The Wilkes expedition | History Files

By Tim Raetzloff | Mar 07, 2018
Charles Wilkes

The name Charles Wilkes probably doesn’t ring a bell with most residents of Edmonds, but legacy is all around us. It is possible that Edmonds got its name from Wilkes in a roundabout manner.

Wilkes named Point Edmund in Puget Sound in 1841. There is a bit of controversy as to whether George Brackett selected the name “Edmonds” because of Senator George Franklin Edmunds of Vermont, or because of the closeness of Edmonds to Point Edmund.

Maybe it was both. Point Edmund now wears a different name. We call it Point Edwards, but Point Edmund is the original name Charles Wilkes bestowed on it.

Wilkes named a lot of things around here.

He was the commander of a worldwide exploration carried out by the U.S. Navy over four years, from 1838 to 1842. President John Quincy Adams proposed the original mission in 1828. Congress didn’t authorize the mission until late in the term of Andrew Jackson eight years later.

But Jackson had trouble getting his Secretary of the Navy to carry it out. The expedition finally began more than a year into the term of Martin Van Buren, 10 years after its first proposal.

The Wilkes Expedition visited Antarctica and many South Sea Islands before reaching the northwest coast of North America.

Wilkes carefully mapped the region and happily named everything that George Vancouver hadn’t named 50 years before, and renamed some things that Vancouver had named.

On this side of Puget Sound, he named Point Edmund. Near Kingston he named Point Jefferson, which also happens to be where Puget Sound is deepest. Further south are Port Madison and Agate Pass. Agate Pass was named for Alfred Agate, an artist on the expedition.

Agate’s health was so damaged during the expedition’s four years that he died at 33, less than four years after returning home. Port Blakely and Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island are names Wilkes installed.

Bainbridge Island itself is named for American Capt. William Bainbridge, who commanded U.S.S. Constitution in its successful combat against HMS Java. Wilkes discovered that the eastern part of Vashon Island was a separate island at high tide.

He named it Maury Island for another American Navy officer. Vancouver’s expedition had apparently explored that area at low tide, when the islands were connected and gave the name Vashon’s Island for his friend Royal Navy captain James Vashon.

Today the two islands are again connected – a road crosses where there was once a beach, and for all practical purposes Vashon and Maury Islands are one island.

North of us, Wilkes named Burrows and Allen Islands near Anacortes for U.S. Navy captains killed in battle during the War of 1812. Burrows won his final battle; Allen lost his. Blakely Island further north is named for a War of 1812 captain. Port Ludlow is named for a U.S. Navy officer killed in the War of 1812.

Wilkes became notorious 20 years after he mapped this area. During the Civil War, Wilkes stopped the RMS Trent and forcibly removed two representatives of the Confederate states, who were traveling to Europe on the Trent.

England, of course, threatened war, and the Lincoln administration disavowed Wilkes’ actions. Shortly after, Wilkes was placed on the retired list of officers, although he seems to have continued to actively serve.

Wilkes has one more place in history. According to Wikipedia, some historians claim that Wilkes’ actions during the expedition shaped Herman Melville’s characterization of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s “Moby-Dick.”

Such is the man who may have given Edmonds its name.


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