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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 

May 16th. — At 7, A.M., a light breeze sprang up from the west-south-west, when we immediately got under way, and commenced plying to the south-west, to get hold of the Fuegian shore. Before we had proceeded far, the mother of young Cheleule came alongside to take a final leave of her darling boy. This was too much for the poor fellow: he burst into a paroxysm of tears as soon as his mother left the vessel, and earnestly begged me to let him go on shore with her. Perceiving this to be the wish of both, and that they were much affected, I recalled the old woman, and restored her son to her, which rendered both of them extremely happy. As a testimony of his gratitude the youth begged me to accept of his dog, which he set great store by, it being a present from his father. This dog was remarkable for his cunning and sagacity, resembling a fox both in form and disposition. The head, in particular, bespeaks its relationship to that animal. It is a little larger than our terrier, and is the only canine breed that I saw among these natives.

The dress of this people, which is the same in both sexes, is formed of the skins of the sea-otter, guanaco, fox, deer, or seal, sewed together with the animal's sinews, entrails, or thongs cut from the skins, in the form of a blanket. This is thrown over the shoulders, and tied under the chin; the lower part being wrapped round the body like a cloak. Both sexes paint their faces in such a manner as to give them a hideous expression, and yet I scarcely saw two of them alike. Some were painted red, with a large black circle round each eye; others were distinguished by horizontal streaks across the face of alternate black and white. However grotesque they appeared to us, they evidently prided themselves on this display of fashion and taste. Every one of them with whom I had any intercourse, was as ready to give as to receive trifling presents, if I expressed a wish to that effect. From these mutual kindnesses, however, they very soon caught the idea of quid pro quo, and became adepts in the science of trade. But I never detected one of them in the act of stealing to the value of a nail, either from the vessel or the boats; nor did I see or hear of a single quarrel or contention among themselves.

Their canoes display much ingenuity and mechanical contrivance. They are constructed of bark peeled from the entire trunk of a large tree resembling our white birch, which grows here in great abundance. Three such pieces will form an entire canoe, from twelve to eighteen feet in length, two feet in depth, and two feet six inches in breadth at the centre, or widest part. One piece forms the bottom, and two the sides, neatly sewed together with leather thongs or the sinews of animals. The ribs are generally made of slender branches or saplings, split in the centre as coopers do their hoop-poles. These are bent into a semicircle with the flat side outwards, and fastened to the inside of the canoe, which is thus kept distended to its proper shape, and rendered sufficiently strong. The gunwales are formed of the same material, sewed on in the same manner.

Each of these boats is commonly divided into six distinct compartments: viz. the first contains their fishing tackle and apparatus; the second is occupied by the women, who handle the forward paddles; the third is their fireplace, having a hearth of sand; the fourth is the well-room, or place for bailing; the fifth contains the men, who ply the stem paddles; and the sixth is the place where their spears, bows and arrows, &c. arc carefully deposited. In the management of these frail barks, skill and dexterity are more requisite than physical strength; and yet they are made to ply to windward at a surprising rate. Some of them are made more square, but are not so easily managed, nor do they move so swiftly.

Besides the weapons already mentioned, the sling is much used by this people, and with such effect, that the descendants of Benjamin ought no longer to boast of their left-handed progenitors. It is made of the sea-otter's skin, of the usual form, and nearly three feet in length. Their spear-heads are made of hard bone, about six inches long, well pointed, with a barb on each side about three inches from the point. These are attached to straight poles, smoothly finished, and about twelve feet in length. This weapon, which they use in taking seals and sea-otters, is thrown, like the ancient javelin, from a level with the eye, duly balanced in the right hand, and seldom fails of its intended effect. Their bows are made of an elastic wood, which is hard and susceptible of a high polish. They arc generally about four feet in length, strung with slips of the otter-skin or plaited sinews. The arrows are made of finely polished wood of great hardness, pointed with a sharp flint of triangular shape, and arc about three feet in length.

The arms of these Indians, however, are no certain indication of their being a warlike people; my own impression is decidedly that they are not, their habits and manners being timid and pacific. The weapons just described are rather their tools of trade by which they procure a livelihood, the flood and the forest being their principal resources for food, which generally consists of shellfish, seal flesh and blubber, sea-otters, shags, and a few wild animals that inhabit the forests, as I have before mentioned. They keep their game until it is nearly putrid before they eat it.

Their natural complexion is a pale yellow, inclining to copper-colour, as can easily be ascertained by those parts of their bodies which are not daubed over with paints of different colours. I found no difficulty in conversing with them by signs, though whenever they were at a loss for my meaning, they invariably imitated my motions and repeated my words, which rendered our intercourse somewhat tedious. It must be admitted that they are sadly deficient in the virtue of personal cleanliness; but not so horribly offensive and loathsome as has been represented by Cordova and others. In almost every respect, however, they are a race of people far inferior to the Patagonians, and not much less degraded than the natives of Terra del Fuego, whom all navigators unite in pronouncing the most wretched race of mortals on earth.

Though the women are of much smaller size than the men, the former are compelled to do all the labour and drudgery. They build the wigwams, gather the shellfish, paddle the canoes, &c., while the men either sit at their ease, or enjoy the pleasures of the chase. The men, however, occasionally evince considerable fondness for their wives and children. On the whole, I became somewhat interested in this apparently wretched race, especially when I reflected on the probability of their ancestors having been driven from more genial climes to this mountainous region by the barbarity of strangers, who professed to be patterns for the human race in civilization and religion. If such be the fact, I wish these poor Indians might be informed that the iniquity of their invaders has been severely visited on their own children, until most of them, at the present moment, are more indolent, quite as filthy, almost as ignorant, and far less innocent than the natives of Magellan's Strait. Who shall say that the latter are not as much in the keeping of the Deity as the former?

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