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.