Palmer, Nathaniel

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Nathaniel Brown Palmer (1799-1877) was an American seaman who contributed to the exploration of the Antarctic when hunting seals.

caption Location of the South Shetlands. Source: Wikipedia

Palmer was the son of a ship-builder in Stonington, Connecticut. He gained experience on trading vessels that ran the sea blockade imposed by Great Britain during the War of 1812 with the United States. At nineteen he became master of a small schooner before joining the crew of the Hersilla as second mate under the command of James Sheffield.

The Hersilla sailed south in late July 1819 to hunt seals in the South Atlantic. Late in the year, while in the Falkland Islands or Staten Island off Cape Horn, Sheffield heard about the recent discovery of the South Shetland Islands farther south. Enticed by the possibility of new seal rookeries and great profits, Sheffield immediately headed south and the Hersilla arrived at the islands in January, 1820. Based on Rugged Island, Sheffield's crew found seals plentiful and obtained 9,000 skins in just fifteen days before running out of salt required to cure the skins. They reported seeing another 300,000 seals on the islands.  In May, 1820, the Hersilla arrived back in Stonington at the end of a very profitable journey.

caption Portion of the South Shetland Islands

A second voyage was quickly arranged. This time there were five ships, with Palmer in command of the 47-foot sloop Hero and a crew of five. The Hero and two other ships returned to Rugged Island in October and set up shacks on a stony beach to await the seals to come ashore. Sheffield, the senior captain, felt that the one beach would not provide enough seal skins to fill the holds of the fleet, and so sent Palmer to locate additional beaches and rookeries.

On November 15, 1820, the Hero was probably the first boat to enter the natural harbor on Deception Island (an active volcano with a flooded caldera) on the south side of the South Shetland Islands (see image). The harbor did come to be known as Yankee Harbor, but is today known as Foster Harbor. It is a natural shelter to boats from winds and storms and was popular with sealers and other seafarers going forward. The Hero's log records that Palmer "went ashore and got some eggs." [[Note. There is another "Yankee Harbor" that was used by sealers on nearby Greenwich Island).

On November 16, Palmer sailed south, 60 miles across the Bransfield Strait, and reached the coast of Antarctica near what is now known as Trinity Island at the eastern end of the Orleans Strait. In 1834, Edmund Fanning one of the backers Palmer's seal hunting voyages wrote a popular book in which he describes Palmer's observation of Antarctica as follows:

He found it to be an extensive mountainous country, more sterile and dismal if possible, and more heavily loaded with ice and snow, than the South Shetlands; there were sea leopards on its shore, bit no fur seals; the main part of the coast was ice bound although it was in the midsummer of this hemisphere, and a landing consequently difficult.

Palmer then returned north to the South Shetlands, reaching Livingston Island, on the following day.

On February 6, 1821, Palmer is reported to have encountered two Russian ships under the command of Thaddeus von Bellinghausen in the South Shetlands. Palmer came aboard and met with Bellinghausen before returning to his boat.  Fanning described part of the meeting in the following way:

To the Commodore's [Bellinghausen's] interrogatory, if he had any knowledge of those islands then in sight, and what they were, Captain P. 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 [Russian] ships into a good harbor  at Deception Island, the nearest by, where water and refreshments 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. The Commodore thanked him kindly, "but previous to our being enveloped in the fog," said he, "we had sight of those islands, and concluded that we had made a discovery, but behold, when the fog lifts, to my great surprise, here is an American vessel apparently in as fine order as if it but yesterday that she had left the United States; not only this, but her master is ready to pilot my vessels into port;  we must surrender the palm to you Americans," continued he flatteringly. His astonishment was yet more increased, when Captain Palmer informed him of the existence of an immense extent of land to the south, whose mountains might be seen from the masthead when the fog should clear away entirely. Captain Palmer, while aboard the frigate, was entertained in the most friendly manner, and the Commodore was so forcibly struck by the circumstances of the case, that he named the coast then to the south Palmer Land; by this name it is recorded on the most recent Russian and English charts and maps which have been published since the return of these ships.

This account, and similar retellings of the encounter, formed the basis of an assertion by some throughout the nineteenth century that Palmer was the discoverer of Antarctica and was acknowledged as such by Bellinghausen.

However, Bellinghausen and his crew almost certainly sighted the Antarctic continent a year earlier, 1,400 miles to the east while beginning their circumnavigation at high southern latitudes. Further, William Smith, the British trader who discovered the South Shetlands in early 1819, had piloted his ship under the command of naval officer Edward Bransfield to chart the islands at the beginning of 1829. Sailing south from the South Shetlands Bransfield and Smith approached the Antarctic Peninsula and observed ". . . high mountains, covered with snow . . .” on January 30, 1820 - in nearly the same spot reached by Palmer ten months later. Part of the claims made for Palmer as the first person to sight the Antarctic mainland, was an assertion that the British claims of the primacy of Bransfield and Williams were false.

Because Bellinghausen's voyage was not publicized widely by Russia, his achievements were largely unknown and unacknowledged in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, an argument roiled between the United States and Great Britain over the primacy of discovery which  continued through most of the century.

After returning to Stonington, in May 1821, Palmer was given command of a larger ship, the James Monroe, in which he took south for a third season in the South Shetlands.The log books of several Stonington ships prove their presence at Deception Island and some assert that Palmer's voyage south from this location occurred in late 1821. Fanning reports Palmer as conducting a second voyage south in the period December 1821-January 1822 and sailing along the ice-locked coast. However, Fanning's account is verifiably in error here.

The aggressive hunting of the first two seasons had so decimated the seal population that soon sealers were looking for new rookeries. In December 1821, Palmer joined with British sealer George Powell in a voyage east from the South Shetlands and the two discovered the South Orkney Islands, but few seals. Powell was probably the first to use the name Palmer Land for the region of the Antarctic Peninsula south of the South Shetlands.

On April 24, 1822, the New London Gazette reported:

"We have been favored with interesting particulars respecting a Southern Continent by Capt. Nathaniel B. Palmer of the sloop James Monroe, lately arrived at Stonington from the South Shetlands. Capt. Palmer proceeded in the James Monroe from the Shetland Isles to the Continent and coasted it, from abreast the Isles to the East-ward, as far as 44 West Longitude. . . . There is now no doubt that there exists a South Continent and that Capt. Cook's Southern Thule belongs to it. Capt. Palmer could discover the mountains covered with snow in the interior, as he sailed along the coast."

This report may suggest that Palmer's sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula occurred during the third season (1821/2), but it is unclear. It may simply be a confused version of Palmer's journey east with Powell. For, while Palmer could not have "coasted" to 44o West as the Antarctic coast veers far south along the Weddell Sea around 57o West., that is the longitude of the South Orkney Islands. It is possible that Palmer simply assumed that the ice he saw to his south, fronted a coast all along his journey.

In 1830, Palmer again sailed for the Antarctic as commander of the South Sea Fur Company and Exploring Expedition. It was private venture motivated partly by commercial interests as the seal population of the South Shetlands had been decimated in a just few season's hunting. The expedition was also partly motivated by a theory advanced by Cleves Symmes and Jeremiah Reynolds (who was a part of the expedition) that "holes" existed near the poles leading to other worlds inside the earth which could be settled and traded with. The expedition was, for the most part, a failure, finding no new sources of seals and abandoned by most of the crew in Valparaiso. However, one member of the expedition, James Eights, collected fossils on the South Shetland Islands.

Later in life, Palmer established a successful shipbuilding business.

After the dispute between Great Britain and the United States over the primacy of sighting the Antarctic Peninsula became settled in favor of Bransfield and Williams, an agreement was reached over the naming of the region. The northern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, retained the British name of Graham land, while the southern portion of the Peninsula (south than the portion observed by Palmer) is now known as Palmer Land.

A United States Research Station on Anvers Island, off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula about 100 miles east of where Palmer sighted it, is known as Palmer Station.

An Antarctic research ship maintained by the United States National Science Foundation is named the R/V Nathaniel B. Palmer.

[Note. Fanning's 1834 book suggests that Palmer's sighting of Antarctica occured in January 1820, while the Stonington fleet was in the harbor of Deception Island, and following a direct observation of mountains to the south from a high point on the island on a clear day. In 1955, Edouard Stackpole made the case that the events attributed to the following days actually occurred a year later, on Palmer's third visit to the South Shetlands. Here, the more recent (1982) scholarship of A.G.E. Jones is followed which is based on a careful study of the Hero's log]


Further Reading

  1. The Voyage of the Huron and the Huntress; The American Sealers and the Discovery of the Continent of Antarctica, Edouard A. Stackpole, Marine Historical Association, 1955
  2. Voyages Around the World, Edmund Fanning, 1834 - the third edition was published as Voyages to the South Seas, Indian and Pacific Oceans, China Sea, North-West Coast, Feejee Islands, South Shetlands, &c. &c: With an account of the new ... National South Sea Exploring Expedition, Edmund Fanning, W.H. Vermilye, 1838  (ASIN: B0006AE4I8).
  3. The Log of the Hero, Arthur R. Hinks, Royal Geographical Society, 1940 (ASIN: B0013ILOVC)
  4. Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer: An Old-Time Sailor Of The Sea, Macmillan Company, 1922 ISBN: 1436950686.
  5. Exploring Polar Frontiers: An Historical Encyclopedia, William James Mills, ABC-CLIO, 2003 ISBN: 1576074226
  6. Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica, 1699-1839, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 1997 ISBN: 0393039498.
  7. The Race to the White Continent, Alan Gurney, W.W. Norton and Company, 2002 ISBN: 0393323218.
  8. Antarctica Observed, A.G.E. Jones, Caedmon of Whitby, 1982 ISBN: 0905355253.
  9. Americans in Antarctica, 1775-1948, by Kenneth John Bertrand, American Geographical Society, 1971(ASIN: B001LR427S)


Saundry, P. (2009). Palmer, Nathaniel. Retrieved from


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