1798–1877, American naval officer and explorer, b. New York City, educated by his father. In 1815 he entered the merchant service and received (1818) an appointment as a midshipman. For his survey (1832–33) of Narragansett Bay he was designated (1833) head of the department of charts and instruments of the navy. Although an inexperienced leader, he was put in command of a government exploring expedition intended to provide accurate naval charts for the whaling industry. Wilkes, then a lieutenant, set sail (1838) from Norfolk, Va., in charge of a squadron of six ships and 346 seamen, and accompanied by a team of nine scientists and artists. They sailed around South America, did important research in the S Pacific, and explored the Antarctic. The portion of Antarctica that he explored was subsequently named Wilkes Land. Wilkes explored Fiji in 1840, visited the Hawaiian group, and in May, 1841, entered the Strait of Juan de Fuca on the Pacific coast of the United States, and explored the Pacific Northwest.
After having completely encircled the globe (his was the last all-sail naval mission to do so), Wilkes returned to New York in June, 1842. In four years at sea he had logged some 87,000 miles and lost two ships and 28 men. His Narrative of the United States Exploring Expedition (5 vol. and an atlas) appeared in 1844. He edited the scientific reports of the expedition (20 vol. and 11 atlases, 1844–74) and was the author of Vol. XI (Meteorology) and Vol. XIII (Hydrography). Moreover, the specimens and artifacts brought back by expedition scientists ultimately formed the foundation for the Smithsonian Institution collection.
Despite his accomplishments, Wilkes acquired a reputation as an arrogant, cruel, and capricious leader. The impetuosity of his nature, for which he was twice court-martialed, was demonstrated when early in the Civil War, as commander of the San Jacinto, he stopped the British mail ship Trent and, contrary to all regulations, forcibly removed Confederate commissioners John Slidell and James M. Mason. The incident almost involved the Union in a war with England (see Trent Affair). Promoted to the rank of commodore in 1862, he commanded a squadron in the West Indies.