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Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
Narrative of Four Voyages (extract), 1823
a North American adventurer meets the canoe people of the Strait of Magellan
Journal -- May 1823:    10  11  12  13  14  15  16  17  18 


Strait of Magellan — Face of the Country — Hailed by a Troop of Patagonians — Arrival at Port Famine — History of the Place — Ledger River — Natural Productions — An Excursion into the Interior — Ruins of Philipville — Cape Froward — Indians of the Highlands described — A Visit to their Village — The Visit reciprocated — Excursion up the River Capac, accompanied by two Chiefs — Adventures in returning — Filial Affection of a Chief\'s Son — Character, Manners, Habits, Customs, Employments, and Dress of the Natives — Their Canoes, Arms, &c. — Their Want of Cleanliness, moral Condition, and probable Origin — Enter the Pacific Ocean.

Terra del Fuego, generally represented as one large island, is in fact composed of several islands, the cluster being separated from the continent of South America by the Strait of Magellan. The passages between these different islands are very narrow, and have never yet been explored. The interior of the largest presents a cold, dreary, cheerless, and desolate appearance; rising into rugged barren mountains, the summits of which are covered with snow. One of these is a volcano, the fires of which occasionally brighten and illume the snows, which they can never melt.

"Here it was," says Burney, "that the sailors observed fires on the southern shores of the strait, for which reason the laud on that side was called Terra del Fuego." Another writer says, "Narrow channels, strong currents, and boisterous winds render it dangerous to enter into this desolate labyrinth. The coast, which is composed of granite, lava, and basaltic rocks, is inaccessible in many places. Cataracts interrupt the stillness that reigns there; seals sport in the bays, or repose their unwieldy bodies on the sand."

Notwithstanding the cheerless and forbidding aspect of this country, it is not destitute of vegetation or inhabitants. In the valleys are to be found several sorts of trees of a large growth, which are frequented by various kinds of birds. Here, also, a rich soil of considerable depth is clothed with beautiful verdure. At the base of almost every hill is a brook of good water, having a reddish hue, but not ill tasted.

The Strait of Magellan, at its eastern entrance, is between six and seven leagues in width, and has from fifteen to fitly fathoms of water. Many vessels have passed through this strait to the Pacific Ocean, though the navigation is said to be difficult, which is not the case. There are many good harbours to be found in this passage, and anchorage under either shore, all the way through; the bottom generally good holding-ground. Within the strait the wind never blows fresh from north-north-east, round by the eastward to south-east-by-east; consequently a shelter from these points is unnecessary. Wood and water can be procured with ease, fish may be caught in great abundance, and antiscorbutic vegetables are found on both shores.

The rise of the tide at the east entrance is about sixteen feet, and about eight feet at the west entrance, running regularly each way, and not swifter than two miles an hour, excepting in the narrows, where it runs about five miles an hour. Violent gales are never experienced here from any quarter; the passage through is perfectly safe for vessels of any size, and the navigation is pleasant and easy. If the navigator have before him the latest edition of Arrowsmith's chart, he may avoid every difficulty, as there is but one dangerous impediment in the whole passage more than two cables-length from shore, that is not readily shown by the hand-lead. The danger alluded to lies about five miles north-cast of the narrows, and always betrays itself by the kelp or rock-weed which rises from it above the surface of the water. Vessels must keep to the north of this shoal, and leave it under their larboard quarter.

Ships bound through this strait may run day and night by keeping the north shore on board, until they come up with Indian Sound, and then keeping the south shore on board until they reach Cape Pillar, at the west entrance, on the Pacific coast. By following these directions, they will have the advantage of the prevailing winds, and keep smooth water.

On arriving at Cape Pillar, if the wind blow from the westward, and it is thought inexpedient to put to sea, vessels may come to anchor in a perfectly safe harbour, about three miles south-east of the cape, on the shore of Terra del Fuego. The entrance to this harbour is covered by two small islands, which may be passed on either side, in twenty fathoms of water. Then double a point which runs out from the land in a north-east direction, and enter the cove behind it, which extends to the south-west and west-north-west about two miles, and come to anchor in from four to ten fathoms of water, mud and clay bottom, and sheltered from all winds.

It would be tedious to the reader, as well as to myself, to enumerate and name all the safe and commodious harbours in this noble strait. Let it suffice, that there is such a one every five or ten miles, or equally safe anchorage for ships of any size.

Magellan's Strait is about three hundred and seventy-five miles in length, from its eastern entrance on the Atlantic coast to its western entrance on the Pacific coast. But let it not be inferred from this that the continent in this vicinity is of that extent from one ocean to the other, as the course of the strait forms two sides of a nearly right-angled triangle; a third side would measure the distance across this part of the continent; say one hundred and ninety miles. Terra del Fuego, from east to west along the south shore of the strait, is about three hundred and sixty miles in length, and about one hundred and sixty in breadth, from north to south, measuring from Cape Horn to the strait. This part of the country contains a large population, especially in the vicinity of the strait.

Before I proceed any further into the strait, it may be proper to give the reader some idea of the face of the country, as the eastern and western parts are very different from each other, not only in their aspect, but also in natural productions, as well as in the appearance and character of the natives.

I have not the least doubt that the Cordilleras, or chain of the Andes, once extended in an unbroken range to Cape Horn, and perhaps still farther south; and that earthquakes, eruptions of volcanoes, or some other convulsion of nature, have broken the chain, and thus separated Terra del Fuego from the continent; at the same time shattering the former into several smaller pieces of irregular shape. I am led to this opinion by the exact correspondence which exists in the aspect of the country on both sides the strait.

At the eastern entrance, the land is low on both sides. The island formed by St. Sebastian's channel, on the left or south side of the passage, is a wide rolling prairie — an extensive field of low land. The land on the right or north side is of a similar character, and continues through the whole extent of Patagonia; which is, comparatively a long strip of meadow, stretching itself at the base of the Andes, and fringing the margin of the sea.

Thus from Cape Negro, where we were now lying at anchor, to the Atlantic, the land is low, undulating, and destitute of trees; while westward to the Pacific, it wears a very different aspect. Here the country begins to rise in broken ridges, which finally become rugged mountains; being evidently but smaller links of the vast Andean chain; of which Cape Froward appears to be the point of fracture, reduced by attrition to an ordinary elevation. The sides of these mountains are covered with ancient forests, while the verdant bottom lands abound with shrubbery, grass, and plants of various descriptions.

Source: "Narrative of Four Voyages", Capt. Benjamin Morrell Jr., New York, 1832
Transcribed: April 2007