The 3,000 cattle that William Norris brought from Saladillo to the Baker Valley
in 1906-1907 were driven an estimated 1,000 miles overland before reaching
their final destination.
Long-distance cattle-drives of this magnitude, although impractical and uneconomic
today, have a long history in Argentina, as testified by the Spanish colonial
archives. For instance, in 1659 Don Juan del Pozo y Silva, resident of Buenos
Aires, drove 2,300 head of cattle from the area of Rosario across the Andes
to Santiago de Chile. Similarly, in 1662, Luis de Mena y Pavón repeated
the journey with no fewer than 10,000 animals. In terms of the difficulties and
dangers they faced, these veritable "expeditions" are comparable to
any of the known Patagonian drives of more recent times.
[Ref. "Don Juan del Pozo y Silva, Cabildante y estanciero de La
Trinidad 1631-1697", by José María
Pico, in "Genealogía, Revista del Instituto Argentino de Ciencias
Genealógicas", No. 25, Buenos Aires, 1992, pp.31-35,
William Norris (1868-1951) was born in Manchester, England, into a well-to-do
family of coach-builders. At age 16 he migrated to Argentina (Gualeguay, Entre
Ríos province), where his uncle
Henry Darbyshire was part-owner of an estancia (ranch). William
rapidly built a reputation for his ability as a horse-tamer.
From 1900 to 1904, he was employed at the
Curumalán estancia (Buenos Aires province).
Next he was hired by Compañía
Explotadora del Baker, a ranching company with ties to Valparaíso and
Punta Arenas. This company was formed to work a huge land concession (around
3,600 sq. miles, according to Norris) granted by the Chilean government, in
the River Baker district. This part of Patagonia, located between the
Northern and Southern ice-fields, the Andes and the Pacific Channels, is difficult
to reach; at the start of the 20th century, it was still largely unexplored
and totally undeveloped.
The Company gave Norris the following instructions: first, to reconnoitre
the region, and confirm its suitability for cattle-raising and commercial logging;
next, to develop infrastructure; and subsequently, to bring in several thousand
cattle from Argentina (by the only feasible route, a mountain pass subsequently
In his Memoirs, William Norris shows how he responded
to these monumental responsibilities. With energy and ability,
in just four years,
he built a flourishing stock of cattle and sheep, despite the tragic
setback described in his 1906
Letter. The 1907 Anecdote records
another unexpected danger, when he was threatened by two bandits (allegedly
of the Butch Cassidy gang); fortunately, he survived unharmed. Nonetheless,
the market in cut timber was not as lucrative as had been calculated; unable
to cover its high start-up costs, the company went into bankruptcy in 1908.
Norris resigned: his son later declared that his father was never paid for those years of
work. Buildings and equipment were dismantled and sold off.
Most of the livestock remained in the upper valley, reverting to a
wild state (see footnote).
A glimpse of William Norris\'s travels is provided by the
Visitor's Book of the Punta Arenas British Club, where his name appears 3 times in 2 years.
[ ARG = Argentina :: CHI = Chile :: WN = William Norris ]
Place-names can be located on these maps.
Person responsible: major activity
Feb 1905 -
WN: exploration visit - from Puerto Santa Cruz (ARG),
via Paso Roballos to Baker District (CHI); then downriver to Canal Baker,
ending at Canal Messier
In "This Way Southward", Aimé Tschiffely describes
how his "old friend" Bill Norris and over 200 workmen had spent three
months at the mouth of the River Baker, "shipwrecked"
and with no means of communication with the outside world; how the men fell
ill from the lack of fresh food, and how many of them died and were buried
there on a nearby island. Despite this appalling experience, the work went
on, and Norris returned to the Baker with fresh workers in the following season.
For many years this second-hand account, published more than 30 years after
the event, was the only information available to the general reader about this
disastrous episode, which cost dozens of lives. As was to be expected, many conspiracy
theories have appeared to "explain" that distant event.
Decades later, in her book "Caleta Tortel y su Isla de los Muertos" (pub.
2000), the Aysén historian Danka Ivanoff presents and
analyzes various materials (written and oral) concerning the
burial ground known as "La
Isla de los Muertos", where simple crosses still mark the
graves of the Chilote workmen who died at Bajo Pisagua. After the book's publication,
John Norris (1909-2009?), the son of William Norris, provided more information:
the two English pieces presented here were among his late
In his Memoirs, William avoids dealing with this
subject. However, the Letter to his
uncle Henry Darbyshire
does much to dispel the mystery. His explanations help to allay
allegations of foul play; but there are still unknowns — perhaps
more answers will be found, be it in official archives, newspapers of
the period, or some other manuscript ...
The concession awarded to the Compañía Explotadora del Baker
was abandoned in 1908. In 1916, Hobbs & Co. of
Punta Arenas, acting on behalf of a group of investors, invited the experienced
to participate in a new project in the Baker district. The process was not
easy: Bridges himself had to take charge of the operations, and it took a long
time for the business to became profitable. This difficult experience highlights
the accomplishments (albeit
transitory) of William Norris's endeavours in "taming" virgin land.
The following anecdote, recorded by William Norris's son John, emphasizes the great
number of animals that had been abandoned and gone wild after the collapse of the Baker enterprise.
«As a proof
of the quantity of Cattle which were left wild in the Baker after 1908/9, the
Swift San Julián
was originally built about 1910
to kill cattle, besides sheep. The hoists on the "beef killing" floor
were over a meter higher than standard; also there were still remnants of very
high fences around the "corrales". On enquiry why, I was told that
the cattle which were killed in those days were so wild and would or could
jump like deer. These cattle came from the "Pre-Cordillera" estancias
and Indian Camps. These, no doubt, were cattle which had roamed over or, more
likely, [been] hustled over the passes, there being no one on the Baker Camps to look
after them. The same goes for the many thousands of sheep which were in that
district at the time.»
Acknowledgments: Special thanks to Danka Ivanoff for sharing her knowledge of the region, plus these original materials, printed in translation in the second edition of her book "Caleta Tortel y su Isla de los Muertos".
1. "Caleta Tortel y su Isla de los Muertos", Danka Ivanoff W., 2nd edition, 2003 (out of print, 2011)
2. "This Way Southward", A. F. Tschiffely, New York, 1940
3. Copy of William Norris's Letter and hand-written, signed Memoirs (courtesy of Danka Ivanoff)
4. Description of "Colección cartas familiares de John Norris, 1836-1921", Universidad San Andrés, Buenos Aires, http://biblioteca.udesa.edu.ar/CEyA/Archivos/john-norris/john-norris-desarrollo (VI-2011)
5. "El Baker, un territorio bravío", Francisco Campos Menéndez, Santiago 1986
1. "Trepando los Andes", Clemente Onelli, Buenos Aires 1904: (a) Neuquén railway bridge; (b) Lands of the Argentine Southern Land Company
2. "The Countries of the King's Award", Col. Sir Thomas Hungerford Holdich, London 1904: (a) River Baker