November 18: Stonington Sailor Discovers Antarctica


Born in Stonington, Connecticut in 1799, Nathaniel Brown Palmer, like so many other young men from Stonington, first set sail at an early age, working as a teenage deckhand on American ships running through the British naval blockade during the War of 1812.  After the war, Palmer joined scores of Connecticut sailors who sought their fortunes by hunting seals for the lucrative and recently-established China trade, taking command of his first ship, the Galina, at the tender age of 19.

By the second decade of the 19th century, however, global seal populations were already experiencing a sharp decline from over-hunting, forcing sailors like Palmer to venture further and further southward into uncharted waters.  During the fall of 1820, the 21-year-old Palmer was exploring the seas south of Cape Horn a captain of the small, seal-hunting sloop Hero when, on November 18, he spotted a land mass that had yet to be recorded on any known map.  That land, which the young captain modestly named “Palmer Land,” was the northernmost tip of the continent of Antarctica, known today as the Antarctic Peninsula.

In 1988, the U.S. Postal Service recognized Palmer’s discovery of Antarctica with a stamp.


While Palmer’s claim of being the first person to discover Antarctica is disputed — two other sea captains, one from Russia and one from England, claimed to have spotted the continent slightly earlier than the date given in Palmer’s ship’s log — he is credited with being the first American to do so.  After his seal-hunting adventures drew to a close, Palmer returned to Stonington to become one of the port town’s leading citizens and a renowned shipbuilder.  His Victorian mansion in Stonington was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1994, and is seasonally open to the public as a house museum operated by the Stonington Historical Society.  Unlike his Russian and English competitors, Palmer’s namesake “Palmer Land” remains on modern maps of Antarctica.  In 1968, a new United States research station built on the peninsula was named Palmer Station in the Stonington captain’s honor, ensuring that his legacy of exploration and seafaring lives on to the present day.

Further Reading

Nathaniel Palmer Discovers Antarctica,”

Erik Ofgang, “Did a Captain from Stonington Discover Antarctica?Connecticut Magazine

Captain Nathaniel B. Palmer House Museum website, Stonington Historical Society