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COLLECTION Identifier: gra00016

Records of the United States Exploring Expedition

Scope and Contents

The collection is arranged in two series: manuscripts and drawings.

The manuscripts come from several authors and include lists of plants collected on the expedition; some lists appear to have been prepared during the expedition, some appear to have been prepared later. A letter from Brackenridge is accompanied by a brief catalog of phanerogams collected in Hawaii. A letter from Francis Boott is accompanied by notes on Carex and Uncinia. Asa Gray’s notes and his 1650 page manuscript for the unpublished second volume of the botanical report are included. A few published materials, including separates of an article by James Dwight Dana about the expedition and a large map of Oregon prepared by the expedition, are grouped with the manuscripts.

The drawings come from several artists and include what appear to be field sketches by expedition illustrators Alfred Thomas Agate and Joseph Drayton. There are also several sets of black and white drawings by Alfred Thomas Agate, W. R. Hutton, Joseph Drayton and Isaac Sprague which may be original sketches for plates to be published.


  • 1838-1842

Conditions Governing Access

The collection is available by appointment for research. Researchers must register and provide one form of valid photo identification. Please contact for additional information.


1.5 linear feet (1 half width manuscript box, 2 flat boxes, 1 flat oversize box, flat file drawer)

Historical note

The United States Exploring Expedition, also known as the U.S. Ex. Ex. or the Wilkes Expedition was the first effort by the United States government to mount an expedition for scientific and navigational investigations similar to those supported by the British and the French governments.

The expedition was delayed for several years because of political, financial, and personal disputes. In 1836 Asa Gray agreed to serve as one of the scientists, but frustrated by the delays and the selection some unqualified scientists, he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in July of 1838.

Six ships sailed from the Chesapeake Bay on August 18, 1838 under the command of Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) and headed into an adventure that would be remembered not only for remarkable naval and scientific achievements, but also for scandal, betrayal, and human tragedy.

The Expedition ended in New York in June of 1842, but the struggles plagued efforts to preserve its collections and publish the reports. The botanical reports were particularly difficult due to the ineptitude of William Rich, the botanist who replaced Gray on the expedition. His specimens were of poor quality and he lacked the knowledge to describe the his own specimens much less those collected by the horticulturist, William Dunlop Brackenridge, the chief zoologist, Charles Pickering, or by interested naval officers. He was simply not capable of preparing a report. Matters were further complicated by the death of the Expedition's botanical artist, Alfred T. Agate, in 1846. Joseph Drayton, another illustrator hired to draw natural history specimens, stepped in to create a few botanical illustrations.

By 1848 Wilkes approached Asa Gray take on the task of publishing the botany volume. Gray negotiated a reasonable salary and convinced Wilkes that he needed to study specimens in European herbaria in order to accomplish the project.

The first volume of Gray's botanical report, accompanied by illustrations by Isaac Sprague, was published in 1854. Wilkes was unable to secure funds to publish the second part of the report, although special reports on narrower botanical areas were published: Brackenridge's “Botany: Cryptogamia. Filices, including Lycopodiaceae and Hydropterides” was published in 1854. Other reports including William S. Sullivant's report on mosses, Edward Tuckerman's report on lichens, Jacob Whitman Bailey and William Henry Harvey's report on algae, Moses Ashley Curtis and Miles Joseph Berkeley's report on fungi, and John Torrey's report on Phanerogamia of Pacific North America were published officially in 1874 as volume 17 of the “United States exploring expedition. During the years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842. Under the command of Charles Wilkes, U.S.N.”


Haskell, D. C. 1942. The United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and its publications 1844-1874. New York, NY: New York Public Library.

Standon, W. 1975. The great United States Exploring Expedition of 1838-1842. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Pfister, D. H. 1978. Cryptogams of the United States North Pacific Exploring Expedition, 1853-1856: Unpublished manuscripts. Cambridge, MA: Farlow Library of Cryptogamic Botany.


The United States Exploring Expedition papers were part of Asa Gray's papers and left in the Gray Herbarium.

The receipt for Isaac Sprague was given by Susan Loring, June 27, 1984, with other Jane and Asa Gray manuscript materials.

United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842. Records of the United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842: A Guide.
Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University.
Description rules
Language of description

Repository Details

Part of the Botany Libraries, Gray Herbarium Library, Harvard University Repository

The Harvard University Herbaria houses five research libraries that are managed collectively as the Botany Libraries. The Gray Herbarium Library specializes in the identification and classification of New World plants with emphasis on North American plants. The Archives of the Gray Herbarium houses unique resources including personal papers, institutional records, field notes and plant lists, expedition records, photographs, original artwork, and objects from faculty, curators, staff, and affiliates of the Gray Herbarium.

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