Great White Fleet

1907–1909

The Great White Fleet was a fleet of U.S. Navy ships that sailed around the world for the purpose of displaying the naval power of the United States.

Great White Fleet, Roach, Painting

The Great White Fleet by John Charles Roach. Image Source: National Archives.

Great White Fleet Summary

The Great White Fleet (1907–1909) was a fleet of 16 U.S. Navy ships — painted white — that sailed around the world for the purpose of displaying the naval power of the United States to Japan and other nations. The fleet was dispatched by President Theodore Roosevelt in an effort to ease tensions with Japan, which was rumored to be considering war with the U.S. over the treatment of Japanese people living in America. The fleet visited ports of call around the world and effectively demonstrated the naval power of the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt, 1901, Portrait, Perry, LOC
President Theodore Roosevelt. Image Source: Library of Congress.

Great White Fleet Facts — 10 Things to Know

  1. There were a total of 18 battleships from the U.S. Navy Atlantic Fleet that participated in the voyage of the Great White Fleet.
  2. The hulls of the ships were painted white because the ships were on a peace mission.
  3. The fleet consisted of two squadrons and each squadron contained two divisions of 4 ships.
  4. Approximately 14,5000 U.S. sailors gained experience on the voyage of the Great White Fleet.
  5. The Great White Fleet set sail from Hampton Roads, Virginia on December 16, 1907.
  6. The fleet returned to Hampton Roads on February 22, 1909.
  7. Throughout its voyage, the Great White Fleet sailed more than 40,000 miles.
  8. The fleet visited 20 ports of call on 6 continents.
  9. At that point in time, the Great White Fleet was the most powerful naval force that had ever sailed around the globe.
  10. The Great White Fleet demonstrated the capabilities of the U.S. Navy and indicated the necessity of having supply stations available around the world.
Great White Fleet, San Francisco, Photograph
This photograph shows the Great White Fleet in San Francisco. Image Source: Online Archive of California.

Great White Fleet History

President Theodore Roosevelt believed the United States should “speak softly and carry a big stick” in terms of foreign policy, meaning the U.S. should take a strong diplomatic approach backed by military might. 

Roosevelt’s Big Stick Policy in the Western Hemisphere

In Latin America and the Caribbean, it was called “Big Stick Diplomacy,” and he used military might to enforce it when dealing with certain situations, especially in Venezuela in 1902 and Cuba in 1906.

Roosevelt’s Open Door Policy in Asia

When it came to Asia, Roosevelt took a different approach, because the United States needed access to markets in China. His policy toward East Asia was known as the “Open Door Policy,” and he worked to maintain the balance of power in the region, allow all nations to have access to China, and provide support for the Chinese government.

The policy was partially developed in response to the Boxer Rebellion (1899–1701). Following the conflict, Russia stationed troops in the region, leading to the Russo-Japanese War (1904–1905). In this conflict, Russia and Japan fought for greater influence in the region. 

While Roosevelt supported Japan’s desire to become a global power, the U.S. stayed neutral in the conflict. Roosevelt helped negotiate the 1905 Treaty of Portsmouth that ended the war and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts — becoming the first American to win the award.

Roosevelt supported Japan for two main reasons:

  1. He wanted Japan to expand its influence within the region.
  2. He wanted to strengthen U.S. ties with Japan.

Yellow Peril in the United States

Unfortunately, Roosevelt’s plan was faced with growing anti-Asian sentiment in the United States, which was called “Yellow Peril.” The main examples of this were found in California, where the state passed laws limiting immigration from East Asia, and San Francisco segregated schools, separating white children and Asian children.

Yellow Peril policies led to outrage in Japan, and some pro-military factions even suggested the possibility of war with the United States. To ease the growing tension, President Roosevelt worked to find a solution.

Gentleman’s Agreement with Japan

In 1907, Roosevelt came to an informal agreement with Japan, known as the “Gentleman’s Agreement.” Under the agreement, Japan agreed to stop issuing passports for immigration to the United States, and Roosevelt agreed to force the San Francisco school board to reverse its segregation policy.

Pacific Coast Race Riots of 1907

Despite the agreement, anti-Asian sentiment reached a critical point in 1907 when a series of race riots took place in the United States and Canada, along the West Coast. 

The major riots took place in San Francisco, California, Bellingham, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia. The San Fransico Riot started on May 10, 1907, when Californians attacked Japanese immigrants.

Rumors that Japan intended to declare war on the United States over the treatment of Japanese living in the U.S. Although Roosevelt did not believe Japan would go to war, he met with his military advisors in June 1907 to discuss options for dealing with the threat.

Great White Fleet, USS Connecticut, Photograph
Photograph of the U.S.S. Connecticut. Image Source: USC Libraries.

Voyage of the Great White Fleet

Roosevelt and his advisors decided to send a group of newly commissioned battleships from the U.S. Navy on a world tour. Collectively, the ships became known as the “Great White Fleet,” because their hulls were painted white. The fleet consisted of 16 ships and they traveled 45,000 miles over 14 months, demonstrating U.S. naval power to the entire world — especially Japan.

The Great White Fleet was under the command of Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans and the USS Connecticut served as the flagship. The fleet set sail on December 16, 1907, from Hampton Roads, Virginia. 

From Hampton Roads, the fleet sailed to the Caribbean, where it visited the British West Indies. From there it went to South America and Mexico, stopping at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Sandy Point in Chile, Callao in Peru, and Magdalena Bay in Mexico.

The fleet departed Mexico and sailed up the West Coast to San Francisco, where it arrived on May 6, 1908. By the time the fleet arrived in San Francisco, Admiral Evans was suffering from health issues. At San Francisco, he was replaced by Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry.

The Great White Fleet left San Francisco on July 7, 1908, stopping at ports in Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippine Islands, Japan, and Ceylon. The fleet’s final stop was on January 3, 1909, at Suez, Egypt.

Great White Fleet and the Messina Earthquake

While the fleet was en route to Egypt, a strong earthquake struck the Strait of Messina in southern Italy. Soon after the fleet arrived in Egypt, the Connecticut and Illinois, along with some support ships were sent to Messina to provide support for the victims of the earthquake. While there, crewmen from the Illinois recovered the bodies of the American consul, Arthur S. Cheney, and his wife, Laura, who were killed in the earthquake.

Messina Earthquake, 1908, Ruins in Sicily, Photograph
This photograph shows ruins in Messina, Sicily, Italy. Image Source: Wikimedia.

The Great White Fleet Returns to the United States

On January 9, 1909, the fleet left Messina and made stops in Naples, Italy, and Gibraltar. The voyage concluded when the ships arrived at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on February 22, 1909. President Roosevelt was there to greet the fleet and review it upon its return.

Ships and Captains in the Great White Fleet

First Leg of the Voyage — Commanders, Ships, and Captains

On the first leg of the voyage, the Great White Fleet sailed from Hampton Roads to San Francisco, covering 14,556 nautical miles.

First Squadron, First Division — Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans

  • Connecticut, Captain Hugo Osterhaus
  • Kansas, Captain Charles E. Vreeland
  • Vermont, Captain William P. Potter
  • Louisiana, Captain Richard Wainwright

Second Division — Rear Admiral William H. Emory

  • Georgia, Captain Henry McCrea
  • New Jersey, Captain William H. H. Southerland
  • Rhode Island, Captain Joseph B. Murdock
  • Virginia, Captain Seaton Schroeder

Second Squadron, Third Division — Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas

  • Minnesota, Captain John Hubbard
  • Maine, Captain Giles B. Harber
  • Missouri, Captain Greenlief A. Merriam
  • Ohio, Captain Charles W. Bartlett

Fourth Division — Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas

  • Alabama, Captain Ten Eyck De Witt Veeder
  • Illinois, Captain John M. Bowyer
  • Kearsarge, Captain Hamilton Hutchins
  • Kentucky, Captain Walter C. Cowles

First Leg of the Voyage — Ports of Call

  • December 16, 1907 — Hampton Roads
  • December 23–29, 1907 — Port of Spain, Trinidad
  • January 12–21, 1908 — Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
  • February 1–7, 1908 — Punta Arenas, Chile
  • March 12–April 11, 1908 — Magdalena Bay, Mexico
  • May 6, 1908 — San Francisco, California

Second Leg of the Voyage — Commanders, Ships, and Captains

The second leg of the Great White Fleet’s voyage was short. The ships traveled from San Francisco north to Puget Sound.

First Squadron, First Division — Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry

  • Connecticut, Captain Hugo Osterhaus
  • Kansas, Captain Charles E. Vreeland
  • Minnesota, Captain John Hubbard
  • Vermont, Captain William P. Potter

Second Division — Rear Admiral Richard Wainwright

  • Georgia, Captain Edward F. Qualtrough
  • Nebraska, Captain Reginald F. Nicholson
  • New Jersey, Captain William H.H. Southerland
  • Rhode Island, Captain Joseph B. Murdock.

Second Squadron, Third Division — Rear Admiral William H. Emory

  • Louisiana, Captain Kossuth Niles
  • Virginia, Captain Alexander Sharp
  • Missouri, Captain Robert M. Doyle
  • Ohio, Captain Thomas B. Howard

Fourth Division — Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder

  • Wisconsin, Captain Frank E. Beatty
  • Illinois, Captain John M. Bowyer
  • Kearsarge, Captain Hamilton Hutchins
  • Kentucky, Captain Walter C. Cowles — Callao, Peru

Second Leg of the Voyage — Ports of Call

The ships arrived at Puget Sound on May 23, 1908, and then split up to visit several ports, including Seattle and Tacoma. The fleet regrouped at Seattle on May 23 and left on May 27, sailing to San Francisco.

Third Leg of the Voyage — Commanders, Ships, and Captains

On the third leg of its voyage, the Great White Fleet sailed from San Francisco to Manila, covering 16,336 nautical miles.

First Squadron, First Division — Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry

  • Connecticut, Captain Hugo Osterhaus
  • Kansas, Captain Charles E. Vreeland
  • Minnesota, Captain John Hubbard
  • Vermont, Captain William P. Potter

Second Division — Rear Admiral Richard Wainwright

  • Georgia, Captain Edward F. Qualtrough
  • Nebraska, Captain Reginald F. Nicholson
  • New Jersey, Captain William H.H. Southerland
  • Rhode Island, Captain Joseph B. Murdock.

Second Squadron, Third Division — Rear Admiral William H. Emory

  • Louisiana, Captain Kossuth Niles
  • Virginia, Captain Alexander Sharp
  • Missouri, Captain Robert M. Doyle
  • Ohio, Captain Thomas B. Howard

Fourth Division — Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder

  • Wisconsin, Captain Frank E. Beatty
  • Illinois, Captain John M. Bowyer
  • Kearsarge, Captain Hamilton Hutchins
  • Kentucky, Captain Walter C. Cowles
Great White Fleet, USS Rhode Island, Postcard
This illustration depicts the U.S.S. Rhode Island. Image Source: Digital Commonwealth.

Third Leg of the Voyage — Ports of Call

  • July 7, 1908 — San Francisco, California
  • July 16–22, 1908 — Honolulu, Hawaii
  • August 9–August 15, 1908 — Auckland, New Zealand
  • August 20–28, 1908 — Sydney, Australia
  • August 29–September 5, 1908 — Melbourne, Australia
  • September 11–18, 1908 — Albany, Australia
  • October 2–9, 1908 — Manila, Philippines
  • October 18–25, 1908 — Yokohama, Japan
  • October 29–November 5, 1908 — Amoy, China (Second Squadron)
  • October 31, 1908 — Manila, Philippines (First Squadron)
  • November 7, 1908 — Manila, Philippines (Second Squadron)

Fourth Leg of the Voyage — Commanders, Ships, and Captains

The commanders, ships, and captains during the fourth leg of the Great White Fleet’s voyage were the same as the third leg. The fourth and final leg of the journey was from Manila to Hampton Roads, covering 12,455 nautical miles.

Fourth Leg of the Voyage — Ports of Call

  • December 1, 1908 — Manila, Philippines
  • December 13–20, 1908 — Colombo, Ceylon
  • January 3–6, 1909 — Suez, Egypt (some ships departed on January 4 for Italy)
  • January 31–February 1, 1909 — Gibraltar
  • February 22, 1909 — Hampton Roads, Virginia
Great White Fleet, President Roosevelt, Photograph
This photograph shows President Roosevelt addressing the crew of the U.S.S. Connecticut after the fleet returned to Hampton Roads. Image Source: Naval History and Heritage Command.

Great White Fleet Significance

The Great White Fleet is important to United States history for the role it played in showcasing U.S. military power to the world, including Japan. Ultimately, the Great White Fleet’s show of force helped reduce tension with Japan. At the same time, the Great White Fleet also showed the willingness of the United States to aid in humanitarian efforts by providing support for victims of the Messina Earthquake.

Great White Fleet APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide

Use the following links and videos to study the Great White Fleet and Theodore Roosevelt for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.

Great White Fleet Definition APUSH

The Great White Fleet for APUSH is defined as a historic U.S. Navy expedition from 1907 to 1909, during the Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. Comprising a fleet of sixteen white-painted battleships, it circled the globe as a show of American naval power and a demonstration of the nation’s sea power. The expedition aimed to promote diplomacy and deter potential adversaries while showcasing the United States as a rising global power. The Great White Fleet played a significant role in the emergence of the United States as a major naval force on the world stage in the early 20th century.

Great White Fleet Video for APUSH Notes

This video from LionHeart Filmworks covers the history of the U.S. Navy from the Civil War to the voyage of the Great White Fleet.

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations, including APA Style, Chicago Style, and MLA Style.

  • Article Title Great White Fleet
  • Date 1907–1909
  • Author
  • Keywords Great White Fleet, Great White Fleet APUSH
  • Website Name American History Central
  • Access Date April 14, 2024
  • Publisher R.Squared Communications, LLC
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update October 14, 2023

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