From Bartholomew James Sulivan   13 January – 12 February 1845

HMS Philomel Rio Gallegos | Patagonia

Monday, Jany. 13. 18441

My dear Darwin

As I have some information to give you that I think will interest you, I will write at once while it is fresh in my memory. About a week since we left the Falklands to get Soundings, but did not at the time intend going far from the land, and consequently had only a few days water on board, but the weather being very fine, as we had to get soundings across to the main I ran across, and having unusually fine weather and light winds, I found when we were off Santa Cruz, that it would be necessary to go into some place for water to take us back, and made for the Straits of Magellan wishing to go there, but having very light winds from SE in sight of Cape Fairweather, and being anxious to get back as soon as I could, I ran into this river. (and a precious intricate place it is, we were in a ticklish situation once or twice coming in) three days since in the Evening and the next morning started for the head of the Harbor where Capt Stokes2 says fresh water can be got about 25 miles off. it is a second Santa Cruz but more intricate and you can only go up and down with the tide. You know the kind of Cliffs at Cape Fairweather, having the appearance of Chalk. Cliffs of the same kind commence at about 12 miles up this River on the North shore (the South being low and flat) and are about 200 or 250 feet high. Tho pushed by tide & time I thought I would land for a moment and expected to see some of the oyster shells &c like St Julian, but could not find a single fossil shell of any kind, and therefore I think no part of the cliff can consist of your “Fossiliferous Strata”—(refering to sketch at page 202 of your book)

with this you will recieve a drawing of the cliff,3 but I will now roughly discribe it The whole height appeared to be composed of what you have called “white sediment”—that is a yellowish white friable stone stratified horizontally about two hundred feet high and in numerous beds of different shades of colour, but three beds of from 12 to 20 feet wide were of a more compact nature, one near the level of the sea a hard conglomerate (I suppose) of gravel the next about one third up the Cliff a grey soft sand stone, a third nearer the top of a blueish grey sand stone more compact and looking at a distance like limestone all the rest was the light colour friable clay earth none of which was hard enough to fall in solid pieces but the three harder rocks were in large masses at the foot of the cliff, some, 15 or 20 feet square. The whole formation being covered by a bed of shingle, covering every slope of the Hollows in the cliffs and, therefore, I think must not be the regular top bed of shingle you describe. It was from 6 to 12 feet deep forming a border to all the cliffs like this

[DIAGRAM HERE]

while I was looking at the masses of rock that had fallen I saw what I thought a concretion sticking out of one of the blocks of grey sand stone but on breaking it with a hammer saw that it was a piece of fossil bone after digging it out I saw another piece of bone close to it with part of the same sand stone adhering to it. it was the joint of an annimal as large as a horse at least. This made me search more and I soon saw what appeared to be the thin bones of the nose of a small head, and I succeeded in getting it out whole but the stone was so soft and the bones so very old that it crumbled to pieces after I put it in paper and proved to be the head of a small Animal about the size of an Armadillo and as the Skull and some Teeth remain good I hope it will be still worth something The skull is about this size

but all so old that even the teeth are quite black and rotten. near the same place I also found a leg bone of an Animal about the size of a deer, but only the joint and about half the bone could I get out perfect. I was then obliged tho reluctantly to leave, on account of the tide; and as it was, our boats got aground about twelve miles further up, and we were away all night, and did not get back till yesterday, (Sunday) and I knew if possible I must sail today as the work must be finished at the Falklands this season; and as I really have no business here, I did not like to remain, but much to my delight this morning it blew right in; and it was impossible to sail, so I started early and remained at the cliffs as long as the tide would allow searching for more (‘big bones)’ and I am glad to say it was well worth going, for I got a great many (not very large) which I hope will be valuable. some I cannot tell what they are as rather than risk breaking them I brought stone and all cutting them out in a large piece of stone, but I am sorry to say we were in such a hurry that I was obliged to have my boats crew working away also and many are broken and many only partly got out however, the following I can make out. Parts of the head and teeth of two Animals one large, teeth this size

[DIAGRAM HERE] the other smaller, [DIAGRAM HERE]

Pieces of bone from 1$\frac{1}{2}$ inches to $\frac{1}{2}$ an inch in diameter. The whole back bone and ribs of an Animal about the size of a small deer, this is in one large piece of stone so I did not attempt to clear out the bones but cut all the stone away but what contained the bones There may be more in the stone than what show externally.— One large piece of stone has I think a small head and other bones in it, and I think there are parts of one or two smaller heads, but am not certain and what I am much pleased at is getting a piece of the shell of an Armadillo quite perfect, about the size of those now existing. the piece is very small but there are many perfect scales about this size

[DIAGRAM HERE]

There are six or seven bands about 4 inches long in all and the breadth of three or four scales perfect like this

[DIAGRAM HERE]

There were also some very small black things in the rock which may be some minute fossils and some things which may not be fossils, but I have taken one in case they are, these are like this

[DIAGRAM HERE]

the lines are dark and very perfect, perfectly circular, about 9 inches in diameter. I looked carefully for shells but could not find a single one of any kind. Now comes the important part, of the bed in which they are: and I have not the slightest doubt but that the blocks came from the lowest of the two beds of sand stone I have described. unfortunately I could not get up the cliff to examine the bed, but I could see that the color was the same. There were only two beds of stone as I have said before in the cliff except the conglomerate at the bottom, and in one place the cliff having fallen enabled me to get up to the Summit of a high cliff where I could examine closely all the upper beds of clay earth and the upper bed of blueish sand stone as well as some part of the Clay between that and the lower sand stone and certainly they were not at all like the rock in which the fossils are Therefore I am as convinced in my own mind that they came from the lower sand stone bed as if I took them out. The color and appearance being exact and there were no traces of fossils, in the upper sand stone bed the only other one it could possibly have been but now comes another singular thing while examining the upper part of the cliffs I saw near me a piece of the upper white clay earth that had fallen it was about the size of my head and sticking out of it were two beautifully perfect teeth about this size

[DIAGRAM HERE]

They seemed less altered than the other ones and more perfect I was within two yards of them and with some difficulty reached the piece but unfortunately directly I touched it it crumbled in pieces and roll’d down the cliff two hundred feet I searched every part I could get to where the Fragments rolled but could not find the teeth and the pieces that fell to the bottom had not even the marks of the teeth in them, but I have brought a bit of the piece to show you that it is totally different from the rock the other fossils are in. Therefore even the upper white part of the “white sedimend” must contain organic remains but I could not see any more in that part of it I could reach. among the shingle on the surface there were some things which I think are marine fossils but I forget the name They look something like this

[DIAGRAM HERE]

I have found a few more Fossil shells in the sandstone on the South side of Saunders Island but, I think they must be similar to those you have tho I had previously supposed the sand stone to be a different formation.—

I fear you have mistaken the position of the bed of soft sand stone containing the fragments of granites &c. You say it is the “Ice formation”, and suppose it to be on the South side of the Islands.9 it is quite the contrary. if you look at the chart you will see in the SE corner of Byron Sound a small Island called Skip Is. The bed lines the South Shore of the sound, in the depth of the bay to the SE of that Island, and is situated at the Northern base of the Highest Mountains in the whole Islands rising directly from the sea to 2300 feet high this chain runs down to West Point tho in some places much lower (600 or 700 feet) The Fragments appeared to have been well worn before being deposited tho not round like pebbles on a beach. the cliffs where it lined the shore were about 30 feet high and I saw it for about two miles in length, but could not see how for it ran inland tho the hills come so close that it cannot be more than two or three hundred yards but in one place it projected nearly a mile and formed a low point You may suppose how glad I am that I am on the point of finishing this survey. The actual chart work will be complete in three days but we have plenty of “off shore” soundings to get and lots of work at the paper still to do, but I find I have had quite enough of it, and long to be settled quietly on shore again tho every thing has gone so happily for me having my wife and chicks with me (tho I see little of them while down here) and every thing comfortable in the vessel besides which I am blessed with health such as I never knew for years and never expected to know again in that my getting this employment was in every way most providentially ordered for me, but I trust now it is over here I shall be allowed to go home as I do not wish to stay out to work in the River Plate— All our little ones have benefitted much by the Falklands and are pictures of health and our little Falkland now nearly a year old does his birth place credit.10 what is more singular is that just before leaving the River they all caught the hooping cough and were getting worse up to the day they arrived here and one was very ill. Yet from that day they began rapidly to get better and tho they were daily with the Doctors children in fact almost living together, and there were numerous other children round, not one child got the Cough as if it could not exist at the Islands. my wife tried a singular remedy, for she bathed them in the sea while they had the Cough, but it certainly did them good—and when I went back after being away two months I found them all well and looking better than I ever saw them. it certainly is a most healthy climate but still I shall be glad to leave it and hope I shall never again have to leave home, in fact I do not think any thing would get me to do it again—

I forgot to mention that on my last trip to the Cliffs I made a sketch which I think gives a pretty fair Idea of them and therefore I will send it to you. I have endeavoured to color it as nearly as I can.11 it does not exactly represent the cliff at any spot but shows nearly all the different beds that were within a range of a mile tho several were very broken and the darker ones were often replaced by others of a lighter color still the general appearance of the cliffs was very like the sketch. the light colored gravels at the bottom were generally the rubble from the other beds above but the bottom bed of hardened gravel (or fine shingle, for the pebbles were quite round) stuck out boldly, often in overhanging masses. I am very curious to know whether you consider all these beds included in the “white sediment”, that is whether they all come between the fossiliferous strata and the shingle. I cannot think they were all formed by the action of the sea on a beach as you suppose the white sediment to have been; because many of them are compact and regular sand stone; and the bed of shingle must have been formed previously; as the lighter particles according to your theory must of course always be underneath. the bed of sand stone immediately below the fossil bed must also I should think have been deposited regularly, had there been no compact beds of sand stone above the fossils, I could have supposed that the carcasses had floated down some river or estuary and had sunk by degrees among the “white sediment” as it was forming, but on the whole I cannot help thinking that all these beds except the upper white ones must have been regularly deposited by running water. I do not know whether it is possible for bones to cause the sediment in which they are contained to harden round them, but certainly the bed appeared to be very friable, except at the lower part where the Concretionary Hard lumps are that I believe contain the fossils. If it is possible for bones to impregnate the stone with any cementing ingredients, I think they must have do so in this case; they must I should think from there appearance have parted with all their phosphate of lime— do not laugh at my conjectures if they are sheer nonsense, which I have no doubt some of them are. I wish I could have found shells with them so as to give some Idea of their age, but I hope some of the things which I cannot make out will turn out to be marine animals of some kind— I recollect your mentioning somewhere in your book that ““Volutes” have been found some way South (I think 40 or 42) and may yet be found further South”12 I have been searching the book but cannot find it; perhaps I mentioned in a former letter that they are numerous at the Falklands but in case I did not I will now. we often found Numbers of dead ones on the beaches, but for nearly two years never found a live one till one day a “red bell13 was seen with one he had just brought up to eat. and since then in one place myself and the doctor each got one at a very low tide. we then saw that the reason our dredge had never brought them up was that they are buried just under the surface of the sand the shells are about 6 inches long and 2$\frac{1}{2}$ in breadth. I could not myself have vouched for their being Volutes but my late First Lieut. and the Doctor, who are old Pacific shell collectors say that they are and as it confirms what you said I thought you would like to know it. from the numbers on all the beaches they must be abundant—

Speaking of shells, I must not forget to tell you than in the River Plate a few miles from the entrance of the Uruguay I found a bed of apparently a more compact nature than the sandstone Cliffs near it, and in it there were a great number of casts of shells the whole shell being replaced by a highly crystaline substance I am pretty certain that they are marine shells, & I do not recollect whether you found any similar ones or not I will try to give you an Idea of their shape [DIAGRAM HERE]

I think the crystaline substance is lime but the rock appears to be a hard clay— in case I should not come home this year if you want any more particulars about them I will try and go to the place again but at the time I thought you would be sure to have seen others like them and I still suppose you have the bed they were in was not more than 15 feet above the river I also picked up a few miles from the same place two teeth on the beach at the foot of some cliffs which from having some of their Crevices filled with a hard substance I think may be Fossil I will give you the shape of the end of the tooth [DIAGRAM HERE] 1$\frac{1}{4}$ inch $\frac{3}{4}$ inch This is miserably done and not like it, but it has five cutting edges two lower line the two top rows and a fifth between the two lower ones. I could find no bones near, and these may be perhaps teeth of some existing Animal, but they appear to me rather large. The thickness one way being an inch & quarter and the other way three quarters of an inch

CD annotations

1.1 As I … sand stone more 1.28] crossed pencil
1.15 the appearance of Chalk.] underl pencil
4.1 I fear you … sketch 4.4] crossed pencil
4.10 I know … fathoms. 4.15] ‘Patagonian Bank’ added pencil, circled pencil
4.18 The only … perpendicular 4.23] ‘Basalt veins Falkland Islsadded pencil, circled pencil
4.46 there are hundreds of these dykes] underl pencil
5.1 I must not … Santa Cruz 5.7] ‘Weather Falkland Isdsadded pencil, circled pencil
5.11 I have … points. 6.4] crossed pencil
6.4 You will recollect … cause. 6.9] ‘Death of Horses’added pencil
6.24 in fact … animals 6.38] crossed pencil
6.38 I do not … vessels.] ‘Rat Falkland’added pencil
6.42 It is quite … difference 6.44] ‘Foxes same on the two islands’added pencil
6.51 I have seen … balls. 6.56] ‘Dikes’added pencil, circled pencil
7.3 formation.—] followed by a pencil line drawn across the page
8.2 You say … contrary. 8.3] ‘Boulder Formation’added pencil
8.4 Byron Sound] ‘Byron Sound is NW part of Western island’ added pencil
8.8 have been well worn 8.9] underl pencil
8.9 tho not round like] underl brown crayon
8.10 30 feet] underl pencil
8.10 two miles 8.11] underl brown crayon
8.15 but we have … Sulivan 18.1] crossed pencil
On cover: ‘Death of Horses only Species fact.’pencil ‘Sounding to Falkland Isdbrown crayon ‘Boulder [formation]brown crayon ‘Pebble island rabbit’ pencil, del pencil ‘Ch V [below del ‘1’]’ brown crayon, circled brown crayon

Footnotes

1844 is an error for 1845. The correct date occurs later in the letter.
John Lort Stokes.
Journal of researches, p. 202, where CD gave a diagram of the strata of coastal Patagonia. He showed the cliffs as being composed of ‘Fossiliferous Strata’. See also n. 11, below.
At least one of Sulivan’s fossils was presented to the Royal College of Surgeons, see Flower 1879–91, 2: 436. Richard Owen described this and some further fossils sent by Sulivan at the British Association meeting in Southampton in 1846 (see Report of the 16th meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science held at Southampton in 1846 Transactions of the sections, p. 66). He named them Nesodon imbricatus and Nesodon sulivani.
CD’s fossil quadrupeds from Bahia Blanca were described by Richard Owen in Fossil Mammalia.
For CD’s remarks on a second, smaller species of South American Rhea see Journal of researches, pp. 108–9, and ‘Notes upon the Rhea Americana’, Collected papers 1: 38–40.
See Correspondence vol. 2, letter from B. J. Sulivan, [10 May 1843].
Presumably mentioned in one of CD’s letters to Sulivan.
James Young Falkland Sulivan, Sulivan’s oldest son, whose name reflected the family’s belief that he was the first British subject born on the Falkland Islands (DNB).
Sulivan’s watercolour sketch of the Rio Gallegos cliffs is preserved in DAR 46.1: 75.
Journal of researches, pp. 611–12.
Haematopus leucopus, the Falkland Islands oyster-catcher or red-bill.
Robert FitzRoy was recalled 30 April 1845. The news reached him on 1 October 1845. For the circumstances see Mellersh 1968, pp. 224–35.
According to the Treaty of Waitangi, land purchases were outlawed, and only the government could buy land from the Maoris. The ‘system’, however, was not Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s but that of the first governor, William Hobson. (See Mellersh 1968, pp. 203–4).
George Augustus Selwyn was bishop of New Zealand, 1841–67.
Henry Williams, archdeacon of Waimate.
Sulivan’s family returned to England in August 1845. He returned in June 1846, see letter to Richard Owen, 21 [June 1846].
‘Do not attempt … Sulivan’ was written on the cover.

Summary

Describes stratification of cliffs on south shore of Rio Gallegos; fossils found at base of cliffs. Speculates about geological past of the area. Discusses climate of southern Patagonia; navigation problems at the mouth of Rio Gallegos.

Gives results of soundings taken between Falkland Islands and South American mainland. Describes geology of Falklands, especially the dikes found on many islands. Comments on climate of Falklands. Discusses horses and cattle, health of his children in the Falklands. Mentions volutes found in the Falklands.

Passes on report of FitzRoy’s policies as governor of New Zealand.

Letter details

Letter no.
DCP-LETT-730
From
Bartholomew James Sulivan
To
Charles Robert Darwin
Sent from
HMS Philomel , Rio Gallegos, Patagonia
Source of text
DAR 46.1: 75–86
Physical description
19pp sketch