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Nathaniel Palmer and the Discovery of Antarctica

November 18, 1820 was the two hundred year anniversary of the sighting of the continent of Antarctica by Nathaniel Brown Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut. He was one of three parties to do so in 1820, the other two explorers led fully equipped government sponsored expeditions, whereas Palmer was a sealer with four crewmen on a small wooden sloop.
Palmer was by all accounts, an extraordinary man and his accomplishments were many. He was part explorer, master mariner, and the designer and master of famous clipper ships. Palmer was the first American to sight the Antarctic continent and to explore its rugged coast.

Born on August 8, 1799 in Stonington Borough, Palmer was one of eight children. He grew up playing in his father’s shipyard in Stonington and absorbed his knowledge of hulls and spars before he went to school to learn his letters. During the War of 1812 thirteen year old Palmer shipped out as a cabin boy on a local coaster running the British blockade. Blockade running was a dangerous business and one that Palmer learned well. He developed a reputation as a bold and competent seaman and at eighteen he became master of the schooner Galena.
In 1818 Palmer was invited to take part as the second mate on board the Hersila. It was the brig’s first voyage to explore the waters south of Cape Horn for new seal rookeries. The Hersila headed south into the South Atlantic Ocean and became the first American vessel to reach the South Shetland Islands. Hersila returned to Stonington with 8,868 fur sealskins worth twenty-two thousand dollars. It was a small fortune at the time.
Because of Hersila’s success the previous year a fleet of five Stonington sealers was organized and set off again on another hunt. Palmer was made captain of the sloop Hero. The fleet stopped at the Falkland Islands and Statin Island near Cape Horn and then headed south until they sighted the South Shetland Islands on November 12. The size of the Hero made it an ideal scout to search for new rookeries. The Hero had a shallow draft of only 6 feet 9 inches, a length of 47 feet 3 inches, and a crew of 5 men. Palmer headed south into the unknown.

The conditions young Captain Palmer met with are described by John Randolf Spears, in his book Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer, an old-time sailor of the sea. “No adequate description of the dangers of navigation among the islands has ever been written or can be. To say that hundreds of icebergs and other masses of ice, including vast fields, are to be seen among and around the islands at all times does not suffice. But if the reader can imagine those ice masses dashing together during the hurricane squalls and while black dense fogs and blinding snow squalls prevail, and while the drag of the currents among the reefs is added to all other dangers, perhaps the situation Palmer faced there will be comprehended.”
Log of the Hero; Wednesday, November 15, “These twenty-four hours commences with thick weather, a light breeze from the northwest, got underway on a cruise, stood-over for Deception Island. Saw what we thought to be a harbor, lower down the boat and examine it, stood-in and found it to be a spacious harbor, very deep water, got out the boat, sound and found anchorage.”
The anchorage is today known as Whaler’s Cove. Palmer was the first to land on the island and spent two days exploring it. He landed on the volcanic black sand beach and sighted a gap in the steep cliffs surrounding the rim of the cove. Interested to see what the view from there would reveal he climbed a few hundred feet to the top of the gap. Today this gap is called Neptune’s Window.
There to the south and east in the distance, just discernible in the haze by his sharp eyes, was a long precipitous coastline. He didn’t know whether it was an island, a series of islands, or possibly the mythical Aurora Islands but what he did know was that it was new land. There could be beaches there and if there were beaches, there would be seals. In fact, what Palmer saw was the continent of Antarctica. Leaving Deception Island he set sail toward the new land.
Log of the Hero: November 17, “These 24 hours commences with a fresh breeze from the southwest and pleasant, 8:00 p.m., got over under the land, found the sea filled with immense icebergs, at noon hove-to under the jib, lay off and on until morning, at 4:00 a.m. made sail inshore and discovered a strait tending south-southwest and north-northeast. It was literally filled with ice and the shore inaccessible. We thought it not prudent to venture in so we bore away to the northward. It commences with fine weather the next day.” The strait he discovered was the Orleans Channel.
Sailing along the coast of the Antarctica continent Palmer was disappointed that there were no beaches or seals. He rendezvoused with the other ships and again was sent south to search for rookeries. On this second trip to the continent he sailed down the coast of what is now called the Palmer Peninsula, named after him, to perhaps as far south as Marguerite Bay at 68 degrees south latitude.
Years later when describing his adventure Palmer said, “I pointed the bow of the little craft to southward and with her wings spread, the mainsail abeam, and the jib abreast on the opposite bow, she speeded on her way like a thing of life and light. With her flowing sheet she seemed to enter into the spirit which possessed my ambitions, and flew along until she brought me into the sight of land not laid down on my chart.”
Palmer would make two more voyages to the South Shetland Islands and make more discoveries, including the discovery of the South Orkney Islands. His discoveries and exploration of the coast of Antarctica were American firsts and propelled him to fame. He has been honored, with his image on a twenty-five cent U.S. postage stamp, and has had a number of ships named after him.
After his adventures he returned to his hometown of Stonington as a successful owner of clipper ships. He bought a mansion in Stonington, now known as the Palmer House. Today it is a National Historic Landmark and is the home of the Stonington Historical Society. Nathaniel Brown Palmer died in San Francisco June 21, 1877 at the age of 77.