© 2004-2016

Patagonia Bookshelf


in the Schooner Morse of Boston — 98 tons
(Late the United States Revenue Cutter Crawford.)

[20 June 1840]

At 1 P. M. on the 19th, July, 1839, we made Cape Virgin, the northern point of the eastern entrance to Magellan Straits. The Patagonian shore for a considerable distance, was also in view. The land hereabouts is of moderate height and of barren aspect. The weather was clear and pleasant; Thermometer 43º. At half past four we were abreast of Cape Virgin, and in six fathoms of water. The wind blowing out of the Straits obliged us to make several tacks before reaching an anchorage. At midnight came-to in ten fathoms water about half way between Point Dungeness and mount Dinero and one and a half miles from the shore. Getting under weigh at 8 A. M. the next morning we plied to windward — assisted in some degree by a favorable tide. The flood sets to the westward — the ebb to the eastward, but the tides run with but little strength. High water. 4h. 56m. before the moon's passage of meridian. At 1. P. M. July 10 [sic - should be 20], we anchored a little to the eastward of mount Dinero about two miles offshore; our wood and water, being almost entirely exhausted, I landed on the shore to look for a supply, and taking a fowling piece and ammunition, with hope of obtaining some kind of game to serve us a fresh mess — having been living for sometime on salt junk and bread — poor Jack's Ambrosia — food preferred by him to roast turkey and plumb pudding, but to my "organ of taste" not so desirable. We found upon the beach, plenty of low scrubby bushes, that burnt well; of water there was none. Having procured a boat load of wood and a few beach birds, we were about preparing to return on board, when I caught sight of an Indian on horseback, riding rapidly through some small sand hills, and approaching towards us. We at first thought he might be foremost of a large party of Indians, who were about to make an attack upon us. However as retreat was useless, we boldly faced him. His form was gigantic — measuring about six feet three or four inches, and of the most athletic proportions — his hair was tied up in a club — his covering was nothing more than a robe of guanaco skins (a kind of deer), thrown over his shoulders. The horse he rode was very small and ill looking — but probably tough and hardy. Followed by three ugly looking dogs, the Indian rode up to us without betraying the least diffidence or fear. He saluted us in Spanish — "Buenas Tardes." To which I replied in the same language and offered him my hand which he shook heartily. He informed us in broken Spanish and English that he belonged to a tribe of Indians of whom a person he called "St. Johns," was the chief — that they resided at a place near Cape Possession, about five miles to the westward of us. Having seen our vessel, the chief had despatched him off, to acquaint us of his desire to trade for tobacco, arms and ammunition — offering to give us in exchange furs and skins, of which they had five different kinds. He named them over — but land otters, fox and lions skin's were the only kinds whose names we could recognize or understand. He said, too, that they had plenty of guanaco meat, which they would gladly dispose of for cigars or tobacco. Our visitor requested permission to accompany us on board to pass the night — giving us to understand that his whole tribe would arrive by next morning, and be ready to trade. Consenting to the wishes of our Indian friend, we took him into the boat; — while on the passage to the vessel, I fired at and killed a gull, which was swimming upon the water at a considerable distance from us. This feat seemed to excite great astonishment in him. He gave one of those low, deep and expressive "humphs," which Indians are sometimes guilty of when taken by surprise or their admiration particularly excited. Arrived on board, I offered him supper; salt junk he could not fancy, but tea and bread seemed to be liked particularly well. Some cigars and manufactured tobacco were then presented to him, which he gladly accepted, and immediately commenced smoking.

At 8 the next morning we got under weigh; stood for Cape Possession. Soon after this we discovered the tribe of Indians all mounted on horseback, riding along the beach towards the place opposite the anchorage just left. As soon as we were discovered, they wheeled round and continued to advance along the shore parallel to us, and making signs the while, of their wishes for us to anchor. The favorable slant of wind however forbid us gratifying them.

We sailed along thus for sometime, and being not more than a mile from the shore, we had a distinct view of these children of nature; men of whom we had read so much in the journals of the early voyagers, to this wild and inhospitable region men whom Magellan called Giants. There were about eighty persons; each one mounted on horseback, and the whole party followed by about three hundred barking and yelping dogs. We could distinguish no women in the party, though our Indian passenger said there were several. The chief "St. John," was pointed out to us. He, as well as the generality of the persons composing his tribe, appeared to be of rather large stature, and stout framed but I saw no giants or any one except our passenger approaching to the size inferred by that name. The race of the Patagonians must have degenerated in size very much since the days of the early Spanish navigators, or else the writers must have told a "romance".

Having arrived abreast of Cape Possession, and the favorable slant of wind still continuing, I judged it most prudent to land our Indian and to continue our progress through the Straits without loss of time. Standing with the vessel close in to the shore, the Indian was put into the boat. The second mate with two men being in her armed and sent under strict charge not to land — it being an object with me not to put ourselves needlessly in to the power of the Indians, there being no inducement of sufficient magnitude to justify it. The disposition of these Indians had certainly appeared friendly, but as treachery is characteristic of all uncivilized people, I thought it well to be upon our guard, and prepared to operate against any attempts which they might make upon our lives or the safety of the vessel.

[27 June 1840]

As the boat approached the shore, the chief St. John was seen making signs for his people to retire back from the beach. The Indians obeyed without hesitation. St. John himself remaining close to the water's edge, beckoning to those in the boat to approach without fear — at the same time crying out in a loud voice, in English. "come" — ''come" — "no fear" — "we want bacco." As soon as the boat reached the beach, the officer made signs to the Indian to get out, but he appeared unwilling to obey. The officer holding his musket in one hand, and with the other taking hold of the arm of the Indian, commenced pulling him out of the boat. The Indian not liking such treatment seized hold of the musket and a struggle commenced for its possession; the officer came off conqueror. Having often, probably been in like scuffles with his brother "bush wackers" in the wilds of Maine — of which state he is a son. The Indian having in the scuffle, fallen out of the boat into the water, she was got clear from him without difficulty. While all this was going on, the old chief and his people remained perfectly stationary and made no attempts to interfere.

As soon as the boat returned on board one of the men discovered that while on the way to the shore his knife had been stolen from the sheath, which was fixed and belted round his body — again giving proof of the strong and almost ungovernable propensity of all Indians to thieving.

Having a good breeze we stood across Possession Bay towards the entrance to the "First Narrows" — and anchored about dark to await for the tide. Here the difficulties of the passage through the straits commence. There are several shoals and banks scattered around the entrance to the Narrows and among which a vessel must pass. The First Narrows are about seven miles in length by about two miles broad. The shores are steep, bold and of moderate height. The tides run with great velocity; — spring tides run at the rate of ten knots the hour. Were it not for the strength of the tides vessels would have great difficulty in effecting a passage of the Narrows except with a leading wind. As it is, with a favorable tide a vessel can drift through in a short time, even against a strong head wind. Under these circumstances, however, the sea rolls deep and heavy, and frequently breaks over the deck.

Getting under weigh late in the afternoon, with a fair tide and moderate breeze, we sailed through the Narrows. The evening was very pleasant, the moon shone clear and bright. The stars seemed magnified in size and multiplied in number. The whole heavens "their great Original proclaimed." At 9, 30, we were up with Cape Gregory. The wind (from the Nd.) had by this time increased to hurricane violence. We could show no sail except a close reefed foresail. The sky still continued clear, and the weather cold and pleasant. By force of wind and rapid tide we were taken through the Second Narrows very rapidly. At midnight up with Point Garcia. The wind had gradually fallen to a moderate breeze, and the tide entirely ceased. Half an hour after midnight we came to off Oazy Harbor in 5 1-2 fathoms water. Having had a fine run — and nine hours flood tide. At our anchorage there seemed to be little tide — the rise and fall being but about four feet — while at our last anchorage at the entrance of the First Narrows the rise and fall was thirty-six feet!

Weighing anchor at daylight, (which at this season was at 7 1-2 A. M. we stood over towards Elizabeth Island. Passing through the passage between that island and the main shore, we came to anchor at 11 A. M. in Laredo Bay -- in 8 fathoms water. Here we sent the boat on shore for wood and water — of the former we could have obtained a plentiful supply, the beach being covered with drift wood. Of the latter however, none could be obtained except from a frozen lake, situated about half a mile inland to the N. E. Two friendly Indians on horseback, were here fallen in with. They informed our party they belonged to the "Great chief Saint John." They had seen us off Elizabeth Island early in the morning and had come thus far with hope of our anchoring at this place and giving them an opportunity to trade for tobacco in exchange for furs. We got under weigh again the same evening being obliged to disappoint these friendly people through an anxious desire to avail ourselves of the good weather which continued, to make progress through the straits. Through the night and all next day until 7 P. M. we experienced light baffling winds and calms — when a breeze sprung up from the eastward with appearances of a storm. At 10, 30, P. M. July 25, we had approached to within one mile of the entrance of Port Famine. At this moment we took a heavy squall of wind, hail, and sleet. The entrance of the harbor became scarcely distinguishable through the thickness of the storm. We, however, ran in, and having got seven fathoms water, let go the anchor. The top of a high mountain at the bottom of the harbor being the only thing seen for several hours after. During the remainder of the night and all the next day, it rained, hailed and snowed alternately. The wind blowing with great violence, from the eastward. Thankful indeed were we for so snug a retreat from the tempest which raged without. Had we not been so fortunate as to have obtained an anchorage, before the violence of the gale came on, our security in the straits would have been very doubtful. Wintry weather seemed to have commenced at this place and time, for we had observed that all the land of low or moderate height from Cape Virgin to this place was entirely free from snow — the weather too had been clear and pleasant — the thermometer not lower than 37º.

On the morning of July 26, the wind having hauled to the S. W. and the gale abated, our men were sent on shore to procure a supply of wood and water, of which we at this time stood greatly in need. We landed on the south-west side of the Bay — near a fine run of fresh water and a thicket of trees — and close by the trunk of a tree which had been cut off to within eight feet of the ground, and left to serve to mark the spot where the officers of H. B. M. ship Beagle had once planted their observatory, while engaged in surveying these straits. This fact we gathered from an inscription cut into the bark of the tree. The beach all round the harbor was covered with drift wood of every size, but the dry standing trees were preferred for fuel.

[4 July 1840]

While our men were employed in the various necessary duties of wooding, watering, &c., I strolled along the shore in search of game ; met with but few fowls. They were wild ducks and divers. Near the S. W. point of the harbor is the entrance to a river — with a deposit of sand at its mouth, of a horse shoe shape. I followed the river up for about a mile — its waters were rather shallow and choked up with drift wood and fallen trees. Wishing to make a short cut over to the harbor, I entered a thick wood which lay before me ; I had not been long in it however before I became lost in the labyrinth of underwood. I became alarmed. The sun was obscured by the trees ; I saw nothing that could serve me as a guide through. The thought of being likely to die of cold and starvation came over me for a moment with withering effect. Robinson Crusoe like, I got up into one of the tallest trees to take my bearings — but neither hill or sun or any thing else that might serve to tell me of my position and true course to the harbor could be seen. As I was descending the branch on which I stood gave way, and precipitated me to the bottom. The ground being thickly covered with snow prevented serious injury. I rose with feelings of despair. Wandering about for an hour or more, I at last emerged into a clear space in the forest and once more beheld the glorious sun, shining in all his majesty ; to me a beacon light, pointing the way to life and preservation. With much difficulty I made my way to the shores of the harbor — thankful for my escape from the death which I had been threatened with — and resolved never again to enter an unknown wood. Port Famine is an excellent harbor, with good holding ground and well sheltered from the prevailing winds — plenty of wood and water -- some game. We saw but one deer, and were fortunate enough to shoot it. This harbor appears to have been much frequented. We saw many grave stones or boards — some of them with inscriptions telling the fate of the poor mariner who sleeps beneath.

With a light air from the N. W and pleasant weather, we got under weigh on the morning of the 27 July, and stood towards Cape St. Isidro, when abreast of the Bay of St. Nicholas the wind hauled to the westward, with threatening appearances of a snow storm — we therefore judged it prudent to seek shelter in the bay just named. Came to, in 11½ fathoms water about half way between a small islet in the bay and the shore or base of the Peak of Nodales — which is a high mountain forming the western side of the bay — and affording shelter from the westerly gales. Here we were detained at anchor seven days and never before did I experience such stormy weather. The wind generally blew from the S. W. rolling down the mountain's side in veins and with terrific violence. No one who has not experienced these mountain gusts can conceive a proper idea of their force. They are called by the sealers, "Williwas." Ships at anchor are tossed about by them like corks upon the water. Boats hung at a vessel's quarter, unless well secured by gripes are blown away. During our detention at this place a great quantity of snow fell — and whenever the wind hauled to the south the cold was very severe. On the 5th August we made another attempt to get westward. The wind was light and ahead. We therefore were obliged to turn to windward and passed Cape Froward in the afternoon. This Cape is the most southern point of the continent of America. At dark just perceived the entrance of the small cove which lies in Wood's bay, under the lee of Cape Holland. The weather appearing unpromising, we became anxious to reach a shelter before a storm came on — we therefore stood boldly for the little cove above named ; — owing to the darkness of the night and irregularity of soundings in the bay, the vessel (at her stem) unfortunately touched upon the sand bank which extends off from the northern shore. So gently however did the vessel strike and so bold was the bank that we were not aware of the fact until the anchor was let go when it dropped in seven feet water ! The lead at the same time showing five fathoms water under the stern — and 9 feet amidships ! We made some attempts to haul her off, but they were rendered ineffectual in consequence of the tide being upon the ebb. At the next flood tide, the vessel was got off without the least difficulty or damage. The night was stormy and the wind in the straits blew hard, but we were well sheltered in a snug place. This bay is an excellent place to wood and water.

The climate, from Cape Froward to this place appeared much milder than to the eastward — the mountains for half the distance from the shore upwards — were free from snow — the leaves upon the trees were quite green.

From Wood's Bay we beat up to Fortescue Bay — the wind blowing out, and night approaching, we ran over to the opposite shore and came to anchor about dusk among Charles's Islands. The harbor is a good one and formed by the three islands of which the group is composed. At the the proper anchorage the water is perfectly smooth being well sheltered from all winds. The position taken up by us was too far out in the passage to the N. W. entrance — being exposed to the westerly wind and swell. There are three outlets from the harbor of these islands; — one to the N. W., S. W., and S. E. Each of them are however difficult of egress. The latter passage ought never to be attempted ; being very narrow with many, straggling rocks at its mouth and subject to baffling winds. The two former are also narrow, and rendered difficult by the prevailing winds drawing into their passages. Judging from the tops of the trees on these islands being pressed Inwards the S. E, the winds from the N. W. blow here for the most part of the year. After another week's detention by stormy thick weather and head winds, we beat out through the N. W. passage of the Islands and towards Elizabeth Bay on the northern shore of the Straits. At dark we came to anchor near Passage Point. The weather very thick from falling snow. Next day made another attempt to advance to the westward — but owing to the thick snow and blowing weather, did not reach farther than the bay which makes in a little to the eastward of York Roads.

Thursday, Aug. 15. At meridian the weather cleared up — wind still from the westward — got under weigh and beat to windward.

[11 July 1840]

At 4 P. M. we reached the entrance of "Crooked Reach." Saw St. David's Head or EI Morrion, a singular looking headland on the southern shore. In the evening we succeeded in getting to an anchorage in Borja or Island Bay. The next morning we again weighed anchor and beat up to some small islands lying a little to the westward of Cape Quod on the southern shore. Here is the narrowest of the straits of Magellan — only one and a quarter miles broad ! The weather — unpromising in the morning, had now turned into a violent snow storm, with heavy squalls of wind from the west ward. The shore on both sides of the Straits although only a little more than half a mile from us, was at times completely obscured from view by the falling snow, and obliging us to run back to our last anchorage in Borja Bay. There we remained until the following morning — when we succeeded in beating to westward as far as Swallows harbor — though the wind blew very hard — accompanied by thick squalls of snow and hail. The anchorage is under a large Island separating Swallow bay from Condesa bay. It ls well sheltered from all winds — though the water is deep; — 25 fathoms. The severity of the weather detained us at anchor at this place for two days — when it becoming moderate, we again set sail. Passing Glacier Bay, we had a fine view of the "Frozen mountain" which makes a singular appearance from its dark blue co!our. We anchored for the night in a small cove a little to the eastward of the Playa Parda, Great cove. The day following, the weather was pleasant, with a moderate breeze from N. W. to north. By noon we had arrived off "Half Port Bay" the wind hauled to the N. E. and blew a gentle breeze which enabled us to run out of Long Reach very speedily. The weather became very fine, and we experienced a genial warmth, to which we had for sometime been strangers. With a gradually increasing breeze we steered towards Cape Providence. The Straits are here about 8 miles wide — as evening advanced we were delighted with the sight of porpoises and finback whales giving evidence of our approach towards the waters of the Pacific. Our hearts were made joyous with the prospect of having a fair wind through the night, and our little vessel by morning be able to dance upon its blue waves. At 2 A. M, having a bright moon we saw Cape Pillar very plainly, bearing South of us and about 3 miles distance. From this position we bade adieu to the Straits of Magellan. Having occupied thirty two days in effecting the passage. Seventeen of which we had laid at anchor in different harbors in tempestuous weather — the remainder of the time had been mostly employed in beating against the westerly winds.

The difficulties and dangers to be met with in making a passage westward, through the Straits of Magellan are great. For vessels of over 150 tons burthen I should recommend the taking the chance of a passage round Cape Horn in preference to going through the Straits. The prevailing winds in the Straits are from S. W. to N. W., blowing directly through the reaches and generally with great violence. Notwithstanding the breadth of the channel is generally but about 2½ miles wide, yet both shores are frequently obscured from view ; by fog in the summer, and by falling snows in winter. To these impediments to a quick passage may be added, the tempestuous weather which generally exists, the strong tides, in some places easterly currents, and the deep-water and rocky bottom of the anchorages, sufficient altogether to deter the experienced from endeavoring to contend against them while the way round the Cape is left to choice. Vessels fore and aft rigged and under the size above named, would probably be better to go through the Straits as they would have the advantage of a smooth sea, and an opportunity to supply themselves with wood and water. To vessels of this description many of the difficulties above stated, would vanish or be easily surmounted.

We arrived at Valparaiso after a passage of 131 days from Boston — and there found vessels both men of war and merchantmen who had arrived a few days previous to us and others were daily arriving from round Cape Horn — having passages from England, France and United States varying from 110 to 145 days! These vessels had met with great difficulty in getting round Cape Horn — a constant succession of head winds and islands of ice had caused some of them to be detained off the Cape 35 days ! Judging from the weather, &c. they met with at the same time we were passing through the Straits, we came to the conclusion that we must have experienced in the Straits a much worse time than is usually met with, by vessels effecting that passage.

Source: "The Polynesian" (Honolulu), 20 and 27 June, 4 and 11 July 1840
Clipped: 15-VII-2013
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