In late 1996 we conducted an expedition to retrace Charles Darwin's footsteps through Galápagos in 1835. (Estes et al, 2000.) Darwin's explorations on shore were frequently at sites where previous and subsequent island visitors sojourned and left their mark. Buccaneers, privateers and whalers who came to Galápagos in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries often landed in search of fresh water, leaving artifacts such as broken clay jars and sometimes engraving the name of their ship in the tuff cliffs.
Pottery shards have been found at several sites, most notably at Puerto Egas on Santiago Island, and names of ships dating from the later half of the 19th century can be seen on the cliff faces of Tagus Cove, Isabela Island, and at Las Cuevas, Floreana Island. Other evidence of early visitors has probably long been eroded away or buried under shifting sands. However, at two of the principal watering sites of those early days, we discovered two vestiges of human presence that have withstood the ravages of time; one is the oldest known engraved date, the other a circular stone wall.
On Santiago Island, 1.8 km WSW of Buccaneer Cove, a seep of fresh water trickles into a small basin carved into the rock at the foot of a ravine that appears to split Cerro Cowan in half. Buccaneers William Dampier and Ambrose Cowley (1684), privateer Woodes Rogers (1709) and whaling prospector James Colnett (1793) all noted this spot in their respective journals or maps of the archipelago. In the Beagle Diary, Charles Darwin mentioned that tortoise hunters collected water “sufficient for our daily consumption” from what he called this “miserable little spring.” This was in October 1835. We visited the spot on November 6, 1996, and found the same; enough water seeped from cracks in the rock to fill our 1-litre bottle in 30 minutes.
Approximately 20 meters behind the seep we discovered a shallow cave faintly etched with dates and ship names (0°10'53.9" S, 90°50'12.1" W). The engravings were well worn and mostly illegible, and for this reason were almost overlooked by us. Indeed, this tuff wall is unique among places in Galápagos where names of ships are painted or carved, in that there is no recent graffiti. All the names appear to be from the beginning of the 19th century and perhaps earlier. We were able to partially read six names, three of which we deciphered as “CA[M]ERON,” “[H] [?]TH[O]WSON” and “SHIP HA[L]ARD” or “HA[E]ARD” (brackets denote uncertain letters). The oldest legible date was “APRIL 4 1804” (next to an illegible name). This date is noteworthy in that it pre-dates the “PHOENIX 1836” engraved at Tagus Cove, and purported to be the oldest legible engraving in existence in Galápagos.
On Isabela Island, at the foot of a ravine between Tagus Cove and Beagle Crater is another seep of fresh water, again known to buccaneers and whalers. On October 1, 1835 Charles Darwin found that “To our disappointment the little pits in the sandstone contained scarcely a Gallon & that not good.” On November 3, 1996 we found the same; a small pool of fresh water near the high tide mark, highly contaminated with sea spray. On a return visit to the site on April 27, 1997 we found a stronger stream of water trickling from the rocks into the pool, but this time the pool was contaminated with goat droppings. Names were visible, very faintly etched in the soft tuff behind the seep, but not one was decipherable.
Unlike Darwin who landed at the fresh water seep and then hiked in to Beagle Crater, we hiked from Beagle Crater to the water seep. The valley between Beagle Crater and Tagus Cove is cut by a tongue of lava which tapers to the sea from the main flow emanating from Darwin Volcano. On either side of this tongue are several branching gullies thick with thorn shrub (Scutia). While attempting to identify the one ravine to the south of the lava tongue which leads to the fresh water seep, we were diverted by the thick vegetation into branching ravines to the north. In one such gully we found a man-made circular wall built against the bank (0°16'25.0" S, 91°21'53.7" W). The wall, approximately 1.5 meters high and 3 meters in diameter was made of overlapping slabs taken from the surrounding tuff. Lying on the ground close by were several old bleached tortoise bones and two olive jar (amphora) fragments dating from the 18th or 19th centuries, similar to the pottery shards found at Puerto Egas, Santiago Island. At the time we thought we had found a tortoise-retaining wall like the one at Rábida Island (visible until about 10 years ago) dating from some time in the 1800s when whalers captured vast numbers of tortoises for meat. However, a few months later, while reading accounts of early visitors to Galápagos, we came across two separate references to huts in the vicinity of Tagus Cove. The following quote is from the account of Captain Porter of the Essex who visited the water seep on April 24, 1813 (Journal of a Cruise made to the Pacific Ocean, 1822, New York).
On the side of a rock at this watering-place, we found the names of several English and American ships cut, whose crews had been there; and but a short distance from thence was erected a hut, built of loose stones, but destitute of a roof; and in the neighborhood of it were scattered in considerable quantities the bones and shells of land and sea tortoises. This I afterwards understood was the work of a wretched English sailor, who had been landed there by his captain, destitute of every thing, for having used some insulting language to him. Here he existed near a year on land tortoises and guanas, and his sole dependence for water was on the precarious supply he could get from the drippings of the rocks; at length, finding that no one was likely to come to take him from thence, and fearful of perishing for the want of water, he formed a determination to attempt at all hazards getting into Banks' Bay, where ships cruise for whales, and with this view provided himself with two seal skins, with which, blown up, he formed a float; and, after hazarding destruction from the sharks, which frequently attacked his vessel, and which he kept off with a stick that served him as a paddle, he succeeded at length in getting along side an American ship early in the morning, where his unexpected arrival not only surprised but alarmed the crew; for his appearance was scarcely human; clothed in the skin of seals, his countenance haggard, thin, and emaciated, his beard and hair long and matted, they supposed him a being from another world. The commander of the vessel where he arrived felt a great sympathy for his sufferings, and determined for the moment to bring to punishment the villain who had, by thus cruelly exposing the life of a fellow-being, violated every principle of humanity; but from some cause or other he was prevented from carrying into effect his laudable intentions, and to this day the poor sailor has not had justice done him.
Twelve years later, Lord Byron visited the area and the following excerpt is taken from Voyage of HMS Blonde to the Sandwich Islands, in the Years 1824-1825. (1826, London):
27th March.—Our first care this morning was to search for the water with which we were to complete the ship, but to our great mortification we found the springs, which are usually abundant, nearly dried up, and were therefore obliged to put the ship's company on an allowance. A boat was despatched to Narborough Island to procure land-turtle, and others were employed in fishing with great success. Our Sandwich Island chiefs landed on our anchoring, and having found two huts left by some former visitors, they remained in them to enjoy the pleasures of fishing and bathing according to the customs of their own country, while we staid in the harbour [until March 30].
Darwin made no mention of finding a hut in the area, but this is not surprising since he climbed Beagle Crater to the south and so would not have ventured northward to where the stone wall is located.
Whether the circular wall we found is the remains of one of the stone huts mentioned in the above quotations, a corral for tortoises, or something more modern remains a matter of conjecture. It is close to the water seep (only 225 meters NE from the seep) and made of stone, and in these facts resembles Porter and Byron's huts. Porter may well have made up the story of the marooned sailor. He was well known to lie in order to dupe the ships he was pursuing. However, the fact that Byron's party also found stone huts in the area suggests that Porter may well have seen a stone hut of sorts, whether designed for human habitation, keeping tortoises penned or for some other purpose.
If the stone wall that we found is the structure mentioned by Porter it could be the oldest man-made construction in Galápagos in existence today. Patrick Watkins lived in a crude hut on Floreana Island in 1809, but nothing of its remains have been found. We may never discover which ship visited Santiago Island on April 4, 1804 or the origin of the stone wall at Tagus Cove. Nevertheless these new pieces of archeological evidence add to the colorful human history of Galápagos and give us the unexpected pleasure of discovering that not all vestiges from past visitors have succumbed to the ravages of time.