Although the real work of the U.S. Navy during the 1850s was done by its six squadrons at sea, exploring the globe was both more satisfying for ships' crews and likely more entertaining. This was especially so since nothing really threatened ocean commerce now that the turmoil of the revolutions of 1848 in Europe had abated. Exploring, moreover, fit the mood of America immediately after the Mexican War. The prevailing conviction was that the United States was divinely ordained to fill its own continent and that the distant places of the world, thinly settled by "less masculine breeds," should be exploited for American benefit.
In his annual report to Congress dated December 1852, Secretary of the Navy John Kennedy listed four current expeditions, of which the largest and most important was led by Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry, charged with prying open the "populous and semi-barbarous empire" of Japan to the Western world. The same report also boasted of three lesser expeditions, and Kennedy took great pride in them all. "These four expeditions," he assured Congress in his best officialese, "each of them of a highly interesting character, and likely to be productive of results which will be beneficially felt and acknowledged long after the men who may procure them shall have passed away, constitute, in great part, the chief and most important topics which have engrossed the care of the Navy Department during the past year."
In his report's next paragraph Kennedy hailed the return of Lieutenant William Lewis Herndon, back in the country just months earlier from an exploration of South America's Amazon River basin. Lieutenant Herndon (Lewis to relatives and friends) had been gone from home and family since September 1849.
In early August 1850, anticipating orders from Washington to explore the Amazon, Lieutenant Herndon left his ship, the sloop-of-war USS Vandalia, in Valparaiso, Chile, and went ashore. When he disembarked, the Vandalia was not yet at the midpoint of a 37-month cruise and on the way to a year in Hawaiian waters before heading slowly for home and overhaul.
Herndon, 38, did not escape easily from the remaining two years of the Vandalia's first Pacific cruise. Instead, between 21 May 1851, when Herndon finally left Lima, Peru, for the continent's interior, and 11 April 1852, he traveled on foot, by mule, and by canoe to Santa Maria de Balem do Grao Para Brazil, 80 miles from the mouth of the Amazon on the South Atlantic Ocean. It was a trek of approximately 4,000 miles through some of the world's most densely vegetated and unfamiliar places and across the maximum breadth of South America. His reasonable health and spirits on arrival at Para was something of a marvel. Marvelous, too, were the places he had been and the things he had seen.
Orders to the Amazon
When Herndon finally got orders from Secretary of the Navy William Graham—the second in a string of four Navy secretaries appointed from early 1850 to 1854—they came in two parts. The first, in a letter dated 30 October 1850 and delivered to him in Santiago, directed Herndon to collect information at monasteries and from other "authentic sources" in Peru and Bolivia about the headwaters of the Amazon and the river's drainage basin in preparation for the expedition to come. In April, Passed Midshipman (soon Master and a few months later Lieutenant) Lardner Gibbon, who had been ordered to join Herndon on the great adventure, delivered the second part, signed on 15 February 1851, to Herndon in Lima. This second letter launched the two officers and friends on what Secretary Graham described therein as "a most important and delicate duty." Graham explained:
The government desires to be put in possession of certain information relating to the valley of the river Amazon . . . not only to the present condition of that valley, with regard to the navigability of its streams; to the number and condition, both industrial and social, of its inhabitants, their trade and products; its climate, soil, and productions; but also to its capacities for cultivation, and to the character and extent of its undeveloped commercial resources, whether of the field, the forest, the river, or the mine. . . . The geographical situation and commercial position of the Amazon indicate the future importance, to this country, of the free navigation of that river. To enable the government to form a proper estimate as to the degree of that importance, present and prospective, is the object of your mission.
A long list of questions followed, focused on mining, agriculture, and transportation. To accomplish this substantial work, Herndon was permitted to spend as much as $5,000, but "only for the necessary expenses of the party," Secretary Graham emphasized frugally.
Graham's signature was at the bottom of both letters, but the hand that had guided his pen was that of Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, the influential director of the Naval Observatory in Washington and, not coincidently, Herndon's brother-in-law. At the outset and months before Herndon had orders from Secretary Graham in hand, he had received a long letter from his kinsman, alerting him to his future mission and defining its scope and purpose in intimidating detail. Captain William Gardner had detached Herndon from the Vandalia entirely on the strength of that informal communiqué.
Although there are other good candidates for the title—Prussian scientist Alexander von Humboldt being one—Maury is commonly called the world's first oceanographer. The distinction seems appropriate. It was his genius to recognize that the great collection of ships' logs he held was a database that could be mined for valuable information on the seas. Maury's insight was not unique, but his work was enormously important. Detailed charts permitted mid-century ocean commerce, still largely moving by sail, to benefit reliably from seasonal winds and ocean currents, in some cases cutting many days off voyages.
In particular, Maury saw the Gulf of Mexico as an American Mediterranean, linking the vigorously growing United States on its northern shore and the vast, open, and resource-rich continent to its south. He argued that cooperative winds and ocean currents identified on his new charts shrank the effective distance between the United States and Brazil such that the Amazon's largely unexplored watershed was the natural complement to the Mississippi River's drainage basin.
From the same charts Maury divined that staple foodstuffs and cotton could thrive in South America as long as "compulsory labor"—read slaves—was available to work the newly cleared fields. Compulsion was essential, he believed, because in the fecund tropics the fear of starvation was an unreliable incentive to hard labor by free men.
Melding scientific and political analyses, Maury concluded that profitable trade and close ties were inevitable and desirable, especially to those few far-sighted Southerners who worried about the future of plantation agriculture and the institution of slavery in the United States. Brazil's enormous, fertile, and sparsely settled spaces stood—here Maury adopted the language of the powerful new technology being introduced—as a possible "safety valve" if everything went awry at home.
Maury's formidable intelligence and energy marked him as an unusual man, and he is honored by history as one. But he had the perspectives and prejudices common to most mid-19th-century privileged Southerners and held beliefs and expressed views that if revealed today would instantly destroy a career in public life. Those convictions—in the divinely ordained destiny of America to expand; in the innate inferiority of colored peoples, whom he called "the feeble races" of tropical Africa, America, and Australia—are dotted throughout his letter to his capable agent and acolyte, Herndon.
'A Sort of American Colony'
From these perspectives and his analysis of winds and currents, Maury arrived at the purpose of the expedition: Herndon was to be the advance man of a great migration, one that would transform the United States and Brazil and establish the future of slavery and cotton culture in what "in a few years will become to be regarded for all commercial purposes as a sort of an American colony."
After several paragraphs of oily flattery and overt appeals to his brother-in-law's ego—Maury evidently feared that Herndon might lack imagination and decline the mission—his letter got to the central point. "Who shall people the great valley of this mighty Amazon," he asked Herndon rhetorically, in run-on sentences (dotted with misspellings) that reflected his zeal:
Shall it be peopled with an imbecile and an indolent people, or by a go ahead race that has energy and enterprise equal to subdue the forest and to develope and bring forth the vast rescources that lie hidden there. The latter by all means. . . . And the object of your mission there is to prepare the way for that chain of events which is to bring this result about. I care not what may be the motive which prompts the Govt to send you there. Your going is to be the first link in that chain which is to end in the establishment of the Amazonian Republic for which when the Govt has done what I have been urging it to do and what it intends to try to do viz secure by treaty the right to navigate that river, it can no more prevent American citizens from the free as well as the Slave States from going there with their goods and chattels to settle and to revolutionize and republicanize and Anglo Saxonize that valley that it can prevent the magazine from exploding after the firebrand has been thrown into it.
No surprise that twice in his letter Maury cautioned Herndon to keep the expedition's private agenda, Maury's agenda, to himself. "In the first place," he wrote halfway through his epistle, "the object of your journey should not be talked of." And later, "Of course you will not unnecessarily in such a country of ignorance and prejudice let the real object of your visit and the authority under which you act be known nor would I speak of it at all to shipmates and others it might embarrass you and cannot facilitate you in getting along with officials."
Herndon bought into all of it. On 2 June, he looked ahead and mused, "The importance to the world of settlement, cultivation, and commerce in the Valley of the Amazon cannot be over-estimated . . . tillage and good husbandry here would transfer the productions of the East to this magnificent river basin, and place them within a few days' easy sail of Europe and the United States." This before he had set foot in the valley. Three months later—afloat in a canoe but still not down on the Amazon—Herndon had already concluded that "the time will come when the free navigation of the Amazon and other South American rivers will be regarded by the people of this country as second only in importance to the acquisition of Louisiana. . . . The Valley of the Amazon and the Valley of the Mississippi are commercial complements of each other—one supplying what the other lacks in the great commercial round. They are sisters which should not be separated." Punctuating these geopolitical observations are others about the basin's residents. Writing in November, Herndon again echoed Maury's views:
I myself believe and I think the case of the Indians in my own country bears me out in the belief—that any attempt to communicate with them ends in their destruction. They cannot bear the restraints of law or the burdens of sustained toil, and they retreat from before the face of the white man with his improvements, till they disappear. This seems to be destiny. Civilization must advance, though it tread on the neck of the savage, or even trample him out of existence. . . . I think that in this case the government of Peru should take the matter in hand . . . and throw open the country to colonization, inducing people to come by privileges and grants of land. I am satisfied that in this way, if the Indian be not improved, he will at least be cast out, and that this glorious country may be made to do what it is not now doing—that is, contribute its fair proportion to the maintenance of the human race.
Agricultural Treasure Trove
Politics aside, Herndon's orders from Secretary Graham and instructions from his kinsman were encyclopedic. With respect to agriculture alone, Herndon was to return to the United States with knowledge of cinchona tree bark (quinine) and of gutta percha (latex rubber) collection. He was to have studied tobacco, rice, sugar, cotton, coca, cocoa, coffee, grape vine and hemp culture and sheep husbandry. He was to guage the incidence of crop failures, the timing of dry and rainy seasons, the fall of dew, rain, hail, and snow, and the force of the wind. And he was instructed to assess the value of a day's work and the yield per acre and per hand. In addition, he was ordered to bring back specimens of plants and their seeds and also flowers for Maury's "little green house if by that time you be not worn out." That mastered, there remained equally probing questions about mining, river navigation and land transportation, and population.
"In short, Lewis," Maury wrote quite seriously after reciting a many-pages-long and disordered catalog of intelligence and specimens he expected his brother-in-law to collect, "write down and take note of everything you see, hear, feel or think on the way down."
With all this guidance in hand, Herndon and Gibbon left Lima on 21 May 1851. On 2 June, 60 miles out of the city, the two Navy officers, their four fellow travelers, and 11 mules stood wheezing at the peak of their climb, atop the continental divide of South America and a few hundred feet above three miles high. The eastern face of the Andes cordillera stretched out before them. Spread unseen below was the nearly 2.7 million-square-mile drainage basin of the world's largest river, feeding approximately one-fifth of the world's running fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean. From now on, the course of the expedition would be downhill.
On 1 July they parted at Tarma, Peru. Herndon proceeded overland, generally to the north. He sent the younger officer south to Cuzco (site of the ancient Inca capital) and from there into a sweeping U-turn through Bolivia and then down the Mamor and Madeira rivers. From there Gibbon eventually rejoined the main stem of the Amazon near Serpa, Brazil, before heading east toward Para and, eventually, home behind Herndon.
Gibbon fell sick after less than a week on the trail, and disease occasionally visited both men from then on. It is unclear what ailed them. Malaria is likely, given the descriptions ("chills and fever"), but one did not have to go to the tropics to suffer from that disease in the mid-19th century. It was endemic in much of the United States then and for decades to come. Herndon first reported being ill on 4 July. (At the end of October he confessed to symptoms that sound more complicated than simple ague: "I became ill and dispirited," he wrote, "and never fully recovered the gaiety of temper and elasticity of spirit which had animated me at the start, until I received the congratulations of my friends at home.")
Downstream in Dugout Canoes
On 4 August 1851, some ten weeks after departing from Lima—and still recovering from a raucous departure celebration the night before with the few hundred citizens of tiny Tingo Maria—Herndon embarked his small party in two dugout canoes on the Huallaga River and headed downstream (still north) to the Amazon. The long cross-country trek on foot and by mule train was finally over, but he was to cover the next thousands of miles by boat even more slowly, not more than a few miles per hour of daylight. Not until 6 November, when Herndon floated up to the fishing village of Iquitos after a month exploring the Ucayali River, did he finally reach the Amazon. The great river's mouth on the Atlantic Ocean now lay almost directly east, across 25 degrees of longitude.
Herndon's dugouts, the largest of them 40 feet long and 2.5 feet wide, were propelled by several standing paddlers, bogas. A lookout, puntero, stood in the bow, searching ahead for danger, and a popero stood in the stern manipulating his steering oar. All were local Indians. The bogas and popero paddled hard to stay out of trouble when they could not simply drift with the current. Herndon crouched amidships, with his gear packed tightly about him.
There would be many changes of boats and crews during the next nine months on the water, but the primitive canoes worked well for Herndon and the modest kit of supplies he carried and specimens he collected. Obedient to his instructions from Maury, Herndon observed everything and paused to collect native flora and fauna en route. In addition to returning with more than a hundred specimen skins carefully dusted down with arsenic powder, Herndon came home with a small flock of assorted living birds. But there should have been much more: a whole menagerie. "I had two little monkeys not so large as rats," he wrote in an inventory that would be grim if the accumulation of tribulations didn't sound so funny.
The peccary ate one, and the other died of grief. My howling monkey refused food and grunted himself to death. The friars ate their own tails off and died of the rot. The mongoose, being tied up on account of eating the small birds, literally cut out his entrails with the string before it was noticed. The peccary jumped overboard and swam ashore; the tuytuy's grabbed and swallowed every paroquet that ventured within reach of their bills; and they themselves, being tied on the beach at Eyas, were devoured by the crocodiles. My last monkey died as I went up New York Bay.
This catalog of zoological disasters makes Herndon's own survival sound like a long-odds outcome.
Dispirited or not, Herndon pressed on, and in early spring 1852 he completed an exploration that, thanks to a remarkably unaffected journal writing style (especially remarkable for his century, when prose and mules both were expected to carry a lot of freight), quickly became the stuff of popular acclaim.
From the distance of 155 years, Herndon's trip from one end of the Amazon to the other appears astonishingly smooth, glossing over as he did bouts with disease, fatigue, and depression. A slow and deliberate procession over high mountains and then down a long river unfolds in his colorful prose almost as if its success were preordained. The experience led him to a conclusion that must have been congenial to his brother-in-law:
I am under the impression that, were Brazil to throw off a careless jealousy, and a puerile fear of our people, and invite settlers to the Valley of the Amazon, there might be found, among our Southern planters, men, who looking with apprehension (if not for themselves, at least for their children) to the state of affairs as regards slavery at home, would, under sufficient guarantees, remove their slaves to that country, cultivate its lands, draw out its resources, and prodigiously augment the power and wealth of Brazil.
In 1867 Brazil finally opened the Amazon to foreign merchant shipping. In the 14 years after Herndon's return to the United States, there was a great deal of agitation about access to the river, most of it focused on Maury. The centerpiece was probably a convention on the subject in Memphis, Tennessee, that Maury fomented soon after Herndon's return.
The debate within Brazil's imperial government was long and acrimonious, and at least twice the government pressured its neighbors, Peru and Bolivia, to withdraw river navigation concessions to foreigners. In retrospect, it is difficult to tell if Maury's agitation accelerated or impeded Brazil's ultimate decision to accede.
Life after the Expedition
Gibbon, Herndon's junior partner in exploration (he was 31 when he joined Herndon in Lima), was something of an anomaly in the group of native Southerners who conceived, approved, and conducted the adventure. The tenth son of Dr. John Heysham Gibbon, scion of an old Pennsylvania Quaker family, Gibbon had joined the Navy as a teenager and then fallen into Maury's orbit thanks to two tours in the late 1840s subordinate to him at the Depot of Charts and Instruments, the Naval Observatory's predecessor institution. That orbit was very tight.
In May 1857 he resigned his commission in the Navy after 20 years in uniform, six in the grade of lieutenant, and just two as a married man. Three years later he reappeared in the public record as owner of a plantation in North Florida—his well-off wife's home state—and of 14 slaves. And two years after that, the transformation was complete: in January 1862 the grandson of Quaker abolitionists became a captain in the Corps of Artillery of the Provisional Army of the Confederate States.
In January 1868, with the war over and now farming in South Carolina, Gibbon successfully petitioned for the restoration of his citizenship rights in the Union. He died in January 1910, at home in eastern Pennsylvania, back full circle from where his story began 90 years earlier.
Unlike Gibbon, Herndon could have been expected to take up a commission in the Confederate States Navy as did their mentor, Maury, and nearly 300 other former Union Navy officers in 1861. But Herndon never fought in the Civil War.
Back from his Amazon adventure in 1852 and lionized for its achievements, Herndon left his wife, Frances Elizabeth, and 15-year-old daughter, Ellen, ashore and again went to sea, first in the old sailing frigate USS Potomac and then in the new, balky—the ship's steam engine suffered from chronic teething problems—screw frigate USS San Jacinto.
Herndon's Seagoing Shuttle
Herndon then took leave from active duty in the Navy and, as did dozens more captains and lieutenants with the Navy short on ships, assumed command of the side-wheel steam packet, SS Central America (ex-SS George Law). During the 1850s the quick route between the California gold fields and the U.S. East and Gulf coasts comprised two legs at sea connected by crossing the Isthmus of Panama, originally on foot or by mule train, later by rail. Herndon's new command was one of the vessels sailing on the Atlantic-Caribbean leg of this coast-to-coast improvisation.
Beginning in October 1852 the Central America shuttled on schedule between New York City and Aspinwall (Colon), Panama, with a stop overnight in Havana, nine days each way at 11 knots. Westbound, she carried hopefuls heading for the boom towns and gold fields of California. From Aspinwall they rode the rickety new railroad 49 miles to Panama City on the Pacific, and then sailed the last leg into San Francisco Bay. Eastbound, the Central America's passengers were the veterans—male and female—of the Gold Rush, those who had made their fortunes and those who had not.
On 4 September 1857, the ship left Aspinwall on her 43rd, and last, voyage. More than 6,000 pounds of gold coins and bars were stored in her hold or otherwise secreted about the ship. The total included a single ingot that weighed nearly 80 pounds. Out of Havana the morning of the 8th, the Central America should have tied up in New York on the 13th. Instead, what became the first hurricane of the short 1857 season caught up with her off the coast of Georgia. It was a powerful storm, at 95 knots what today would be Category Two hurricane, that first battered her until the hull was sprung and then, on the 11th, flooded both boiler fires, shutting down both engines and her bilge pumps.
Long hours of desperate bailing, with crew and male passengers handing buckets along lines snaking from the hold to the deck, failed to hold off the tempest. After dark on the 12th, the ship sank. A quarter of the total on board, 149, were rescued—all the women but one; not many of the men. At the end, the Central America took nearly 450 down with her, including her master, Captain William Herndon, 43, who had changed into dress uniform to die bravely.
In Memory of Herndon
A 21-foot-high obelisk on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy memorializes Herndon, who was commissioned at 15 as a midshipman in 1828, 20 years before the Academy opened. The monument is the centerpiece of an annual rite for the Academy's entering class. Each May its members form a human ladder and scramble up the needle's greased sides to retrieve a plebe's "dixie cup" cap atop the shaft and replace it with an officer's cover. Success signals the end of the plebe year.
During the last century, two destroyers were named after Herndon. The first (DD-198) served in three navies and with the U.S. Coast Guard, possibly a record. The second Herndon (DD-638) fought throughout World War II against Germany in the Atlantic and Mediterranean (she was offshore Normandy on D-Day), and later against Japan in the Pacific.
William Lewis Herndon is also the namesake of the Town of Herndon, Virginia. In 1858, when the small community was casting about for a name to identify its post office, the hero of the SS Central America came to mind. His face appears today on the town's official seal above a likeness of the ship.
Andrew C. A. Jampoler
The expedition report was published in two volumes (Herndon's as Volume I in 1853, Gibbon's as Volume II in 1854) as "Executive Document No. 53 of the House of Representatives, Thirty-third Congress, First Session," and entitled Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon, made under direction of the Navy Department.
In 1952, McGraw-Hill published an illustrated version, severely pruned by Hamilton Basso. In 2000, Grove Press published yet another edited version of Herndon's report by Gary Kinder that followed by two years the release of Kinder's well-reviewed Ship of Gold in the Deep Blue Sea by the Atlantic Monthly Press, the story of Herndon and the last voyage of the Central America. The story had been told in 1992 by Normand E. Klare in The Final Voyage of the Central America, 1857, published by Arthur H. Clark Co.
In May 1948 The Hispanic American Historic Review published, possibly for the first time, Maury's April 1850 letter of instruction to Herndon. Author Donald Marquand Dozier, a historian at the U.S. State Department, found the text in a letter book of the Naval Observatory at the National Archives.
A number of other review articles between 1918-54 touch on the Herndon expedition and related matters.