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On August 18, 1838, six United States Navy ships left Norfolk, Virginia on an expedition to the South Pacific. On board were 424 officers and crewmen and nine scientists, setting off on a mission to explore and survey the islands of that region, investigate their commercial potential, and assert American power.
Lieutenant Charles Wilkes commanded the expedition. At the time of his appointment he was in charge of the Depot of Charts and Instruments at Washington, D.C., an organization now known as the Naval Observatory.
Being a peaceful expedition of discovery, the ships were stripped of heavy armament and its space was given over to scientific exploration. The nine civilian scientists, referred to as the “scientifics” by the sailors, were tasked with observing and describing the resources of the various islands. These men were among the most able in their fields: James D. Dana, Minerologist, Charles Pickering, Naturalist, Joseph P. Couthouy, Conchologist, Horatio C. Hale, Ethnographer, William Rich, Botanist, William D. Brackenridge, Horticulturalist, Titan Ramsay Peale, Naturalist, and Joseph Drayton and Alfred Agate, the two artists, or “draughtsmen.”
Alfred Agate was about 23 years old, just beginning a career as an artist and miniaturist when the Navy hired him for the expedition. He had studied under Samuel F. B. Morse and later under John Rubens Smith, a landscape artist and engraver who made a niche for himself in American art history by traveling throughout the early republic, capturing and publishing images of the developing nation. Smith was a demanding teacher, as testified to by Charles Wilkes, who had studied with Smith some years earlier than Agate. In his own landscapes, Smith used a camera lucida for accuracy, something that Agate learned and used in his landscapes on the expedition.
Little is known of Alfred Agate’s background before the expedition. He was from Sparta, New York and reportedly first learned to draw from his older brother Frederick, who also studied under Smith. Several of his shipmates wrote appreciatively of his kind disposition. His health was fragile and apparently he suffered from bouts of illness during the voyage, though it did not prevent him from signing on, nor from making several interesting side excursions. Originally hired as a botanical illustrator, on the first leg of the voyage Wilkes assigned him to the ship Relief with William Rich, but eventually artistic services became so much in demand that Wilkes decreed that all scientists were to share both Agate and Drayton’s time. In his memoirs, James Dana noted the accuracy of Agate’s portraits.
Wilkes - after waiting two weeks at Orange Harbor near Tierra del Fuego - left Sea Gull and Flying Fish to remain there for a few more days before joining him at Valpariso.
The two tenders waited until 28 April before deciding to move on. The fall season was far advanced and the inhospitable weather was worsening. The ships departed together, but encountered a storm on leaving Cape Horn. Flying Fish returned to the harbor for shelter, but Sea Gull sailed on. Flying Fish lost sight of Sea Gull near midnight. Sea Gull was never seen again and eventually it was presumed lost in the storm with its commander, Passed Midshipman James W. E. Reid, two other officers, and fifteen men.