Tuesday, November 17, 2015

This Day In History...The Palmer Peninsula (Nov 17)

On this day in history we’ll go beyond the borders of the United States, yet still bring you a piece of American history.  For on this day in history, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer became the first American to see Antarctica, forever earning his place in history and on our maps when the Palmer Peninsula in Antarctica was named after him following his discovery.  While that named was challenged by the British in later years, even the compromise bears his name: The Palmer Land.

Nathaniel Palmer was born in Stonington, Conn. on August 8, 1799 to a shipyard owner.  Growing up around ships and the sea, it was only natural Palmer would end up on a ship and so he did, signing on as a seaman on a blockade-runner in the War of 1812 at the age of 14.  By 1818 he found himself as the second mate aboard a sealing vessel whose primary hunting ground was located near the newly discovered South Shetland Islands.

As one would expect, Palmer’s career progressed quickly, and by 1820 he was the captain of his own 47 foot sloop Hero.  As a part of a sealing fleet under the command of Benjamin Pendleton, Palmer hunted in the area of the South Shetland islands and Deception Island for new seal rookeries, and while doing so rediscovered the peninsula that British captain Edward Bransfield had discovered and mapped earlier that year, in January of 1820.  The British had named the peninsula “Trinity Land”, but following Palmer’s discovery the Americans named it the “Palmer Peninsula”, setting up the conflict and ultimate establishment of “Palmer Land” as the name years later.

Palmer returned to Stonington following this expedition, where he put together a new expedition.  On that ensuing expedition on which he captained the James Monroe and searched alongside British captain George Powell the two discovered the South Oarkney Islands, which they charted originally as the Powell Islands.  On this expedition they charted a more specific portion of the Antarctic Peninsula as “Palmer Land”, although even today the entire peninsula itself is often referred to simply as the Palmer Peninsula.  Despite extensive hunting in the Drake Passage throughout the past couple centuries, the area remains vibrant with life, particularly the humpback whale, pictured here.

Palmer spent the remainder of his days at sea, building a very noteworthy career as a merchant marine.  He made at least one trip from Boston to Hong Kong, and put a lifetime of knowledge on the water to work as the co-developer of the 19th century “Clipper” style ship.  Today he leaves his mark on the world in many ways, from the Palmer Peninsula to his 16 room Victorian mansion that still serves as a tourist attraction and was named a National Historic landmark in 1996 in his hometown of Stonington, Conn..  The most aptly named remembrance of Palmer however, has to be an “Icebreaker” ship, an ice capable research ship currently in service to the US National Science Foundation.  The ship was built for the NSF by Edison Chouest Offshore, and was launched in 1992.  Edison Chouest still owns the ship, however it remains in the service of the NSF.

The Nathaniel Brown house can still be toured today, in
Stonington, Conn.
In a time when many ship captains made their mark transporting slaves and selling humans, Captain Nathaniel Brown Palmer was able to make an honest living as one of the most successful merchant marines of his time.  He grew up around the sea, lived on the sea, and died at the ripe old age of 77, just about 6 weeks short of his 78th birthday, on June 21, 1877.  In his later years Palmer was very active in pleasure yachting, and died after returning to San Francisco from one final trip to China.

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