Deceased , Historic

William Lewis



Commander William Lewis Herndon was one of the United States Navy’s outstanding explorers and seamen.


• Herndon’s brother officers erected Herndon Monument in his honor at the United States Naval Academy
• The Navy has named two ships named USS Herndon in his honor
• The towns of Herndon, Virginia and Herndon, Pennsylvania are named for him


In 1851, Herndon led a U.S. expedition to the Valley of the Amazon, and prepared a report published in 1854 and distributed widely as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.

Herndon was appointed midshipman on November 1, 1828. He was promoted to passed midshipman in 1834 and lieutenant in 1841. He cruised in Pacific, South American, Mediterranean, and Gulf waters from then until 1842.

From 1842 to 1846, Herndon served in the Depot of Charts and Instruments of the U.S. Naval Observatory with his first cousin and brother-in-law, Matthew Fontaine Maury. They prepared oceanographic charts and performing other scientific work invaluable to the safe and accurate navigation of the seas.

During the Mexican-American War, Herndon commanded the brig Iris with distinction.

In 1851, Herndon headed an expedition exploring the Valley of the Amazon, a vast area uncharted by Europeans, although inhabited for thousands of years by numerous tribes of indigenous peoples. The purpose of the expedition was to ascertain the commercial resources and potential of the valley. Departing Lima, Peru, May 21, 1851, Herndon, in the company of Lieutenant Lardner Gibbon and five other men, pressed into the jungles. After crossing the Cordilleras, Gibbon separated to explore the Bolivian tributaries of the Amazon while Herndon continued to explore the main trunk. After a journey of 4,366 miles, which took him through the wilderness from sea level to heights of 16,199 feet, Herndon reached the city of Pará, Brazil on April 11, 1852.

On January 26, 1853, Herndon submitted an encyclopedic and illustrated 414-page report to the Secretary of the Navy John P. Kennedy. The report was published by the Navy in 1854 as Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon. The Navy ordered “10,000 additional copies be printed for the use of the Senate.” It was extensively circulated, and cited in works on ethnology and natural history.

After two years of active service on Potomac and San Jacinto, Herndon was assigned in 1855 as commander of the Atlantic Mail Steamship Company steamer SS Central America, on the New York to Aspinwall, Panama run. Navy captains were assigned to command the mail steamers on the Atlantic and Pacific runs. The ships were operated and maintained by companies under contract to the federal government. At the time, such mail steamers transported large quantities of gold from the California gold fields to cities on the East Coast and the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia. (Central America had recently been renamed from George Law. Aspinwall was an English name for Colón, Panama.)

Herndon was noted especially for ensuring the rescue of 152 women and children when commanding the commercial mail steamer Central America in September 1857. During a three-day hurricane off the coast of North Carolina, the ship lost power. Herndon arranged for getting some women and children safely off the ship to another vessel. With no way to save the ship, Herndon chose to stay with more than 400 passengers and crew who drowned as the ship sank off Cape Hatteras on September 12. It was the largest loss of life in a commercial ship disaster in U.S. history.

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