Copyright © 2004-2017 
Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
Two months among the native peoples of southern Patagonia
North American missionaries on the Strait of Magellan, 1833-34
Report (Chapter) :    1     2     3     4  

[Continued from. p. 402.]

December 14, 1833. Finding that a young man was going to the Bay, I accompanied him. On our way we crossed a table land and then descended into a wide plain almost encircled by ranges of hills. On this plain we saw several hundred guanacos grazing. My guide gave chase to a drove of these animals and I followed him, my horse cutting the air so that the ground seemed like a rapid current under my feet. There was no checking my bounding courser. I had only to keep my seat and go on. These horses are trained for the chase and are admirably adapted to the country. When they draw near a herd of guanacos, like furious chargers, they pant for the onset; and if loose reins are given to one, it is almost impossible to hold in the rest. A check makes them restive, and almost furious to rush upon the prey. As we could get no chance for heading or cutting off the guanacos, we did not succeed in taking any. Being obliged to pursue them on a straight line, we soon found them outstripping us in the race, and though our celerity was such as almost to make the ears tingle, yet these fleet animals soon left us far in the rear, and we abandoned pursuit and again proceeded on our way. These natives pursue their game not only on the pampas, but upon the hills and mountains; and it is surprising to see their panting steeds ascending and descending steep and lofty eminences, leaping bogs, ditches, etc., with scarcely any abatement of their speed, and stopping for nothing until restrained by their riders, or jaded by toil they sink exhausted on the ground.

After crossing this plain we ascended Table Mountain by a narrow winding ravine. From the top of this mountain, which is ten or twelve miles from the shore, we had an extensive view of the strait and of the country on both sides of it. I discovered nothing new in the soil or external features of the country. The hills were mostly sand and gravel, but covered with a stinted russet looking grass even to their tops. The low valleys contained a rich black mould, and produced rank grass and wild celery in abundance. No forests were any where to be seen, and no streams of any considerable size. Water in this country is scarce, and is usually found in little basins, or in rills at the foot of the mountain.

Our little hunting party returned at evening with thirty young guanacos, twelve of which were assigned us as our portion. Thus the Lord spreads us a table here in the wilderness. At this season most of the game taken by the Indians consists of young guanacos, as they are unable to keep with the old ones when pursued, and become an easy prey to the dogs.

20. Visited by crowds of the natives to-day, who are so friendly as almost to press us out of our tent. While dressing our game, many of them gathered around and begged the liver, lights, etc., which they devoured raw. It is a common practice among them to eat these parts of the animals which they take in hunting, warm in the field, tearing them from their game like dogs; not because they are pressed with hunger, but because they esteem them a luxury in this state, I have also seen little children eating the most offensive parts of the intestines uncooked and unwashed.

Young Louie returned at evening with three lads whom he brought from the tribe of Indians he had been to meet. He informed us that he had found a large body of good Indians, and that they would all be here on the morrow. Queen Maria he said was not with them, but they were led by a capt. Congo, whom he called a very good man and declared him the grand chief of the nation. When Lorice heard these tidings, he left us to follow after his own tribe.

Our young friend slew a lion on his return, and a part of its flesh was presented us. These natives use the lion for food whenever they take the animal.

This Sabbath has been a day of constant and unavoidable interruptions, and the sight of those restless savages, roaming on to eternity, without the knowledge of a Sabbath or a Savior, is painfully affecting.

23. Capt. Louie set off early tins morning to meet the approaching party and escort them to our camp, while the rest of the family seemed to be making preparations to receive them. About noon the Indians began to arrive, and for several hours they continued to pour in around us and to erect their tents on all sides. While the women were engaged in putting up the tents, etc., the men and children crowded around our habitation to get a peep at the American strangers. Some ventured into our tent, others huddled thick before the door, sitting in close ranks upon the ground, and others arranged themselves on horseback in the rear of these, and bending forward so as to lay their bodies horizontally on their horses' backs, strove to get a glance at us through the door. They were all dressed in mantles of skin like those heretofore described. They were armed with the bolas, and many of them wore the boot taken from the horse's leg and the wooden spur. They are a large and noble looking race of men. Most of them are tall, straight, and well proportioned, with broad swelling chests; round, smooth, well turned limbs. Stature usually about six feet. Their hair is long, straight, and black, eyes and nose moderately prominent, forehead rather low, teeth well set and of ivory whiteness. Their complexion is rather swarthy, but their countenances mild and pleasant, indicating friendship and good nature.

When the women had arranged their tents, they also gathered around to indulge their curiosity for gazing upon us. The females are not so large nor so well formed as the males. Soon after their arrival, the chief, capt. Congo, who is the head-man of the tribe, came and introduced himself to us, and spent a long time in our tent. He is a young man of a sweet countenance, of a tall and elegant figure, and of much native gracefulness of movement. He has learned a few English words from sailors and talks a little corrupt Spanish. He seemed happy to see us and was very social so far as his medium of communication would admit. He appears vain, and is much given to self-applause. He inquired about our country, what houses we lived in, what food we ate, whether we had "much guanaco," how many moons we were on the water while coming to them, how long we had been here, how long we would stay, what articles we had with us, especially if we had rum, and tobacco, with many similar questions. He was also curious to know our name for almost every object he saw. Many things appeared truly interesting to him, but every thing was marred by the shamelessness with which he introduced and pressed topics of the most obscene nature.

A subordinate captain informed us that this tribe were called the Santa Cruz Indians, and that the larger part of them are still with Maria at the north, but would be here before long. He also informed us that the clan that separated from us yesterday were the Supalios of Port Famine, that they were bad Indians, and that our friend capt. Louie did not belong to them but to the Santa Cruz tribe.

24. Most of the Indians appear hearty and robust. There is a goodly number of sprightly children, and there are some very aged men amongst them.

During the day an old man came before our tent door, and observing us writing, he sat down upon the ground and commenced a loud and boisterous harangue. Our Indian mother, whose tent is next to ours, immediately came out and began to labor resolutely with the old man, but all that was said to him only made him more fierce and clamorous. The Indians gathered around from all quarters, some of them smiling at his earnestness, and others appearing absorbed in deep thought or listening with fixed attention. Our old mother finding herself unable to hush the man retired and her son, capt. Louie, began to try his skill. He labored evidently to sooth the old man's feelings by putting his hand upon his shoulder, and bending down to drop soft words in his ear, and apparently reasoning with him in a very candid and dispassionate manner. Finding his efforts unavailing, the young man pressed through the crowd, with anxious looks entered our tent and sat down between my companion and myself. All this time we had been ignorant of the cause of the old man's perturbation though we suspected it might be occasioned by our writing. This the young man now assured us was the case. He told us that the old man said our paper and books were very bad, and that he had tried to convince him to the contrary, but as he had not succeeded, and as the old man still scolded, he wished us to put up our writing. We readily took his advice, and could not but feel affected at the very decided, yet mild manner in which he defended our cause, and at the determination he showed to defend us to the last by crowding into our tent and taking his seat between us.

When we had laid by our writing we began to take more notice of the old man, trying to talk kindly with him, giving him some water in a tin cup, etc. This seemed to sooth him and he soon retired. [Mr. Coan]

25. I passed among the tents this morning, and counted 31; but how many of these are double I know not. Passing among them they appeared like stalls, occupied by families or pairs, as the case may be; these are generally about four or five feet wide and contain from four to six occupants. These tents are much as the others, having plenty of dogs, and skins on which they lie or sit, and but little else.

From the first arrival of the camp, our tent has been crowded, and great numbers sitting around the door. As a body I never saw a company of more pleasant countenances, or less indicative of bad dispositions. In this respect I should think they were far before Lorice's party. These are, also, larger and taller men than those were, though I should think none were over six feet and two inches. It is pleasant as I pass from tent to tent to see the crowds of children that follow me, with wonder, astonishment, and delight at the Americans.

27. My patients have increased, until I have seven under my care, four of them afflicted with pulmonary diseases. The number of those thus afflicted is an evidence that such diseases are likely to prevail in the country. [Mr. Arms]

28. Some rude young men took our axe without leave and went out to cut bushes; but our old mother followed them and brought it back to us.

30. Our thermometer, while exposed to try the temperature, was stolen and secreted by some of the savages. We informed our Indian mother of the loss, and before night her vigilance discovered the culprit, and taking it from him she restored it to us. She also brought us a strayed hammer, and then went all round our tent to tighten the cords, and to see that all our things were secure.

Jan. 2, 1834. At ten, A. M., the savages began to move off, but it was not until two, P. M., that the last of them left the ground. The appearance of this moving company was truly grotesque. The men harnessed for the chase, with boots and spurs, bolas and knife, and attended by a multitude of dogs trooped over the plain, pursuing guanacos in every direction, while the women and children formed a kind of centre column and moved steadily on with the baggage. Many of the pack horses were so heavily laden that their riders seemed mounted on castles, and one actually sunk under his load. The hens, the pups, the children, and some of the small dogs were put in little cribs, or packed among the baggage; and to keep her infant quiet, one woman had some little bells attached to her crib, which, with their merry tinkling kept time with the horses feet. [Mr. Coan]

4. To-dav two Americans came from the other party. It was pleasant to see those with whom we can converse with ease, but painful to hear their profanity, and see them so given up to sin.

6. It was thought best that I should go and see Maria. Taking the young C. and Henry we rode down to the camp, We passed under the mountain, over an exceeding rich plain, covered with celery, long grass, etc. We found about 500 Indians living in 60 houses. They appear much like those with whom we are, except they are addicted to gambling, and seem very fond of it; spend much of their time at cards, etc.

After staying a short time, Maria, her husband, and two or three others returned with us, and spent the afternoon. M. is quite pleasant and social, speaking the Spanish with considerable fluency. I should judge her to be 55 years of age, and yet she would gallop her horse with any of us. Like others, she is a great beggar, though apparently very generous herself, offering me a lion skin mantle and guanaco skins if I wished. We gave her the cloak which we prepared on board for her, with which she seemed much pleased. She has four sons, one of whom was playing at cards with others while I was there, interrupted only by the use of the pipe, of which they are very fond, and would part with their last mantle for tobacco. [Mr. Arms]

We supposed Maria to be at the head of the nation; but we now learn that this is not the case, and that she has no more authority at present than any other individual, though it was once nearly absolute.

On telling her that I would soon visit that I should her camp she insisted turn with her this evening and spend several days at her tent, and her importunity became so strong that I finally consented to go. Accordingly I mounted a horse prepared for me, and set off at sunset with her and her husband who accompanied her. We rode with great speed and arrived at the camp soon after dark. The Indians learning of my arrival, flocked around the tent in scores to gain a peep at the stranger.

The old queen gave me a piece of roasted meat for supper, and then made me a bed of skins upon which I lay down, and when she had covered me with motherly care I slept quietly till morning.

7. On arising this morning the old queen brought me a piggin of water and a piece of soap for washing, and soon served me up a portion of boiled meat for breakfast. Her tent is made and furnished in the same style with those of the other natives, with the addition of two or three articles from a civilized land, such as an iron pot, a piggin, etc. She inquired how long I would stay at her camp, and on telling her that I must return in the afternoon, she urged me to tarry longer, at least till to-morrow. She seemed pleased with her guest, and treated me with much kindness and simple hospitality. Spent the forenoon in the camp observing the habits of the savages and getting such information as I could.

At three P. M., I told Maria that I must return, when she harnessed a horse for herself, and another for me, and escorted me back to my home. On leaving she presented me with a new guanaco mantle, tastefully painted, and with seven hen's eggs, which she had preserved from a fowl kept in her tent. She also presented my associate with a mantle at the time he visited her tent.

The queen kept a man in her tent whom she called padre and who is a sort of priest. He wears his mantle and hair in the style of the women, lives in celibacy, and never engages in hunting, or in any hard labor, and is supported by the bounty of others. The young sailors here informed me, that his only official duty is to attend to the burial of the dead. This process is thus described. A small hole is dug in the ground and the deceased, having his lower limbs drawn up to his body is buried in a sitting posture, just below the surface of the ground, with his face to the east. The padre treads down the grave, and sets up a solemn mourning over the dead. When this is done, it is said that the horses and dogs of the deceased are all killed, and that his mantle, skins, horse gear, hunting apparatus, and every thing which he possessed are buried, an entire removal being thus made of every memento which would recall him to memory. This is probably occasioned by their great dread of death, and their disposition to remove whatever would remind them of the king of terrors. We have not witnessed a death since we have been among them, nor have we been able to find a grave. They either carefully conceal their dead, or carry them to some distant place for burial.

Their marriages are as follows:— When a young man's heart is fixed upon a female, he makes known his desires to some friends, and this person goes to the girl's father and negotiates with him in behalf of the young lover. A price is set upon the daughter — usually a horse, or some mantles; and when this is paid, the young man takes her for his bride. On the day he receives her to his house, he kills a horse and invites his friends to his tent till it is completely filled, and the day is spent in feasting or gormandizing, laughing, talking, singing, etc. Other companies collect in different tents, to whom pieces of the horse is sent, and who spend the day in the same manner. The wife is not only bought in the way of merchandize, hut she is sold again at pleasure, and it is not unfrequently the case that a man will have six or seven wives in succession. [Mr. Coan]

[To be continued.]

Source: The Missionary Herald, vol. XXX No. 12 (December 1834), published by The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Boston, USA.

Originals: Titus Coan Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC

Copied and transcribed: December 2006