Nathaniel Brown Palmer

Nathaniel Brown Palmer (1799-1877), American sea captain, sighted the part of the Antarctic Peninsula that came to be known as Palmer Land. In later life he engaged in designing and sailing clipper ships for the China trade.

Nathaniel Palmer was born on Aug. 8, 1799, in Stonington, Conn., the son of a shipyard owner. At the age of 14 he became a seaman on a blockade-runner in the War of 1812. After captaining small coastal vessels, he signed on in 1818 as second mate of a sealing brig that hunted in the newly discovered South Shetland Islands.

In July 1820 Palmer, commanding the 47-foot sloop Hero, joined a sealing fleet of five vessels under the command of Benjamin Pendleton. The expedition reached the South Shetlands in November, and Palmer left Deception Island on November 17 to search for seal rookeries that had been seen to the south. He sighted extensive land at 63°S but no seal rookeries. This coastal area was a portion of the Antarctic Peninsula that had been sighted and charted in January 1820 by the British captain Edward Bransfield and had been named Trinity Land. In January 1821 Palmer encountered a Russian exploring expedition and boarded its flagship, the Vostok.

Palmer then returned to Stonington, where a new expedition was outfitted; it departed in July 1821 with Palmer commanding the sloop James Monroe. Reaching Deception Island in November, 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.

Palmer spent several years as captain of vessels sailing to the West Indies and South America. In 1829 he again sailed to the Antarctic as part of a Fanning expedition. Two scientists accompanied this expedition. 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.

In the 1830s Palmer became a packet ship captain and sailed between New York and New Orleans, and New York and Liverpool. He grew rich and later became involved in the clipper ship trade with China. He designed the prototype clipper ship, the Houqua (completed in 1844), and other true clipper ships, all of which he captained at times. After retirement, he became active in pleasure yachting. He died in San Francisco on June 21, 1877, after returning from an Oriental voyage.

Further Reading on Nathaniel Brown Palmer

A book-length biography of Palmer is John R. Spears, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer: An Old-time Sailor of the Sea (1922). An accurate analysis of Palmer's Antarctic discoveries is in Philip I. Mitterling, America in the Antarctic to 1840 (1959).