Time to Eat the Dogs

On Science, History, and Exploration

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Digital Archive: The U.S. Exploring Expedition

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. Read the rest of this entry »