A few people knew about the remote Galápagos Islands before 1832, but only a small handful had spent any significant time there. Explorers had come across the archipelago off South America’s west coast as early as the 16th century, and there is some evidence that South Americans visited hundreds of years ago as well. By about 1570, the "Insulae de los Galopegos" (named for their impressive tortoises) appeared on European maps. Shortly after Ecuador annexed the islands, governor General José de Villamil brought convicts to boost the island's human population.
The islands were pirate hideouts and a home base for whale hunters until well into the 19th century, when Charles Darwin made his voyage there and did research that helped him formulate his theory of evolution. Some people realized that their presence (and often, their hunting) was wiping out species that didn’t exist anywhere else. Even so, thousands of settlers moved to the islands and Ecuador let the U.S. build an Air Force base there during World War II.
It wasn’t until the environmental movement budded in the late 1950s and early 1960s that Ecuador made the Galápagos Islands a national park (it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage site). Even now, tensions arise between developers, poachers, conservationists, national park officials and the islands’ 25,000 residents. It’s an ongoing negotiation, but there’s been a lot of progress, too. Tourism provides a major boost to the local economy, although numbers are limited because of the potential damage large groups could do to the fragile environment.