 1884, by Captain W. S. Schley, US Navy, commanding USS Thetis; Commander George W. Coffin, US Navy in command of Alert; and Lieutenant W. H. Emory, US Navy commanding Bear.


Oregon Territory, Captain James Biddle, USS Ontario, after a cruise along the west coast of South America went on up to Oregon Territory where he took possession of it for the United States in 1881. The results were far reaching.

Mission to China by Captain James Biddle, 1845 - 1846, during which he attempted to gain access to Japan. Although not successful himself he started the foundation on which Perry built later.

Mission to Japan, 1849, by Commander James Glynn, USS Preble, for the purpose of securing the release of several American seamen from the whaler Lacoda of New Bedford. He was commended by the Navy Department for the manner in which he succeeded in the release of these prisoners and the way in which he upheld the dignity of the United States. Perry had the advantage of his experience, also.

Japanese Mission to the United States, 1860, the first one to be sent to any foreign country. They were brought to the United States in US ships Powhatan and Roanoke and returned to Japan in Niagara.

Cruise around the world by Captain Robert W. Shufeldt in command of USS Ticonderoga, 1878 - 1880.

Diplomatic Mission to China and Korea, 1880 - 1881, by Captain Robert Shufeldt, US Navy.

Cruise around the world by US [Great White] Fleet, 1908 - 1909.

Scientist in the Navy:

Charles Wilkes, Expedition in 1838 - 1842.

James M. Gilliss:

Helped to establish the US Naval Observatory.

In charge of the expedition to Santiago, Chile, for observation of the Transit of Venus, 1849 - 1858.

Matthew Fontaine Maury, US Navy, Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments which later became the Naval Observatory. His chief interest lay in hydrography and meteorology. Was a geographer and writer.

Charles Henry Davis. Head of the Naval Observatory and Chairman of the "Permanent Commission" during the Civil War. Prime mover in the establishment of the American Ephemeris and Nautical Almanac in 1849.

Indian Fighting:

In cooperation with the army in Florida, 1835 - 1842.

On the northwest coast of the United States in the 1850's.

On the Rio Grande, 1870.

Operations Against Piracy:

In the West Indies, in waters along the China coast, in the Mediterranean, in the Falkland Islands and at Quallah Battoe.

Protection of life and property in every theater of the world and nearly every period since the nation was established. Many incidents can be cited.

Other records of use to writers consist of those needed to prepare histories of officers, ships, naval districts, incidents, campaigns, wars, the flag, uniforms, insignia, diplomatic relations, etc.

To mention a few: The burning of Washington, 1814; the Boxer Rebellion; the "Baltimore Incident" in Valparaiso, Chile, 1891; protection given to Martin Koszta, a naturalized citizen of the United States by Commander Duncan N. Ingraham in command of USS St. Louis at Smyrnia in 1852; intelligence work by William Maxwell Wood, Surgeon, US Navy, at the outbreak of the Mexican War.


Published: Thu Jan 07 08:58:37 EST 2021