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1840 Wilkes Map of Wilkes Land, Antarctica - first detailed map of Antarctica

Chart of the Antarctic Continent Shewing the Icy Barrier Attached to It Discovered by the U.S. Ex. Ex. - Main View

1840 Wilkes Map of Wilkes Land, Antarctica - first detailed map of Antarctica


The map that definitively established Antarctica's continental nature.


Chart of the Antarctic Continent Shewing the Icy Barrier Attached to It Discovered by the U.S. Ex. Ex.
  1840 (dated)     24 x 34 in (60.96 x 86.36 cm)     1 : 11100000


This important and extraordinary production is Commodore Wilkes's 1840 U.S. exploring expedition map of Antarctica. Of extraordinary importance to Antarctica collectors, the surveying of this coast and this resulting map are the first to definitively prove Antarctica's continental nature. Among the many great achievements of the U.S. exploring expedition, and Wilkes specifically, the surveying of the Antarctic coast now known as Wilkes Land, stands out as the most significant. The chart covers that portions of Antarctica now known as Wilkes Land, located due south of New Zealand and Australia (ghosted in at the top of this chart), roughly from Cape Hordern (100°31' e) to Point Alden (142°02' e). Five profile charts in the upper left quadrant offer views of the Antarctic shoreline.
The Contest to Map Antarctica
Wilkes and the U.S. Ex. Ex. were not alone in their pursuit of Antarctica. Almost at the same time, both the French and British had lunched better equipped and more experienced expeditions to seek the southern continent. The British expedition, which was slightly behind, was led by James Clark Ross, an already famous Arctic explorer. The French expedition was led by Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d'Urville, a master naval commander, and arrived around the same time as Wilkes. These two expeditions briefly sighted one another but did not make contact. The conditions under which this 1500 mile stretch of icy shore were surveyed were, to put it mildly, horrendous to the point of impossible. Observers in Sydney, noting the ill prepared and inexperienced expedition considered it, in the words of one, 'doomed to be frozen to death.' Compared to the European vessels, most specifically Ross's, which were retro fit for polar conditions, the U.S. ex. ex. ships were ill prepared for unavoidable collisions with ice bergs. Nonetheless, Wilkes accomplished the near impossible, and managed to do so without losing a single ship. This mapping of Wilkes land and the establishing of Antarctica as a continent is Wilkes' most lasting contribution to science and is commemorated on his tombstone: 'he discovered the Ant-arctic continent .'
Publication History and Census
This map was prepared by Charles Wilkes and engraved by Sherman and Smith. Despite being dated 1840, and copyrighted in 1844, it was first published by Lea and Blanchard of Philadelphia to illustrate the atlas volume of the 1845 first edition of Wilkes's official U. S. ex. ex. report.

Collectors will note that most of the maps from Wilkes' official report of the U.S. exploring expedition were issued in small and large formats. This is the large format edition and is exceptionally scarce. The full run consisted of only 150 presentation copes and 100 official copies. Twenty-five of these are known to have been lost in a fire, leaving only 225 possible examples.


Charles Wilkes (April 3, 1798 – February 8, 1877) was an American naval officer and explorer. Wilkes was born in New York City to a prominent family. His mother died when he was just three years old. Consequently, Wilkes was raised by his aunt Elizabeth Ann Setton, the first American born woman to be canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church. Inspired by tales of nautical adventure, Wilkes embarked on several merchant voyages, including one to the South Pacific. Finding shipboard life unpleasant, he returned to New York City where attended Columbia College (today's Columbia University) studying various aspects of mathematics and the sciences. For a time Wilkes was a prodigy of Coast Survey Superintendent Ferdinand Hassler. Before the relationship went foul, Wilkes mastered Hassler's sophisticated techniques for navigation and nautical surveying. Though the Coast Survey at this time was underfunded, several coastal mapping expeditions were launched, one of which focused on Narragansett Bay and was headed by Wilkes. In 1833, impressed with his work on Narragansett Bay, the Navy placed Wilkes in charge of the Navy's Depot of Charts and Instruments in Washington, D.C, out of which developed the Naval Observatory and Hydrographic Office. In 1838, after years of political posturing, he was chosen to lead the U.S. Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.), a multidisciplinary voyage to the Pacific with the lofty goal to

collect, preserve, and arrange every thing valuable in the whole range of natural history, from the minute madrapore to the huge spermaceti, and accurately describe that which cannot be preserved.
The expedition lasted from 1838 to 1842. Wilkes gained the reputation for being a harsh and dictatorial leader often at odds with his sailors and sub commanders - so much so that some suggest he was the real life inspiration for Herman Melville's characterization of Captain Ahab. Nonetheless, the U.S. Ex. Ex. was a resounding success with long term political and scientific ramifications. Under Wilkes, the expedition surveyed 1500 miles of the Antarctic continent, mapped over 280 islands, explored over 800 miles of the Pacific Northwest, and catalogued over 60,000 plant and bird specimens. Despite his scientific achievements, the end of the expedition Wilkes was court-martialed for the loss of one of his ships on the Columbia River, for the regular mistreatment of his subordinate officers, and for excessive punishment of his sailors. He was acquitted on all charges except illegally punishing the men in his squadron. During this post-expedition period he was also employed by the U.S. Coast Survey, but it was mostly an honorary position with most of his energies being focused on preparing the influential five volume expedition report. Later, during the American Civil War (1861–1865) Wilkes commanded a Union naval vessel in the Trent Affair, a diplomatic incident in which Wilkes intercepted the British mail packet RMS Trent and removed, as contraband of war, two Confederate diplomats, James Mason and John Slidell. Wilkes died in Washington, D. C. on February 8, 1877 at the rank of Rear Admiral. In August 1909, the United States moved his remains to Arlington National Cemetery. His gravestone reads "he discovered the Ant-arctic continent". More by this mapmaker...

Sherman and Smith (fl. c. 1829 - 1855), sometimes working as Stiles, Sherman & Smith, were American engravers active in New York City during the middle part of the 19th century. The firm including John Calvin Smith (surveyor and engraver), George E. Sherman, and sometimes, Samuel Stiles. Their work primarily focused on government publications, including the maps and engravings prepared to illustrate the official records of the 1838-42 United States Exploring Expedition (U.S. Ex. Ex.), maps issued for the Army Corps of Topographical Engineers, and various U.S. Coast Survey Charts. They also engraved privately for Thomas Bradford and John Disturnell, among others. Sherman and Smith maintained offices at the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street in New York City and were highly regarded as the finest cartographic engravers in the city. Their non-cartographic legacies include George Inness, who apprenticed with them for two years before going on to become a well regarding American landscape painter of the Hudson River School. Learn More...


Wilkes, C., Atlas. Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition During the Years 1838, 1839, 1840, 1841, 1842, (Philadelphia: Lea and Blanchard) 1845.    


Very good. Left margin extended. Overall toning. Some wear on original fold lines.


Rumsey 4442.002. Forbes, D. W., Hawaiian National Bibliography 1780 - 1900: 1831-1850, 1573. Hill (II) #1866. Rosove, M, Antarctica, 1772-1922, 353. Streeter Sale 3324.