In 1870 the British-based South American Missionary Society set its sights on the Yahgan (or Yámana), a nomadic tribe whose members thrived in brutal weather conditions almost entirely naked – they didn’t have any permanent shelter to keep clothing dry, and they believed that the natural oil of their skin was better protection than soaking-wet animal fur. Charles Darwin branded them ‘the lowest form of humanity on earth.’ Missionary Thomas Bridges didn’t agree. After years among them, he created a Yahgan-English dictionary in the late 19th century, deeming their language complex and subtle.
The mission made Ushuaia its first permanent Fuegian outpost, but the Yahgan, who had survived 6000 years without contact, were vulnerable to foreign-brought illnesses and faced increasing infringement by sealers, settlers and gold prospectors. Four Yahgan, including a teenager dubbed ‘Jimmy Button,’ were kidnapped by the naval captain Robert FitzRoy and shipped back to England to be educated and paraded around as examples of gentrified savages. One died of disease. After months of public criticism, FitzRoy agreed to return the others to their homeland.
The tribe’s legacy is now reduced to shell mounds, Thomas Bridges’ famous dictionary and Jimmy Button souvenirs.
Between 1884 and 1947 the city became a penal colony, incarcerating many notorious criminals and political prisoners, both here and on remote Isla de los Estados. Since 1950 the town has been an important naval base.