In 1836 the U.S. Congress authorized President Andrew Jackson "to send out a surveying and exploring expedition to the Pacific Ocean and South Seas." The U.S. Exploring Expedition's Narrative . . . (Vols. I-V) was written to follow the path of the three-year and ten-month expedition (1838–1842), which traveled from Norfolk, Virginia, east to the islands off the coast of Portugal, around the tip of South America to Antarctica, and then up the west coast of South America. During the rest of the expedition, either Lieutenant Charles Wilkes, the commander, or parts of his squadron traveled to Australia and New Zealand, the South Pacific islands, the Philippines, Singapore, Hawaii, and North America's West Coast. Expedition members included scientists and artists who illustrated the people encountered, the narrative scenery, the cartographic studies, and the specimens collected.
The five Narrative volumes were published in 1844. Of the accompanying scientific volumes VI–XXIV, fourteen were published between 1844 and 1874. The remaining five were never officially distributed.
The printing matrices—either engraved plates and blocks or lithographic stones—used to print the Narrative of the U.S. Exploring Expedition and its accompanying volumes are housed in the Graphic Arts Collection of the National Museum of American History. This collection includes 309 engraved wood blocks, 133 engraved copper and steel-faced plates, with an additional presentation card plate, and 19 lithographic stones.