History of Chiloé
More than 10,000 years ago, these islands were still uninhabited by man. The first settlers were the Chonos, a nomadic indigenous people who used to paddle around the inland sea and channels of the archipelago in their canoes or dalcas, in the daily adventure of fishing and gathering shellfish. But these people were gradually reduced by forced assimilation into the European social and economic system, until they disappeared completely the 18th century.
Some time after the Chonos, the Chiloé Veliche or Huilliche people arrived, and their descendants remain on the island to this day, living by farming and fishing. At first they shared the island with the Chonos but then gradually edged them out towards the south. Their strong cultural presence contributed for more than five centuries to the customs, the language, and the productive, recreational and social activities of Chiloé.
Both of these native peoples dominated and populated this land, and in contrast to other indigenous peoples, who were subjugated by the Europeans, the people of Chiloé continued to live by their ancient traditions. Many of these traditions were shared by the invaders during the colonial period and have survived up until the present day.
It was not until forty-eight years after Columbus first made contact with the Americas in 1492 that a Spaniard sighted the islands of the archipelago. So by coincidence, although he had no connection with Pedro de Valdivia’s expedition into Chile the same year, the navigator Alonso de Camargo sighted the western coast of Chiloe Island in 1540. He was the first European to sail this area of the Pacific Ocean.
After founding the city which bears his name in February 1552, Pedro de Valdivia continued south with 150 soldiers hoping to reach the Magellan Straits. After crossing the region, he reached the Bay of Reloncaví and caught sight of the Island of Chiloé. Only the report of Alonso de Góngora Marmolejo records the details of this expedition, and a letter from Valdivia himself to the King. The expeditionary force marched along the north side of the Chacao Channel but was unable to cross it. From there they looked at the shores of Chiloe and other islands which they had caught sight of, and they returned after a brief exploration.
At the beginning of November, 1553, Francisco de Villagra, Valdivia’s deputy, took charge of the southern exploratory raids and set sail from Valdivia with 65 men. This expedition was also unable to cross the Chacao Channel, so they returned north from the shores of the Bay of Reloncaví, where he had been with Valdivia.
At the same time as Villagra’s expedition, Valdivia dispatched Marshal Francisco de Ulloa, Captain of the forts at Arauco and Tucapel, and the pilot Francisco Cortés de Ojea, from Concepción in October 1553. They set sail on an exploratory mission in search of the Straits. For the first time the Straits were sailed from the Pacific to the Atlantic, opening an important line of communication between the two oceans. The coast of Chiloe and other parts south of the Chacao Channel were also reconnoitered.