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Patagonia Bookshelf



Driving an Entire Indian Tribe Into a Ditch and Exterminating Them


Punta Arenas, Straits of Magellan, July 1. —

map There used to be a place called Patagonia, and one can still find it referred to in old geographies, but by the combined efforts of Chile and the Argentine Republic it has been wiped off the modern maps of the world. The United States Ministers at the capitals of the two republics named assisted in dissecting the territory, and were presented with beautiful and costly testimonials as tokens of the artistic manner in which it was done. This fact is respectfully disclosed to the attention of the Hon. Richelieu Robinson, whose opposition to the practice of permitting United States officials to receive "baubles from foreign potentates" has made him very unpopular in the diplomatic service. This work was done with the knowledge and consent of the Government at Washington, and undoubtedly prevented a war between Chile and the Argentines as both nations had designs upon the Patagonian territory, and had for years been studying how to steal it decently. The diplomatic correspondence on the subject would fill volumes, and had grown rather belligerent, when Minister Tom Osborn at Chile proposed that he and Minister Tom Osborne at Buenos Ayres take the matter in hand. The telegraph line between the two capitals was hot with messages for several months, until finally it was agreed that the western boundary line of Chile should be extended down the coast and then run eastward, just north of the straits of Magellan, so that the Argentines should have the pampas, or prairies, and Chile the straits and the islands. The map of Chile now looks like the leg of a very tall dude, long and lean, with a very high instep and several conspicuous bunions.

It was very smart in Chile to get control of the Straits of Magellan, that great international highway, through which all steamers must go, and the archipelago along the western coast, comprising thousands of islands which have never been explored, but which are believed to be rich in what the world holds valuable, also fell to her share; but the Argentines got the best of the bargain in broad plains, rich in agricultural resources, rising in regular terraces from the Atlantic seaboard to the summits of the Cordilleras, whose snowy crests stand like an army of silent sentinels, marking the line upon which the two republics divide — plains as broad and useful as those which stretch between the Mississippi River and the ranges of Colorado, as good for cattle as they are for corn.

It was a rather unusual proceeding, this partition of the Patagonlan estates. It is commonly the custom to divide property after the owner's death ; but in this instance the inheritance was first shared by the heirs and then the owner was mercilessly slaughtered. They called it a grand triumph of the genius of civilization over the barbarians, and the success of the scheme certainly deserved such a designation : but in this case as in many others the impediment to civilization was swept away in a cataract of blood.

Gen. Roca, the President of the Argentine Republic, was the author and the executor of the plan of civilizing Patagonla, and he did it as the early Spanish Conquistadors introduced Christianity into America, with the keen edge of a sword. His success won him military glory and political honors, and made him what he is today, the greatest of the Argentines.

There were originally two great nations of Indians in what was known as Patagonia, but the Spaniards called them all Patagonians. […] Later explorers discovered that there were two distinct races among the aborigines : first the canoe Indians of the coast, and second the hunters of the interior, who are expert horsemen, raise cattle and resemble the Sioux of the United States or the Apaches of the Mexican border. The two nations spoke languages entirely different, and had nothing of resemblance in their manners or habits of life. […] The horsemen of the north, the plains or pampa Indians […] appear to be closely allied to the Araucanians of Chile. […] Regarding their moral character, Lieut. Musters says they are not such heartless savages as has been represented. They have kind dispositions, and are hospitable toward those who treat them justly, but are relentless enemies of those from whom they have suffered injury. Not naturally treacherous, they keep faith with their friends, but regard the Spaniards with bitter resentment, and never lose an opportunity, fairly or unfairly, to pay off old scores. The frontier of the Argentine Republic until a few years since was constantly harassed by them, murder, arson, and pillage were the rule, and the development of the nation was seriously checked until Gen. Roca was sent out with an army to exterminate them.

The dividing line between the Argentine Republic and what was known as Patagonia was the river Negro, which flows along the 41st parallel, about 900 miles north of the Straits of Magellan. The greater portion of this country is well watered pampas or prairies, extending in plainly marked terraces, rising one after the other, from the Atlantic to the Andes; but toward the south the land becomes more bleak and barren, the soil being a bed of shale, with thorny shrubs and tufts of coarse grass, upon which nothing but the ostrich can exist. The winters are very severe, fierce winds swooping from the mountains to the sea, with nothing to obstruct their course. These winds are called pamperos, and are the dread of those who navigate the South Atlantic. During the winter months the Indians were in the habit of driving their cattle northward into the foothills of the Andes for protection, and, leaving them there, made raids upon the settlements on the Argentine frontier, killing, burning and stealing cattle and horses.

[WARNING: The following section is incorrect. The writer (un-named, probably William Eleroy Curtis) appears to have confused two major elements in the struggle against the "Indians" — the Alsina Ditch and the Desert Campaign. Although the repression of the natives was ruthless, we have not found evidence of any incident of the type or scale reported below. Ed.]

Terror stricken, the ranchmen fled to the cities for protection, and year by year the frontier line receded toward Buenos Ayres, instead of extending further upon the plains.

President Roca was then a General of cavalry and had won renown in the war against Lopez, the tyrant of Paraguay. He was sent with two or three regiments to discipline the Indians, and he did it in a way that was as effective as it was novel. While the Indians were in the mountains with their cattle he set his soldiers at work, several thousand of them, and dug a great ditch, twelve feet wide and fifteen feet deep, from the mountains to the Rio Negro, scattering the earth from the the excavation over the ground with such care as to leave nothing to excite the savages' suspicions. Then, when the ditch was completed, he flanked the Indians with his cavalry and drove them southward on the run. Being ignorant of the trap set for them, the savages galloped carelessly along until thousands of them were piled into the ditch, one on top of the the other, a maimed, struggling, screaming mass of horses, men, women, and children. Many were killed by the fall, others were crushed by those who fell upon them, while those who crawled out were despatched by the sabres of the cavalrymen.

Those who were not driven into the ditch fled to the eastward hunting for a crossing, which the soldiers allowed them no time to make, even if they had had the tools. Shovels and picks and spades are unknown among the Patagonians, and as they are the wards of no nation, muskets and ammunition had never been furnished them to do their fighting with. It was very much such a chase as Chief Joseph of the Nez Perces gave Gen. Howard in the Northwest a few years ago, and finally ended in Gen. Roca driving the Indians into a corner, with the impassable Rio Negro behind them, where the slaughter was continued until most of the warriors fell. The remainder were made prisoners, and distributed around among the several regiments of the Argentine army, in which they have proven excellent soldiers. The women and children were sent to the Argentine cities, where they have since been held in a state of semi-slavery by families of officials and men of influence. The dead were never counted, but were buried in the ditch which encompassed their destruction.

Northern Patagonia was thus cleared of savages, and civilization stretched out its arms to embrace the pampas, which are now being rapidly populated with ranchmen. […]

[end of extract]

Source: "The Sun" (New York, NY), 30 August 1885
Clipped: 19-VII-2013
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