The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent


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.