Little more than 150 years old, Punta Arenas was originally a military garrison and penal settlement that later proved to be conveniently situated for ships headed to California during the gold rush. Compared to the initial Chilean settlement at Fuerte Bulnes, 60km south, the town had a better, more protected harbor, and superior access to wood and water. For many years English maritime charts had called the site 'Sandy Point, ' and this became its rough Spanish equivalent.
During its early years Punta Arenas' economy depended on wild animal products, including sealskins, guanaco hides and feathers, mineral products (including coal and gold), and guano, timber and firewood. None of these was a truly major industry, and the economy didn't take off until the last quarter of the 19th century after the territorial governor authorized the purchase of 300 purebred sheep from the Falkland Islands. This successful experiment encouraged others to invest in sheep and, by the turn of the century, nearly two million animals grazed the territory.
The area's commercial and pastoral empires were built on the backs of international immigrant labor, including English, Irish, Scots, Croats, French, Germans, Spaniards, Italians and others. Many locals trace their family origins to these diverse settlers. Today evidence of this mass migration can be seen in the street names throughout town and on headstones in the cemetery. Church services are still held in English, while the many mansions created by the wealthy are now hotels, banks and museums.