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The Forgotten American Explorer Who Discovered Huge Parts of Antarctica

We know that Roald Amundsen led the first expedition to reach the South Pole. We also know Robert Falcon Scott because he led the crew that all died trying to be the first. But there were other polar explorers who made significant discoveries and aren't as well-known. Charles Wilkes was commander of the United States Exploring Expedition in 1840, sailing on the ship Vincennes, which was the first to establish that Antarctica was a vast continent instead of a few frozen islands only seen from a distance before that. Wilkes mapped 1500 miles of Antarctica's coast, but gets little credit for his accomplishment, as his discovery led to an international mess. It was a case of serious exploration running up against claiming lands for one's country.

In a remarkable coincidence, a French expedition led by the legendary Jules Dumont D’Urville reached the same stretch of coastline on the same day. But D’Urville stayed just long enough to plant the French flag on a tiny offshore island before sailing back north. Wilkes, meanwhile, against the advice of his medical staff and officers, braved the cold, ice, and howling katabatic winds to claim glory for the Vincennes.

Charles Wilkes barely had time to announce his Antarctic triumph before British rival James Clark Ross (celebrated discoverer of the North Magnetic Pole) began to steal his thunder. Wilkes’s mistake was to send the lagging Ross his historic first chart of the east Antarctic coast. A year later, when Ross retraced Wilkes’s route, he found the American had been deceived in places by glacial reflections and had mistaken ice shelves for actual coastline, marking it several degrees too far north. These errors did nothing to undermine the substance of Wilkes’s discoveries, yet Ross and the British Admiralty built a public case against the American claim—with great success. Most 19th-century maps of Antarctica do not recognize Wilkes’s remarkable 1840 feat. Even his obituaries in American newspapers made only passing mention of Wilkes’ polar discoveries.  

Wilkes' findings are getting more notice today, when the melting ice of the Antarctic is making resource mining possible. Read about Wilkes' feat and what it means for the continent at Smithsonian.

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The U.S. Exploring Expedition is one of America's greatest accomplishments. It put us and our navy on the map so to speak and directly resulted in the creation of the Smithsonian Museum. Nathaniel Philbrick tells the story in Sea of Glory: America's Voyage of Discovery, The U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Philbrick is an "accessible" historian in that all his books are easy to read and understand. This one is on my list of required reading for high school. The Amazon link above will show all his works. I can also highly recommend The Last Stand and In the Heart of the Sea, the latter of which is also a movie you may have seen. But I digress. The Smithsonian has digitized its collection on the expedition and Philbrick wrote the introduction. You can read it and explore more on Smithsonian Libraries.
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