Capt. Charles Wilkes was not always a good guy.
On one of his first expeditions in 1840, he was involved in the massacre of up to 80 Fijians. He was court-martialed for that and also another time for his harsh treatment of crew members.
He also was a lieutenant but promoted himself to captain and then commodore. He caused an international conflict after stopping a British mail steamer that was later disavowed by President Lincoln to avoid a break with Great Britain.
And although charges ended up being dropped, he also was court-martialed for insubordination when his actions in the West Indies to protect U.S. commerce brought protests of neutrality violations from several foreign governments.
So, why is a school in the Bainbridge Island School District named after him? Inquiring minds want to know.
Amii Thompson, executive director of Elementary Teaching and Learning, is chairing a committee that is starting the process of renaming the school. After researching the controversial character, Thompson has learned about who he was, what he embodied and how he treated other people.
When the old school was built around 1958, Wilkes was known for exploring Puget Sound, including naming dozens of landmarks, including Elliott Bay in 1841 and locally Agate Passage.
He spent a good deal of time near Bainbridge Island, noting the bird-like shape of the waters near Winslow, hence Eagle Harbor. He also named Wing Point, Port Madison and Appletree Cove at Kingston. He even named Bainbridge Island after William, a Navy hero of the War of 1812.
But times have changed a lot since the school was named after Wilkes. While in the past, historical figures were looked at with admiration, society in general now looks at history with a more discerning eye, taking into account the entire works of Wilkes’s career.
Along with that, the new school was built in 2012 and is known as one of the best in Puget Sound.
Thompson believes the name of the school should reflect that. There are other local historical figures who could be honored who are more in line with the district’s values. Thompson has received many inquiries over the past few years asking why the district has a building named after Wilkes.
Thompson will facilitate a committee made up of certificated and classified staff, administrators, parents and guardians, community members and students who will meet on a monthly or biweekly basis.
“I think it’s really important that we get out and experience the land and world around us to see what is possible for names,” she said, adding one location will be the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum.