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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 3d. — On Saturday morning, being at anchor in the harbour of Cape Negro, at four o'clock, A. M., we saw many of the Patagonian natives on the beach abreast of the vessel, making signs for the boats to come on shore. At five, A. M., we were making preparations to land, when a man at the mast-head discovered about two hundred of the natives on horseback, in a small valley, about a quarter of a mile from the beach. On being apprized of this fact, we declined going on shore; and at six, A. M., got under way, and steered to the south for Port Famine.

As soon as the savages perceived that we were bound to the south, they all showed themselves; being about two hundred horsemen, armed with long spears and bows and arrows, with a drove of about four hundred guanacoes. But being now under full sail, with a smart breeze from the west, I thought it inexpedient to alter our course for the sake of holding any intercourse with these copper-coloured strangers. If they desired an interview, they might easily follow us along shore to Port Famine, a distance of about fifty miles. We therefore left them to their own reflections, and kept on our course. At four, P. M., we came to anchor at Port Famine, in five fathoms of water, muddy bottom.

A brief history of this place will account for its present meager name. In the year 1581, the Spaniards selected the spot for the establishment of a colony, and brought hither about four hundred persons of both sexes to commence it. A fortress was soon erected to protect the new colonists from the neighbouring savages, and a small town built for the families of the Spanish emigrants. This infant settlement, which was called Philipville, in honour of the then reigning monarch of Spain, was intended to command this passage to the Pacific, and their valuable possessions on the western coast of the continent; a passage round Cape Horn not being known at that period. The site was judiciously selected, being about one hundred and twenty miles from the eastern entrance of the strait, having a good harbour, with a back country susceptible of much improvement. Had not the inviting riches of Peru, Mexico, and the West Indies diverted the attention of the Spanish government from this project, it could not have failed of success, and none but Spanish ships would have been permitted to pass the strait without paying for the privilege.

Here these unfortunate settlers were left, without a sufficient stock of provisions to sustain them, until the land could be prepared and crops produced by labour and perseverance. Spaniards are proverbially indolent, and are seldom willing to work, until driven to it by necessity. Expecting to be regularly supplied from the mother country, they probably did not exert their faculties much to provide for the future. Had they been such men as are daily emigrating from the New-England states to our western wilderness, so far from suffering from famine, they would in a few years have converted this region of Patagonia into a fruitful garden, and Philipville would at this moment have been a splendid city.

About seven years after die establishment of this colony, it was visited by the celebrated English navigator Cavendish, who entered the strait in 1587. On arriving at Philipville he found the colony annihilated, only one individual out of the original four hundred being left alive! All had perished by famine, except twenty-three; who, to avoid such a horrible fate, had undertaken to explore their way through the wilderness to Rio de la Plata; and no doubt fell victims to the savage ferocity of the natives, as they were never again heard of. To perpetuate the sad fate of this colony. Cavendish called the place Port Famine, and took the unhappy survivor to England.

In this harbour, or rather in this fine capacious bay, twenty ships of the line might be moored in perfect safety, and supply themselves with wood and water with very little trouble. The bay abounds with fish of various kinds, and a plenty of birds may be had at the expense of a little powder and shot. By this means, during our whole passage through the strait, our table was daily furnished with a tempting variety; such as geese, duck, teal, snipes, plovers, race-horses, &c. embellished with wild celery, which may be gathered in any quantities. The banks of Ledger River, which empties into this bay, abreast of the anchorage, are covered with trees of various kinds, and the finest that I ever saw. Here are white-oak, red-oak, beech, and a sort of bastard cedar, which, in my opinion, would make the finest masts for line-of-battle ships that have ever yet been stepped in a keelson. Some of them are of great height, varying from five to seven feet in diameter.

In a subsequent voyage, I explored this river for about twenty-five miles from its mouth, and found the country on both sides extremely fine; the soil being rich and mellow, and not less than eighteen inches in depth. The valleys are clothed with luxuriant verdure; the clover-fields of Pennsylvania, if suffered to go a few seasons unmowed, would alone furnish a parallel. This clover was so completely matted and entangled that it was difficult to determine its actual height; but it was certainly not less than two feet. On the banks of the river are copper, lead, and iron ore, of which I obtained specimens. Some fine wood is also found here, two kinds of which I examined. One was red, and the other a bright yellow; the grain of each very fine.

The valleys are seldom visited by the frost or snow, so that the berries are found on the bushes all the winter, without being touched by the frost. There are some streams descending to this river which would make fine mill-seats. I found the country very pleasant from Point Negro to this place; undulating in hills and dales, and covered with groves, flowers, clover, and grass of various kinds. Many of the flowers were not inferior in beauty or fragrance to those which are cultivated in our gardens. I am not, however, sufficiently acquainted with the science of botany to describe them. In short, if this land was in possession of a civilized industrious people, who well understood the theory and practice of agriculture, I have no doubt that it would become, in a very few years, one of the finest countries in the world, as the inhabitants would be far more moral and happy than if every thing grew spontaneously to their hand. We cannot know the real value of any thing unless we labour for it. This fact converts the original curse into the greatest earthly blessing.

Having passed through Magellan's Strait six times, at different seasons, and always with sufficient leisure to examine the natural productions of the country, the result of my observations is a conviction that the Spanish navigator Cordova has given a more correct description of the plants, trees, and animals on the northern border of the strait than any other writer. But he did not sufficiently penetrate into the interior, which abounds with productions that are unknown in the vicinity of the shore. It was my misfortune, however, to be destitute of scientific aid in all my researches, or I am confident that Cordova's catalogue might have been much enlarged.

We anchored in the harbour of Port Famine at four o'clock, P. M., in the afternoon of Saturday, the third of May, corresponding to the third of our November — a month distinguished in the United States by a period of mild, soft, pleasant weather, called the Indian summer. The weather at our anchorage, on Saturday evening, so forcibly reminded me of this peculiar period, that I determined to make an excursion into the country in search of valuable die-woods and minerals, and to see if these southern forests wore the same variegated dress in autumn as distinguishes our own at that season. I therefore selected as my companions three worthy and intelligent young men, viz. Messrs. John Simmons, William Cox, and Charles Cox, all natives of New-York, where they are yet citizens.

Having given the necessary instructions to my first officer, and ascertained that we were all well armed and equipped, we started on our expedition towards the southern extremity of the lofty Andes. Our weapons were muskets, pistols, and cutlasses, and our provisions a week's supply of bread, as we trusted to our arms for venison and poultry; and I had never known them to deceive me, if any thing came within musket or pistol distance. We took a west-north-west course by compass, and travelled several miles without seeing such game as we considered worthy the honour of a civilized death, by powder and ball. Our vigilance, however, began to sharpen with our appetites; so that before nine o'clock we had sufficient fresh meat for a much larger party, having killed a fine deer and two guanacoes.

We now selected our quarters for the night on the bank of a freshwater rivulet, where there was but very little underbrush; but where the forest trees grew to a great height, interweaving their thick and lofty branches so closely, that had there been a noon-day sun over our heads, we should hardly have been sensible of it. While my companions were employed in skinning our game, I was busy in building a fire; which, as there was no want of fuel, was soon large enough to have barbecued an ox. A saddle of one of the guanacoes was soon spitted and suspended, in the gipsy style, on the windward side of our flaming volcano, where we contrived to present every side to the influence of the heat until it was fit for the table. The fat, of course, was mostly wasted, except so much of it as we caught with our bread. Each of us being supplied with pepper, salt, and a good appetite, it must have been our own fault if we did not enjoy a good supper, equal to the best roast mutton I ever tasted.

After giving our dogs a share of the supper, and having piled on about two cartloads of wood, we all stretched our weary limbs and bodies by the fire, with each a bunch of dry autumnal leaves for a pillow. Thus moored, as we thought, for the night, we soon fell asleep, each with one hand on a pistol, with as much composure as if we had been in bed at the far distant homes of which we were dreaming.

We slept very soundly until about midnight, when we were suddenly alarmed by the distant barking of our dogs. In a moment every man was on his feet, with his firearms in his hands, primed and cocked. The dogs continued to bark, and the sound evidently approached nearer and nearer. A rustling noise was now heard in the underbrush. Every one was prepared for the approaching crisis, with an undaunted front, and his finger on the trigger of his musket. At this moment of anxious suspense, there suddenly appeared before us — one of our dogs, with a small gray fox in his custody, which had been surprised and captured while in the very act of approaching our fire!

After caressing and rewarding these faithful animals for their vigilance and fidelity, we again "addressed ourselves to sleep;" but in about two hours, we were again alarmed in the same manner, and with a like result, viz. another gray fox. Finding our repose thus liable to be constantly broken, we concluded to sleep no more. We therefore resumed our journey towards that stupendous range of mountains which extends through more than seventy degrees of latitude, or about four thousand three hundred miles!

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