With the haze of British Columbia forest fires clearing, I tacked my sailboat in Apple Tree Cove.
I wondered how difficult it would be to penetrate Puget Sound on a square-rigged ship with no engine, as U.S. Navy Lt. Charles Wilkes had done.
Almost 50 years after Royal Navy Capt. George Vancouver explored North America’s Pacific Coast in the late 1700s, Wilkes was chosen by the United States to command the first U.S. Exploring Expedition.
The expedition surveyed the South American coast, Australia, Antarctica, the South Pacific, and the Northwest Pacific Coast and its major inlets. After 995 days away from home on the East Coast, the expedition passed Point No Point on the northern Kitsap Peninsula, which Wilkes named for a similarly named landmark on the Hudson River.
On the morning of May 8, 1841, he also named nearby Pilot Point as the place where the first officer of a Hudson Bay Company vessel boarded Wilkes’ ship, the 127-foot Vincennes, to help guide it toward Fort Nisqually in the South Sound.
Often naming places after his officers or other American explorers, Wilkes’ act of identifying landmarks and creating charts for the U.S. government aided our nation in claiming newly explored lands as they competed with British and Spanish colonizers.
May 9, 1841, Captain’s Log: “This was named Apple Tree Cove, from the numbers of that tree which were in blossom,” Wilkes wrote.
He said the fruit trees lining the cove reminded him of places of his youth. Though he did not distinguish them as such, they were later identified as crab apple trees. Perhaps we were lucky Wilkes was in an unusually good mood.
Wilkes accomplished much for American Expansionism in terms of scientific discovery, navigation, and cartography at a time when the stakes were very high for such undertakings. But Wilkes was not a fun guy to work for. Phrases used to describe him included “exceedingly vain and conceited,” “obstinate and overbearing,” given to “punish first and enquire afterward.”
In 1840, Wilkes’ nephew and another crewman were killed while bartering on Malolo Island. Wilkes’ retribution: the massacre of almost 80 Fijians.
Between 1841 and 1842, he lost two ships, one off Cape Horn, another on Columbia River bar; 28 crew members perished.
Upon returning to New York, Wilkes was court martialed for the loss of the ships and for excessively harsh treatment of his crew.
Maritime law of the time allowed corporal punishment of seamen — being whipped with a cat-o-nine tails — as long as restricted to 12 lashes.
But Wilkes dispensed whippings for the smallest offenses, often just for a perceived lack of respect. For more serious negligence, he had men whipped even more. When six crewmen stole liquor from his ship’s stores, Wilkes ordered 20 lashes.
After a three-week trial, Wilkes was convicted of illegally punishing his men. His sentence: a public reprimand, with the balance of charges dropped.
However, the book “Two Years Before the Mast,” by Richard H. Dana, published in 1840, had publicized the intolerable conditions of seamen. With public awareness, new laws were passed to improve seamen’s welfare.
After the trial, Wilkes began work on a large tract of manuscripts of his voyages and discoveries, the first of which were published in December 1844.
Herman Melville purchased one of these volumes in 1847, and it is suspected that Melville’s Captain Ahab in his novel “Moby Dick” was modeled after Wilkes’ demeanor and several of his experiences with native Polynesians.
Wilkes’ scientific achievements fell from public attention because of the Mexican War.
Though Wilkes is not as well-known today for his contributions to navigation, a Smithsonian exhibit extols the U.S. Exploring Expedition’s early and lasting contribution to the natural sciences.
Possession of the Oregon Territory (which contained what is now Washington state) was uncertain at the time. Without Wilkes, we might have become part of another country’s expanding empire — and speaking either the Queen’s English or the King’s Spanish.