ierra del Fuego is located at the southern tip of South America, beginning at approximately the 52nd parallel south. It is bordered by the Strait of Magellan to the north, the Beagle Channel to the south, the Atlantic Ocean to the east and the Pacific Ocean to the west. This giant island is shared by Chile and Argentina, to whom the western and eastern parts correspond, respectively
The name of this great island comes from the sight that the first sailors saw when they were exploring its coasts. From their ships they could make out surprising, continuous fires,
which were the hearths used by the native peoples to protect themselves from the southern cold. The indigenous Onas and Yámanas hardly wore any clothing despite the harsh climate. Only the fires and their special metabolic adaptation (a body temperature one degree higher than ours) kept them warm. They even took lit hearths with them in their lenga-bark canoes, which they used to fish and hunt marine mammals.
There are several theories that speak of the arrival of humans in America, the most recognized one being that of the Czech paleontologist Aleš Hrdlička (1869 1943). According to this theory, the humans who came to America originated in Mongolia, from which they entered America by way of an ice bridge over the Bering Strait during the last glacial period approximately 13,000 years ago. These people moved south using a land corridor between the Cordilleran Ice Sheet that began in the Aleutian Islands and ended in central Canada and the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which began in the Atlantic Ocean in northern North America, covered as far as the Newfoundland area, and then extended to the Great Lakes region of central Canada. Proof of this are remains found in Alaska, dated at approximately 13,000 years old. One of the most solid pieces of evidence is the Clovis culture, remains of which were found in New Mexico in the United States. Today, most American archeologists are fervent defenders of a late entry to the continent by the Clovis and Folsom Indians, who correspond to the oldest cultures to first set foot on American soil. These archeologists believe that occupation occurred only some 11,500 years ago, based on dozens of Clovis points found throughout North America.
The Yaghan (or Yámanas)
Historically speaking, the Yaghan have been known since 1624, but archeology has established that their ancestors began to live in the Beagle Channel region at least 6,500 years before the present. Their origins are still a mystery. In the 19th century, their estimated population was some 3,500 people, dispersed between the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn.
The Selk’nam (or Ona)
The Selk’nam were descendents of continental tribes and began to populate Tierra del Fuego Island 8,000 years ago. They were “discovered” by Magellan in 1515. They have been shown to have had a sporadic presence on the north shore of the Beagle Channel for at least the past 6,500 years.
Although the Beagle Channel was first named, described and mapped by English expeditions in 1826 and 1832 (see below), we have solid reasons to believe that at least a part of the channel was known earlier. For example, its outline was sketched on several maps from the 1590s. The famous James Cook, while looking for the continent of Antarctica, explored the southern part of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago on two occasions (1769 and 1774), but we are not certain that he saw the Beagle Channel in its entirety. Various place names remain from his voyage (Cook Bay, Christmas Sound, etc.). Furthermore, it is highly probable that the sea lion hunters that crossed these waters between the 18th and 19th centuries were familiar with the Beagle Channel, but they did not leave any documents in reference to it.
Parker King and Fitz Roy
Between 1826 and 1830, the British Admiralty organized a hydrographic survey expedition in Patagonia. Under Commander Philip Parker King and Captains Robert Fitz Roy and Pringle Stokes, on board the Adventure and the Beagle, the enormous task of defining thousands of kilometers of coastline from Brazil to Valparaiso, including the Strait of Magellan, Cape Horn and the Beagle Channel, was carried out for the time with surprising precision. This is how the latter became known to modern geography and how the Murray Channel (which separated Navarino Island from Hoste Island) was discovered, thus giving “birth” to Navarino Island in geographical terms. It was at the end of this trip that Fitz Roy took four Fuegian natives back to England: Fuegia Basket, York Minster, Boat Memory (who died during the journey) and Jemmy Button. Fitz Roy’s aim was to attempt to “civilize” the natives, but this would have unsuspected consequences years later in the slaughter at Wulaia.
At the end of 1831, the Beagle set sail once more, this time alone, for the second survey campaign in Patagonia. Fitz Roy, accompanied by the young naturalist Charles Darwin, returned to Tierra del Fuego to refine the details of coastline, as well as to return the three Fuegian natives to their homeland after more than a year of “education” in England. After
finishing its work in Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle continued northward, crossed the
Pacific Ocean and returned to England in 1836, circumnavigating the globe in the space of
five years. This long voyage allowed Darwin to gather an enormous amount of information that he used to publish his famous work, The Origin of Species, 23 years later in 1859.
In the context of an international program whose goal was to observe the passage of Venus from various points around the globe, the French government organized an important
scientific expedition to Tierra del Fuego. Under Commander Luis Martial, and aboard the steamship Romanche, a land mission was established for one year (September 1882 – September 1883) in Orange Bay (Hoste Island, Hardy Peninsula, just a few kilometers north of False Cape Horn). Prefabricated houses and laboratories were set up to allow a part of the scientists and crew to live on shore while the Romanche carried out hydrographic explorations in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, the Strait of Magellan and the Falkland Islands. Thanks to this expedition, it was possible to map the parts of the Fuegian coastline that Fitz Roy had not been able to in detail, particularly the area between the Beagle Channel and Cape Horn. Many names were given to places along the channel (Martial Mountains, Les Eclaireurs Island ...), Hoste Island (Dumas, Pasteur and Cloue Peninsulas...), and Wollaston Island, among many others.