Publication Date

April 1, 2008

Recently, Atlantic history has reshaped the way historians of the United States and the world have approached their research and teaching. Naturally, the Caribbean world is part of that construct since it was integral to the transatlantic slave trade and commodity exchange. As illuminating as the Atlantic history perspective has been for us, it begs the question: What about America's other maritime frontier—the Pacific?

The intent of that question is not to minimize the importance of the Atlantic world in contextualizing America's development. Nor is it to argue that the Pacific has been more important than the Atlantic in our nation's past. Instead, in raising the question, this essay argues for striking a more accurate balance between these two maritime frontiers by offering some thoughts and examples that would show introductory students that the Pacific has mattered a lot throughout U.S. history.1

Yet, curiously, no U.S. survey text treats the Pacific world with anywhere near the attention given the Atlantic seascape. When I took an otherwise valuable American Historical Association—Community College Humanities Association summer seminar at the Library of Congress in 2003 on "Trans-Oceanic Exchanges," nearly the entire program was devoted to the Atlantic world, with a nod to trade in the Indian Ocean. The Pacific Ocean—the world's largest—was conspicuously absent.

Is that not odd? After all, students should know that the Pacific world has been an important factor in North American history since the peopling of the continent by Asian trekkers who crossed Beringia some 15,000 years ago and others who came later by watercraft along nearby coasts. More to the point, however, our survey students should learn that after the mid-1500s the Pacific took on increasing importance in American history. The Manila galleon trade (1565–1815), connecting North America to both Asia and Europe, is a case in point. Sailing from Acapulco in Mexico to Manila in the Philippines, these treasure ships carried 50 tons of silver annually to China in the 1600s, returning along the California coastline with cargoes of silks, porcelains, ivory sculptures, and other luxuries. The Spanish government required the galleons to enter the port at Monterey, California, before completing the voyage to Mexico. English privateer Francis Drake seized (stole?) 26 tons of treasure from one of these vessels in 1579, which led to his outrunning Spanish patrol vessels and sojourning along the California coastline that year. His landfall about 30 miles northwest of present-day San Francisco eventually resulted in England's claim to North America's Pacific coast. Focusing almost exclusively on the Atlantic world, few, if any, U.S. history survey textbooks even mention these early links (the Beringia and coastal boat crossings excepted) between North America and the Pacific. Consequently, students end up with an Atlantic-centric view of their nation's past.

By the late 18th century the waters and adjacent lands along North America's western littoral became highly contested among Spain, England, and soon Russia. Yankee John Ledyard's voyaging with Captain James Cook's third expedition (1776–80) into the Pacific resulted in the publication of Ledyard's Journal of Captain Cook's Last Voyage, which Thomas Jefferson read eagerly. That account plus letters to the Virginian extolling the prospects of North Pacific commerce, quickened Jefferson’s resolve to launch the famed Lewis and Clark Expedition in 1804. In the meantime Yankee merchants had begun trading at Canton in 1784, and eight years later American Captain Robert Gray established the basis for what became the U.S. claim to the Oregon Country by sailing into the Columbia River. By the 1820s American China traders, whalers, fur trappers, sandalwood merchants, timber interests, and Protestant missionaries had established a Pacific maritime frontier that like a magnet drew the United States ever westward, invigorating its economy. The fortune that New Yorker John Jacob Astor made selling Pacific sea otter pelts at Canton was invested in hotels and railroads in his home state. Similarly, New England whalers in the Pacific during the first half of the 19th century contributed greatly to the growth of the American economy. Again, scarcely any of these developments have been covered in U.S. history survey textbooks. If textbooks do not cover these matters, how likely is it that history professors will supply this information to students?

A scan of the 1830s and 1840s will furnish us with several examples of how a Pacific perspective might be inserted into the earlier part of a U.S. survey course, where it is most likely to be missing. The first example reframes the overland Oregon migrations, placing them in a Pacific context; the second focuses on America's first government-sponsored transpacific exploration.

Seen from a Pacific perspective, and not just as an epic overland venture, a new dimension is added to the narrative of the Oregon migrations of the 1830s and 1840s. According to one eyewitness account, Nathaniel Wyeth, organizer of two Oregon expeditions (1832 and 1836), reportedly said to members of the 1832 party: "By only going . . . over land, from the shore of our Atlantic to the shore of the Pacific, after we have there entrapped and killed the beavers and otters, we shall be able, after building vessels for the purpose, to carry our most valuable peltry to China and… our seal-skins to Japan, and our superfluous grain to various Asiatic ports, and lumber to the Spanish settlements on the Pacific."2 [italics in original] A clearer, bolder, statement of the Pacific perspective on the Oregon migrations would be hard to imagine.

Rarely do college level survey texts treat American expansion in Oregon in the broader transpacific context. Yet the scholarly literature has for some time addressed this matter. For example, numerous articles in the Oregon Historical Quarterly describe and analyze Oregon’s early 19th-century ties to a burgeoning transpacific commerce and immigration to the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, these findings have not found their way into the U.S. survey textbooks and, therefore, probably not into college classrooms either.

So what do students have to gain by a reframing of Oregon's settlement narrative? A Pacific context will help them see that the Oregon migrations were about more than covered wagon trains snaking their way westward toward the fertile Willamette Valley. In a broader sense that narrative was also about U.S. participation in the international Pacific maritime fur, lumber, flour, tea, porcelain, silk, and opium trade connecting China, Russia, Britain, Hawai'i and the West and East Coasts of the United States.

While the Oregon migrations were underway, Commander Charles Wilkes led the First United States Exploring Expedition throughout the Pacific Basin. An authority on the expedition, David B. Tyler, concludes that America's sudden adoption of "manifest destiny" in the 1840s was due "in large part to the work of the first United States Exploration Expedition."3 Its charts and reports highlighted the value of Puget Sound and San Francisco Bay and Wilkes’s Narrative catalogued information on the interior region. The American whaling industry, which became San Francisco rather than New England-based by the 1880s, benefited greatly from the navigation charts that the expedition produced. 4

Including a detailed discussion of the Wilkes expedition into the content of U.S. history survey courses will help students view the "manifest destiny" of the 1840s in a broader, more historically accurate transpacific context.

These are just two among many examples of how a Pacific perspective enriches students' understanding of American history in the decades of the 1830s and 1840s. Other historical happenings that could be discussed in our classrooms include: the 1842 Tyler Doctrine regarding Hawai'i (pledging the United States to uphold Hawai'i's independence); the 1844 Treaty of Wanghia between the United States and China (opening five Chinese ports to U.S. vessels and providing extraterritoriality); President James K. Polk's focus on Pacific ports as a major factor in his handling of U.S. relations with Mexico on the eve of the Mexican War; and the California gold rush that brought Argonauts from many parts of the Pacific Rim and Hawai'i into what was about to become the Union's 31st state.

As China continues on its trajectory toward great power status and Pacific Rim trade and immigration loom ever more important to the United States, students could only benefit from learning how the Pacific world has influenced American history for more than 400 years. The teaching of introductory U.S. history courses from both Atlantic and Pacific perspectives is long overdue. A major Pacific studies and teaching initiative, undertaken by our profession, would be a promising start.

— is professor and history department chair at Santa Ana College in California. He has published a book and journal articles on Hawaiian-American foreign relations, and currently serves on the Committee on Community Colleges of the Organization of American Historians. With others he is coauthoring an internationalized, college-level U.S. history survey textbook under contract with McGraw-Hill. He may be reached at


1. Focusing more on historical research than teaching, David Igler reached a similar conclusion in, “Trading Places: The View of Colonial American History from the Pacific,” Huntington Frontiers (Fall/Winter 2007). For a collection of fresh and insightful articles on what a Pacific perspective offers, see also “Toward a Pacific World,” Common-Place (January 2005).

2. John B. Wyeth, Oregon; or a Short History of a Long Journey from the Atlantic Ocean to the Region of the Pacific by Land (Cambridge, Mass.: 1833).

3. See The Wilkes Expedition: The First United States Exploring Expedition (1838–1841) (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1968), p. 404.

4. Lloyd C.M. Hare, Salted Tories: The Story of the Whaling Fleets of San Francisco (Mystic, Conn.: The Marine Historical Association, Inc.,1960), p. 2. According to this same authority, by the 1880s San Francisco had become the world’s leading whaling port.

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