The Shaping of American Ethnography


The Shaping of American Ethnography

The Wilkes Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842

Barry Alan Joyce

Critical Studies in the History of Anthropology Series

197 pages
Illus., map


April 2001


$45.00 Add to Cart

About the Book

In August of 1838 the United States Exploring Expedition set sail from Norfolk Navy Yard with six ships and more than seven hundred crewmen, including technicians and scientists. Over the course of four years the expedition made stops on the east and west coasts of South America; visited Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, and Tahiti; discovered the Antarctic land mass; and explored the Fiji Islands, Tonga, the Hawaiian Islands, and the Pacific Coast of North America.
In The Shaping of American Ethnography Barry Alan Joyce illuminates the process by which the Americans on the expedition filtered their observations of the indigenous peoples they encountered through the lens of their peculiar constructions of "savagery" as shaped by the American experience. The native peoples were classified according to the prevailing American perceptions of Native Americans as "wild" and African American slaves as "docile." The use of physical characteristics such as skin color as a classificatory tool was subordinated to the perceived image of the prototypical savage. Joyce argues that the nineteenth-century explorers shared the attributes that characterize the discipline of anthropology in any age—a reliance on synthetic systems that are period- and culture-dependent. By applying American images of savagery to world cultures, American scientists and explorers of this period helped construct the foundation for an American racial weltanschauung that contributed to the implementation of manifest destiny and laid the ideological foundations for American expansion and imperialism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Author Bio

Barry Alan Joyce is an assistant professor of history at the University of Delaware.


“This is a thorough and well-written account of an exploring expedition under the auspices of the US Navy . . . The many reproductions of drawings produced on the expedition and included in the text are as telling as Joyce's prose.”—Choice

“Barry Alan Joyce’s study focuses for the first time on the ethnographic observations of the scientists and officers who spent so many months at sea and in contact with strikingly divers peoples from Fiji to Vancouver . . . Joyce has done much to show us the torturous process of early, pre-professional anthropological observation whereby those opinions were formed.”—Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences

“A valuable contribution to the growing literature on the history of anthropology.”—Journal of Anthropological Research

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