Which is the most significant expedition in U.S. history? I would put my money on the U.S. Exploring Expedition (1838-42). Today Lewis and Clark get most of the attention for their impressive trek to the Pacific in 1804. Yet they were not very well known in the 19th century and did not leave much of an impact on scientists or the general public. But the U.S. Ex Ex, as it came to be known, helped shape American exploration for the rest of the century. As America’s first international discovery expedition, it was a way to show the world that the United States had come of age as a civilized nation. Where the government had frowned upon all but the most practical goals in exploring the west, it proved more indulgent of scholarly objectives in exploring the world. It was not that the government placed greater significance on the geography outside its borders. Rather, it was that the wider world offered a more prestigious stage for explorers than the American West, a place where their actions would be more keenly noticed. Under such scrutiny, U.S. expeditions put on their best face, sailing with corps of “scientifics” to advance geographical knowledge, and in the process, to persuade other nations that the United States was more than a republic of untutored farmers. In short, pursuit of knowledge gave U.S. expeditions symbolic heft. It ushered the United States into an enlightenment tradition of imperial voyaging and – its organizers hoped – into the ranks of civilized nations. Back home, the collections of the US Ex Ex became the basis of the Smithsonian Institution when it opened under the direction of Joseph Henry.
When I was in grad school at the University of Wisconsin, the university’s Special Collections had all five volumes of the U.S. Ex Ex official narrative. I remember pouring over these volumes as I was working on my master’s thesis. Although it doesn’t quite have the same magical feel to it, one can now read the narratives of the U.S. Ex Ex online at the Smithsonian Institution, including all of the scientific publications associated with the voyage. The Smithsonian site also allows you to search for hi-def images from the narratives which also can be downloaded as jpeg files. Well done, Smithsonian. Google Books has the five volume collection as well which can be saved in a personal library file or downloades as pdfs. Google also has the full text account of crewman George Musalas Colvocoresses. One of the luminaries of American Science, James Dwight Dana, got his start as a scientific aboard the US Ex Ex. Even in his later works, he refers back to this voyage as the most formative experience of his career. See, for example, his book on Coral and Coral Islands which is online at the Making of America site. The Smithsonian put out a lovely edited collection of essays (with terrific plates) on the US Ex Ex called Magnificent Voyagers. Unfortunately it is no longer in print. Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory came out a few years ago with Penguin. I have not read it and those who I have talked to about it give it mixed reviews.