Sweet Auburn: The Magazine of the Friends of Mount Auburn Lives of the Past Informing the Future - Page 15

sweet auburn | 2019 volume ii The United States Exploring Expedition 1838–1842 M e mor i a l t o Scientific Exploration and Adventure on the High Seas By Meg L. Winslow Curator of Historical Collections and Melissa Banta Historical Collections Consultant T ucked behind the Nathaniel Bowditch statue and a stand of tall hemlock trees on Central Avenue, a large marble obelisk commemorates one of the nation’s greatest naval expeditions. On August 18, 1838, six ships led by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes left Virginia for South America carrying 490 young sailors, officers, and a group of civilian botanists, mineralogists, artists, and naturalists called “scientifics.” Sponsored by the government, the United States South Seas Exploring Expedition circumnavigated the globe, exploring and surveying the “Southern Seas” as an important area of commerce as well as to collect specimens to “extend the bounds of science and promote acquisition of knowledge.” “In less than four years,” writes historian Herman J. Viola, “this gallant naval squadron of six small ships surveyed 280 islands and constructed 180 charts, some of which were still being used as late as World War II. The expedition mapped eight hundred miles of the coast of Oregon territory; it explored some fifteen hundred miles of the Antarctic coast, thereby proving the existence of the seventh continent.” Equally important, Viola writes, “it led to the emergence of the United States as a naval and scientific power with worldwide interests.” The men aboard the expedition’s vessels endured severe weather, disease, and tensions between the strict, hard-driven Wilkes and the ships’ officers, crews, and scientists. Only two of the six ships returned. Nevertheless, the voyage contributed a prodigious amount of scholarship, including nineteen volumes and atlases. Specimens collected on the expedition helped create the foundation of Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in 1857 at a time when the fields of botany, geology, and anthropology were just becoming established scientific disciplines. Mount Auburn Cemetery donated the land for the purpose of commemorating the expedition, and in 1843 the expedition’s officers and scientific corps erected a large cenotaph at Mount Auburn to honor four of the young men who lost their lives during the voyage. Lieutenant Joseph A. Underwood, a mathematician and surveyor, and Midshipman Wilkes Henry, the nephew of Charles Wilkes, were killed on a surveying mission on the Fijian island of Malolo on July 24, 1840. The cenotaph also commemorates Midshipmen James W. E. Reid and Frederick A. Bacon, who were lost at sea during a heavy gale off of Cape Horn in May 1839. The Boston Mercantile Journal reported at the time, “This cenotaph is an Egyptian obelisk, twenty-two feet high, and four feet at the base, erected at the cost of $2000. The design is by Mr. Drayton, of the Scientific corps, and is in the finest style of pure, simple, monumental beauty. The execution of Struthers & Son of Philadelphia, is worthy of the design.” Joseph Drayton had served as the artist for the Exploring Expedition, and his drawings of artifacts, architecture, and people appeared in the five-volume Narrative of the expedition published by Wilkes. The Journal wrote of the “chivalry of feeling, which embalms the names and memory of brother officers. . .and is touchingly displayed in this plain, but beautiful and appropriate monument.” The Naval Monument at Mount Auburn serves as a permanent reminder of one of the earliest and most remarkable of American naval expeditions. For further reading: Magnificent Voyagers: The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838–1842, ed. Herman J. Viola and Carolyn Margolis (Smithsonian, 1985). Sea of Glory, by Nathaniel Philbrick (Viking, 2003). 13