As early as 1876, a deposit of placer gold was discovered in a remote location near Cabo Vírgenes, Argentina, at the eastern entrance of the Magellan Strait. Starting in 1884, small groups of gold-washers began systematic exploitation in the vicinity of the Cape, and at nearby Zanja al Pique. Once their success became known in Punta Arenas, Chile, dozens of hopeful "miners" rushed to share in this new source of wealth.
When, by the close of 1885, the Argentine Government began regulating this mining activity, the days of easy pickings were over. Although 280 mining concessions were authorized, talk of the New El Dorado did not match the reality on the ground, nor would it ever do so. By the close of 1886, discouraged miners were starting to take ship for Buenos Aires. There were to be fresh finds in subsequent years, especially in Tierra del Fuego, but the Cabo Vírgenes boom fizzled out.
The following articles are extracted from The Standard, an English-language daily newspaper of the period, published in Buenos Aires.
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(Jan-1886) Report from Patagones by Lt. Col. Federico Spurr, captain of the Villarino
(Jan-1886) Anonymous letter from Río Gallegos
(Jan-1886) Editorial opinion
(Feb-1886) Report by Engineer Fernand Schmatzer
(Feb/Mar-1886) Report by Engineer-in-Chief Albertini
(Feb-1886) Report of Attorney-General Eduardo Costa
(Feb-1886) Decree of President Roca
(Jun-1886) Article from La Nación
(Jun-1886) First Letter from Punta Arenas
(Jun-1886) Second Letter from Punta Arenas
(Dec-1886) News from the Far South
(Aug-1886) Petitioners for Concessions
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Report from Patagones by Lt. Col. Federico Spurr, captain of the Villarino
15 January 1886
THE ARGENTINE BALLARAT— Latest Particulars
Lt. Colonel Spurr to President Roca
Patagones, Jan 12th
In compliance with Y. E.'s wishes I send you the few details I have about the gold at Cape Virgin, where I personally collected some specimens. For about two months past 100 Chilians from Sandy Point have been washing for the precious metal there, with very primitive apparatus, yet they collected from 150 to 200 grammes per head.
According to the mining engineer's opinion, the auriferous layer extends along the coast from Cape Virgin to north of the Barrancas del Cóndor, a distance of 40 miles; and it is possible that it may extend to Río Gallegos. The engineer thinks that these gold deposits are of a superior class, and that there is abundance of both gold and platinum.
As soon as we appeared the Chilian washers abandoned the ground, by order of Governor Moyano. They retired without making any objection, taking their gold with them, and recognising the generosity of Y.E.'s Government, which we had the honor to represent in those distant regions. The reason I did not send this important news before was that I intended the engineer, who starts this morning for Buenos Aires, should bear it to you in person.
Governor Moyano left the chief of Police of the territory and a small force to watch it, assisted by the Sub-Prefectura at Río Gallegos. I congratulate Y.E. on this new source of wealth for the Republic.
There are many demands for concessions at the new Ballarat; but the Mining Law does not admit of such monopolies being given.
In Lista's "My Explorations and Discoveries in Patagonia"—1877 to 1880—we find the following:—"The yellow metal is found all over patagonia in different latitudes; but it is most abundant in the Brunswick Peninsula.
In 1876 a fishing schooner commanded by an Argentine, D. Gregorio Ibáñez, ran on shore near Cape Virgin, and the crew gained the coast. One of them, while digging for water, found gold and gave it to an English miner who sent it to Mr Henry Sewell in London.
In the Tres Chorrillos hills, in the latitude of Mount Observation, I gathered during my last trip some gold grains in a white, ferruginous, calcareous formation.
Further north, near the Belgrano river, I found at the same time a fragment of auriferous quartz, which, doubtless, came from the Cordillera, where Captain Musters discovered traces of the precious metal.
As a rule the gold layers in Patagonia are the result of the decomposition of the rocks that contain the metal and the washing down of the metal deposited in the sand and gravel of the alluvial formation. The mines of Brazil, Siberia, California and Australia are the same.
Anonymous letter from Río Gallegos
22 January 1886
CAPE VIRGIN — Gold and Gulls
December 28th, 1885
My dear Friend
At last I am able to send you a line. Here I am in a Desert, amongst strange people, living almost like a savage. I know none of my neighbours, and none of them know me.
I was at Sandy Point last October, intent on starting a business there, when I met a dead-beat Chilian named Mellado, so thoroughly out at elbows that I did not recognise him, although I was intimate with him a year ago in Patagones. He did not know me either at first, and, with great reserved proposed to sell me an ounce and ten adarmes [one sixteenth of an ounce, Ed.] of gold dust.
I refused to buy, as I feared the gold had been stolen; but, after protesting the contrary and binding me to secrecy, he told me that he had washed the gold out of the sands at Cape Virgin, near the entrance of the Straits. He said there was lots of gold to be had, and, as he had no resources, he had come to look for a person with enough capital to buy a washing sieve and work the find, which was known only to him.
Although I am not very impressionable, I confess that the sight of the pure gold made me wish to visit the place where it had been found; and as I believed Mellado to be truthful I agreed that we should leave the town without beat of drum, taking a month's necessaries with us, under pretext of a run into the interior.
After a deal of knocking about we reached the promised El Dorado, but, to our surprise, found many others before us, the place looking like an extensive encampment. Most of those at work were Chilians, and they received us very badly; but on the fourth day one of them came to us and proposed to buy a bottle of brandy from us for five adarmes of gold, all he had washed in ten days' work. Meanwhile we were ourselves on the look-out for a spot where we could wash for gold and have our provisions near us; otherwise they would have been stolen. After two days' search we settled on an affluent of the river Gallegos, with very limpid water. Our first washings were satisfactory. Mellado told me it was the best place of all, and we wondered why others had not come there. In two days we got 28 adarmes of gold in 124 washings in a basket that held three pounds of sand.
At each washing we got less gold, and we soon found out that we were at a fall in the bed of the stream, and the gold particles had been collecting for some time, so the top washings gave the most.
The sand that yields the gold is very fine, and of light colour; it is so fine that the very closest sieves would be necessary to prevent particles of gold escaping; and our implements were of the rudest.
Although keeping aloof from our fellow explorers, I knew some of them, as they had to come to us for supplies which we alone possessed. Every man Jack of them, however, has a pair of scales to weigh the gold he finds. They must all have come here without a cent, as they have not pid us a single coin or note for our goods. All pay in native gold. An Englishman or American named Wandorp proposed to give me a nugget weighing 14 adarmes for a knife and a lb. of coffee. I told him I would give them to him gratis, if he would tell me where he found the nugget. He went away threatening me. I afterwards learned that he and two other Englishmen were at work far inland. The nugget I saw was of very pale gold, and must have been broken from quartz, not washed. I tried to get up a caravan to explore inland, but none would listen to it. They are all very like wild beasts; every man is for himself alone, and regards his neighbour as an enemy. Whenever two of them meet in any place distant from the others, out come their arms to defend themselves; quarrels are common. One man was killed. The corpse was left three days unburied, till Mellado and I fulfilled the sad duty. The victim was a poor [blank] and his slayer a Chilian Indian who is a kind of bully or leader amongst these adventurers.
As regards the gold, I am not very sanguine. There is gold, undoubtedly, as we have all seen and found some; but there is no vein or other sign whatever of a rich deposit.
The real gold vein is to trade with the washers. If you could come here with a good stock of groceries and implements, and with my knowledge of the place, we could start a business that would pay splendidly, and collect all the gold these people find, as they pay very high for everything. They all hope some day to strike on a vein that will make them rich in a jump, and, therefore, look on the washing as a mere means of subsistence.
Mellado is going to Sandy Point to renew our stock. I send you a parcel of unwashed sand by him. I took it from a virgin spot, but I think a rich one. Get it analysed for the proportion of gold.
Crowds are still arriving, all pauper. If we had police here they would all be arrested on the evidence of their villainous faces alone. Fortunately the night is only four hours long, barely enough for them to sleep. I am writing by day light at 9 p.m. It dawns at 2 a.m.
The climate is good enough, and there is plenty of game at this season which can almost be caught with the hand, they are so tame, never having seen man before. Water good. Grass wretched. Thorns superabundant.
I send you all these data in case you like to come; but don't let yourself be dazzled by the gold in the sand herewith. The gold to be found is not more than the wages of a good peon, and there are a thousand privations. In two months not one has found anything worth the trouble; nevertheless the reports of those who throw the thing up are what feed the hopes of those who come hoping to make a fortune in a week.
Believe me when I advise you to bring eatables, drinkables, arms and implements, and we will amass more gold in a month than in a year's washing of the sands.
Show this to George, who has told us so much about California, and ask him if it is the same as at the San Francisco washings.
30 January 1886
THE GOLD MINES
The clearance of another vessel for the Río Gallegos; the departure by train for Bahía Blanca of a party of English and Frenchmen to buy 300 horses which they drive to Choel-e-Choel and thence to the Gallegos valley [Which group is this? John and William Rudd, George McGeorge, ... Guillaume(?), Ed.], and the note of the Minister to Dr. E. Costa, the Attorney General, accompanying 200 petitions for rights to dig for gold in that remote valley, from a new chapter in River Plate history, and point to the wondrous changes to which this country is subject.
But a few days ago public attention was so centred on the Presidential question, and the great political issue at hand, that not even the oldest River Plate resident could have imagined any human event in Argentine affairs could have in so short time changed everything, yet so it is; and we may truthfully say that politics are forgotten and the names of the aspiring candidates never mentioned, so absorbed is the public mind in this Patagonia gold question.
We forebear saying much on a subject so calculated to appeal to enthusiasm. It may turn out a mere flash in the pan, and it may prove another surprise to the world similar to that of California and Australia. Admitting that the advices are reliable, and that gold exists in large quantities in the Gallegos valley, then we are safe to say, everything in this country will in a very short time wear a new aspect, and even values throughout the whole Republic will be altered; new towns and villages will spring up in the far South, and the richest and most populous district in the River Plate will be from the Río Negro to the Straits, a country the most neglected and most deserted up to the present. Yet, even supposing that gold is not found in such quantities as supposed, and the whole affair blow over with the sales of a few bottles of sand and gold dust, still the country will be a gainer, since parts hitherto unexplored will be brought prominently before the public, and gold or no gold the population in the far South will be increased.
The mining petitions to Government are daily on the increase. No longer do the applicants limit their hopes to Cape Virgin. Within the last few days many "solicitudes" have been presented to the Minister for new gold mining districts in Neuquén, Malhuida and other parts. In the washings of the sands of the Río Negro they have discovered gold, and we have yet to learn the result of Gov. Fontana's expedition with the Welshmen, who started two months ago to explore the Chupat valley up to the Andes. It would seem that gold is found in all parts of the Patagonian district, and we should not be surprised to hear of it being also found in the mountains of Curumalán.
Mr. Heimendahl has applied for a mining concession on the sea coast from Point Dungeness to the mouth of the River Gallegos, and the applicant has attached to his petition a most complete plan of the country etc., and offers to pay Government the patente according to the mining law of 1853, or to give the Government 1/5 of the amount of gold discovered. Mr. Walter J. Neil has also applied to Government for valuable gold mining concessions, which we understand will be granted, and he offers to take down to Cape Virgin and Río Gallegos 200 families to colonize the place.
If, however, these gold mines turn out as rich as expected, the Government need take no special care about sending colonists with their families to the Río Gallegos, as 20,000 people will pour into the valley when the fame of the gold spreads to Europe. Machinery has been already ordered from Europe, and a very responsible company has been started to work the mines with better elements than those at present used by the explorers from Punta Arenas. The sudden demand for cattle, mares and sheep, which has sprung up in the Río Negro, shows pretty clearly that there is a much greater population in Gallegos than people in Buenos Aires suppose; and letters have come up from Punta Arenas to people here asking for provisions to be sent down from Montevideo by the German steamers as quickly as possible. In these letters it is said that whilst in former years 3 gold dollars per day were the average earnings from gold washing, now the gold washers make 20 gold dollars per day, and one or two parties have made 20,000 gold dollars in two months.
The Villarino will sail on or about the 7th or 8th for Río Gallegos, and take down a special exploring staff of mining engineers sent by Dn Gregorio Lezama, who has applied to the Government for a mining concession; and a vessel is now loading in the Boca for the same destination.
It is probable that soon we shall be able to give our readers further reliable news from the Gallegos valley, but several parties who have arrived up from there to buy cattle etc. to drive down, say that for the present it is better not to publish too much about the matter, as food and provisions of every kind are very scarce and the people, principally from Chile, are flocking in faster than ever.
Report by Engineer Fernand Schmatzer
2 February 1886
THE EL DORADO — Interesting Details
Patagones, Jan. 20th.
My dear Sir,
In obedience to your instructions I have hunted high and low for particulars respecting the gold discovery in Cape Virgin. I shall now acquaint you with the results of my investigation. Before I begin the subject of my letter, let me impress on you the fact that I have obtained all my information from the most trustworthy sources.
From several of my friends I obtained samples of auriferous sand, which I analysed.
A few months ago a wandering band of Chilians passed through the lands near Cape Virgin, where they ultimately pitched their tents, in consequence of the discovery of particles of gold. They immediately set about washing the sands, but their primitive way of extracting the gold gave but poor results. In this plight and at a considerable distance from any civilized centre, the unfortunate Chilians [...] ties of all kinds, [...] staring them in the face. It was a desperate situation, and but for a providential occurrence, no one can tell where the wanderers would be today. A huge vessel was wrecked amongst the terrible rocks near the Cape. The "Roteros" immediately decided to save the cargo if any, or perish in the attempt. Their joy was indeed great when they discovered that the wreck held all the instruments they needed, such as spades, shovels, pickaxes, etc., as well as a considerable quantity of provisions. Nails, wrought-iron, zinc, cooking utensils etc. were also found. This was a good start.
Perhaps it will not be out of place to remark at this stage of my story that the commander of the Argentine Gunboat Villarino, Captain Spurr, was the first to spread the news of the gold discovery. It appears the Captain one day met one of the Chilians referred to, and perceived he carried a large quantity of gold.
I have in my possession samples of auriferous sand washed, and also of unwashed sand. The latter resembles ordinary river sand and consists of very small pebbles, rounded and angular mixed. These pebbles contain, generally speaking, articles of quartz Feldspar, Mica and Basalt, also, although in exceedingly small fractions, Agate and Opal. I have moreover found Oxide of Magnetic iron, small particles of crystal, and of granite, the latter being sometimes of a light red and often of a dark red colour. I was struck by the almost geometrical symmetry of the granite particles. Undoubtedly, this sand is the result of the decomposition of a productive layer of soil containing granite.
I have been told by a most trustworthy person that two Frenchmen extracted in the Cape Virgin sands 225 grams of gold in 14 hours, with primitive instruments. This is certainly a most remarkable success; for I know from experience with the washing apparatus, one man can wash 1600 kilograms of sand; that is to say two men will wash 3700 kil. in 14; which gives 60 grammes of gold per 1000 kil.
If we calculate the gramme at 3 francs (2s. 6d.,) we find that 225 grammes in 14 hours give 135 dollars. Now this gold to which I refer, is almost pure, so that if melted, scarcely any loss is sustained.
I shall now acquaint you with the results of my analysis of the auriferous sands; 100 grammes mixed gave 6 gr. gold, the rest being oxide of magnetic iron. Melted, this gold gave 96 % pure gold, almost 4 % silver and a very small percentage of platinum. This analysis clearly proves that this gold is the best yet discovered.
The auriferous sands stretch from Río Gallegos (a fine port) to cape Virgin, a distance of 120 kilometres, at a depth of 6 to 10 metres and a breadth not yet determined. Perhaps analysis will show that the auriferous sands extend to the very foot of the Cordilleras.
I hope these few details, which I have gathered with some difficulty and labour, will be of interest to the reading public.
Report by Engineer-in-Chief Albertini
19 February 1886
THE NEW EL DORADO — Engineer Albertini's Report.
We publish at foot a letter to Mr. William White, head of the Engineers' Department, from Sr. Albertini, Engineer-in-chief of the Mining section. As will be seen Sr Albertini has returned from an extensive tour through Patagonia, Port Desire, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego, and he gives in his report a detailed description of these distant yet interesting parts of the country. The letter contains a resume of the report, a voluminous document which we purpose translating at our leisure and publishing in chapters for the benefit of our readers.
The following is the letter:
B. Aires Feb. 15th 1886.
Sr. Don Guillermo White, Chief of Engineers' Department.
I have the pleasure of forwarding you my report on the gold fields of Cape Virgin. In obedience to the instructions I received from the Government I likewise visited Port Desire, Santa Cruz, Tierra del Fuego, and Staten Island, through which I passed before setting foot on the auriferous sands of Cape Virgin. As you will see by my report, I have given a detailed description of all the points I visited.
Owing to unforeseen circumstances I could not send in my report on to the 1st of this month, as I intended, but more of this anon. With the sole assistance of Engineer Carta, from 6 to 7 a.m. and 5 to 6 p.m. I sought for samples and never trusted to the first samples procured.
My report is divided into five chapters:
Chapter 1—Antecedents. Discovery of the gold. My exploration trip.
Chapter 2—Geography. General situation of the territory. Aspect. Climate. Natural resources.
Chapter 3—Geology. Formation and strata in Port Desire, Santa Cruz, Tierra del Fuego, Staten Island, and Cape Virgin; conditions of the auriferous layers; results of the various analyses; comparisons between Cape Virgin and California and Australia; particular notice of California.
Chapter 4—Concessions. Brief sketch of washings, conditions and results. Interpretation of the law, at present in force throughout the Republic. Customs in other countries, where mining constitutes a source of wealth. Opinion as to the conditions under which concessions should be granted, the welfare of the country being held in view.
Chapter 5—Conclusions. General resume of opinions and appreciations.
When this report is presented to Government, consider me, Sir, at your service and at the disposal of the Government. I shall be happy to give any explanations that you may consider necessary. I do not believe my affection for this country has influenced my opinion; I have endeavoured to be as impartial as a good friend and I say: Cape Virgin has its inconveniences, but the riches hidden in the bowels of its territory make ample amends for everything, and overcome all prejudice. The future of this distant and almost unknown territory depends greatly on the measures which the Government is about to adopt—the sooner the better. Otherwise we shall witness a repetition of what happened in California. The present occupation is illusory. Government to be respected must employ its own soldiers, not handful of mercenaries.
I have the honor to salute etc.
Engineer-chief of the Mining Section.
3 March 1886
THE GOLD MINES. — Sr. Albertini's Report.
Before entering into the details of the discovery of gold at Cape Virgin, I shall quote the following words from a brochure published by M. Haton de la Goupilliére, Inspector General of Mines under the French Government, and a distinguished professor in the College of Mining Engineering in Paris:—
"We cannot deny that chance and time are the two most powerful agents in the discovery of mineral deposits on the surface of the soil (fleur de terre)."
It was by chance that gold was found in Cape Virgin. In the year 1876 a fishing bark, under the command of an Argentine named Gregorio Ibáñez, was wrecked off Cape Virgin. Fortunately no lives were lost; the crew swam to shore. One of the shipwrecked sailors, dying of thirst, finally decided to dig a well. What was his surprise to find not only water but a nugget of gold. With all the generosity of an Argentine, he presented it to one of his friends, experienced in mining, and this friend sent the nugget to Mr Henry Sewell of London.
These details I extract from a report published in 1877 by Sr. Ramón Lista. We infer from the above that the gold was first casually discovered by an Argentine ten years ago . . . . . .
Towards the last half of 1885, I found during my exploration trip a considerable number of French, English and Chilian miners engaged in extracting the precious metal, in the most primitive manner of course; all pretended to the distinction of being the first discoverers.
The gold-fields of Cape Virgin are 4 days' ride from the Colony at Punta Arenas. In this belt of territory, rich with mineral wealth, there is no natural protection against the strong and piercing winds, against the intense cold of the winter months. There is a scarcity of fuel, and to live out there the gold digger is put to some expense, since he is obliged to carry all his good with him.
Towards the end of 1884, the French steamer Arctique was wrecked amongst the rocks and Condor Shoals, to the North of Cape Virgin. The vessel was not irretrievably lost, and a contract was made with certain 'peones' to save the cargo. A shed was erected for the cargo, and two or three of the 'peones' perceived on the shore an immense quantity of gold particles. Anxious not to disclose the secret of their discovery they separated from their comrades and sought for the precious metal inland. They found plenty of gold, but were obliged to sell it in Punta Arenas, in order to purchase clothes and the necessaries of life. Chilian curiosity was awakened, and soon the whole country was crowded with our avaricious neighbors. Very fortunately for them they discovered in the remaining portion of the shipwrecked steamer a considerable number of spades, pick-axes etc. With the boards of the wreck some made huts; others went to Punta Arenas to procure everything necessary; while a small number landed in Cape Virgin, having arrived in a small schooner chartered in Montevideo.
During my exploration trip I fell in with a miner, named Augusto Honoré Barthelemy. He told me:—
1st—That in the beginning the gold diggers and washers met with the most brilliant success. at that time about 200 Chilians and many other foreigners closed their business in Punta Arenas and other spots, and came 'en masse' to try their luck.
2nd—At that time also he knew 3 men, who, working together washed 800 kilos of sand per day, and obtained on an average 500 grammes of gold (1500 kilos of sand represent one cubic metre; therefore it may be inferred 1000 grammes of gold go to the cubic metre of sand.) Each one must have obtained 160 grammes per day, a result about 4 times as great as in the palmy days of California between 1848 and 1849.
Setting down the gramme at 60 cents each man must have obtained 96 dollars.
3rd—He moreover stated that in August 1885, a Frenchman, a Swiss, and a Chilian arrived in Cape Virgin, and after three months' work, withdrew with 30 kilos of gold each; that is, calculating the term at 105 days, they obtained over 285 grammes each per diem. These lucky diggers worked on the southern portion of the Cañadón de los Franceses.
4th—That another Frenchman and three comrades obtained 50 kilos each in three months.
I have come to the following conclusion: That, although placing little confidence in the accounts, apparently exaggerated, of the gold discoveries, and taking into consideration the very primitive instruments employed for the gold washing, there is one thing which cannot be denied—gold must have been sold in large quantities; else how [to] account for the sudden closing of business in Punta Arenas, and the appearance of 200 Chilians in the field? It is not probable business men would shut the doors of their shops to follow an idle rumor.
5 March 1886
Mr. Albertini's Report.
The alluvial and auriferous regions of Patagonia are bounded by the Río Gallegos to the North, the Atlantic to the East, and by the Atlantic, Straits of Magellan, and Chilian frontier to the South.
The western limit of these regions is very probably the Cordillera. The general aspect of the country is undulating, being divided and cut up by 'cañadones' or slopes, varying in direction between W. to E-N-W. and S-E. A bad, short grass covers the wide extent of camps, but become softer on the slopes or in the hollows of small hills—the receptacles of water at certain seasons. There are also small lakes or "lagunas" of permanent water, which abound in the regions of the Frailes, the Conventos, and North-Hill. The most important I find to be the Lagunas del Italiano, a name which I gave the spot in consequence of the only inhabitant being a poor guanaco-hunter of Italian nationality. Here the best drinkable water is to be found.
The South Coast, extending from the North of the Río Gallegos to Cape Virgin presents an agreeable undulating appearance. as it approaches the shore, the ground becomes more even. The height of the 'barrancas' varies; some are 100 yards above the level of the sea, and on examination you can detect the various strata towards the top. The lower parts are gradually giving way and being excavated by the destructive waves. At no distant date the top parts of these 'barrancas' must likewise give way.
From Cape Virgin to Monte-Dinero there runs an elevated 'barranca', cut here and there by the 'cañadones', no [...] of small rivers and [...] which generally [...] as the Cañada de los Franceses . . . . .
There are no isolated trees nor hills, and the scarcity of fuel is a great inconvenience in this cold climate. The most constant and at the same time the strongest winds are the W-N, and N-E. These winds render labor impossible sometimes, and blow very often during the summer months when rain is scarcest. Nevertheless, on the 24th Dec. 1885, I saw sleet fall for 12 hours. In winter there are no winds but the cold is intense. During this season the rainy weather lasts often three weeks. Winter is preferred to summer, despite the snow which rarely exceeds a depth of 15 centimetres, and which generally thaws as soon as fallen. The winter begins in June and ends in August.
According to the 'baqueanos' (experienced men) spring is the most inconvenient season for travelling, owing to the extraordinary dampness of the soil, the result of the thaw.
It is not impossible to land on the coast of Cape Virgin or Dungeness; since we know that the English have often done it . . . . . . . My trip from Río Gallegos to Cape Virgin was not long. I started on the 22nd Dec. and arrived at destination on the 31st of the same month. I travelled 5 days through the auriferous belt of territory.
Conclusions—Climate good; possibility of obtaining drinkable water all the year round; scarcity of fuel; abundance of pasture; necessity to import the elements of subsistence and labor.
Report of Attorney-General Eduardo Costa
21 February 1886
THE NEW EL DORADO.
The following report of the National Attorney General, Dr Costa, on the 600 petitions for goldwashing claims at Cape Virgin will dash many a golden air-castle to the ground; but we are much inclined to think that, being strong, Dr Costa has also been merciful in advising the Minister to refuse all the demands for gold ground that do not come from parties with capital sufficient to work their claims in a scientific manner. To allow a horde of tatterdemalions to settle at Cape Virgin and grub for gold dust would only end in disappointment to them and disorder. At the same time, it is to be hoped that monopoly in any shape will be avoided in allotting the coveted claims. The following is the Attorney General's report:—
I have before me over 600 demands for claims at Cape Virgin, ranging from one to 400, or even more, for each petitioner. I much doubt if the whole of Patagonia would suffice to appease their gold hunger.
I take it for granted that Y.E. does not expect me to express a separate opinion on each claim, but rather on the best general system to enable the country to benefit by this new source of wealth—if it really exists, as everything leads to the belief that it does.
I may begin by remarking that the laws give Y.E. wide discretion in the matter.
"In all places whatsoever where gold or silver may be found," says Art. 10 Cap. 8 of the "Ordenanzas de Mexico," (which is the law in force) "the territorial mining deputations shall decide all claims, having regard to the extent and richness of the area and the number of claimants, always giving a preference exclusively to the discoverers."
On the other hand, the Law entitled "Estatuto de Hacienda y Crédito," of 17th December 1853, the only national enactment on the subject, in declaring the Mexican law in force, lays down that "no limit shall be put to the number of claims, contiguous or separate, that a person or company can possess," (Art. 6 Cap. X.).
As Y.E. has power to curtail or extend the concessions, the question is which is the best system in this case? A licence tax on small areas, or large concessions to companies with capital to work them? The first system was adopted at first in California and Australia. A magistrate gave a claim of ten metres square to all comers for five dollars; and it was marked out and handed over on the spot. The license held good for a year, and the holder could change to other unoccupied diggings as often as he wished during that time, on the condition that if he abandoned his claim for 24 hours at any time, it thereby lapsed. This system brought thousands of men together and worked wonders that astounded the world; but when the surface gold was gone individual labour ceased to be profitable, and the work is now done on modern scientific principles by companies with large capital. Long thick walls, costing millions of dollars, connect the hills and form colossal reservoirs of water. This terrific hydraulic pressure upturns mountains and pulverizes the quartz containing the precious metal. The sluices are then opened, and the rushing water does the work of the Inca trough. When the water has disappeared the gold is collected by tons, as it has all fallen to the bottom of the channel, previously laid with wood and quicksilver. These are the Titanic means now used by the mining Kings of Nevada and Arizona, MacKay, Johnson and others, on very poor ground that it would be ruinous and impossible to work in any other way.
Which of these systems shall we adopt in Patagonia? It is for the public interest that the mines be worked on the largest scale possible. The climate there is so bad, and the dearth of necessities so complete, that individual labour would soon be abandoned, unless the golden ands proved of exceptional richness.
In my opinion, if this new source of wealth is to be permanently worked, it must be done by companies with capital, who can make life bearable in those bitter regions, and work on such a scale that even the poorest sands—which are doubtless the greater part—can be made profitable.
Very few of the petitions sent in deserve ant notice. A mining claim is a certain specified thing, involving the obligation to work it. Asking for claims as yet undiscovered, and with no intention of working them, is like asking for claims in the moon. The six or seven hundred petitions sent in are all of this kind, and should be refused; excepting those of Messrs Neild, Sagui, Lezama and Heimendahl, who specify what they want, have capital, and offer sound guarantees.
I would advise Y.E. to grant the gentlemen named, and all others in the same conditions, the concessions they ask for, according to their capital and guarantees for 'bona fide' working. Each has asked for an area embracing most, if not all of the gold territory discovered. This wold be a monopoly contrary to our institutions, and in every way odious. The fair and rational way is to distribute the gold territory amongst companies in proportion to their means of working it, and the advantages they offer the State. Mr Nield offers a fifth of all the ore he finds. This will not prevent a part being reserved for small claims of 50 by 50 metres, to be handed over by a Commissary named by Y.E., on payment of a small license, to those asking for them on the spot, as originally done in California and Australia.
Decree of President Roca
27 February 1886
THE CAPE VIRGIN MINES.
The following important decree in reference to those mines was issue yesterday.
Whereas a considerable number of petitions of National territory in Santa Cruz have been presented at this ministry, and considering that in the absence of an appropriate legislation it is a duty for the Executive to attend to petitions within the limits of existing laws until Congress meets, the President of the Republic
Art. 1—All petitions for concessions of land in the Gobernación of Santa Cruz for gold digging and gold washing purposes must be presented at the Government escribanía or at the official residence of the Governor of Santa Cruz. The petitioner must, either himself or by means of his legal representative, state his name, domicile, and profession: also the number of concessions he desires. He must likewise say in what particular spot he has discovered the mineral deposit. Two copies of these statements are necessary.
Art. 2—When presented, the copies in question shall pass to the hands of the Government Escribano, who shall specify hour, day, month, and year of receipt. On copy shall then be returned to the petitioner, and one sent to the Ministry, where a special register shall be opened to note the receipt of petitions of this nature.
Art. 3—The petition for concession or concessions being granted the [...] 'patente' at the Escribanía or the Government.
A list of the concessions shall be weekly published in a newspaper of the capital and by placards in the seat of the Santa Cruz Government.
Art. 4—The Minister of Finance shall name a mining engineer to measure and report on the concessions.
Art. 5—One hundred and twenty days after date of concession the contract shall be null, if the concessionaire either through negligence or his own fault, do[es] not take possession of his concession.
Art. 6—The 'prelación' of the concessions shall be determined in the marginal annotation on the copy when presented at the Escribanía.
Art. 7—The number of concessions to be granted to each petitioner shall be determined by the Minister of Finance.
Art. 8—The Governor of Santa Cruz, or his representative, shall see to the proper fulfilment of the decisions of the Finance Office.
Art. 9—In necessary circumstances the Secretary of the Santa Cruz Government shall be qualified to assume the responsibility of an 'Escribano.'
Art. 10—All petitions presented to the Government of Santa Cruz shall pass through the Secretary in capacity of "Escribano", and subsequently with the report of the Mining Engineer be sent to the Finance Office.
Art. 11—All other questions respecting mining concessions shall come within the action of the Mexican Mining Code, approved by the law of 17th Dec. 1853.
Art. 12—Let this be published, etc.
Article from La Nación
11 June 1886
THE CAPE VIRGIN GOLD FIELDS.
Zanza Pique (Patagonia Coast)
A night in a light-house is a curious experiment. Thousands of insects, and of birds of all colors and sizes, come from all points of the horizon to examine the perplexing light which overhangs the coast. Birds dart at this new sun, break their beaks against the thick glass, and fall vanquished and shrieking. Next morning the foot of the light-house is the scene of destruction, and there you have your pick and choice of the rarest insects and birds. A gold-field is, in more than one way, a light-house, attracting from the four cardinal points individuals of all shades—adventurers and knights of industry, sharpers, Tierra del Fuego fishermen, merchants without business and many others, hasten to the great light-house of the world—gold.
Who has not heard of the great gold-fields of Cape Virgin? Of the wealth concealed in every cubic metre of sand—of the fortunes made by a handful of lucky Chilians? The imagination has much to do with all this.
Fancy the deserted appearance of Punta Arenas, with its closed-up shops, its empty streets and the silence of its once busy markets. One would imagine some dreadful plague had swept away the inhabitants: such a conjecture could not be far wrong. The gold fever is a resistless epidemic. On the other hand, the territory which lies between Punta Arenas and Cape Virgin, and which until lately was the resort of ostriches, lions, guanacos, etc., scarcely molested by the establishments of Messrs. Wood, Greenshields, etc. (who sent over their sheep from the Falkland Islands), presents an animated appearance, with the crowd of gold-seekers, bullock-carts loaded with shovels, pick-axes, etc, and carts conveying provisions.
When Governor Moyano ordered the 40 Chilians he found in Cape Virgin to move on to other districts, over 300 individuals of different nationalities were hid in the environs awaiting the "desenlace," of which they were informed by their sentinels. After this "denouement" I learned that hundreds of thousands of grammes of gold were conveyed to London by the Pacific steamers.
Were I to describe the aspect of Cape Virgin and its environs, I should compare this encampment of adventurers to a triangle, the base of which is an embankment forty yards in height, extending from the Cape to Monte Dungeness. The vertex is Punta Dungeness. Between Dungeness and the Cape is the establishment of a mining company, who pitched their tents here last March, and also the residence of the authorities, comprising Lieutenant Loqui, Engineer Schmatzen and Commissary Villagrau. A little further on you find the stores belonging to the same company, a more profitable venture than mining. A windmill finishes the tableaux of civilization. An industrious Italian, near Dungeness, has opened a miserable building styled, rather pretentiously, an hotel.
As you ascend the barranca you perceive an imposing plateau covered with poor grass. Not tree relieves the monotony of the scene. Following the embankment a cliff in miniature, in a N.W. direction, you come upon the rocks upon which the Arctique was wrecked. A strange contrast with the wilderness of this deserted country is the number of broken bottles, old chairs, knives, forks, boots, ropes, etc., with which the beach is bestrewn, sad relics of the gold-thirsty population, now disappeared.
At a distance of nine miles from the Cape is situated the extremity of the Cañada Lucachi, environed by a series of slopes, all fertile and covered with juicy grass. Honda is the most fertile of these slopes. Here the embankment dwindles, eaten away by the ceaseless motion of the sea. Further on you again come upon the melancholy, monotonous scene, unrelieved by trees or bushes.
The month of June is the coldest of the winter season, but the thermometer is rarely 8 degrees below zero. I have before me the observations taken during the last 20 years in these latitudes. But I shall not trouble my readers with uninteresting details. With regard to the geological problem, it remains yet to be solved. It is evident that this region at some not remote date was covered with glaciers, if we consider those that exist at a short distance to the West of the Magellan Straits. There is no compact auriferous stratum to be found, and the precious one is found scattered or mixed with sand. On the beach much gold has been discovered. But minute investigations prove that the gold does not come from the 'barranca.' A singular problem this is.
I fear the light in the light-house is nearly extinguished and has lost its great attraction.—Nacion.
First Letter from Punta Arenas
11 June 1886
CAPE VIRGIN GOLDFIELDS.
We have received a letter, which we publish at foot, from a gentleman at Sandy Point who has no interest in hoaxing the public, and his statement fully bears out what we have been inclined to believe, that the Placer-washings are the same known to Captain Smily 20 years ago, which are found at intervals along the coast, in one place giving the name of Río del Oro to an insignificant stream. To sum up the remarks of our correspondent a party of diggers took out last year gold to the value of six or seven thousand pounds sterling. They were succeeded by others who got two or three ounces each, daily, and the party now at work are obtaining somewhat less.
Unless fresh fields be discovered we may expect the hopeful diggers to grow tired of the work before long, and make their way back to B. Ayres. We have more faith in the Cuñapiru gold-fields on the Tacuarembo—Brazilian frontier, because they were worked for years with varying results. People in B. Ayres seem to forget the fact that gold is found in almost every country on earth. You will find it at Wicklow in Ireland, but in such small quantities that it will not pay even the cheapest labor. There is a good deal in Canada, which colony exports gold-dust every year. It may be found after every shower of rain int he streets of Cuyaba, Matto Grosso, where masters allow their slaves the Sunday afternoons to pick it out of the crevices and gullies.
So much noise has been made about the Cape Virgin diggings that the Government might consult some of the geologists holding official posts in this country as to the formation and strata. Should we not be more justified to look for gold about the slopes of the andes or in the Sierras of Cordoba? There are gold hill-ranges at Cruz del Eje only 60 miles North of the city of Cordoba, where a party of Englishmen introduced quartz-crushing machines made [in England] by Ransom and Simms, in 1871, but the yield was never much over an ounce of gold per ton of quartz, which did not cover expenses, and so the works were abandoned.
The following is the letter about the Cape Virgin "placers":—
Punta Arenas, May 10th 1886.
I have read many very glowing accounts of the wonderful discovery of gold in that part of Patagonia which bears the name of Cape Virgin: as a rule they are all far "too glowing and golden" to come from the pen of an eye-witness; if by any chance they should have proceeded from such a source they must be written by interested parties, and for this reason should in "public" interest be rectified. I will now give a few reliable facts which I am prepared to prove to anyone interested.
We must go back to about 14 months ago, when the French Engineer Arnal and a companion who were on a prospecting tour along the coast arrived in Cape Virgins; they found gold there as they had in many other parts of the coast from Sandy Point upwards, there was, however nothing surprising about this discovery, neither geologically nor monetarily, as they gained only 15 to 20 grammes per day; a little later on there came a good North-easterly gale which revolved the sand, and specks of gold could be seen, this raised the hopes of the little party, and they set to work to get out the gold, when the result was decidedly good. Arnal then set his face towards B. Ayres to announce the discovery to the Government; this he did against the advice of his partners, and the latter said he should work on, which he accordingly did, and with very good results; he got 2 or 3 others to work with him and for 3 or 4 months they took out regularly from 500 grammes to one kilo per day. However the washing began to pay less and less per day, and so the party decided to "clear out" with what they had made amounting in all to about £2000 each.
On their way to Sandy Point they spread the news, which caused a rush of about 100 men who were quite satisfied to make less than the others before them had done; the washings paid the latter party very good wages, and they worked on until news spread that the Argentine Government were going to send down a commission to turn them out; this led to the departure of three fourths of the gold washers, the remainder were there when the Governor of Santa Cruz with the commission aforesaid arrived; he called them together and told them in the most gentlemanly manner possible to move away, this they did without any resistance.
Now came a stand-still till the month of March, 1886, when the Villarino came down laden with passengers and material to set a large concern afloat. There was one special company formed regardless of expense, and this expenditure alone shews ignorance in that department of mining known in Australia and California as Placer diggings.
According to the latest news, all who came down had no titles for the concessions which they said, with much 'bombo' were theirs. Here to commence with, was a great breach in the etiquette of mining, according to he laws of the world. This grand company had their land measured out, land which up to that time did not belong to them any more than to the inhabitants of the moon, Then commenced the building of a large store and dwelling-house for the managers and their 30 or 40 'peones.' This part of the business concluded, up went a windmill for drawing water, and then they began to take out gold. This they called 'prospecting,' of course, as they had no right to work; still they prospected with the same machinery and apparatus that is used for working on a large scale in all other mining countries.
The 'placer diggings' were soon nearly exhausted. The 500 grammes a day of the first workers, as I have said, dwindled down as a natural consequence to the 100 of the second comers, who, when they left it, were getting from 30 to 40 grammes between 3 or 4, and now there remain only a few tailings which could be made to pay if worked on a small scale, but on which "Herculean machinery" is of no avail, first because of the great expense and small return and secondly because gold is only found down to a limited depth of 8 or 10 feet, and all the gold there can be collected in three months at the outside with very few labourers.
In the same gold region, following the coast for about 30 miles, we come to a spot locally known as Sauce a Pique; here contemporarily with those at Cape Virgins, there were men on the spot, but also carried the sand on horse-back for 30 miles across the frontier. The spot was very rich, but with constant work it is rapidly becoming played out, after the fashion of all other "placer diggings." Still at this day it is the scene of work, and anyone taking a ride up there will see 8 or 9 men working away on shares. Therefore whoever had asked for the spot will find to his disgust, concessions quite worked out.
The sum and substance of all this is that coast washings never amounted to great things, and I am sure those of Cape Virgins will not prove an exception to the general rule.
Second Letter from Punta Arenas
20 July 1886
CAPE VIRGIN GOLDFIELDS.
Sandy Point, July 8th.
I have just arrived here from Cape Virgin. The Villarino has been and gone again, bringing down one or two merchants to add to the crowd already there. A good number of passengers left the diggings in the Villarino, and I think when once they arrive in Buenos Ayres again they will not be in such a hurry to leave it for a golden dream.
I had a very rough journey down from Cape Virgin; in many places the snow was up to the saddle girths, and two or three times we had to scrape away more than a foot of snow before we could pitch our tents and lay down our saddles to pass the night.
I cannot predict any favourable results from the speculations in gold at Cape Virgin, and if quartz or gravel diggings are not found in other parts, nothing but ruin can ensue.
I predict great things as regards mining down here, in the Chilian part of Patagonia, as also in Tierra del Fuego.
There is a small river running through Sandy Point in which gold is found and gives good wages to working men. I saw a piece the other day taken from the above river weighing half an ounce. If some of those who want to speculate in gold would only lay out a few thousand dollars in exploring they would not only benefit themselves, if successful, but the world at large; and there is a great part of the country round the Straits unexplored. I intend in the spring to go on a tour of exploration myself—on virgin soil, 'tis true—but not to Virgin Cape.
The P. S. N. C. ss. Magellan went ashore at Cape Virgin; however she was got off, and managed to steam down to Sandy Point. She will wait here till the Britannia comes. As far as I can make out at present, the damage is not very serious, although sufficient to cause the detention of the steamer.
News from the Far South
22 December 1886
NEWS FROM THE FAR SOUTH.
The Argentine Transport Villarino, under command of Captain Spurr, arrived on Tuesday morning in the Boca, after a cruise of two months in the Southern Seas. Among her passengers we note Captain Moyano, Governor of Santa Cruz, and wife; Lieutenant Colonel Feilberg, National Delegate of Mines; Mr Virasoro, Sub-Prefect of Tierra del Fuego; Lewis Fique, Ayudante of the Ooshooia Sub-Prefecture; Feiriguro, do. of States Island, and several Frenchmen who have returned from a prospecting tour over the gold fields of Cape Virgins and Rio Gallegos: lastly, a crowd of steerage passengers, comprising half-starved miners, wrecked mariners, and some unfortunate Indian prisoners, caught in some barbarous razzia in Tierra del Fuego.
The news from the gold fields is of a rather indefinite character: to judge by the shabby appearance of the French miners that have arrived, the Argentine Ballarat is a soap bubble. There is no doubt whatever of the presence of gold, which is washed down with magnetic iron from the slopes overlooking the sea. Several kilos of gold dust have been brought up in the transport, but the chief portion of her cargo consists of shingle. Lieut. Col. Feilberg, National Delegate of mines, has collected a few nuggets of moderate size, and his report will throw much light on the real state of affairs. Some of the enterprising miners nearly died of starvation on the gold fields, and one man, rather than starve in heaps of auriferous sand, took to sea and risked his life swimming through the surf to the steamer. Provisions are scarce and command famine prices: broken-down horses, wild mules, and cattle of all kinds are sold as fast as hot buns; there were exciting moments when a pound of sugar commanded several national dollars and a wax matchbox could not be had for less than 20 cents. We may safely state that Commander Spurr saved the lives of hundreds by the timely appearance of his steamer with provisions of all kinds.
Far more important than the gold fields is the increase in the numbers of settlers in those parts. The valley of the Rio Gallegos is being rapidly stocked, and farms will soon stretch down to Punta Arenas. The principal land-owners and graziers are Englishmen, some of whom have from 20 to 80 leagues of land and from five to twenty thousand sheep. Both sheep and cattle come principally from the Falklands. Captain Moyano, governor of the territory, is a very popular man, especially among the British settlers, who consider him quite a countryman since his marriage with a charming young Englishwoman of the Falklands, formerly Argentine territory and to this day claimed by the Argentine Government [...]
Petitioners for Concessions
[Caution: Some numbers are missing, mis-stated, or out of sequence. Some names are mis-spelled. Ed.]
22 August 1886
|Nombre del solicitante
|1||Lezama Jose Gregorio|
|2||Muel R Silva|
|5||Gonzalez R y otros|
|6 1/2||Mievelle Hnos. y Ca|
|6 3/4||Popper Julio|
|7||D'Abrea Luis A|
|8||Martinez Juan A|
|9||Pica Carlos A|
|11||Bemberg y Cia|
|12||Lambert Levi y Ca|
|14||Achaval J M y Frestano|
|15||Ibarra Francisco M.D.|
|17||Martini Juan A|
|18||Esteves Sagui y otros|
|20||Carbalho J B|
|21||Aguirre Juan P|
|27||Gregorio C Torres|
|28||Echevarria Juan P|
|29||Posse Filemon y Jofre|
|32||Cordeli Ramon C|
|33||Quesnel y Gramondo|
|36||Casares Hector F y Emilio|
|38||Vechi Bey Enrique|
|41||Frugoni y Carbalho Pablo|
|43||Soto y Calvo Francisco|
|45||Pirovano Ignacio y Juan|
|46||De Luca Miguel|
|47||Richmond Juan e hijo|
|48||Lucas Gonzalez y Trelles|
|49||Fernandez Jose y otros|
|51||Noailles Valiente L|
|52||Trebino y Molinari|
|54||Arturo Pelegrini y otro|
|61||F Garcia Requena y Ca|
|65||B Dejean y Ca|
|67||Naon Juan P|
|70||Roque Buireo y otros|
|73||Stort Jorge y Compañia|
|74||Ramos Mejia M|
|75||Ramos Mejia J J|
|80||Santiago M Albarracin|
|89||I Viz y Rueda|
|95||Carlos N Urien|
|96||V Balbin y A Terry|
|97||E B Despaux|
|98||Francisco Tamini y J Balbin|
|99||J Vocos y J A Terry|
|100||Pizarro y Posse|
|101||Jose B Novaro|
|102||Jorge Malapert du Peuse|
|107||Sebastian N Casares|
|109||Carlos N Solivella|
|110||Cuenca, Quintana y Casabal|
|114||Antonio E Perez|
|114 1/2||Norberto Quirno Costa|
|117||Angel Pizarro y Funez|
|122||Enrique Don Kert|
|128||Jose M Bodalo|
|129||Nicolas R Davila|
|134 1/2||Marcel Trebino y Ca|
|135||Juan A de Uribe y otro|
|137||Sumblad y Ca|
|138||Nicolas R Davila|
|141||Nicolas R Davila|
|142||Mezquita y Quintana|
|143||Esteban de Loqui|
|144||Esteban de Loqui|
|145||Juan N Noguera|
|151||Agustin del Castillo|
|158||Ignacio Garmendia y otros|
|159||C J F Franchon|
|160||Juan S Jaca por varios|
|161||Juan S Jaca|
|165||Salvador de Simoni|
|167||Luis Garcia y Ca.|
|168||A J Carbalho|
|170||Victorio J Tevio|
|172||Carlos L Pica y Ca|
|186||G Uriarte y F Peteilh|
|188||Miguel Esteves Sagui por otros|
|191||G V Philip|
|192||Guillermo A Isarts|
|196||Domingo A Fernandez|
|197||Manuel Perez Hernandez y Pita y Ca|
|201||Jose H Martinez|
|209||Juan P Hardoy|
|211||G W Burton|
|212||Manuel de Clemente|
|215||Julio poper [Popper] y otros|
|218||Julio y Juan Garcia|
|226||Clementino del Ponte|
|229||Juan M Sagasta|
|131 1/1||H R Penrose|
|131 1/2||Pablo Deshages|
|131 1/3||Romulo Ayerz|
|131 1/4||Florentino Marquez|
|131 1/5||Juan Escalante|
|131 1/6||Nicolas Semovile|
|131 1/7||Hector Belluci|
|131 1/8||Enrique Diaz Arena|
|131 1/9||Tomas Tenton [Fenton]|
|232||Arturo H Fenton|
|242||Manuel A Crespo|
|243||Juio Costa y J Polera|
|246||Angel Torres y Ca|
|252||Adolfo E Carranza|
|253||Carlos S Tagle|
|257||Horacio Bustos Moron|
|258||Lewis A Budd|
|277||Eduardo J Powers|
|278||Jose G Lopez|
|280||D Leonardo y Linoges|
|282||Luis Wolff y otros|
|285||Blanco y Resonico|
|286||Tomas A Rodriguez|
|287||J Benito de Surra y Pinoges|
|287 1/2||Felix de la Maria|
|288||Tristan Malbran, Sommer, Rosentahl, Balcarce y compania|