Born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, on October 25, 1813,
William Lewis Herndon entered the Navy in 1828 and was commissioned lieutenant
in 1841. From 1842 to 1847 he served at the United States Naval Observatory and
Hydrographic Office in Washington, D.C. There he worked closely with his
cousin, brother-in-law, and good friend, Lieutenant Matthew Fontaine Maury, who
later became known as "the father of modern oceanography" for his revolutionary
studies of winds and water currents.
In 1851, Herndon was assigned to
lead the first scientific expedition to explore the Amazon River Valley and
three years later published the results in a popular illustrated book,
Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon.
In November 1855, Captain
Herndon was given command of the Central America (then named the George Law) in
accordance with an act of Congress requiring that all mail steamships be
captained by an officer in the US Navy. He completed 18 voyages before the
ill-fated trip that began in Aspinwall on September 3, 1857. Herndon was
survived by his wife Frances Hansbrough Herndon, and one daughter, Ellen Lewis
Herndon, who later married Chester A. Arthur. (She died, however, before Arthur
became the 21st president of the United States.
The town of Herndon,
Virginia, is named in his memory, and in 1858 his native state presented a
medal to his widow. In 1860, the United States Naval Academy erected a monument
to the captain's memory, making Herndon the first peacetime hero to be honored