The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 90, July 1986 - April, 1987 Page: 422
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Southwestern Historical Quarterly
United States to a position of leadership in the world of science. Hailed
as the largest voyage of discovery anywhere, the expedition started with
a squadron of six vessels ranging from the 7oo-ton sloop-of-war Vin-
cennes to the 96-ton tender Flying Fish. On its mission "to extend the
empire of commerce and science" (p. 44), the expedition explored the
islands of the mid- and southwest Pacific, a stretch of Antarctic coast,
and the west coast of North America from Puget Sound to San Fran-
cisco. Scientists on the expedition collected a vast amount of material
that was eventually deposited in the famed Castle, the first building in
the great complex of Smithsonian structures that now grace the Wash-
The volume Magnificent Voyagers was prepared to complement an ex-
hibition of the same name at the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural His-
tory, held in celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the mu-
seum's current building. Both book and exhibition, however, are really
celebrations of the often overlooked role of the U.S. Navy in the ad-
vancement of science. The book's twelve chapters, most of them by
Smithsonian staff members, deal authoritatively with the expedition's
voyage; its contributions to geology, ethnology, botany, and vertebrate
and invertebrate zoology; its charting and surveying activities; Wilkes,
the man and the diplomat; and the quest for a repository for the expe-
dition's large haul. The expedition itself spawned a five-volume nar-
rative, nineteen volumes of findings published over twenty years, and
Wilkes's Autobiography, which was finally printed by the U.S. Naval His-
tory Division in 1978. Probably the most eminent of the scientists on
the voyage was James Dwight Dana, a pioneer in the study of volcanoes
who also anticipated the theory of plate tectonics. Dana prepared three
of the most distinguished volumes published in consequence of the
voyage-those on zoophytes, geology, and crustacea.
Wilkes evidently valued his nautical work more highly than the some-
times messy collecting by the scientists. Charts of the Pacific prepared
by the expedition were initially distributed by the Hydrographic Office
of the British Admiralty, subsequently by the younger U.S. Hydro-
graphic Office. Indeed, the only chart of Tarawa available to the Ameri-
cans at the outbreak of World War II was that completed under Wilkes's
direction a century earlier.
Especially entertaining are the final chapters that describe the ma-
neuvers to persuade Joseph Henry, the first director of the Smithso-
nian, that the institution should accept and show the collections gath-
ered on the expedition. The other chapters are well constructed and
researched, but not without some difficulty for the general reader. The
volume might have been more carefully planned to bring out the sig-
nificance of the expedition in its entirety, not just its individual parts.
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Texas State Historical Association. The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Volume 90, July 1986 - April, 1987, periodical, 1986/1987; Austin, Texas. (texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth117152/m1/488/: accessed May 27, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Texas State Historical Association.