A Postal History Gallery of Related Events

1820 - 1900

Seamen theorized that a land mass would be found at the southern tip of the earth, but exploration was not undertaken until the early nineteenth century. Severe weather and blinding fog in the region cloaked it from view. Sealers and whalers worked in the area, but finally the Russian Czar sent a small exploration fleet to examine the southern regions and their visit, coupled with the sighting by a sealer captain, confirmed that there was in fact a land mass at the southern tip of the world.

Since that time, there have been many parties in ships and other vehicles, including dog teams and aircraft, searching the icy continent for its secrets and treasures. They have formed a frustrating puzzle of origin, life forms and resources, and all of them remain almost beyond understanding and reach.

Come along on a virtual tour of Antarctic exploration, as authenticated by its mail sent by these brave souls and adventurers . . .



An Almost Accidental Sighting of the Antarctic Continent . . .



. . . made by Nathaniel Palmer during the Austral summer of 1820.



The young sealing captain was part of a five ship fleet of sealers under the general command of Benjamin Pendleton when he was sent from their base on Deception Island in the South Shetlands to study some unusual sightings on the horizon. Palmer's 40-ton cutter, named HERO, confirmed the presence of a new continent.

A dense fog settled over the ship and in the morning they found themselves at rest between two ships of the Russian expedition led by Bellingshausen. The Russian charts named Palmer Land in his honor.


(Courtesy of the George Hall)


The Palmer Family in the Antarctic . . .

Captain A.S. Palmer, the brother of Nathaniel, was a member of the discovery expedition of 1820, and later he was on the PALMER-PENDLETON EXPLORING EXPEDITION 1829-30. This voyage was expected to become an official U.S. Antarctic Expedition, however an official expedition was delayed eight years until the Wilkes voyage in 1838.

The letter was sent to his son, who was then a midshipman, developing his career in the tradition of the Palmer family.

The return address was the early family business venture -- Phelps, Dodge & Palmer Company in Chicago, IL.


Charles Wilkes

United States Exploring Expedition

This was the first effort by the United States to become involved in the search for information about the unknown southern hemisphere and to assert itself in marine affairs. Congress sent six outdated warships with a crew of 240 to study the unknown region. Lt. Claiborne of the U.S. ship RELIEF dispatched this letter in May 1839 from their winter harbor at Callao, Peru. By postscript in the letter he advised that a British traveler would carry the letter across the Isthmus and to Jamaica.

A mail packet probably carried the letter from Panama where it entered the U.S. Mail. In accordance with the postal regulations of 1832, the letter was passed without fee or markings since the addressee was a sitting member of Congress. The "punch and split" pattern on the face of the cover suggests that it was fumigated at some point.

(Courtesy of George Hall)


A painting of a drawing by Captain Charles Wilkes of his men
frolicking on the ice.



One of the few known pieces of mail from the first official United States exploring expedition to include Antarctica, dispatched free back to the States via incoming vessel to New York (5 December [1838]) from Funchal, Madeira, to a sitting member of the House (A. P. Maury) from Tennessee (who, at that time, could receive mail without charge while Congress was in session) from expedition ship USS PORPOISE officer (and relative to Maury), Lt. Claiborne, giving an account from September 1838, just prior to the squadron's southward heading to Antarctica.


(Courtesy of Herb & Janice Harvis)




Adrien de Gerlache

Belgica Expedition

The earliest known photographs of the Antarctic were taken during this expedition. This postcard is an example from a series of 12 (Wharton AA-11). The BELGICA Expedition was the first of the Heroic Era. They sailed from Antwerp on August 16, 1897 and reached Buenos Aires on December 1, where a number of the crew deserted. Due to several delays, the ship did not reach Antarctic waters until January 20, 1898. Two days later Carl Wiencke was washed overboard during a fierce storm. The ship sailed through the islands to the west of the Antarctic Peninsula and became gripped by the ice on February 28. Eighteen men were forced to winter in the trapped ship. Lieutenant Danco died on June 5 and two other members of the crew went mad. By the end of January, 1899, a channel was being cut in the ice to reach a stretch of open water but it was not until March 14 that they emerged from the pack ice after 13 months of being trapped.

An extremely rare BELGICA cover addressed by Adrien de Gerlache, leader of the expedition, and posted at Buenos Aires (14 Aug 1899) when they arrived after the first wintering in Antarctica. Backstamped at Buenos Aires (14 Aug 99) and Brussels (7 Sept 99), the cover is addressed to the President of the Royal Belgian Geographical Society. This cover "wintered-over".

Postal stationery postmarked "Liege" - January 13, 1900 (2 months after return of the expedition). Illustrated here is the reverse side with a 4-line cachet of the BELGICA, which is never seen on mail used during the expedition, but it was on board and used in the ship's library. The postcard's message is written and signed by Emil Racovtza (Romanian biologist for the expedition). The message is about the research of items collected in Antarctica. The cachet reads, "Belgian Antarctic Expedition / Botanical & Zoological Service.