Nathaniel Brown Palmer (1799 – 1877)
Nathaniel B. Palmer was an American seal hunter, explorer, sailing captain, and ship designer, after whom Palmer Land, a stretch of western Antarctic coast and islands, is named.
Sealing and Antarctic Discoveries
Young Nat played in his father’s Stonington, CT shipyard, went to sea at the age of 14, and by age 16 was in the New England coastal trade. In the 1810’s fur seal skins and oil were highly valued items for trade with China and Stonington was a leading sealing port. Many of the traditional sealing locations off the coasts of South America and the Falkland Islands had already been depleted pushing the fleets farther south in search of new rookeries. In 1819 Palmer signed on as second mate of a sealing brig that hunted in the newly discovered South Shetland Islands.
The following year, Palmer, commanding the 47-foot sloop Hero, joined a Stonington sealing fleet under the command of Benjamin Pendleton. They reached the South Shetlands in November 1820, but found its seal population decimated. Palmer’s experience with the area, and the small size of the Hero, made him the ideal candidate to search for new rookeries. He sailed south from Deception Island on November 17 and sighted land at Orleans Channel, becoming the third person to sight the Antarctic continent. This area of the Antarctic Peninsula had been charted in January 1820 by the British captain Edward Bransfield and Fabian von Bellingshausen had sighted land at about lat 69°21’S, long 2°14′ that same month. In January 1821 Palmer encountered Bellingshausen’s Russian exploring expedition on the Antarctic Peninsula and boarded its flagship, the Vostok.
Palmer headed south again in July 1821, this time commanding the sloop James Monroe. He reached Deception Island in November, where he joined British captain George Powell in searching for new sealing grounds. Together they discovered the South Orkney Islands on Dec. 6, 1821. Powell charted them with the name Powell Islands and identified part of the Antarctic Peninsula as Palmer Land.
In 1829 Palmer made a final trip to the Antarctic. Sealing was poor in the South Shetlands, and his ship returned via the Pacific Ocean, where it was boarded at the Juan Fernández Islands by convicts who forced Palmer to land them in Chile.
Palmer was better known in his lifetime as a wealthy shipper than as an Antarctic explorer. After concluding a successful sealing career, he switched his attention to captaining fast sailing ships for the transportation of express freight. In this new role the Connecticut captain traveled many of the world’s principal sailing routes.
Palmer was an innovator who observed the strengths and weaknesses of the ocean-going sailing ships of his time and suggested and designed improvements to their hulls and rigging. The improvements made Palmer a co-developer of the mid-19th century clipper ship. Palmer closed his sailing career and established himself in his hometown of Stonington as a successful owner of clipper ships sailed by others.
Legacy in the Antarctic
Several geographic features bear Palmer’s legacy: Palmer Land (part of the Antarctic Peninsula), the Palmer Archipelago, and Hero Bay, in the South Shetland Islands.
The Antarctic science and research program operated by the U.S. government also recalls Palmer’s role in the exploration of the Antarctic area. Palmer Station, located in the seal islands that Palmer explored, the clipper ship N.B. Palmer (built by Jacob Aaron Westervelt) and the Antarctic icebreaker RV Nathaniel B. Palmer are named after Captain Palmer.