On November 18, 1820, Nathaniel Brown Palmer of Stonington, Connecticut, discovered the mainland of Antarctica, one of the seven continents. At 22, Palmer was an experienced sealer and the captain of the sloop Hero, part of a fleet of Stonington sealers. Stonington’s brisk trade in fur sealskins and seal oil made it a leading sealing port of the time.
In 1819, Palmer had been the second mate to Captain James Sheffield on board the brig Hersila, which had returned profitably to Stonington with 8,868 fur sealskins. 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. When the fleet of seven Stonington vessels returned to the area of Hersila’s previous success, the South Shetland Islands, they found its seal population decimated.
Palmer’s experience with the area, and the size of the small sloop Hero, made him the ideal candidate to search for new rookeries. The Hero served as a tender, or supply ship, to the other vessels. It had a shallow draft of only 6 feet 9 inches, a length of 47 feet 3 inches, and a crew of 5 men. It was while searching for these rookeries that Palmer sighted land at Orleans Channel. To honor the Stonington captain’s accomplishment, Palmer Land, part of the Antarctic Peninsula, and the Palmer Archipelago bear his name. Although Palmer is not the only seafarer to earn credit for Antarctica’s discovery, his feat also bears witness to the wide-ranging territory covered by Connecticut’s seal trade.