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The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent

June 2024
13min read

Man’s long search for a continent at the bottom of the world ended on November 18, 1820, when an American barely out of his teens discovered the world’s seventh and last great land mass.

It was almost an accident that Nathaniel Brown Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, found the shore that had eluded the best efforts of more seasoned explorers. At the time he did not realize the extent of his finding. Yet on that cold November morning when he sailed his tiny sloop Hero into “a strait . . . literally filled with ice” and saw “the shore every where perpendicular” he stepped suddenly—at the age of 21—into immortality.

Here at last was ultima Thule: the long-sought Terra Australis. From ancient times, men had speculated on its existence. Sightings reported by the Dutch explorer, Gerritsz, and the Frenchmen, Bouvet and Kerguelen, had stimulated curiosity and even some minor exploratory voyages. But three years of extensive searching by Captain James Cook of England had failed to turn up a trace of land. The search for a far southern land was all but abandoned.

Nat Palmer had been born at the sea’s edge, and his father’s shipyard was his first playground. Salt water ran in his veins from the start.

Almost as soon as he could walk, Nat Palmer learned to swim. Not long after, he could handle a sailboat with ease. War with England came in 1812, and hardy New Englanders took to blockade-running—and at the ripe old age of fourteen, Nat abandoned his schoolbooks to sign on one of the blockade-runners as an apprentice. The sea was his school, the forecastle his classroom—and the seasoned mariners who were his teachers taught him well. By the time he was seventeen he had risen to second mate; and the following year he commanded his own vessel, the schooner Galena.

While Nat was working his way up to command, Stonington’s deep-water sailors embarked on one of the period’s richest commercial enterprises. Sea captains passing the coastal islands off southern South America had observed that seals by the hundreds of thousands came north from the icy southern latitudes to breed there. They soon discovered that pelts of prime buck seals had a considerable sale value, both in the States and in far-off ports.

Sealing was not an easy business. It involved working in a cold and dismal climate, it was dangerous, and it was a rather unpleasant operation: the sealer had to club his prey to death with a single blow to the head, skin him and salt down the pelt. Hardy men were needed for such a business. But resourceful captains found they could take 10,000 skins in a single voyage and sell them for $2 apiece, or more.


The rush to capitalize on a new “get-rich-quick” scheme soon made Stonington the capital of the sealing industry. Each summer saw vessel after vessel depart on the perilous journey. Sealing proved so lucrative that many a New England fortune was founded on it.

With literally millions of seals being killed annually, the breeding grounds were rapidly exhausted and sealers were forced to hunt for new rookeries. So it was that commercial explorers turned their attention to the earlier reports of land in the ice-locked southern seas. The sightings of such men as Gerritsz, Bouvet and Kerguelen took on new interest; each was viewed in a new light, as a possible source of sealskins.

In the spring of 1817, Stonington’s merchants banded together to finance a sealing and exploring expedition which would look for the lost “Auroras” of Gerritsz, below Cape Horn. Discovery as such did not enter into their calculations; they only wanted to revive a trade that had been immensely profitable.

Captain James Sheffield, the experienced and successful sealer who was to lead the expedition in the brig Hersilia, had no difficulty in finding capable men for his crew. Mindful of the dangers and difficulties, he carefully hand-picked the principal members of his crew. For a second mate he chose nineteen-year-old Nat Palmer, whose skill in navigation more than made up for his extreme youth.

Three months later, the Hersilia reached the grassy, well-stocked Falkland Islands, off Argentina’s southern coast, and Palmer was sent ashore with a working party to replenish food supplies. Captain Sheffield meanwhile set out on a scouting sortie. It was in the Falklands that Palmer’s keenness and initiative proved his real worth to the expedition.

Several days after the Hersilia ’s departure, Nat saw another vessel arrive in port—the British brig Espiritu Santo, out of Buenos Aires, fitted elaborately for sealing. Nat Palmer made it a point to meet her captain, and learned of a vital new fact: the elusive “Auroras” which Gerritsz had sighted in 1599 had been found. Now known as the South Shetlands, these islands lie approximately 150 miles southeast of Cape Horn. Captain William Smith, a Britisher rounding the Horn in the brig Williams, had been blown off course and made a landfall in that latitude in February, 1819.

Palmer did not know then that Captain Smith had also noted “seals in abundance” in the Auroras, but the British captain so carefully refrained from mentioning the islands’ location that he sensed something worth investigating. When the Espiritu Santo departed, Nat was on the highest vantage point in the islands, observing her with glasses, compass and charts. As long as she was in sight, he plotted every tack she made; then, setting down his observations, he computed the course she was making good.

While he waited impatiently for the Hersilia ’s return, he perfected his computations and realized that the British brig must be heading for the very area where his expedition had planned to search. He felt certain that her destination was the Auroras—and that they would contain riches in some form. When the Hersilia hove into view three days later, Nat hastened aboard to relay his news to Captain Sheffield.

Sheffield was quick to catch his navigator’s enthusiasm, and together they worked out the British brig’s probable destination. Four days later, their detective work was amply rewarded when they sighted the islands. As they came closer, the masts of the Espiritu Santo were visible, marking a convenient harbor.

The British captain recognized the cleverness of the Americans’ feat, and now that his secret was out, cheerfully accepted their presence. He suggested that the two crews work together in clubbing their prey, taking their skins, and loading them aboard. The grounds proved fertile beyond their wildest expectation, and it wasn’t long before each vessel rode deep in the water under a load of prime buckskins.

When the Americans dropped anchor in Stonington Harbor after an absence of nine months, they found a lively demand for skins. They went for $2 apiece, or $20,000 for the cargo. This was at least eight times the cost of the expedition. Word of the new seal colonies spread rapidly—and with it word of Nat Palmer’s cleverness in leading the Hersilia to them. The merchants, highly pleased, decided almost at once to capitalize on the new find by sending a larger expedition to the South Shetlands.

The new venture was truly an ambitious one. It was to include five brigs, the Hersilia, Frederick, Catherine, Emaline and Clothier, plus the schooners Free Gift and Express. Such an array raised many new problems. Little was definitely known of the area, and the potential hazards were great for ships of any size. As a special precaution, it was decided to build a small, shallow-draft sloop to scout ahead of the larger vessels and maintain contact between them.

Upon the man who skippered the sloop would depend, to a considerable degree, the success of the entire venture. He would have to be a navigator par excellence, with initiative and good judgment; agile and sharp-eyed, quick to sense a dangerous shift in the tides or any sudden peril to the larger vessels. Captain Benjamin Pendleton, commodore of the new flotilla, chose Nat Palmer without hesitation as master of the sloop Hero.

Young Nat’s new command was a trim vessel of 45 tons, approximately 47 feet long, with a beam of just under seventeen feet and draft of six. On an even keel, her decks were hardly a foot out of the water. She looked small for the treacherous 15,000-mile voyage, but her Groton builders had fashioned her from sturdy Connecticut oak and a wealth of seagoing know-how. Nat was indeed a proud young man on that Monday morning, July 31, 1820, as he put to sea.

The rugged little sloop, manned by Palmer and a crew of six, joined company off Block Island with the schooner Express and Nat’s former ship, the brig Hersilia, again commanded by Captain Sheffield. The three were to travel together down the Atlantic coast, with the others following in similar groups to a rendezvous in the Falklands. On October 17, 1820, they had reached the northeast edge of the Falkland Islands, and here they were to wait for the rest of the expedition. Once more Palmer went ashore to help provision the ships.

While the Stonington sealers waited in the Falklands, other ships were probing in the far south. Most of them were commercial vessels, hunting seals or whales in the Antarctic wastes. But at least one group was carrying on pure exploration, seeking to confirm the existence of that mysterious continent at the bottom of the world. This expedition carried a flag strange to this part of the globe—the double eagle of the Russian Empire.

Captain James Cook’s voyages in the Pacific and Antarctic had greatly impressed Tsar Alexander I, and in 1803 he had sent an able navigator, Von Kruzenstern, across the Pacific to the Russian outpost of Kamchatka. Kruzenstern became the first Russian to circumnavigate the globe. Now Alexander’s interest was rekindled in the perennially fascinating subject of Terra Australis, and he sent two naval vessels there under the command of Captain Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen.

The Russian expedition consisted of two sloops of war—the flagship Vostok, 117 officers and men, and the smaller Mirnyi, 72 officers and men. They sailed from Kronstadt, on the Gulf of Finland, on July 4, 1819, with the objective of exploring the icy lands in the far south—and, if possible, proving or disproving the reports of a continent.

Bellingshausen made his first discovery in December, 1819, when he found the Marquis de Traversey Islands, just below the South Sandwich group, and named them for the Russian Navy minister. He surveyed the south side of the large island of South Georgia—Captain Cook had surveyed the north side—and made a series of sketches for mariners which are still used today.


While the Russian captain ranged far and wide within the Antarctic Circle, the Stonington fleet had assembled, reprovisioned, and departed for the South Shetlands. Their voyage south was not without incident. One entry in the Hero ’s log reports that a boat from the Catherine capsized in passing between vessels, and carried its crew, hampered by heavy clothing, to an icy death. On another occasion, while maneuvering in heavy weather to speak with the Express , the Hero suddenly rammed her and carried away two timbers. One morning while hoisting the mainsail, Nat Palmer himself was knocked overboard into the freezing water. His log casually reports that he “regained consciousness and got on board without much injury.”

On reaching the South Shetlands November 12, Palmer noted gloomily in the Hero ’s log that there were “no seals up.” Other sealers evidently had found the treasure-trove and looted it.

The Hero desperately scouted the other islands of the group, and parties went ashore in search of the valuable animals, but only a scattered few were in evidence. The crews were forced to lie idle, and the success of the expedition was at stake. Quickly a council of war was called aboard the Hero .

The decision was to send the Hero farther south, hoping to find the source from which the seals migrated to the northern breeding grounds. There were no charts for this area; it was the unknown, and it took a man with a sixth sense to delve into it when a dense fog might suddenly surround his ship without warning.

Nat got the Hero “underweight on a cruise” the very same day, and that evening made the southern shore of Deception Island. “What we thought to be a harbor” turned out to be a deception indeed, but further along the same coast he found “a spacious harbor with very deep water 50 & 60 fathoms,” and after he had sounded and anchored, he “went on shore and got some Eggs.” It was from this “Excellent Harbor secure from all winds"—in actuality, the crater of an extinct volcano—that he first sighted the land which was to put his name in history books.

So sketchy is Palmer’s log that it is difficult to tell from what point he sighted “the Land,” approximately fifty nautical miles distant. Probably he saw it from a high point on Deception Island, but it may have been from the mast of his sloop—for it was a clear day and the mainland was higher than Deception Island. At any rate, his niece remembered hearing him tell in later years how he was “thrown into great excitement at seeing land to the south of anything then known” and filled with a desire to explore it. He set about the task without delay.

At ten o’clock in the morning of November 17, the Hero “stood over for the Land.” The day was one of “fresh Breezes from SWest and Pleasant” and at eight o’clock that evening he was in the lee of an offshore island, now called Trinity. He had crossed Bransfield Strait in a matter of ten hours, making an average of four knots. But when he reached Trinity Island he “found the sea filled with immense (sic) Ice Bergs” and “hove Too under the jib” for the rest of the night. Until morning he “Laid off & on” (tacked to-and-fro) while he waited to sail closer to the mountainous mainland.

Trinity was ten miles away from the high, beckoning shore, and at four in the morning of November 18, 1820, Palmer could wait no longer. At any moment the fog might close in, or a storm descend on him. He “made sail in shore and Discovered—a strait—Tending SSW and NNE—it was Literally filled with Ice and the shore inaccessible. We thought it not Prudent to venture in ... Bore away to the Northerd & saw . . . the shore every where Perpendicular.”


In those simple words, Nat Palmer described the finding of a continent—over 5,000,000 square miles of frozen land for which men had searched more than 200 years. He did not realize the immensity of his discovery; he was only disappointed that the shore was inaccessible, and that no seals were visible. Duty to the Stonington fleet was uppermost in his mind.

Nat Palmer sailed back to Friesland unaware that he had joined the ranks of the immortals as discoverer of a vast continent. The next day he found a bay between Friesland and Greenwich Islands, which he christened Yankee Sound—and on its beaches he found the precious seals. When he returned to the fleet on November 21, this discovery took precedence in his report over “the Land” he had found on the eighteenth. It was the lowly fur seal that made the difference.

Once again Palmer had saved a commercial expedition, for the new seal grounds were relatively plentiful. But in January, 1821, he was out again on an exploratory cruise, this time circumnavigating the South Shetlands, coasting along Anvers and Brabant Islands, searching more of the mainland as far south as Marguerite Bay. He found no seals, but discovered considerable new territory and added it to the world’s store of knowledge.

Since they were searching the same area, it was perhaps inevitable that Nat Palmer, the youthful American sealer, and Bellingshausen, the professional naval officer, should meet.

Nat Palmer made no mention in his log of the dramatic meeting on February 5, 1821, but the Antarctic authority, Major General Adolphus Washington Greely, later related a detailed story based on accounts by others in the Stonington fleet.

“On the Hero ’s return passage to Yankee Harbor,” wrote General Greely, “she got becalmed in a thick tog between the South Shetlands and the newly discovered continent . . . When this began to clear away, Captain Palmer was surprised to find his little barque between a frigate and a sloop of war, and instantly ran up the U.S. flag; the frigate and sloop of war then set the Russian colors. Soon after this, a boat was seen pulling from the commodore’s ship for the Hero , and when alongside the lieutenant presented an invitation from his commodore for Captain Palmer to go on board; this of course was accepted.

“These ships he then found to be the two discovery ships sent out by the Emperor Alexander on a voyage round the world. To the commodore’s interrogatory if he had any knowledge of those islands then in sight, and what they were, Captain Palmer replied he was well acquainted with them, and that they were the South Shetlands, at the same time making a tender of his services to pilot the ships into a good harbor at Deception Island, the nearest by, where water and refreshment such as the island afforded could be obtained; he also informed the Russian officer that his vessel belonged to a fleet of five sail, out of Stonington, under command of Captain B. Pendleton, and then at anchor in Yankee Harbor, who would most cheerfully render any assistance in his power.”

Bellingshausen’s account of the meeting, as contained in his journal, is more formal. “At 10 o’clock,” he wrote, “we entered the strait and encountered a small American sealing boat. I lay to, despatched a boat, and waited for the Captain of the American boat . . . Soon after, Mr. Palmer arrived in our boat and informed us that he had been here for four months’ sealing in partnership with three American ships. They were engaged in killing and skinning seals, whose numbers were perceptibly diminishing . . . Mr. Palmer told me that ... he had succeeded in killing as many as 60,000 seals, whilst the whole fleet of sealers had killed 80,000.”

Palmer’s crew aboard the Hero was so small that the help of all hands, including the master, was required to sail her. Young Nat was kept so busy that his log entries are necessarily brief; the entry which reported the discovery voyage is the longest in the book. This perhaps is why he made no mention of meeting the Russian explorer. But years later, on March 13, 1876, he wrote a letter to his friend Frank T. Bush, the American consul at Hong Kong, which touched on the occasion.

“It was with great difficulty,” he told Mr. Bush, “that I could make the old Admiral believe I had come from U States in so small a vessel—he treated me with great kindness for the services I rendered him in extricating his ships from a dilemma he found himself . . . Among other things I informed him of our Trip to the South in Latt 68° & the discovery of a Land—(never before seen) and it was him that named it Palmer’s Land.”

Palmer’s “Trip to the South in Latt 68°” had been completed just before he met Bellingshausen, and of it he told Mr. Bush: “I cruised for several days in order to satisfy myself that it was not an island.” In conversation he also mentioned that the Russian had asked to see his charts and “took a copy on Tissue paper.” It is curious that a methodical man like Bellingshausen, who liked to give credit where credit was due, failed to mention the details—but it seems beyond question that it was he, rather than the young master of the Hero , who placed on the world’s map the name of Palmer Land.

In December, 1826, Nat Palmer married Eliza T. Babcock and settled in Stonington. Their life together was a happy and devoted one. But Nat was too much of a sailor to remain ashore for long, and in 1829-30 he voyaged again to the South Seas.

From exploring, Nat Palmer turned in 1830 to a wholly different line of endeavor—the designing and building of fast packets and clipper ships for an expanding American trade. Four fast 1,000-ton packets of the new Dramatic Line— Garrick, Sheridan, Siddons , and Roscius —were built from Palmer’s designs for service between New York and Liverpool. Palmer himself took all but the last on their first voyages.

The opening of Chinese ports in 1842, and the subsequent development of the tea trade, brought the need for even faster ships, since tea deteriorated rapidly at sea. Nat Palmer developed one of the first of the famous clippers, the Houqua . Launched for the Low Brothers in New York on May 3, 1844, the Houqua went to sea a full seven months before the launching of her rival, John Willis Griffith’s Rainbow . The New York Herald , greeting her arrival, called Palmer’s ship “sharp as a cutter—as symmetrical as a yacht—as rakish in her rig as a pirate—and as neat in her deck and cabin arrangements as a lady’s boudoir.”

Captain Nat sailed the Houqua on her first voyage, New York to Hong Kong, in 84 days—a record then, and seldom equaled later. On her return voyage, she made the crossing in ninety days, whereas MacKay’s famous Flying Cloud never did better than 94. Another of Palmer’s clippers, Oriental , improved on this by crossing in 81 days, in each direction.

After the discovery of gold in California, many clippers were diverted from the China trade to make the long run around Cape Horn to the gold fields. The Low Brothers built a famous clipper which they named the N. B. Palmer , in honor of Captain Nat. This sleek, shallow-hulled vessel of 1,400 tons sailed from Canton to New York in 84 days, and in 1852 outdistanced the Flying Cloud on a run from San Francisco to China.

No children had been born of Nat Palmer’s marriage, so the death of his wife in 1872 was an especially severe blow. From that time on, the still rugged “old-time sailor” turned his attention to his nieces and nephews—especially his namesake Nathaniel, son of his brother Alexander. Nathaniel had contracted tuberculosis, and in an effort to restore the boy’s health, Captain Nat went back to sea—this time as a traveling companion. As they were returning from a voyage to China, the boy died at sea on May 15, 1877. Captain Nat’s grief must have been overwhelming, for on arrival at San Francisco he took to his own bed and died just over a month later—June 21, 1877.

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