Hidden Histories

Antarctica: The Lost Continent

Tuesday, 8/24/10
As a follow-up to my recent post on Antarctica, I wanted to add this article which appeared in the free monthly HSP Newsletter, History HitsClick here to subscribe.

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During the middle of the summer heat, we thought we’d focus on one of the coldest places on earth—the continent of Antarctica. It is unknown when Antarctica was first discovered. The ancient Greek geographer and astronomer Hipparchus and others hypothesized of the existence of a southern continent somewhere at the South Pole. Modern cartographers, including Harvard professor Charles H. Hapgood in Maps of the Ancient Sea Kings (1966), have used ancient and medieval maps in an attempt to prove that someone in antiquity had accurately mapped the large land mass. 

We began to learn more about the topography and fossilized plant and animal life in Antarctica after explorers visited in the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a book in HSP’s collection titled Antarctica, published in Philadelphia in 1902 and written by Edwin Swift Balch, a Harvard-educated Philadelphia lawyer and prolific writer. This seminal volume includes an interesting map of Palmer Peninsula (pictured below). This peninsula, formally known now as the Antarctic Peninsula, was discovered by Nathaniel Palmer (1799-1877) of Connecticut in November 1820 during his sealing ventures. Later many fossilized or extinct animal species were found in this area, particularly upon Seymour Island in the Weddell Sea, one of the largest ice-free areas in all of Antarctica.
PALMER PENINSULA from the Edwin Swift BALCH BOOK
Also found in the book is an account of a mysterious discovery made by Norwegian whaler Capt. Carl Anton Larsen. While on the ship, the Jason, on November 18, 1893, Larsen reported finding “balls made of sand and cement, resting on pillars” on Seymour Island. “We collected some fifty of them, and they had the appearance of having been made by man’s hand,” Larsen wrote. Despite Larsen’s account, conventional science ridicules the idea of ancient visitors to the South Pole. 

HSP also holds an image of Lt. Charles Wilkes of New York City. Wilkes is well known primarily for his involvement during the Civil War in the Trent Affair of 1861, but Wilkes (pictured below, right) is also known for leading the “United States Exploring Expedition,” or the “Wilkes Expedition” with five vessels. He left Hampton Roads, Virginia, with great fanfare in July of 1838, and arrived in Antarctica in December of 1839. Pictured below is a letter written by Lewis Warrington to Lt. Wilkes, dated July 23, 1838, in which Warrington refers to the upcoming expedition.

Letter of Lewis Warrington to Charles Wilkes, July 23, 1838
Charles Wilkes













One of the first individuals to traverse parts of the southern continent by air was Navy Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd of Virginia, who traveled there as early as 1929. During his fourth and final expedition to the frigid South, Byrd sent a telegram (pictured below)dated February 7, 1947, to a John B. Givin, sending “warmest greetings from the coldest place” and asking if he’d like “to stake out a claim … at the bottom of the world.”
TELEGRAM of DICK BYRD TO JOHN B. GIVIN
Like so many other individuals, topics, or subjects in history, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania is a storehouse of information, not restricted to Pennsylvania’s past alone.  Explorers and their discoveries at the South Pole or that mysterious continent we call Antarctica, is certainly no exception to this rule.