Journey to the South Pole with John Quincy Adams & Charles Francis Adams, Part 1

By Heather Rockwood, Communications Manager

John Quincy Adams (JQA, 1767–1848), world traveler that he was, never visited either of the Earth’s poles, nor did his son, Charles Francis Adams (CFA, 1807–1886). In their diaries, they noted reading books about such travels, meeting people who journeyed there, and speaking to others who had scientific theories about the poles. Come with me on an expedition through JQA’s and CFA’s diaries to find out what the poles meant to early 19th century thinkers.

Map of the Southern Pole from 1606, courtesy of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, Boston Public Library. Note that Antarctica’s coastline had not yet been charted. Such mapping would begin in the 1800s.

First, an incomplete timeline of US pole expeditions:

  • 1819–1823: Several voyages by seal hunters
  • 1829–1831: James Eights and the Palmer-Pendleton Expedition
  • 1838–1842: US Exploring Expedition (also known as Wilke’s Expedition)
  • 1928: Admiral Richard Byrd’s Expedition

From 1822 to 1824, James Weddell (1787–1834) was on his third seal hunting voyage in the South Orkneys and South Shetland Islands. Because hunting had been disappointing, Weddell turned his ship south toward the South Pole. The season was unusually mild, and on 20 February 1823, his ship reached 532 miles farther south than any other ship previously. Although a few icebergs could be seen, no land was in sight. He turned the ship around and sheltered at South Georgia. Because he had gone slightly farther south than James Cook in 1773–1774, Weddell wrote a book about the journey. The first edition of A voyage towards the South Pole: performed in the years 1822–24, containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea… was published in 1825, but was enlarged in 1827 with new information from the companion ship on the voyage. On 1 April 1831, CFA was reading this book, “began Weddel’s Voyage to the South Pole. He went farther than any body and says he saw a clear Sea, which is extraordinary enough.” He finished it that weekend on Sunday, 3 April 1831, “Finished Weddell’s Voyage. It is the Account of a Man not much versed in Science who made a daring Voyage in pursuit of Commercial Speculation. He gives An Account of the South Seas somewhat varying from that of his predecessor Cook. And he says he penetrated to 74 degrees South with a clear Sea. I see no reason to disbelieve him. If so however, the question of land might easily be settled.”

On 20 September 1820, General Daniel Parker (1782–1846), then the Inspector General of the US Army, spoke with JQA about a seal expedition application he had received when serving as Secretary of State to President James Monroe. The application was from the New York ship owner James Byers. JQA wrote in his diary: “General Parker came with a new application from Mr Byers of New-York, for a public vessel to protect their Sealing Settlement expedition to the South-Pole—I told him of Homans’s objections but promised to mention the affair again to the President.” Byers wanted the US government to fund a settlement in the South Shetland Islands, off the coast of Antarctica, and for the US to send a warship with the settlers to take possession of the area. His application was denied, but the trip and settlement still happened. The settlers built dwellings and were visited mainly by seal hunters from Britain, New England, and New York. The settlement’s peninsula was named Byers Peninsula in 1958.

In Journey to the South Pole, Part 2, we will look at JQA’s and CFA’s interactions with a man obsessed with reaching the South Pole to prove a theory that the Earth is hollow.