In 1520, when Magellan passed through the strait that now bears his name, neither he nor any other European explorer had any immediate interest in the land and its people. Seeking a passage to the Spice Islands of Asia, early navigators feared and detested the stiff westerlies, hazardous currents and violent seas that impeded their progress. Consequently, the Selk'nam, Haush, Yaghan and Alacalufes people who populated the area faced no immediate competition for their lands and resources.
These groups were hunters and gatherers. The Selk'nam, also known as Ona, and the Haush subsisted primarily on hunting guanaco and dressing in its skins, while the Yaghan and Alacalufes, known as 'Canoe Indians,' lived on fish, shellfish and marine mammals. The Yaghan (also known as the Yamaná) consumed the fungus dubbed Indian bread, which feeds off southern beech. Despite inclement weather, they wore little clothing, but constant fires kept them warm. European sailors termed the region 'Land of Fire' for the Yaghan campfires they spotted along the shoreline.
European settlement brought the rapid demise of the indigenous Fuegians. Darwin, visiting the area in 1834, wrote that the difference between the Fuegians and Europeans was greater than that between wild and domestic animals (as a result, he has few fans here). On an earlier voyage, Captain Robert Fitzroy of the Beagle had abducted a few Yaghan, whom he returned after several years of missionary education in England.
No European power took any real interest in settling the region until Britain occupied the Falkland Islands (Islas Malvinas) in the 1770s. However, the successor governments of Chile and Argentina felt differently. The Chilean presence on the Strait of Magellan beginning in 1843, along with increasing British evangelism, spurred Argentina to formalize its authority at Ushuaia in 1884. In 1978 Chile and Argentina nearly went to war over claims to three small disputed islands in the Beagle Channel. International border issues in the area were not resolved until 1984 and are still the subject of some discussion.
A Pioneer's Guide to Tierra del Fuego
It was a childhood too fabulous for fiction. E Lucas Bridges grew up with the Beagle Channel as his backyard, helped his dad rescue shipwrecked sailors and learned survival from the native Yaghan and Selk'nam (Ona) people. His memoir Uttermost Part of the Earth fed Bruce Chatwin's boyhood obsession with Patagonia. Now, after decades out of print, this 1947 classic has been rereleased in English.
Bridges' tale starts with his British father establishing an Anglican mission in untamed Ushuaia. Little House on the Prairie it wasn't. After the family trades the missionary life for pioneering, founding Estancia Haberton, Bridges' father dies. As a young adult, Bridges tries adventuring with the Selk'nam, which meant surviving on lean guanaco meat, crossing icy rivers and negotiating peace between quarreling factions.
Measles epidemics and sparring with hostile colonists wreaked havoc on Tierra del Fuego's native peoples. By the time the book was first published, their population had nose-dived to less than 150. Uttermost Part of the Earth captures the last days of these hardy civilizations and one island's transformation from virgin wilderness to a frontier molded by fortune seekers, missionaries and sheep ranchers.