United States Exploring Expedition Surveys the Columbia River during August and September 1841.

  • By William S. Hanable
  • Posted 12/12/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5625

During August and September 1841, the United States Exploring Expedition, commanded by Lieutenant Charles Wilkes (1798-1877), carries out a hydrographic survey of the Columbia River from its mouth to the Cascades. The expedition's appearance at Fort Vancouver alarms the British Hudson's Bay Company officials.

British and American Interests

Hydrographic investigations of the Columbia River course were not new when the United States Exploring Expedition began its survey of the river in 1841. Lieutenant William Broughton (1762-1821) of HMS Chatham had crossed the Columbia River bar in 1792 and used his ship's boats to survey upriver for about 120 miles to support British claims of territorial possession. In 1839, Royal Navy captain Edward Belcher (1799-1897) took HMS Starling and HMS Sulphur upriver to Fort Vancouver.

The United States Exploring Expedition began charting the Columbia River in September 1841. Lieutenant Wilkes had made a preliminary visit to the Columbia in May of that year. He traveled overland from Nisqually and then by canoe down the Cowlitz River to the Columbia. From there, he descended to Fort George at the mouth of the river. Along the way,  the view of Mount St. Helens inspired him to name the stretch of the Columbia near its confluence with the Cowlitz as St. Helen's Reach.

Charles Wilkes

Wilkes had received command of the Exploring Expedition only after several more senior officers refused it. He was junior for the responsibility but stood out among naval officers for his training in mathematics and triangulation. When first a candidate to go along on the expedition in 1828, he had been a lieutenant for only two years. In the following years he served as Superintendent of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, D.C. When the venture actually got underway in 1838, he moved into the commanding officer's slot despite having considerably less sea-going experience than some of his subordinates.

In July 1841, Wilkes sailed in his flagship Vincennes from Puget Sound to the mouth of the Columbia. He sent Vincennes on to California, taking command of USS Porpoise, another expedition vessel more suited to river exploration. The Oregon, a 250-ton merchant brig Wilkes purchased at Fort George, accompanied Porpoise on her upriver journey. Porpoise was a 224-ton, 10-gun brigantine (a two-masted ship rigged with square sails and a fore-and-aft mainsail) 88 feet in length, a 25-foot beam, and a depth in hold of 11 feet. The Boston Navy Yard built her in 1836.

On the Columbia

The ships served as home bases. Crews dispatched in the ships' boats did most of the hydrographic work. Fear of malaria dictated the working schedule. "Falling damps," or night dew was the suspected source of the disease. (We now know that malaria is caused by a parasite carried by infected mosquitoes.) Survey boats did not leave the ships before 9 a.m. Before departing, surveyors put on clean and dry clothing, breakfasted, and took time to smoke. Wilkes required that the boats return at least an hour before sunset. Then the ships spread awnings fore and aft as shelters from nighttime moisture.

Wilkes led the way as the expedition moved upriver. His gig was constantly ahead of the other boats. When sailors left a campfire unattended at the foot of Mount Coffin, near the mouth of the Cowlitz, it set fire to trees where Indians had placed their dead in canoes. He attempted to placate the Chinooks with presents, explaining that the conflagration was an accident. Later Wilkes said that there probably would have been trouble, were the Indians not so weakened by malaria and smallpox.

Smoke on the River

Porpoise and Oregon followed the boats upriver, occasionally running aground. On one occasion, they became stuck on opposite sides of the river. Assistant Surgeon Silas Holmes, an acerbic wit, commented that the ships "formed excellent buoys, pointing out the dangers on either side" (Stanton).

The surveyors also suffered from smoke generated by fires burning along the river. The Indians set them to clear ground and drive game. On at least one day, smoke lay so thickly over the river that the surveyors could not work. Wilkes, a stern disciplinarian, reprimanded Lieutenant William M. Walker (1813-1866) for taking three bottles of brandy as a reward for his boat's crew, who "sweated and choked in the smoke that lay low on the river" (Stanton).

The Hudson's Bay Company

At the end of August, Porpoise and Oregon reached Fort Vancouver, about 100 miles from the sea. Wilkes sent Lieutenant Walker with four boats to continue charting as far as the falls at the Cascades, about 160 to 165 miles from the river mouth. Lieutenant Oliver Hazard Perry took four more boats to survey the Willamette up to its falls. The hydrographers concluded that sea-going vessels should go no farther than Fort Vancouver, where the Columbia was at least 14 feet deep at all seasons.

Coincidentally, the American explorers reached Fort Vancouver when Sir George Simpson (1792-1860), North American Governor for the Hudson's Bay Company, was visiting. Wilkes dined with Simpson and Dr. John McLoughlin (1784-1857), the official in charge of Fort Vancouver. While at Fort Vancouver, Wilkes made a side trip to the Willamette Valley. He told American settlers there that the time had not yet come to try to establish a civil government under the American flag. At this time, there were about 40 Americans in the Willamette Valley. None were known to be living north of the Columbia River.

Wilkes told Simpson that he intended to recommend that the United States claim the Oregon Territory as far north as 54°40'N (approximately today's southern boundary of Alaska). Sir George later wrote to the British Foreign Office saying that the land south of the Columbia was not worth contesting. But Britain, he recommended, should not "consent to any boundary which would give the United States any portion of the Territory north of the Columbia River" (Walker).

Hudson's Bay officers at Fort Vancouver offered every assistance and warm hospitality to the U.S. Navy party. Nevertheless, the appearance of two U.S. warships off the fort and Wilkes's revelation probably influenced the decision Hudson's Bay Company officials would later make to remove accumulated stores at Fort Vancouver to a new post at Victoria, which they established in 1843.

On the downriver trip, Wilkes became ill but continued to work. Then a 16-mile side trip up the Cowlitz nearly ended his life. On the way back to the Columbia, his gig hit a snag. The impact knocked down two of the boat's crew while low-hanging branches ensnared and nearly strangled the expedition's commander.

and Oregon reached the mouth of the Columbia on September 30. There they joined the Flying Fish. After taking on supplies, the expedition's ships left the Columbia River to sail south on October 9, 1841.


Howard I. Chapelle, The History of the American Sailing Navy: The Ships and Their Development (London: Salamander Books Ltd., 1949); Barry M. Gough, The Royal Navy and the Northwest Coast of North America 1810-1914: A Study of British Maritime Ascendancy (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1971); William Stanton, The Great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); David B. Tyler, The Wilkes Expedition: The First United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842) (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1968); Dale L. Walker, Pacific Destiny: The Three Century Journey to the Oregon Country (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2000); Charles Wilkes, Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, and 1842 Vols. I-V, Microfiche 20926-20929 (Chicago: Library of American Civilization, [1845] 1970).

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