The Gulf Stream: Exploration and Travel
Before the colonization of North America, early explorers and sailors were aware of the Gulf Stream and documented the unusual warm current that they encountered, starting with Ponce De Leon in 1513. Credited with discovering the Gulf Stream, Ponce De Leon noted that while traveling through the Atlantic, they were pushed along, backwards, by a current that was more powerful than the wind. By 1516, the existence of the Gulf Stream was widely known and accepted as past of the Atlantic navigational routes.
The Gulf Stream became instrumental in the exploration, colonization and later trade with the Americas. The clockwise current that drifted up the coast and eventually towards Europe was used in most all navigational plans and trips to the New World.
This is not to say that the current always provided a smooth course home. The use of the Gulf Stream resulted in many ships traveling along the Florida Keys to wreck along its reefs or run into storms and shoals further north in the Graveyard of the Atlantic off of Cape Hatteras. The indigenous Indians were the first to take advantage of these unfortunate shipwrecks, salvaging treasure and goods that would wash upon the shores. The practice of "wrecking," or salvaging goods from wrecked ships, became a popular endeavor, with many entrepreneurs flocking to Florida's southern coast to await shipwrecks and the treasures they brought.
Along the North Carolina coast, many locals still tell stories about centuries of salvaging, resulting from numerous shipwrecks off the coast. Old homes along Hatteras Island, dating back to the early 1900s, tell their own story as well with foundations made out of mismatched salvaged wood blended in with typical builder's planks.
But despite the dark prospect of shipwrecks, the current remained a fixture of fascination and the most popular method of travel.
In 1769, Benjamin Franklin, the US Deputy Postmaster, decided to investigate complaints that mail from Europe to America took weeks longer than the eastbound mail from America to Europe. After talking with a Nantucket sailor named of Timothy Folger, Franklin learned the English ships had to travel against the Gulf Stream.
There are a few early charts of the Gulf Stream, the earliest known chart being published in 1665, but Benjamin Franklin and Timothy Folger arguably produced the first real map of the Gulf Stream in 1769-1770.
Franklin accomplished this by taking water temperature measurements on three North Atlantic crossings, and recording the readings. The differences in water temperature indicated whether the ship was in or out of the warm current. Franklin theorized that, "This Stream is probably generated by the accumulation of water on the eastern coast of America between the tropics, by the trade winds that constantly blow there ..."
For this observation, Franklin is generally given credit for identifying the cause of the Gulf Stream, even though corrections were made throughout the years to take into account ocean bottom changes, surface winds, and other factors. Along with the maps and theory of its origin, Franklin also gave the warm current the name of "The Gulf Stream."
In modern times, ships still use the Gulf Stream to conserve fuel, although the lack of definitive and ever changing borders of the stream can make it difficult to navigate.