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Tierra del Fuego

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Tierra del Fuego is a large archipelago at the southern extremity of South America, separated from the mainland by the Strait of Magellan. The strait is about 560 kilometers long and varies in width from 3 to 32 kilometers.

The islands of Tierra del Fuego lie between 52° 40’ S latitude and 63° 30’ and 74° 35’ West longitude. They stretch nearly in a line with the Patagonian Andes for just under 650 kilometers northwest and southeast between Cape Pillar and Cape Horn, and for about 430 kilometers west and east from Cape Pillar to Cape Espiritu Santo in the north. Southwards the archipelago tapers to about 190 kilometers between Cape Horn and Cape St. Diego.

For the purposes of navigation, mariners since the late eighteenth century have thought of this complex of islands, passages and bays have described the archipelago as three distinct regions: East, West and South Fuegia.

East Fuegia was the name given to the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (known to English mariners as King Charles’s South Land). This island is considerably larger than the total areas of all the other islands in the archipelago. It is about 320 kilometers long from north to south, and geographically is an extension of the Patagonia pampas. The island has plains covered by various tall grasses and herbs. In the south of island a long mountainous peninsula with spectacular peaks and glaciers projects westward to the Pacific. The highest of these peaks, also the highest point in Tierra del Fuego, is Monte Darwin (2,488 metres), situated about halfway along the southern side of the peninsula. Towards the end of the peninsula is another high peak, called Monte Sarmiento (2,300 metres).

To the south the Beagle Channel separates East Fuegia from the islands that came to be known as South Fuegia. These islands form a triangle the southern apex of which lies the rocky headland of Cape Horn.

At its western end the Beagle Channel is known as Darwin Sound. This sound leads into the Pacific at what came to be known on Admiralty charts as the Londonderry and Stewart islands.

To the North of these islands lies another peninsula that is the westernmost part of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego (East Fuegia). To the north west of this peninsula are the islands described on Admiralty charts as comprising West Fuegia: Clarence Island, Desolation Land, and Dawson Island.

Desolation Land was so named by Cook, who at first thought that it formed a continuous mass stretching from the western entrance of the Strait of Magellan to what came to be known as the Cockburn Channel. The land in fact consists of several islands separated from each other by narrow channels flowing between the Pacific and the western branch of Magellan Strait.

The first Europeans to visit Tierra del Fuego were the members of Ferdinand Magellan’s ill-fated voyage of circumnavigation (1519-22). It was they who called the region Tierra del Fuego because of the fires (feugo) on shore lit by indigenous peoples.

Related Entries for Tierra del Fuego
Places: Magellan, Strait of, Magallanes, Estrecho de | Le Maire, Strait, De le Maire, Estrecho | Cape Horn | Staten Island
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Created: 15 September 2003
Modified: 20 March 2004

Published by South Seas, 1 February 2004
Comments, questions, corrections and additions: Paul.Turnbull@jcu.edu.au
Prepared by: Paul Turnbull
Updated: 28 June 2004
To cite this page use: http://nla.gov.au/nla.cs-ss-biogs-P000311

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