The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent

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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.”