All Over The Map: ‘Wilkes Campsite’ distant evidence of Northwest explorer

Jun 11, 2021, 9:30 AM | Updated: 9:30 am
Wilkes Campsite Wilkes Campsite Wilkes Campsite Topographic map of Mauna Loa on the Big Island of Hawaii from 1928, with red circle marking approximate location of Pendulum Peak, site of "Wilkes Campsite" in December 1840 and January 1841. (USGS Archives) Big Island of Hawaii showing location of Mauna Loa volcano, site of 1840-1841 "Wilkes Campsite." (USGS Archives)

The Wilkes Expedition changed the Northwest in 1841 — but the only place the American Naval explorers left any evidence of their travels was thousands of miles away, on top of a volcano.

Summer is almost here, and that means camping season – but this story is about a camping trip that’s just a little bit different than pitching a tent at Lake Wenatchee. The “Wilkes Campsite” is the National Register of Historic Places name for a spot on the summit of Mauna Loa – “long mountain” – a 13,768-foot tall volcano on the Big Island, in Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park.

It might seem like stating the obvious, but the well-known explorers who visited the Northwest by ship in the late 18th and early 19th century left no physical evidence of their time here. For the most part, they arrived by ship, came ashore briefly, if at all, and then left by ship (although Captain Vancouver did leave an anchor behind – somewhere in Puget Sound or Admiralty Inlet – but that’s another story).

Explorers (and traders) such as Fidalgo, Cook, Gray, Vancouver, and the U.S. Navy’s Charles Wilkes, made their mark on the Old Oregon Country by naming islands and mountains, disrupting Indigenous lives and cultures, and altering the course of human events – but they left no lasting markers or monuments.

That’s why the Wilkes Campsite – even though it’s very far from the Northwest – is so intriguing.

Lt. Charles Wilkes commanded the multi-year “United States Exploring Expedition” and spent several months in the Northwest in 1841, including a notable observance of Independence Day near Nisqually on July 5, 1841. For many ships headed to the Northwest in the 18th and 19th centuries, what’s now Hawai’i was a logical place, mid-Pacific, to rest, make repairs to vessels, and replenish fresh water and other supplies.

It was in December 1840, just months before coming to what’s now Washington, that Wilkes, with a lot of help from dozens of Native Hawaiians, led a party of roughly 300 people from Hilo on the Big Island on a long trek through the rain forest and up the rocky slopes of Mauna Loa. The idea was to camp out near the summit and conduct scientific experiments, including measuring the height of the volcano and of nearby Mauna Kea. Also along for the trek over jagged, shoe-destroying lava rock was Wilkes’ Newfoundland dog Sydney.

After a long and very difficult journey of nearly a week, much of the party reached the summit a few days before Christmas 1840. It was cold – in the teens and low 20s at night – and very windy. It was so windy, in fact, it was impossible to light a fire for cooking or warmth, and impossible to keep a tent staked down to the rocky surface.

To solve both problems, members of the Wilkes party built what National Park Service archaeologist Summer Roper described as a “multiple room fortress.” Using materials at hand – that is, rocks – they built a series of mortar-less, high rock walls that served as windbreaks for their tents, and for a portable wooden building they had hauled up the mountain in pieces. That building was known as the “Pendulum House” – for the scientific instruments it housed – and functioned as a kind of portable observatory (and sometime dormitory). The mountaintop spot was dubbed “Pendulum Peak.”

Some number of the group spent Christmas 1840 at Pendulum Peak, and then stayed for a total of about four weeks before heading back down to Hilo in January. They left the rock walls behind, of course, and 180 years later, they are mostly still there. However, the walls have collapsed and settled over the years, and some of the rocks were repurposed for later construction – including for a windbreak built in the 1930s to protect a cabin that backpackers can still use to this day.

Before they headed down the slope and back to their ships, a member of the expedition chiseled the words “PENDULUM PEAK” and “January 1841, US Ex. Ex.” into the bedrock, but archaeologists have not been able to locate the exact spot of what would be an incredible artifact.

The National Park Service’s Summer Roper says she would love to find those chiseled-in words. She’d also like to find something called the “Recruitment Station.” That’s a large cave farther down the mountain that was used as a sort of field hospital for the altitude sickness and exposure that members of the party experienced (the archaic definition of “recruitment” is along the lines of restoration or recuperation).

Roper told KIRO Radio that she thought she’d stumbled across the Recruitment Station with colleagues 20 years ago when they learned of a cave on the lower reaches of Mauna Loa and set out to explore it. That cave was too small to have been the Recruitment Station, but Roper said it did contain shoes, tin cans, and clay pipes that turned out to be from the 1851 Sawkins expedition, another 19th century effort to explore Mauna Loa. Until Roper and her colleagues visited, the cave and artifacts had been sitting there, likely untouched, for 150 years.

And while many of the geographic names applied by Wilkes during the years of the United States Exploring Expedition remain in use, “Pendulum Peak” never quite stuck for the summit of Mauna Loa. However, not too far away from there, along the crater of Kilauea, the name Waldron Ledge is still in use and visible on park signage and printed maps. Namesake for that spot is Purser (or Captain’s Clerk) Thomas W. Waldron of the vessel USS Porpoise – one of Wilkes’ ships – whose surname was also applied to an island in the San Juans.

You can hear Feliks every Wednesday and Friday morning on Seattle’s Morning News, read more from him here, and subscribe to The Resident Historian Podcast here. If you have a story idea, please email Feliks here.

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All Over The Map: ‘Wilkes Campsite’ distant evidence of Northwest explorer