Antarctica was the last continent reached by human beings. American explorer Charles Wilkes was the first person to identify the land, in 1838.

Photograph by Chris Bray, MyShot
  • On January 19, 1840, Charles Wilkes, in command of the United States Exploring Expedition, discovered the continent of Antarctica. A fleet of six American ships carrying scientists and explorers left from the state of Virginia in 1838. The fleet made its way down the coast of South America, into the Pacific Ocean, throughout the islands of Polynesia, and Australia before sighting Antarctica. (The expedition went on to circumnavigate the globe by sailing through the islands of Southeast Asia, the Indian Ocean, and the Cape of Good Hope, before finally docking in New York City in June 1842.)

    Heading south from Sydney, Australia, Wilkes sighted a wall of ice, beyond which lay the headlands and mountains of a previously unknown continent. The expedition charted more than 2,414 kilometers (1,500 miles) of this new coastline. This was the southwestern corner of Antarctica, now known as Wilkes’ Land in honor of its discoverer.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    Antarctica Noun

    Earth's fifth-largest continental landmass.

    Encyclopedic Entry: Antarctica
    circumnavigate Verb

    to go completely around something (usually the Earth).

    coast Noun

    edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

    Encyclopedic Entry: coast
    continent Noun

    one of the seven main land masses on Earth.

    Encyclopedic Entry: continent
    expedition Noun

    journey with a specific purpose, such as exploration.

    explorer Noun

    person who studies unknown areas.

    fleet Noun

    group of ships, usually organized for military purposes.

    headland Noun

    point of land, usually a steep cliff, that descends into a body of water.

    ice Noun

    water in its solid form.

    Encyclopedic Entry: ice
    Polynesia Noun

    island group in the Pacific Ocean between New Zealand, Hawaii, and Easter Island.