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Wilkes family papers

Identifier: MS0038

Scope and Contents

A large portion of this collection deals with property belonging to Charles Wilkes that later came under John's control as he assumed power of attorney for his father, which included several lots and structures in Washington D.C. Also includes an original drawing and map from the 1838 exploring expedition and many letters from Charles that allude to his colorful past. Among John Wilkes's papers are his 1842 appointment as midshipman, signed by President John Tyler and his appointment as passed midshipman signed in 1848 by President Zachary Taylor. The collection includes a scrapbook of short stories clipped from newspapers and a series of journals (1841-52) that give detailed accounts of John's daily observations while at sea. His depiction of life on board the U.S.S. Marion as it sailed to Asia describes his friendships among the young officers and his perceptions of the cultures encountered at various Chinese and Pacific ports. Documenting John Wilkes's service to the Confederacy is the deed for the Mecklenburg Iron Works that he signed over to the Confederate States of America, as well as John's and Edmund's involvement in railroad development. A pardon signed by President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Henry Seward relieved John of the consequences of his involvement in the Confederacy. Upon receipt of the pardon in 1865, John procured a charter for the First National Bank of Charlotte, the first national bank to be chartered south of the Potomac River. Other items found in the collection include 19th century family photograph albums, medals from mining engineering conventions, and a small group of memorabilia from St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Charlotte. In addition to a group of valentines from Jane's various suitors are several pieces of correspondence and legal contracts between John and Jane's illustrious family. Although this collection contains almost nothing about the Mecklenburg Iron Works, it does include financial documents related to John Wilkes's various business dealings.

Missing Title

  1. Charlotte (N.C.)--History--Sources.
  2. Chatham Railroad--History--Sources.
  3. Edmund Wilkes & Brother--Archives.
  4. High Shoals Iron Works (Gastonia, N.C.).
  5. North Carolina--History--Sources.
  6. Piedmont Railroad--History--Sources.
  7. Renwick family.
  8. Saint Peters Episcopal Church (Charlotte, N.C.)--History.
  9. Saint Peters Episcopal Church (Charlotte, N.C.). Church Aid Society--Archives.
  10. Saint Peter's Hospital (Charlotte, N.C.)--History--Sources.
  11. Smedberg family.
  12. South Carolina--History--Sources.
  13. United States Exploring Expedition (1838-1842).
  14. United States--Exploring expeditions.
  15. Washington (D.C.)--History--Sources.
  16. Wilkes, Charles, 1798-1877.
  17. Wilkes, Jane Renwick Smedberg, 1827-1913.
  18. Wilkes, John, 1827-1908.
  19. Wilkes family.


  • Creation: 1818 - 1947


Conditions Governing Access

Collection is open for research. Some materials are restricted due to current condition.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material may be copyrighted or restricted. It is the patron's obligation to determine and satisfy copyright or other case restrictions when publishing or otherwise distributing materials found in the collections.

Biographical / Historical

Charles Wilkes was born on April 3, 1798 in New York City to John De Ponthieu and Mary Seton Wilkes. He was the great nephew of the late 18th-century British politician John Wilkes. In 1826, he married Jane Jeffrey Renwick, a niece of James Renwick (1792-1863), renowned professor of engineering at Columbia College [now University] and a cousin to James Renwick (1818-95), architect of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City and the Smithsonian Building in Washington, D.C. The Renwick family had been early investors in Charlotte-area gold mines. As a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy, Wilkes became connected with the United States Exploring Expedition, the first government sponsored expedition of its kind, and set sail in 1838 in command of a voyage to explore the South Pacific, Cape Horn, and the Antarctic Ocean. Four years later, the expedition returned to New York City with thousands of plant and animal specimens, maps of new regions, and enough botanical, zoological, geographic, meteorological and cultural data to fill at least 21 published volumes. Despite this achievement, history remembers Charles as the commander of the U.S.S. San Jacinto, a sloop of war that seized the British mail steamer Trent in 1861, capturing four Confederate agents. The act gained Charles much popular support in the North but nearly resulted in war with Britain. [In spite of his action in the Trent affair, his services as an explorer were recognized by the Royal Geographical Society.] Later, he was court-martialled for disobedience, disrespect, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming an officer for remarks he made about the Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Wells. After the Civil War, he bought the High Shoals Iron Works in Gaston and Lincoln counties, N.C. That business venture was abandoned in 1871. He and Jane (d. 1848) had four children: John (1827-1908) [see below]; Jane (b. 1829); Edmund (b. 1832, m. Elizabeth "Bessie" Van Buren, 1854); and Eliza (1838-1908). Charles remarried in 1854 to Mary H. Lynch Bolton. They had two children: Mary (b. 1859) and Charles Smith (b. 1865; died in infancy). Wilkes died on February 8, 1877 in Washington, D.C. Buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, his remains were reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery in 1920.

John (Jack) Wilkes was born on March 31, 1827. He entered the Navy in 1841 as his father before him and graduated first in the first class at the U.S. Naval Academy in 1847. Upon his return from his voyage on the U.S.S. Marion in 1852, John took a leave of absence from service. He came to Charlotte in late 1853 in order to supervise the family milling and mining property. In 1854, he married his first cousin, Jane Renwick Smedberg of New York. Following his resignation from the Navy later that same year, John and Jane moved to St. Catherine's Mills outside of Charlotte. In 1858 he purchased the Mecklenburg Flour Mills, which served as a chief supplier of the Army of Virginia during the Civil War.

With North Carolina's secession from the Union in 1861, John Wilkes became a member of the Home Guards in Charlotte. After the Civil War, President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William Henry Seward relieved John of the consequences of his involvement in the Confederacy. Upon receipt of the pardon in 1865, John procured a charter for the First National Bank of Charlotte, the first national bank to be chartered south of the Potomac River.

In 1859, John purchased the Mecklenburg Iron Works. He relinquished ownership during the Civil War, when the Confederacy used the foundry as a major supplier of shells and machinery for its navy. With the war's end in 1865, the Federal forces took possession of the foundry and then permitted Wilkes to repurchase the Iron Works. He also bought the Rock Island Woolen Mills, which later operated at the site of the flour mill as wheat production dwindled in the Carolinas. When the woolen mill failed in 1869 -- bringing financial ruin to Wilkes -- he reopened the Iron Works to support his family. The latter proved to be a great success and survived well into the mid-twentieth century.

A member of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Charlotte, John served his parish in many capacities. This included vestryman (and senior warden), lay reader, treasurer, Sunday school teacher and superintendent, and representative on church councils. He also represented the Diocese of North Carolina at seven consecutive general conventions of the Episcopal Church beginning in 1886.

Jane Wilkes, wife of John Wilkes and philanthropist, is known as "the Godmother of North Carolina Hospitals." During the Civil War, she worked as a nurse in Confederate hospitals. As a member of St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Charlotte, she served as an officer of the parish's Church Aid Society from its organization from 1875 to her death. In 1876, the society established the state's first civilian hospital, the Charlotte Home and Hospital, which was merged with the publicly-funded Charlotte Memorial Hospital in 1940. She also helped found the city's Good Samaritan Hospital, which opened in 1891 as one of the nation's first hospitals built for African-Americans.

Jane and John had nine children, several of whom died very young. Of those who survived into adulthood, sons John Frank (1864-1953) and James Renwick (1871-1939) worked at the Mecklenburg Iron Works and maintained the business following their father's death. Daughther Agnes married A. G. Rankin and their son, John Wilkes Rankin, entered the U.S. Naval Academy in 1904.

John Wilkes died in Charlotte on July 6, 1908. Jane Wilkes died in Charlotte on January 19, 1913. The Bishop of the Diocese of North Carolina (Episcopal), the Right Reverend Joseph Blount Chesire, officated at her funeral. The Wilkes are buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte.


1.75 Linear Feet

Language of Materials



Papers of a family that settled in Charlotte in the 1850s. Contains extensive records involving the purchase and operations of gold mines, mills, and other businesses owned by the family and by their Renwick and Smedberg relations in North Carolina and South Carolina beginning in the 1820s. Also contains papers of Admiral Charles Wilkes (1798-1877) pertaining to the U.S. Exploring Expedition of 1838-42, correspondence relating to his purchase of the High Shoals Iron Works in Gaston County, N.C., deeds and contracts concerning his property in Washington, D.C., and papers of his first wife, Jane Renwick Wilkes (d. 1848), relating to her marriage settlement and estate. Also contains papers of his son, John Wilkes (1827-1908), including naval journals and scrapbooks, business correspondence, and records of the firm Edmund Wilkes & Brother concerning the construction of the Piedmont and the Chatham railroads during the Civil War. Also contains papers of John's wife, Jane Renwick Smedberg Wilkes (1827-1913), including valentines (1848-52) received before her marriage and minutes (1876-81) of the Church Aid Society of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, which established St. Peter's Hospital, the state's first civilian hospital, in 1876. Includes no significant material relating to the family's long ownership of the Mecklenburg Iron Works.


The Wilkes Family Papers are divided into the following series: Subject Files (1818-1988); Photographs (1865-1909); Artifacts/memorabilia.

Physical Location

For current information on the location of these materials, please consult University of North Carolina at Charlotte.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Mrs. James Renwick Wilkes Jr., 1989.

Available Online

A portion of the Wilkes Family papers have been digitized and can be found online:

Related Materials

[For further information, see box 1:1 in this collection; Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina (1906): vol. 5: 473-79; LeGette Blythe and Charles Raven Brockmann, Hornets' Nest (1961); Janette Thomas Greenwood, Presbyterian Hospital (Taylor, 1991); William S. Powell, ed., Dictionary of North Carolina Biography (1996): vol. 6: 198-99; and Allen W. Trelease, The North Carolina Railroad, 1849-1871, and the Modernization of North Carolina (1991).] Transcriptions to some of the material in this collection may be found in History of the English Language Class Collection of Transcriptions (ms303). United States Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 and its publications, 1844-1974 : a bibliography (Wilkes Expedition) / Daniel C. Haskell, RARE Z7405 .E9 U63 1942.

Processing Information

Processed by Tricia Kent, 1996; encoded by Robert A. McInnes, 2010

Wilkes family papers
Tricia Kent and Robert A. McInnes
1996 and 2010
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
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Repository Details

Part of the Manuscript Collections, J. Murrey Atkins Library Special Collections and University Archives, UNC Charlotte Repository

Atkins Library, UNC Charlotte
9201 University City Blvd
Charlotte NC 28223 United States

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