It was my ancestor, Nathaniel Brown Palmer who first discovered Antartica. Palmer Penninsula is named for him.
from the Stonington Historical Society:
Nathaniel Palmer, born in 1799, and his brother Alexander, born seven years later, went to sea at an early age. Nathaniel became a ship’s master before his 19th birthday as did Alexander by the time he was 21. They were young men who ventured into the most desolate regions of the world in search of profits from sealing and whaling.
During a voyage to the South Atlantic in 1820-21, Nathaniel, captain of the 47-foot sloop Hero, pressed southward in search of new seal rookeries. On November 17, 1820 he sighted “land not yet laid down on my chart.” He had discovered a place which would later become known as Palmer Land on the continent of Antarctica.
For the next twenty years the two brothers distinguished themselves as career captains sailing packet and clipper ships to Europe and the Orient. In 1840 Alexander was presented with a gold medal by Queen Victoria for rescuing the crew of the shipwrecked Eugenie. After his retirement from the sea, Alexander served as a representative and senator in the Connecticut Legislature. He died in 1894.
Nathaniel, known around the globe as “Captain Nat,” turned his talents to ship design and building, and during the 1840s and 50s owned shares in some of the fastest and largest clipper ships. Nathaniel died June 21, 1877 in San Francisco and was brought home for burial in the family plot.
From the Era of the Clipper Ships:
Nathaniel Brown Palmer, born in 1799 in Stonington, Connecticut, had the good fortune to grow up in his father’s shipyard where he learned at a very early age all about ships and the sea. His lessons learned would soon be put to good use. He was barely into his teens as the War of 1812 began, when he joined the crew of a schooner blockade-runner engaged in the smuggling coastal trade from Maine to New York, while trying to evade vengeful British frigates and their cannon balls.
To young Nat and other boys it was all a highly exciting adventurous game, navigating the coast at night to avoid the British, or waiting for the fog to clear and race right under the British guns to safe harbors or the open seas. Young Nat and the others boasted that they “could smell their way through the fog by night from Hell’s ‘gate to Providence.” For the duration of the war, Nat sailed before the mast and remained at sea when the war ended. He rose steadily from seaman to mate and on to command the small schooner Galena by the time he was eighteen.
At nineteen, Nat joined the crew of the Hersilia as second mate and soon they were on a sealing voyage bound for the southern ocean near Cape Horn. For the crew of the Hersilia, it was a voyage of discovery. They were bound for the mythical island of “Auroras,” which, according to the whalers of Nantucket, was somewhere to the eastward of Cape Horn. In New England whaling towns the tale was told of a huge Spanish galleon centuries ago, breaking up and scattering a treasure of gold, silver, and precious gems along the island beach in glittering profusion; just there for the taking. The myth surrounding the island of Auroras grew with each telling of the tale and whaling captains spent weeks on end searching for it in vain.
Under the command of J. P. Sheffield, the Hersilia reached one of the Falkland Islands, where Nat and a sailor were put ashore to kill bullocks for provisions while the Hersilia sailed away in search of Auroras.
For the next few days, Palmer and his companion slaughtered bullocks, when suddenly an Argentine ship appeared. Palmer hailed her from the shore and piloted her to a place of safe anchorage. She was the Espirito Santo out of Buenos Aires and her crew was grateful for the supply of fresh meat that Palmer provided.
While exchanging pleasantries with the Argentines, the captain of the Espirito Santo, an Englishman, told the young American that their ship was bound for an island where there were thousands of seals, there for the taking, and that with a little effort, a full cargo could be secured. Of course, the English captain was reluctant to tell where the island was.
The Argentines had ashore filled their water casks and stocked up on provisions; with young Nat only to eager to help them out in any way he could. Finally, the Espirito Santo bid farewell, hauled anchor, hoisted sail and departed. Palmer attentively watched as the Argentine ship sailed away on a deceptive course before taking her true tack for the island of seals. Having the eyes of a sea hawk, young Nat watched as the Espirito Santo disappeared on the horizon and made her course out to be about due south.
Three days later, the Hersilia returned to pick up Palmer and his companion. Like the whalers before them, the Hersilia’s search of the heaving southern seas for Auroras had been in vain. All they had seen were a few hungry, screeching albatross and a whale or two for their troubles. Palmer, burning with enthusiasm, told the captain what had happened, and urged that they sail after the Espirito Santo to find the island of seals for themselves.
After a few days sail to the south, they came upon a group of unknown islands that were not on any chart. They would become known as the South Shetland Islands. They came upon the Espirito Santo anchored in a bay of one of the southern most islands, and her crew greeted them with surprise. There were more than enough seals for everyone and the crews soon set about their grisly business. Amiable relations between the crews lasted the whole time and the Argentines helped the Hersilia crew load 10,000 prime sealskins into her cargo hold. The Hersilia sailed back to Stonington with a considerable fortune in sealskins that brought them $20,000
Word of their good fortune spread like wildfire through the New England maritime community. Palmer was hailed as a hero and in recognition of his efforts, he was given command of the Stonington sloop Hero that would serve as tender to the Hersilia when she sailed again for South Shetland. Palmer was just twenty years old.
Again, they called upon the Falklands for water and provisions, and again they sailed south to the South Shetlands. They returned to Stonington with full cargoes of sealskins.
But word of their early success had spread far and wide. Other ships and crews visited the South Shetland Islands
In 1821, Palmer sailed south again in command of the Hero; this time in a six-vessel expedition commanded by Captain William Fenning of the brig Alabama Packet.
Upon arrival, they discovered, to their dismay that the seal populations had greatly diminished. Undaunted, they set sail to the south in search of new sealing-grounds. Eventually they reached Antarctica, which at the time was not on any chart.
After sailing along the coast for several days, Palmer decided that this new rocky landmass was too large to be an island. They searched many of the bays without finding any seals; instead finding penguins numbering in the thousands. Eventually, the little flotilla headed north again catching the light winds through the fog.
Days later, the Hero found herself in a becalmed sea. A cold dense fog had set in with the evening darkness. Captain Palmer took his middle watch at midnight. At 12:30 one bell was struck. Suddenly, from somewhere out in the cold dark night, a bell was heard to strike; soon after, a second bell. Palmer and his superstitious crew were alarmed.
They were many leagues away from civilization, near the bottom of the world, in uncharted oceans with whales, penguins, and albatross for company. After one o’clock, two bells were struck and through the fog two bells were heard, followed by two more bells. Palmer concluded that they were not alone. At the end of his watch, Palmer retired and told his crew to call him when the fog lifted.
At seven A.M., a light breeze blew off the morning fog and less than a mile away a frigate and a sloop of war were sighted; both flying Russian colors in the service of Tsar Alexander. Palmer ran the United States ensign up the mast of the Hero and waited as a twelve-oared launch from the frigate Vostak approached his little sloop. The Russian officer, who spoke English fluently, was welcomed aboard. He presented the compliments of Commander Bellingshausen and invited Palmer to come on board his ship.
Palmer cordially accepted the invitation and after giving orders to his mate, left with the Russians dressed just as he was, in his sealskin coat, sou’wester, and sea boots. He was a man of the sea, not of ceremony.
Soon aboard the frigate, he was shown the way to Commander Bellingshausen’s presence. There was the white-haired Russian commander in his spacious luxurious cabin surrounded by his officers in their splendid uniforms.
“You are most welcome young man,” said the commander in a kindly way as he shook his hand. “Please be seated.”
The commander wanted to know all about Palmer, his sloop, where they had been, and what they had discovered. Also, he mentioned that he had been on a voyage of discovery himself for the past two years. He asked to see Palmer’s logbook and charts.
These were sent for. After an elaborate luncheon was served, the charts and logbook were carefully examined. In a formal ceremonious fatherly way, the commander then stood and placed his hand on Palmer’s head and declared the following words.
I name the land you have discovered ‘Palmer Land’ in your honor; but what will my august master say, and what will he think of my cruising for two years in search of land that has been discovered by a boy, in a sloop but little larger that the launch of my frigate?
Captain Nat was at a loss for words. But he thanked the commander for the honor bestowed upon himself, thanked him for his kindness and hospitality, and out of courtesy decided not to question the old commander’s credentials as an explorer too closely.
That part of Antarctica from that point on would forever be known as ‘Palmer Land.’ Twenty years later, Palmer Land would be re-discovered by famed British explorer Sir James Ross of the Erebus and Terror Expedition.
In the following years, Captain Palmer made numerous voyages to the Spanish Main of South America; first in command of the schooner Cadet; then of the brig Tampico. He ran guns, ammunition, and troops to Simon Bolivar, helping the struggle for South American independence from Spain.
He took a break from the sea long enough to marry the daughter of Major Paul Babcock. He then took command of the brig Francis and sailed back and forth to Europe for the next few years.
In 1829, he sailed for Cape Horn and explored among the many islands for new sealing grounds.
After deciding that sealing was rapidly becoming an unprofitable venture, Palmer, in the early 1830’s, took command of the cotton packet Huntsville that was owned by E. K. Collins & Co.
Edward Knight Collins was a Yankee like Palmer who had taken a liking to Captain Nat and likewise had spent an adventurous youth at sea.
Edward Knight Collins
Edward Knight Collins (My brother, who looks remarkably like Nat, married a Collins ancestor, who does not look much like Ed, without knowing they were continuing an alliance established long ago!)
Collins was a Cape Cod Yankee from a seafaring family born in Truro in 1802. At the age of fifteen, he joined a New York shipping firm in 1817 as a junior clerk and five years later sailed aboard a ship as supercargo. By that time, Collins had proved his abilities as a businessman whose bold success as a trader endeared him to his firm.
After eight years as a junior clerk, Collins had become a partner. In 1825, word arrived in New York that the price of cotton had risen in Liverpool. Collins soon raced off to Charleston aboard a swift pilot-boat schooner and quickly bought up the entire cotton crop before rival merchants arrived at Charleston by packet from New York with the same purpose in mind. The money earned from this bold venture would go a long way in establishing Collins in the prosperous coastal cotton packet trade.
Yankee merchants had come to dominate the cotton trade. In the early days after the invention of the cotton gin, the American South had dominated the cotton industry and southern cotton was shipped directly from southern ports to the textile mills of England. Shrewd New York Yankee traders soon saw their opportunity and began sending agents south to purchase all the cotton they could and ship it by packet ships to England and Europe. The plantation owners found themselves in a bind. If they wanted to ship their own cotton to market, the packet ship owner would charge them very high rates.
Sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi had presented merchants with a problem that their shipbuilders solved with a unique vessel of shallow draft that had an almost perfectly flat bottom, which made it possible to clear the sandbars without getting stuck. An added benefit was that now bales of cotton could fit more easily in the flat-floored hold and carrying capacity was greatly increased. At first, the sailing qualities of such a vessel was doubted, but soon, to the relief of their owners, these flat-bottomed ships proved to have fine sailing qualities. They were in sharp contrast to the V-bottomed hulls of the day.
With the cotton market now firmly in their control, some of the more savvy New Yorkers by the 1830s began to alter the triangular cotton trade by shipping the cotton first to New York by fast coastal vessels. The cotton cargoes were transferred at New York to the Atlantic packets for the final leg of the journey to Liverpool. All along the way, the middlemen took their cut and New York Yankee merchants prospered. Coastal packet shipping became a very lucrative trade. Stevedores now had lots of work. Wharf owners stayed busy and Atlantic packets now sailed eastward on the “Downhill Passage“ with full cargoes and stayed very busy for years.
Eventually, southern planters began to complain that New York merchants were making 40 cents on every dollar, but being constantly in debt to the New Yorkers, they were hardly in a position to change this state of affairs. The Yankees were in full control of the market. This would eventually turn out to be one of the causes that led to the Civil War.
Under Palmer’s command, the Huntsville was able to sail faster than she had with other captains and Palmer soon began to make record-breaking passages from New Orleans to New York in his flat-bottomed packet. The usual average 18-day passage was cut to two weeks. He set a record-breaking passage of ten days. Historians have credited the Huntsville, while under Palmer’s command, as the second fastest New Orleans cotton packet of the era.
Impressed with the sailing abilities of these flat-bottomed cotton packets, Palmer talked to Collins and suggested the idea of starting up a line of flat-bottomed packets for the Liverpool trade. Collins was the adventurous bold trader with “salt water in his blood” and found the idea of the challenge intriguing.
He sent Palmer to Liverpool to see if there was need of such a line and to have a close look at all of his potential competitor’s ships. Palmer returned with encouraging news and soon the “Dramatic Line” was started up with the building of the Garrick and the Sheridan in 1836, and the Siddons in 1837; all similar ships, of 927 tons register. In 1839, a larger and improved model, the 1009-ton Roscius, was added to the line. She was the largest merchant packet ship of her day. These four new ships joined the Shakespeare, a flat-bottomed packet ship of 827 tons already owned by Collins that gave the inspiration for the name of his new line.
The building of these new Dramatic Liners in the Brown & Bell shipyards had a most unsettling effect upon the builders, who shook their heads and declared that “they’d never make a passage to the West’ard.” All fast sailing vessels up to that time except for the cotton packets had been built with the V-bottom of a frigate to a greater or lesser degree. These new Dramatic Liners did not have substantial deadrise.
Palmer and Collins were unperturbed by these wagging tongues of the New York yards and remained confident in their convictions. It would not be long before these new flat-bottomed packets shook up the New York Maritime community with record-breaking “uphill” runs.
The average run of a Black Ball Liner on the Liverpool-New York round passage was 40 days. In 1839, all four Dramatic Liners averaged passages of 28 days, shaving 12 days off the run. Their flat floors increased their cargo capacity considerably. Now again, the South Street tongues were wagging, but singing a different tune.
The first thing that Palmer liked to do with a new ship was to take her out and put her through her paces. The Garrick, under Captain Nat, sailed from the East River docks on November 1, 1837, along with the V-hulled packet England, under the command of Captain B. L. White. Each was looking for a race. Captain Nat tore across the north Atlantic to Cape Fear, off the Irish coast, in less than 12 days. But there, her luck ran out along with the wind and she made it in to the Liverpool docks on the seventeenth of November after a passage of 16 days, oddly on the same day as the England’s arrival.
Loaded up for the “uphill” passage, the two ships sailed again on the same day with the tide. They both clawed their way back across the North Atlantic and arrived a few hours apart off Sandy Hook having almost identical times over the voyage. Although the race between the two ships had come out a tie, Captain White knew that he had really lost. All that Captain Nat knew was that he was having fun.
One fine day in 1839, while putting the Siddons through her paces, she fell in with the frigate United States, said to be the fastest ship in the navy, and sailed away from her over a distance of 10 miles in 10 hours. What was amazing was the fact that the United States, a man-of-war, was the larger ship with a much larger crew and could carry much more sail. It was obvious by now that there was something about the design of these new Dramatic Liners that was superior in every way to ships of the past.
The most remarkable specimen of the Dramatic Line was the Roscius. She was larger than her sister ships and also the most expensive; costing her owners $100,000. Rosewood and other expensive woods ran throughout her cabins. Aloft, her spread of canvas was impressive, her main mast shot up from the deck 160 feet from which she swung a main yard 75 feet long. Her lofty spread of canvas was even compared to the later clipper ship Flying Cloud, although the Cloud was more than 700 tons heavier with slightly longer spars and a 82-foot main yard.
It was said that the Roscius was built “to go” and “go” she did. She beat her sister ships with her first three western passages where each time she clipped two days off the average time of her siblings with an average 26-day, 3-hour time. Roscius now led the race and would point the way for others to follow.
With the coming of the new Dramatic Liners came the acknowledgment from the shipyards along the East River that the old way of building packets was over. A new excitement stirred the imaginations of shipbuilders everywhere and spurred them on to new efforts. Sailing records on the western ocean and China run that had been at a standstill for years were now being broken. Older ships of the China packet trade were rapidly becoming obsolete. Merchants would no longer tolerate the long, slow round trip voyages that often lasted up to a year and a half.
Having learned their new lessons well, other shipbuilders contributed their versions of Canton Packets to capture their share of the expanding Oriental trade; ships with sharper lines and less dead rise.
The Akbar, of 650-ton register, slid down the skids, built by Samuel Hall at his East Boston, Massachusetts shipyard in 1839. On her maiden voyage, she sailed to Canton against the monsoon in 109 days.
Jotham Stetson of Medford built the Probus of 656 tons, and she became the pride of New England as the first “Eastern-built” packet to take the record away from the New York packets on the China run. The Probus made a round trip to Canton and back, including a side trip to Macao, in the incredible time of 18 months, 5 days.
The Helena slid down the skids of William Webb’s East River shipyard in 1841. She was 598 tons, and was built for N. L. & G. Griswold for the China trade. She resembled the Liverpool packet Yorkshire, only sharper and more heavily-rigged, almost like a clipper in the days to come.
By the late 1830s, all the year in year out racing across the North Atlantic was taking its toll on the early packet captains who, one by one, began to look at the rapidly expanding China trade as the welcome alternative to early retirement. Their youthful enthusiasm for the Liverpool trade was long gone. They had grown weary of the freezing winter gales and unruly crews of ruffians that had gotten worse over the years. It was becoming a grind.
On April 23, 1838, two British steamers arrived at the South Street piers and their arrival signaled that America’s monopoly of the Atlantic packet trade was about to end. British steamship companies were by that time grabbing for a lion’s share of the Atlantic trade and E. K. Collins decided to make the transition over to steam himself with the organization of the New York-Liverpool steam packet line, which went on to compete successfully against the British lines. Captain Palmer was a sailor and had little desire to make the transition over to steam that was by then monopolizing the lucrative North Atlantic mail, express freight, and passenger service across the North Atlantic.
With the new faster sailing ships, the China and India trade was becoming hard to resist. Their services were in growing demand and their skills put to good use. Few could resist the challenge of out-sailing their old friends and shipmate rivals and setting a new record on the China and India runs.
The lure proved to be irresistible for Captain Nat, for in 1843 he took command of the new 620-on Paul Jones, built in 1842 by Waterman & Elwell of Medford, Massachusetts, and owned by Robert B. Forbes.
The Paul Jones was a “bluff-bowed” well-sparred ship that was hardly a clipper and was said by some to resemble an “early Down Easter” and destined to make some good passages in the China trade even though some considered her to be plodding and slow.
The Paul Jones cleared Boston Harbor on January 4th bound for Canton, right around the same time that Robert Waterman was arriving there in the Natchez. Waterman had gotten into the China trade just a few months ahead of Palmer. Instead of taking the easier route around the Cape of Good Hope, Waterman had placed additional sails high up in the Natchez’s lofty rigging where they had never been before. Then he had taken the Natchez around Cape Horn to Valparaiso and Mazatlan, before sending the old cotton packet flying across the Pacific to Canton in only 41 days.
The Paul Jones crossed the equator in 26 days and was 54 days to the Cape of Good Hope, 88 days to Java Head, and arrived at Hong Kong 111 days from Boston.
Stonington Historical Society:
Captain N.B. Palmer House
This 16-room Victorian mansion was built in 1852 by two brothers, Captains Nathaniel Brown Palmer and Alexander Smith Palmer.
Majestically sited on a high rise of ground overlooking the upper end of Stonington harbor, “Pine Point” offered sweeping water views in all directions. From its octagonal cupola, the family could identify ships arriving from distant ports. Meticulous craftsmanship of the ornate woodwork testifies to the work of shipwrights. Once threatened by demolition, this magnificent home was purchased by the Stonington Historical Society in 1994 and is now preserved in all its beauty. Memorabilia pertaining to Nathaniel’s discovery of Antarctica and the Palmer brothers’ adventurous lives, as well as other Stonington family portraits, furnishings and artifacts are on display.
A new Nathaniel B. Palmer
In 1992 the National Science Foundation decided to name its newly chartered 94-meter-long antarctic research icebreaker the Nathaniel B. Palmer. Completed in March 1992 by Edison Chouest Offshore in Louisiana, the brand-new ship headed for its first assignment, to rotate and later remove research crews from the U.S.- Russian Ice Camp Weddell. Now it is supporting research in the science disciplines important to understanding the Antarctic. Like its clipper ship predecessor and its namesake, the “Nattie B” someday also may be famous.