Charles Wilkes papers, 1816-1876 7 Linear Feet — 4,566 items
The largest section in this collection is the correspondence, 1816-1876. It covers such subjects as the naval cruises of Charles Wilkes and his son, John; the Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842, in terms of preliminary planning, the voyage itself and detailed descriptions of places visited, and publishing the results of the expedition; gold mining and milling in North Carolina; the Civil War; and Wilkes family business ventures in North Carolina. There are many letters written by prominent persons, including a particularly rich section containing letters of scientists in 1848 and 1849. Also there is a lengthy series of James Renwick (1792-1863) and Charles Wilkes correspondence. Other groups of papers are the clippings, financial papers, legal papers, miscellany, printed material, writings, and volumes.
The correspondence covers a sixty-year span, 1816-1876, with the majority of the letters being addressed to Charles Wilkes. The letters commence with one from John Wilkes about obtaining a warrant as a midshipman for his son Charles. Most of the early letters to 1818 are those of John to Charles concerning the son's early naval career and the father's advice pertaining to it.
In the 1820s begin letters from Charles Wilkes while on naval voyages, 1822-1823, describing Rio de Janeiro; Valparaiso; and the earthquake, burial customs, and clothing in Peru. The bulk of the letters for this period fall in 1825, while Wilkes was in Washington, D. C., waiting to take a naval examination for promotion to lieutenant. His letters concern social occasions, visiting friends, and prominent personages, including President and Mrs. John Quincy Adams and a dinner they gave, Mrs. Calhoun, and Prince Achille Napoleon Murat. Wilkes evidently made a conscious effort to contact and get to know the "right" people, pertly to further his career. Other Wilkes letters refer to the court-martial of Commodore Charles Stewart, at which Wilkes was called to testify; two French generals in Washington, Generals Lafayette and Simon Bernard; and steamboat and stagecoach travel.
Letters to Wilkes in 1825 and 1826 relate news about the trade situation in Chile, Simon Bolivar, politics and government in Peru, and U. S. Navy commissions. A lengthy series of James Renwick (1792-1863) letters begins in 1828 and continues to 1854. Renwick was an engineer and educator, professor of natural philosophy and chemistry at Columbia, and an authority in every branch of engineering of his day. The letters, which were written primarily to Wilkes and to Jane Wilkes, Renwick's sister, relate to scientific and family matters Letters of Renwick's sons, Henry and Edward, eminent engineers, and James (1818-1895), a noted architect also appear in the papers.
In 1828 and 1829 letters begin in reference to preliminary plans for an exploring expedition. Particularly, Captain Thomas Ap Catesby Jones wrote a lengthy letter on Jan. 2, 1829, about the proposed expedition. President Jackson had given him command of the exploring squadron but later eased him out of command. On May 7 Wilkes wrote to Secretary of Navy John Branch about instruments and charts for the planned expedition.
In the 1820s there begin series of letters among Wilkes family members that continue in varying degrees throughout the collection. Those included in addition to Charles are his brothers John ("Jack''), who resided on a plantation outside Charleston; Henry, a lawyer in New York; and Edmund, also a lawyer in New York; and a sister Eliza (Wilkes) Henry in Albany, N. Y. There is an extended correspondence between Charles and his wife Jane, which runs from 1825 to 1848.
From July, 1830, to May, 1831, Charles Wilkes was on an extended Mediterranean cruise. As a result the collection for this period contains many lengthy letters he wrote to his wife that are replete with detailed descriptions of such locations as Gibraltar, Port Mahon, Algiers, Tunis, Naples, Florence, and Marseilles. In particular there is an expecially good account in September, 1830, of a visit Wilkes made to meet the Bey of Tunis and the prime minister at the palace. Also there is information about the French expedition to Algiers and the reaction to the French troops. Wilkes also demonstrated his interest in cultural and social life through his careful descriptions in Oct., 1830, of the National Museum, the San Carlo Opera, and churches in Naples. He also participated in much social life while visiting France in Dec., 1830.
The letters for 1832 and 1833 fill only a portion of one folder. Of note is a letter, July 28, 1833, by Charles Wilkes's brother John about the South Carolina militia, states rights, Governor Hayne, and politics in South Carolina
A long series of letters from Henry Wilkes in New York to his brother Charles in Washington, D C., appears from 1834 through the 1840s. The topics are primarily business and financial matters, sale and management of property, rental houses, and the Jackson City Association. Henry also wrote concerning elections in New York, riots there, and his attitude toward blacks. Of additional interest are letters in Dec., 1834, one that Charles Wilkes wrote to Secretary of the Navy Mahlon Dickerson about measurements of the eclipse, and one from James Renwick to Wilkes in reference to the U. S. Coast Survey.
By mid-1836, some correspondence begins to appear concerning preparations for the coming Exploring Expedition. For example, Wilkes wrote to John Boyle, Acting Secretary of the Navy, in July about instruments he needed for the voyage and requesting funds to purchase charts, books, and instruments. In August Wilkes journeyed to England and Europe to obtain scientific instruments for the expedition. In 1837 he wrote to Navy Secretary Dickerson about his dealings with Edward John Dent, a chronometer maker in London, and later about the disposition of instruments purchased for the expedition. Other letters in 1838 discuss the organization of the expedition, who will command it, speculation as to whether or not Wilkes will go, and plans and preparations for staffing and equipment. On June 3, 1838, Mary Somerville, an English scientific writer and astronomer, wrote to Wilkec about various aspects of oceanography which were still possible topics for inquiry on an exploring expedition. In the last half of 1837 are letters about Wilkes's surveying efforts and a report by Mrs. Wilkes on a visit from Dolley Madison.
From August, 1838, to June, 1842, Charles Wilkes was the commander of the U. S. Exploring Expedition. Writing from the U. S. Ship Vincennes to his wife, his letters are generally lengthy and marvelously detailed. Although little information is included about the specifics of the scientific experiments and specimen gathering, there is a wealth of information about the people and places visited. It is possible to include in this sketch only the highlights of information in the letters. Please consult the subjects listed in this Guide for further information. In 1838 and 1839, the voyagers went to Madeira; Brazil; Valparaiso, Chile; Callao, Peru; the Society Islands; and Sydney, Australia. Included is information about the homes, plants, and wine-making in Madeira; the President of Chile; travels to various small islands in the Pacific Ocean; natives; and social occasions. Also Wilkes referred to discipline problems on board ship, the officers in the squadron, the spirit of overall harmony on the expedition, and an apparent lack of support for the expedition by the U. S. government.
In 1840, Wilkes noted his sighting of the Antarctic Continent and then the trip to the Fiji Islands. This latter stop was particularly poignant for Wilkes because his nephew, Wilkes Henry, and a Lt. Underwood were murdered by natives who sometimes practiced cannibalism. The voyage was marred by several personnel problems. Wilkes suspended and sent home Dr. Gilchrist, a surgeon assigned to the expedition, and had difficulties with Joseph P. Couthuoy, a member of the scientific corps whom Wilkes dismissed. Wilkes's use of strict discipline was to result later in a court-martial.
In late 1840 and early 1841, the ships were docked in the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), where he wrote a detailed account of an adventurous trip to explore the volcanic mountain, Mauna Loa, and of missionaries in Hawaii, In May, 1841, he noted a stop in Oregon and the Columbia River.
Letters in 1842 concern Wilkes's promotion and court-martial. His name was omitted from the list of promotions in the Navy, and he was not promoted to commander until 1843. The court-martial charges were primarily the result of his supposed use of harsh discipline on the expedition. As mentioned previously he was sentenced to be publicly reprimanded.
There begins in the late 1830s and 1840s correspondence between Charles Wilkes and his children, and among the children, which will continue throughout the collection. The children with whom he communicated were John ("Jack") (1827-1908); Jane (1829-[18--?]); Edmund (1833-[18--?]), an engineer; and Eliza (1838-[18--?]). Other family letters include several from Anne de Ponthieu to her cousin Charles Wilkes in the 1830s, and a long series between Henry Wilkes and his sister-in-law Jane Wilkes in the 1840s.
The family correspondence for the remainder of the 1840s during the post Exploring Expedition period includes many letters of Henry Wilkes, brother of Charles, particularly in 1846 and 1847. They concern business and financial matters, coal property in Pennsylvania, and the sale of the Jackson City property.
During this period John Wilkes (1827-1908) wrote from the U.S.S. Mississippi, which was on a cruise to Pensacola, Vera Cruz, and other ports. Contained in his letters is a brief report of Slidell's mission to Mexico, Several of his letters are from Annapolis where John was a midshipman at the U. S. Naval Academy in early 1847. The others were written from the U. S. S. Albany, which he was on board for a surveying cruise to Mexico and the western coasts of Central and South America. While on the cruise in late 1847 and 1848, he wrote to his father descriptions of various stopping places such as the Island of St. Thomas, Curaçao, and Caracas, Venezuela. In 1848 John was appointed Acting Master of the Albany. The next year John's letters to his father consist of those he wrote while on board the U. S. S. Marion, and while attached to his father's Exploring Expedition publication work for which he traveled to Philadelphia, New York, and Washington, D. C.
John's younger brother, Edmund, wrote several letters to his family while he was in school in Philadelphia in 1846 to 1847. The bulk of his letters during this period, though, date from August, 1848, through 1849, from Charlotte, N. C. As a teenager, Edmund was given the responsibility of going to Charlotte to oversee some mining and milling property there. This extensive correspondence consists basically of reports by Edmund to his father and instructions from Charles to his son; as a consequence, much information is revealed about mining and milling efforts in the Charlotte area at this time. Specifically Edmund gave accounts of grinding ore at the Charlotte and Capps Mines, Capps Mine preparations, comments about amalgamation problems, milling ore, and working stamp, grist, and saw mills at St. Catherine's Mills Charles Wilkes owned at least a one-quarter share of the Capps Gold Mine, and also had a share in a co-partnership for the mine called the Capps Company. It was his intention to obtain possession of the engine at the Capps Mine and to provide facilities for others to use it either for shares or by a tribute system. He also wished to make St. Catherine's Mills a business place for grinding all sorts of ores, but none of his ventures in Charlotte was ever very successful or profitable.
In the summer of 1848 Jane Wilkes, the wife of Charles, took a vacation in Newport, Rhode Island, a fashionable summer resort area. Her letters in July describe the people and activities there. Mrs. Wilkes had suffered a leg injury in June, which worsened over the summer. She died in August in Newport while her husband was on a trip to South Carolina and also to Charlotte to inspect family property.
As previously noted there is a series of James Renwick (1792-1863) letters in this collection. The correspondence is particularly heavy for the 1843 to 1849 period. The letters concern reviewing of the manuscript of the Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition and his calculations made from measurements made during magnetic observations on the expedition. Renwick also wrote about his attempt to be appointed to the U. S. Boundary Commission, which failed, and the beginning careers of his three cons.
The period, 1848 to 1849, is an especially rich one for this collection in terms of the correspondence of prominent persons it contains. From 1843 to 1861, Charles Wilkes was assigned to special service, chiefly in Washington, D, C., preparing for publication and publishing the information collected on the Exploring Expedition. Much of his correspondence during 1848 to 1849 deals with describing and cataloging the specimens, such as lichens, collected on the expedition; work on preparing charts; writing, editing, and publishing of volumes; and paying the bills for this work.
In the course of this work Wilkes received letters from many prominent scientists, naval officers, senators and congressmen, and statesmen. Please consult the "List of Selected Persons" in this Guide for an extensive listing of correspondents. Of particular interest are four series of letters: 1. Asa Gray, botanist, to Wilkes from 1849 to 1859, writing about work on the botany of the Exploring Expedition; 2. Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz, zoologist, corresponding to Wilkes from 1849 to 1861, concerning drawings of fish and echinoderm specimens from the expedition; 3. Joseph Henry, scientist and first director of the Smithsonian Institution, writing, 1849 to 1875, about loans of Exploring Expedition specimens; and 4. John R. Bartlett (1805-1886), state official and bibliographer, writing in 1849 about the sales of the Narrative and the publication of a spurious abridgment of the work. Other scientists who corresponded include Isaac Lea, James D. Dana (1813-1895), William D. Brackenridge, Titian Ramsay Peale, William S. Sullivant, and Edward Tuckerman.
The correspondence for the 1850s continues two important themes of the collection: the continuing work concerning the Exploring Expedition, and gold mining and milling in North Carolina. Throughout, there are letters referring to various aspects of the Exploring Expedition work, such as descriptions being made of specimens, appropriations and bills, as well as letters from many prominent scientists. Examples of such letters are Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz writing about the classification and drawings of fish specimens, Asa Gray about his work describing the botany of the expedition and William Sullivant's drawings of mosses, Spencer F. Baird about his report on the reptiles, William Sullivant about the engraving of drawings and publication of his work on mosses, and Charles Pickering about his report on the geographical distribution of plants and animals.
Many other prominent persons who were not scientists also corresponded with Wilkes during the 1850s, Of interest is a letter dated April 9, 1851, from President Millard Fillmore to Wilkes thanking him for sending a copy of his work on meteorology.
A very long series of letters between Charles Wilkes and his younger son Edmund continues from the 1840s through the 1850s, Most of the early letters concern the mills at St, Catherine's Mills near Charlotte, N. C.; financial matters; and the fact that the mills are not proving to be a very successful venture, In the summer of 1850, Edmund returned home and then in September began attending the Laurence Scientific School at Harvard to train to be an engineer, The remainder of his letters for this period primarily concern his work as an engineer on railroads in Ohio, particularly in Zanesville. His letters describe hits work, operations of the Central Ohio Railroad, and the many accidents on this railroad in 1858.
The very long series of letters from John to his father Charles Wilkes continues in 1850 until 1852 while John is on board the U.S.S. Marion on a cruise continuing to places such as Rio de Janeiro, China, and Manila Bay. He wrote very lengthy descriptive letters on this cruise. In the summer of 1852 he was working on the calculations for observations of the Exploring Expedition and also corresponded while on trips to Pennsylvania and Ohio.
The remainder of the correspondence of John Wilkes as well as that of some others pertains to mining and milling operations in the Charlotte area. In 1853 John went to North Carolina to be superintendent of the Capps mining operations and presumably to continue work begun by his brother Edmund earlier. John wrote about the condition of various mines, such as the Capps, McGinn, and Dunn mines; mining operations, such as pumping water out of the Capps mine shaft; his brief tenure as agent of the Capps Mining Company; problems with the Capps Company; and continual financial problems. By August, 1855, the Capps Mine was defunct. Charles Wilkes had been President of the St. Catherine's Mining Company. John also became involved in milling operations and sent back reports about the work, progress, and machinery repairs at the St. Catherine's Mills; stamp mills; flour and corn milling; and questions about Wilkes's ownership of St. Catherine's Mills. In 1858 John turned his attention to the Mecklenburg Flour Mills, which he purchased with William R. Myers. Other correspondence concerns a proposed St. Catherine Gold Mining Company, which would have been formed to sell a newly invented machine for reducing metallic ores.
There is considerably less bulk for the 1860s and 1870s than for earlier years, there being one box of material for each of these decades. Certain letters in 1860 begin to mention the possibility of secession. Throughout the Civil War period are references to various battles, ships, naval and army officers, and views on the war. On November 8, 1861, Charles Wilkes commanded that the British mail steamer Trent halt and be boarded. He then searched the vessel, arrested the Confederate commissioners James Mason and John Slidell, and removed them to the U.S. Ship San Jacinto. Wilkes's primary error was in searching a neutral vessel and seizing the agents on board, rather than bringing the ship into port. His actions became quite controversial both in the United States and in Europe. Although the British people were outraged by the events, a majority of Lincoln's cabinet applauded the act. The matter was finally resolved, though, when Secretary of State Seward released the prisoners, realizing that the alternative was war with England. Two letters in 1862, written by Michele Costi, a publicist living in Venice, address this affair. He wrote a strong defense of Wilkes's actions in the Trent affair. A copy of Costi's, In difesa del San Giacinto, is contained in the writings. There is no firsthand account by Wilkes of this affair in the collection.
In July and August, 1862, there is a series of letters from Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to Charles Wilkes, who was co landing the James River Flotilla at that time. Also in 1862 are various orders about ships, crews, and discharges, as well as letters concerning aspects of the U. S. Navy, such as health, medical care, surgeons, liquor, and deserters. Many of the letters in 1862 and 1863 comment on General George Brinton McClellan, particularly after his removal as commander-in-chief of the U. S. Army; the Wilkes family favored him. In late 1862 and early 1863 letters refer to the fact that Wilkes was passed over for promotion to rear admiral and to his reputation as an officer. His wife Mary had much correspondence attempting to secure the promotion. Wilkes was not promoted to rear admiral on the retired list until 1866. On June 1, 1863, he was detached from the West India Squadron and recalled home. Unfortunately his letters for this period at sea, 1861-1863, are not included in this collection. Only a handful of letters exist for 1864; two of them are from Wilkes to Gideon Welles concerning Wilkes's court-martial.
Family letters during the Civil War are concentrated mainly in 1862 and 1863, while Wilkes was at sea. His wife and two older daughters remained in Washington, D. C., and in their letters they discuss prominent citizens of the city, army generals, naval officers, and activities there. Many letters refer to business and financial matters.
At the conclusion of the Civil War, John Wilkes's letters from Charlotte to his father resume. John was at this time serving as the first president of the First National Bank of Charlotte and had resumed operations at the Mecklenburg Iron Works which he owned. His letters relate to business and economic conditions in North Carolina and the South during Reconstruction, making a start again after the Civil War, and business and financial matters. Wilkes was in a partnership that owned the Rock Island Manufacturing Company; letters refer to its financial problems. In about 1866, Charles Wilkes moved to Gaston County, North Carolina, where he had purchased the High Shoals Iron Works. He had a contract of sale, but no deed, so protracted legal battles ensued. The Iron Works continued to produce batches of pig iron and manufacture nails. Letters in the collection pertain to the Iron Works and its production. Only a few letters exist for 1868 and 1869.
The correspondence for the 1870s consists primarily of family letters, mostly written by John Wilkes to his father. Letters continue about the problems of the Rock Island Manufacturing Company, which had failed in about 1869. Other letters concern the Mecklenburg Iron Works, which was at one time called the Mecklenburg Foundry and Machine Shops, of which he was proprietor. He also referred to the continued question of ownership of the High Shoals Iron Works and the appropriation for the work of the Exploring Expedition in 1870. A few other letters were written by Mary and Edmund Wilkes, who went to live in Salt Lake City in 1871, but returned to New York later.
Other letters for the 1870s pertain to the Exploring Expedition. Charles Wilkes wrote to Lot M. Morrill about publishing the volumes of the work of the expedition. There are letters from Frederick D. Stuart, assistant to Wilkes, concerning funds to finish the publication of the Exploring Expedition volumes. It was difficult in the later years to obtain this funding from Congress.
The two clippings are a picture of Charles Wilkes and an article, 1862, concerning publication of the results of the Exploring Expedition.
The financial papers, 1830-1875, include such items as financial statements, Exploring Expedition statements, bills, receipts, cost estimate, and a bond.
In the legal papers, which span the years 1827-1865, are indentures, many of which are signed by Charles Wilkes and Richard B. Mason, among other parties. Also included are articles of association and other papers for the Jackson City Association, a signed approval by Secretary of the Navy Isaac Toucey of a summons to Wilkes for a trial, and undated plats. There are court documents, such as agreements, summons, a complaint, and a memorandum. Some of these items pertain to litigation concerning a Lynch vs. Wilkes family real estate dispute.
The miscellany consists of papers, 1825-1875. Exploring Expedition items include a memo in 1838 concerning the acting appointments as commanders of Charles Wilkes and William H. Hudson, magnetic measurements, and in 1858 a few items about revisions to various maps and publications of the expedition. Three depositions occur in this section in 1862 concerning fortifications at Drewry's Bluff. They are written by a deserter from the Confederate Navy, a former Confederate soldier, and a New York soldier who had been behind Confederate lines. Other Civil War papers in 1863 and 1864 relate to the court-martial of Wilkes.
The printed material spans the years 1849 to 1874. Included is a broadside that General John James Peck penned on September 20, 1864, entitled, "Siege of Suffolk-Chancellorsville." The purpose of the paper was to debunk the idea that any significant portion of Longstreet's army was transferred to Chancellorsville. In the printed material also is "Report on the High Shoals Property in Gaston County, North Carolina" by F. Winter. This is a proof of the pamphlet written in 1873 concerning the geology of High Shoals. Other titles are "Working the Gold Mines in New Granada," "Prospectus of the American Review, " and "Map of the City of Zanesville."
While the writings cover the two years, 1862 to 1863, most of them are undated. Included is a copy in Italian of "In difesa del San Giacinto," 1862, by Michele Costi. This was a defense of Wilkes's actions in the Trent affair. An English translation of this item was published as a pamphlet under the title, Memoir on the Trent Affair. A copy is housed in the Rare Book Room. Related items are "The Surrender of Mason and Slidell" written in Wilkes's hand and another article, both of which defend his actions in the Trent affair. Copies of "Naval Reform" and "Abuses in the Navy," 1862, are also included. Two folders contain the sixteen-chapter manuscript "Trip to the Far West" by Charles Wilkes in 1863. The narrative is comprised of descriptions of the localities visited, including Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Milwaukee, the Mississippi River, St. Paul, Iowa (especially Dubuque), St. Louis, Cincinnati, Erie, New York--Buffalo and Niagara Falls, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and New York City. "Canal Trip in Peru" is listed as being included with the manuscript but is not a part of this collection. Other undated writings describe various aspects of New York City, iron-clad vessels, New Jersey, and Baltimore.
The volumes, 1823-1847, include account books of Charles Wilkes, a notebook owned by Edmund Wilkes, and "Notes related to Fejee [sic] Islands." There is an account book for the ship O'Cain, 1823, maintained while Wilkes was on a trip to ports in the South Atlantic on a sealing voyage. Wilkes was in command of the ship, which was fitted out by its owner, Mr. Winship. Other financial records of Charles Wilkes are in three Daybooks of Receipts and Expenses, 1828-1829, 1829-1832, and 1833-1835. Edmund Wilkes kept the notebook in 1847 while he was a student in Philadelphia. Evidently it was from a chemistry course. Charles Wilkes wrote "Notes related to Fejee [sic] Islands" from July 15 to August 7, 1840, while on the Exploring Expedition.
Two oversize items are in oversize storage: "Map of the World shewing [sic] the Extent and Direction of the Wind and the Route To Be Followed in a Circumnavigation of the Globe" by Charles Wilkes, 1856, and a broadside, including a plat of several lots of Charles Wilkes's land in Washington, D. C. for sale, May 12, 1874.