- Historic Sites
The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent
June 1955 | Volume 6, Issue 4
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.