The Boy Skipper Who Found A Continent


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.