In 1833, when Charles Darwin came exploring the area on board HMS Beagle he encountered a tribe of people known as the “Yamana”. These Indians were known for their strikingly, paint-covered bodies.
The first time the name Ushuaia appeared in writing was when, in 1869, the English missionary Waite Hockin Stirling documented his experiences of living with the “Yamana” people. More British missionaries arrived in 1870 and established a small settlement, erecting European-style houses which were pre-built in the Falkland Islands and shipped over. One such house was for the Reverend Thomas Bridges. His house comprised of two bedrooms and a third room. The bedrooms were allocated one for the Bridges family and the other for a married “Yamana” couple, and the third room was used as the chapel. In 1871 the first official marriage was recorded and in 1872 Thomas Despard Bridges was registered as the first birth in Ushuaia to a European.
It was not until 1873 when Argentine citizens arrived to teach at the newly-constructed school and the Argentine President, Julio Argentino Roca, decided to make Ushuaia a penal colony for serious criminals. This was likely based upon the British model of using Tasmania and Australia for the same purpose of sending criminals to a point as far away as possible from the main population of the country.
However, behind this plan was also a ploy to establish an Argentine colony for Argentina to lay claim to Tierra del Fuego, which eventually became formalized in 1881 after a boundary agreement between Chile and Argentina. The plan to build the new prison also required the construction of more houses for staff and logistical support personnel. Nevertheless, it was not until 1896 when the prison was officially recognized with an Executive Order issued from President Roca whereupon it could receive its first inmates.
On the 12th of October 1884, as part of the South Atlantic Expedition, Argentine Commodore Augusto Lasserre established Ushuaia as an Argentine sub-division, with the missionaries and naval officers signing an “Act of Ceremony”. Don Felix Paz was appointed as the Governor of Tierra del Fuego, and in 1885 then he decided that Ushuaia would be the Island’s capital. However, it was not until 1904 when the Federal Government of Argentina followed through and recognized Ushuaia as the capital of Tierra del Fuego.
Ushuaia suffered several health epidemics, which were brought in by settling Europeans including typhus, whooping cough and measles. These illnesses decimated much of the native population, but because the indigenous “Yamana” people were not included in the census data the exact numbers of “Yamana” who died is not known. The first census was carried out in 1893 and recorded 113 men and 36 women living in Ushuaia (but not considering any “Yamana”). By 1911 practically all the “Yamana” people had died and the original mission was closed. However, in the 1914 census (only 21 years later) the population had grown to 1,558 inhabitants.
In 1903 a military prison opened at the nearby Puerto Golondrina, which later merged with the original public prison in 1910, and continued to operate through to 1947, when President Juan Peron closed the facility by executive order due to reports of prisoner abuse. The building continued as a storage and office facility for the Argentine Navy until the early 1990’s. Today it is the Ushuaia Maritime Museum.
Ushuaia as since attracted farming pioneers, people who settled here and built estancias from where they farmed (and still do) mainly sheep, but also cattle. More recently the city has attracted people who want to work in the tourist industry.