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Engagement & Family Obstacles
The Early Letters
Dearest Jeanie: Highlights of the Wilkes-Smedberg Papers (1853-1913)

In December of 1849, Lieutenant Jack Wilkes spent Christmas with the Smedberg family on his way to join the USS Marion. He will be at sea for almost three years in the Pacific. From that year on until 1851, Jeanie spent every summer with the Wilkes family in Washington, DC. During this time she met Stephen A. Douglas; Harriet Lane Johnson, niece of President James Buchanan; Sophie Alexander, Mrs. Andrew Jackson, and General Jack Gibbon. Althought she attends many balls and small gatherings, it soon becomes clear that Jeanie Smedberg only has eyes for one Naval Lieutenant and in February 1853, Jeanie accepts Jack Wilkes’ marriage proposal. There is one obstacle. Commodore Charles Wilkes’ opposes the marriage. He worries Jack’s decision to marry will cause him to resign his commission and leave the Navy.

The letters reveal that Jack Wilkes plans to marry did not influence his decision to leave the Navy entirely as much as his growing distaste for the service that emerged during his three year voyage. Apparently, Wilkes served under a Captain known for discouraging talented young naval officers. By 1852, Jack Wilkes is so dissatisfied with the Navy that he turns down a personal request from Commodore Matthew Perry to serve as one of Perry’s officers on what became the famous Japanese Expedition of 1852-1853 which forcibly opens Japan’s doors to American trade. (Charles Wilkes Biography and Jane Wilkes’ Biography of John Wilkes)