In 1520 a European vessel exploring foreign waters came across what is today known as Tierra del Fuego. Ferdinand Magellan, on his search for a passageway to the Pacific, became the first European to set foot upon the icy terrain. Following in his path were pirates, explorers, collectors, scientists, missionaries, gold miners and merchants. Each unique group came to the region with different goals, but all represent a vibrant strand of history which time has woven together to create an intricate tapestry. This tapestry tells a colorful story of past habitation and changing occupations in the Tierra del Fuego. Three notable groups are the coastal missionaries who set out with goals of converting indigenous peoples, sheep farmers who capitalized on the lush grassy expanses of land, and miners who found economic profit from precious metals beneath the soil.
In 1869 the first successful mission was established in the coastal town of Ushuaia. This first Angelican mission was erected by Reverend Waite Hockin Stirling, whose aim was to convert indigenous communities to Christianity. He held post at this mission for its beginning years, gaining few followers. It was not until a new superintendent, Rev. Thomas Bridges, arrived with his young family in 1871 that the mission truly thrived. Growing up as a young child with the Yaghan peoples, Bridges was thoroughly familiar with the native culture and language. It was this knowledge that allowed him to communicate his message clearly, converting many. Bridge's son, Lucus, was the third white child born in the Tierra del Fuego and the Bridges family-line continues to stand as a prominent family name in the area. In addition to being a teacher of Christianity, Bridges did a fair amount of exploring on the archipelago, and also established the first working farm of the region. This farm, known as the Estancia Harberton is still standing today, and continues to be a working station that welcomes visitors. Soon after its introduction by Bridges, farming became a leading occupation across the region. Large estancias began sprouting up, encompassing hundreds of sheep that grazed on the lush grasses of the Tierra del Fuego. Under the umbrella of sheep stations, estancias took in more than just livestock. Many of them grew into self-containing villages that housed workshops, clubs, often times bakeries and, in the case of Estancia Sara, a library for workman. Today many of these estancias host travelers to Argentina and those trekking the Patagonia countryside. Sleeping in former family homes, guests receive a unique experience and first-hand exposure to the living history of this region. A Patagonian visit to a quaint and comfortable estancia is a wonderful opportunity that provides insight to their occupation and way of life.
Another historical profession of this area, less visible in present day Tierra del Fuego, is that of gold mining. The gold rush that began in 1880 was a brief but colorful period of history in this region. The precious metal was found by chance when black sand and mud were being collected along the Eastern coastline. Announcements of the findings were published many times over, attracting waves of fortune seekers inspired by the potential for great wealth. The first few years brought mining expeditions into the region with full throttle momentum, providing handsome returns to some. On Islas Lennox and Nueva, over 2,000 kilograms of gold was collected in just three short years. By 1885 gold-rush gains slowed dramatically and by 1910 all activity came to a screeching halt. Though many left just as penniless as they arrived, the great influx of people brought vitality to the economy of the Tierra del Fuego. Local estancias were able to supply goods to these new countrymen who provided a demand where before none existed. Local stores opened to cater to the influx of people, and the gold rush wave resulted in permanent increases in local populations.
Today mining of another precious resource, petroleum, contributes to the economy. A smattering of oil platforms can be found throughout the countryside, a visual reminder of the natural gifts residing beneath the soil. Tourism has also become a booming industry in southern Argentina. Just as past missionaries, estancia ranchers and miners were all drawn to the region, today that magnetic pull is still attracting adventurous travelers. Much as it did for explorers like Drake and Darwin, the uttermost south draws those wishing to explore, discover wildlife, and learn about historic cultures. In this chilly part of the world, tourists will find that their hosts radiate warmth to visitors, making a visit to Tierra del Fuego an experience not soon to be forgotten.