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Early writings from Southern Patagonia
Title: The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn
Sub-title: A study of life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia
Author: John R. Spears
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1895


If any of the readers of this book have an unrestrainable longing for wild adventure, with the possibility of suddenly acquiring riches thrown in as an incentive to endurance, let them pack their outfits and hasten away to the region lying between Cape Horn and the Straits of Magellan to dig for gold. Neither Australia nor California in their roughest days afforded the dangers, nor did they make the showings of gold – real placer gold for the poor man to dig – that have been, and are still to be found in Tierra del Fuego, and the adjoining islands. Nor is the gold in all cases too fine to be saved by ordinary rude sluices, for "nuggets as big as kernels of corn" – the ideal gold of the placer miner – have been found by the handful, and may still be had in one well-known locality if the miner is willing and able to endure the hardships and escape the dangers incident to the search.

But because of the hardships and dangers it is a veritable tantalus land. There are many more skeletons of dead miners than authentic records of wealth acquired in Tierra del Fuego, while those who have now and again struck it rich and gotten clean off with the dust usually have gone no further with it than Punta Arenas in the Straits of Magellan, for Punta Arenas is to this region what San Francisco was to California and Virginia City to the deserts of Nevada.

The story of the Cape Horn gold diggings is especially remarkable in this, that the gold there should have remained undiscovered during the centuries that passed after the first navigators landed in the region. Consider that Magellan first saw Patagonia and the strait that bears his name more than 350 years ago. Consider further the character of Magellan, and the host of explorers that followed him. They were all admirals, or bore other titles of high rank, and we call them famous, but they were almost to a man notion peddlers – men who started out with stocks of gewgaws and trifles which they were to swap for valuables. Magellan went out, not to make himself famous as a navigator, but to reach the Spice Islands by a shorter, and therefore more profitable, route than that by the Cape of Good Hope. He was out for fortune, and the fame of making discoveries was an incidental matter. And so for the rest. They were not very particular or nice as to how they got gold to ballast their ships. They plundered harmless people on the African coast and elsewhere; robbed ships found under other flags than their own; even sacrificed innocent human lives in their thirst for gold. Not one of these greedy sailors and pirates but would have gone almost wild with joy at the finding of a mine of gold.

And yet here, in the streams that empty into the Straits of Magellan, even in the streams near Port Famine, where Sarmiento's colony starved to death, and in the sands of the coast of Patagonia, were gold diggings – the genuine placer diggings, as said. These navigators sailed along with their eyes on the gold-bearing shores. They even filled their water casks in the gold-bearing streams. It is likely that the time came when scarcely a day in the year passed when some sailor's eye was not on land in the Cape Horn region where gold could be found, but not until the latter half of the nineteenth century was gold actually obtained there.

Then, when gold was found, comes another curious feature of the story. It probably took twenty years after the finding of the first dust – twenty years, during every one of which, some gold was found in the region – to create anything like a stir in the matter. I say probably twenty years because the actual dates are not known.

The story of the Cape Horn mining region begins on the mainland of Patagonia north of the Straits of Magellan, and it is at the beginning a very hazy story. I could not learn definitely either the name of the first man who found gold in the vicinity of the strait, or the exact locality in which it was found. I talked with miners and merchants of the region on the subject, but no one knew anything about it worth mention. An Official Memoria General on the subject of Mines, printed in Buenos Ayres [Buenos Aires, Ed.] in 1889, says that "several years before 1867 it was known that gold existed on the east coast of Patagonia, and also in the little streams that run from different points of the Andes. This fact has been confirmed in various places and at different times by Chilean miners and shipwrecked seamen." And that is the best information I could get on the subject.

Early in 1869 Commander George Chaworth Musters of the English navy, visited Punta Arenas, en route for a journey across Patagonia with the Tehuelche Indians. In one of the stores of the town, where he stopped for the purpose of "purchasing tobacco and other necessaries," he found some nuggets of gold. He speaks of them incidentally along with the Indian weapons, girdles and other curios that the store contained, but a Yankee sailor from the schooner Rippling Wave, who happened into the store while Musters was there, became enthusiastic over it and said:

"Ah, that's the stuff we used to grub up in a creek in Californy. I guess if the old boat lays her bones on these here shores, I 'll stop and turn to digging again."

In 1877 and again in 1878, Don Ramon Lista, an Argentine explorer and writer, visited Punta Arenas, and on his return to Buenos Ayres he printed his experiences in a pamphlet. In that he says:

The creek called Las Minas that bounds the settlement on the north abounds in grains of gold; and from 1866 until 1877 many natives of the island of Chiloe have lived well on the daily product of their labors in washing the gold-bearing sand.

In the year 1876, a small schooner engaged in the seal fishery, and commanded by a noted Argentine sailor, Don Gregorio Ibanez, was stranded near Cape Virgin, the extreme southeast corner of Patagonia. The crew, without exception, had the good fortune to escape to the land with some provisions and other valuables, including a shovel. The shovel may seem to be a novel tool for shipwrecked seamen to carry through the surf, but Don Gregorio knew what he was doing.

Patagonia is a desert region very much like certain parts of the United States. One may travel hundreds of miles without seeing a drop of sweet water, and yet with a shovel water a-plenty may be had by him who knows where to dig. Don Gregorio, having landed his provisions, put a man at work digging in the sand not very far from the surf in search of water. Whether he found water or not tradition does not tell. The story tellers all forget about the water as they relate how, when the digger had gotten down about three feet, he began to throw out a layer of black sand such as no one of the crew had seen before – a black sand that was dotted all over with little and big dull yellow particles. That was such an odd-looking sand that Don Gregorio and the digger and all hands had to take a proper look at it. And when they had taken this look, they almost went crazy with excitement, because those yellow particles were pure gold.

But, as I said, neither this discovery nor the gold that was dug from Las Minas creek at Punta Arenas, nor the stories of these doings which were carried to England and to California by ships passing that way, had any effect in creating a rush to the diggings near the straits.

In explanation of this indifference, it may be said that the diggings, even of Las Minas creek were on the whole rather lean. Instances of considerable finds are mentioned by the old timers of Punta Arenas. Men cleaned up the stuff by the ounce, in spots, but the run of what men got was "mere day wages." The find of Don Gregorio's sailors was not considered of any importance – the tiny nuggets were supposed to be a stray deposit, and not indicating any bed of gold-bearing sand. The stuff lay in the sand of the beach, and who had ever heard of such a thing as placer diggings in the sand along the shore?

In 1877 as many as 120 men worked the sands of Las Minas creek and made day wages at it. In the United States the fact that 20 men with hash bowls could wash out even "mere day wages" would create a rush to the region, while the finding of an occasional nugget "of the weight of 300 grammes," as occurred in Las Minas creek, would create a stampede, of course, but in the Spanish American countries the conditions and the people are different.

However, a time came when even the people of Punta Arenas got excited. The steamship Arctic of one of the lines running through the strait was, in 1884, wrecked on Cape Virgin very near the place where Don Gregorio's sealing schooner went ashore. Like the inhabitants of the Bahama Islands, the people of Punta Arenas used "to thank God for a good wreck." The Arctic was a remarkably good wreck, for she was a well-found, handsomely fitted passenger ship. A motley crew of men hastened from Punta Arenas to the beach at Cape Virgin, some to get what they could from her lawfully, and some to get what they could in any way. It is said now that some one of the number was familiar with the story of what Don Gregorio's sailors found when digging for water, and so the old story of gold discoveries there was retold as the gang smoked and talked and sorted their plunder. Thereat some of them went digging "just for luck," and found something more exciting even than the silk fittings, chronometers, cordage, and anchors which they had taken from the Arctic – they found gold.

One Fred Otten cleaned up seventeen kilos (37.4 pounds) of gold in the course of two weeks, they say, and that sort of luck was enough to rouse even the phlegmatic wreckers of the Straits of Magellan.

Here, then, at the wreck of the steamship Arctic, is found the real beginning of the story of the Cape Horn gold diggings. In those days Punta Arenas was a supply depot for a fleet of sealing schooners that eventually destroyed the rookeries of the region to the south. The sealing sailors took a hand in with the gold washers. They did more than that. They had, as they would have said, a severe look at the ground round about as well as at the layer of sand in which the gold was found. The lofty banks – in fact, everything in sight from the beach was what geology sharps would call an alluvial formation. The lofty precipices were composed of layers of clay, sand, pebbles, shells, the debris of prehistoric seas and floods. In one of these layers – a layer that cropped out under the tide waters – was gold galore. Jack couldn't explain it, and he didn't want to; but when he had helped to skin the gold-bearing layer from the clay as far as he could reach, he remembered that he had seen just such beaches with banks behind them elsewhere – on Tierra del Fuego, on New Island, on Lennox, on Navarin, on Wollaston, on Hermit, on Cape Horn itself. He had seen those lofty banks from the decks of sealing schooners, and he was game to go to them to see if there was gold in the sand along the shore there as there was at Cape Virgin. Why shouldn't there be? And there was.

Nor were the citizens of Punta Arenas the only ones excited by this find of gold dust in the sand at Cape Virgin. The Argentine Government sent an engineer to examine the region, and the opinion formed by the engineer was that "the gold-bearing sands of Patagonia are richer than those of California and Australia." So says an old public document. Further than that, "there was much agitation in Buenos Ayres among speculators in mines who had great hopes that grand fortunes might be obtained easily in Patagonia. A great number of persons solicited from the government concessions of mines of gold. But as the greater part of the solicitors had never been in Patagonia, and were obliged to gather their information from others as to the desirable points, it happened that much confusion arose."

"Much confusion" just describes what happened. Many concessions were not only issued on overlapping claims, but on the same claims, and there were many heart-burnings and feuds over patches of sand that were not worth anything.

One Don Gregorio Lezama, with a capital of $70,000, organized an expedition, and sent it out with sluices and wind-mill pumps to supply the sluices. They reached the diggings and set up both sluices and pumps. Then they found that when the wind did not blow the pumps could not supply the sluices with water, and when the wind did blow the men could not supply the sluices with gold-bearing sand, because that sand was found only where the waves would then prevent the work of the men. So the wind-mill outfit was abandoned and another pumping arrangement to be worked by mules was sent out. The record contains this paragraph as to the subsequent doings:

The company continued its operations for more or less months, and obtained some pounds of gold; but the general outlook was not very encouraging, the work was suspended, and the company liquidated itself.

So it happened, of course, to the majority of people who went in the rush to Cape Virgin diggings. They eventually suspended operations and liquidated themselves. Nevertheless a number had "struck it rich," and that, as said, started the search for the precious metal along the stormy coasts and under the towering precipices of the islands away south to Cape Horn.

My first view of a Cape Horn mine camp was obtained on the east coast of Tierra del Fuego. I had taken passage on an Argentine naval transport that was bound on a voyage with supplies for the officials and troops at various stations which the Argentine Government has established in recent years throughout the region. To promote the development of its territories the government carries prospectors and their outfits at very moderate charges, considering the kind of navigation. Accordingly this transport had on board four men and about three tons of provisions and other supplies to be landed at El Paramo, the first mine camp established on the east coast of Tierra del Fuego.

Paramo is a Spanish word meaning desert. It is a very good name for the camp. When one has heard the story of this desert camp he will have gained some idea of the life of a prospector and miner in the Cape Horn region.

The founder of El Paramo was one Julius Popper, one of the pioneer prospectors of Tierra del Fuego. He was, in fact, the first prospector to make a journey across the island, though missionaries, of whom a curious story will be told at another time, had explored it on another quest. Popper was an engineer of rare attainments – a civil, mechanical, and mining engineer – good in all three branches: an astronomer; a linguist who spoke and wrote a dozen languages fluently. He could with equal grace and precision conduct a lady to dinner or knock all the fight out of a claim jumper. Unfortunately, when just beginning to realize on his investments in Tierra del Fuego, he died at the hands of murderers. He was poisoned in Buenos Ayres by men whom he had offended in the south.

In the year 1886 the Cape Virgin diggings were so far worked out that no more than day wages – a paltry $5 a day, as the miners call it – could be had. Only the plodders would remain there, and Julius Popper was never a plodder. So an exploring company of eighteen was gotten together, with pack horses and a mining outfit, together with arms, ammunition, and a permit from the Argentine Government to use them whenever necessary.

The landing was made at Future Bay [present-day Porvenir, Ed.], opposite Punta Arenas. It was in the month of September, the spring of the southern latitude. Snow lay so deep on the mountains that a track had to be cleared with shovels for miles. Then the brush was elsewhere so thick that axes had to be used to open a passage for miles, but after five days' labor they got to Santa Maria River, where they found eight men at work on a sluice taking out about 700 grains of gold a day. This was mere day wages, and they pushed on until they reached Useless Bay, and then took an easterly course which they held clear across the island, reaching the coast at the north of San Sebastian Bay.

Here, in a tongue of sand that encloses the northeast side of the bay, they found the gold they were looking for in a layer of black sand, exactly like the layer that had been found at Cape Virgin, although there was no bank of any kind behind the beach. Having staked claims here they went away south, discovering and naming capes, rivers, and ranges of hills, with here and there more placer gold. It was an open prairie country, with a species of sagebrush on it such as is found in Patagonia, but instead of a desert they here found plenty of water everywhere, and sometimes too much in the shape of swamps; but, unfortunately, the gold was usually found where there was not a running stream within miles. It was apparent that all sluices would have to be supplied by means of pumps.

Eventually they fell foul of the Indians. A shower of arrows came at them from the brush, but all fell short. The number of Indians was estimated at eighty, armed with bows. The eighteen white men turned loose Winchesters in reply, the Indians lying down while the fire lasted, and jumping up to discharge their arrows when it slackened. By the time the magazines of the rifles were empty the Indians abandoned the fight. One gets an idea of the quality of the white fighters from the fact that but two of the Indians were killed, and the further fact that when the fight was over Mr. Popper posed his men in the attitude of troops repelling a charge, took a position himself astride one of the dead Indians, and then had the outfit photographed for subsequent use, on the cover of a pamphlet in which he described the journey he had made.

To the camp called Paramo, that was established in consequence of Popper's expedition, came, as said, the Argentine naval transport, bringing four men and some tons of supplies, on the morning of May 12th.

Considering its age, the number of men employed from thirty to forty, and the fact that it is also a government station, having a prefect, a chief of police, a schoolmaster, a secretary to the prefect, and a squad of soldiers to maintain the dignity of the officials, it was a remarkable camp. There was just three buildings in sight – a boarding-house for the miners, a home for the mine bosses, and a combined stable and storehouse. The camp of the government was said to be located two leagues back in the country. The buildings were of wood, roofed with corrugated, galvanized iron. They were huddled together so that they looked from the ship as one building. They were on the usual mine-camp model of North America – one story high, box shaped, and with small windows and no superfluous doors. A barbed wire corral stood at one side of the buildings, which were located so near the beach that a high surf at spring tide was sure to send the foam quite to the foundations on which they stood. Indeed, one of them was protected from the surf by a sort of a wooden sea wall.

Beyond the houses stretched a low yellowish grassy plain that was very like a Nebraska prairie in appearance, and a league away to the north rose a low range of treeless hills.

The diggings lay right in the beach. When Popper first discovered the claim the black sand that contained the gold lay in a bed of from three to four inches thick, that was for the most part under a layer of coarse gravel two to three feet thick, though in some places the black sand was found free of any cover at low tide.

Of the richness of the diggings in the early days it may be said that the mine was discovered in September, 1886. Popper had to return to Buenos Ayres and organize a company to work the deposit as well as perfect his title to the claims according to Argentine law, and then ship a steam pumping plant with sluices and material for the camp to the locality. This all took time, and it was not until the end of the following antarctic winter that he got his plant in operation. He was then able to pass an average of fifty cubic yards of sand through his sluices per day. From this he cleaned up in the course of the first year, after the discovery, 154 pounds (weight avoirdupois) of pure gold.

As another indication of the richness of this territory, I can say that we took on a government official who had been at the station two leagues back considerably less than a year, but he had cleaned up enough gold to satisfy him. He was going home to Buenos Ayres, rich. He had worked diggings outside the Paramo claim, using common sluice boxes.

While this easily-obtained gold-bearing sand was being worked off, the miners observed that the supply was renewed somewhat by every storm that raged, and further, that when a storm happened to come at the time of the spring tides, a very much larger quantity of gold-bearing sand was washed up by the waves than in ordinary storms. This had happened, too, at Cape Virgin, but the renewal of the gold supply by the storms was not so notable there. However, it appears that eventually a time came when the miners at Paramo were able to work off all the black sand between storms. So it happened – so it happens in these days that the miners sit down and smoke their pipes till the storm comes and goes. After the surf of the storm is gone and the tide runs out, a fresh layer of black sand is found with gold in it. The miners say the sand is washed up from a streak that crops out somewhere below low tide. They think that this layer could be reached by sinking a shaft near the buildings, but they can't sink a shaft profitably on account of the water coming in. The black sand lies on clay, and all the layer, and the other layers above it, are, so to speak, afloat with water. So they work only after a heavy surf. The weather, on the average, keeps them busy about half the time.

The land is controlled by a German-Argentine corporation, of which Herr Carlos Backhausen and Herr Bruno Ansorge are superintendent and foreman. The men work the sand on shares, and do so well that, paradoxical as it may seem, there is difficulty in keeping a full gang of men work. The trouble is, that, as soon as the men get a few ounces of dust to their credit, they must take it and go away to Punta Arenas and swap it for such joys as may be had in that tiny metropolis.

At Paramo, on the beach, they now use a combination of wooden sluices and a copper-plate machine with which all gold miners are familiar, but which could not be briefly described here. The riffles in the sluices save the coarser gold, while the mercury on the copper plates takes up the flour gold as it drifts away over the plates. Water for all the machines is pumped from the sea, and it is worth while telling that experiments there show that some pay streaks can be profitably worked with salt water when fresh water fails to save a satisfactory return.

Geologists find this gold-bearing layer of black sand (it is a magnetic iron sand) a most interesting study. They say the deposit at Paramo is a continuation of that found at Cape Virgin, and that deposit is found at intervals on the Patagonia coast to the Gallegos River. The geologists are even confident that it crops out at intervals for over a thousand miles along the Patagonia coast – always below the water line. Of course, this bed of sand was deposited where it is now found by the action of water, and it must have existed at one time in the form of a reef or vein a thousand miles long in some prehistoric range of mountains. What a lead that would have been for some lone prospector!

Returning north from Paramo on the east coast of Tierra del Fuego, the transport entered the Straits of Magellan and went to Punta Arenas. From Punta Arenas we went down through Cockburn Channel to the Antarctic Ocean, and then, turning east, cruised through Brecknock Pass, Desolation Bay, Whale Sound, Darwin Sound, and Beagle Channel via the Northwest arm. Thence we coasted along east and up through the Straits of Le Maire on the north side of Staten Island, which we followed to St. John Bay on the east end. These are positively the wildest, most dangerous waters in the world. As will be told, the hidden reefs and the whirling tornadoes formed combinations that made experienced travelers look serious, although in a steamer that was as good a seaboat as ever floated. And yet the prospectors of Punta Arenas have sailed all over that route, summer and winter, in twenty-five catboats, looking for gold.

At Ushuaia, the capital of Argentine Tierra del Fuego, a small village in Beagle Channel, I fell in with Harry Hansen, a Punta Arenas prospector, who for six months had been cruising about the islands to the south of the channel, and was on his way home very much disgusted with the life of a prospector. He, with a brother, had faced every kind of a storm known to the Cape Horn region. They had been obliged to live for weeks, as the Indians do, on limpets and clams only. Their only home had been the tiny cabin of a 25-foot sloop. As a result of the six months of hardship and work they had about twenty-five ounces of gold dust. So they sold their sloop and took passage with us for the Gallegos River. As we steamed along they told stories of gold hunting around Cape Horn.

Lennox Island is just now the centre of interest in that region. Lennox has high banks and sandy beaches, exactly like those of Cape Virgin, and the gold is found in a layer of black sand that crops out below sea level, and is washed up within reach by the waves. But, according to the Hansens, the best of the diggings there were worked out. There was no longer any fresh, unworked ground, with its layers of dust that could be scraped up with a table knife at the rate of three kilos a day, and so Lennox was not worth the attention of any enterprising prospector. The plodders who were willing to carry mercury to put in the sluices, and to sit down and wait for the storms to bring up fresh sand could make a couple of guineas a day easily enough, but the Hansens did not want any such wages as that.

Under the point of New Island, very appropriately called the Asses' Ears, a wide beach was pointed out as the location where an extraordinary find was made. A party from Punta Arenas had landed there, and had sunk a wide shaft several feet into the sand, looking for the gold-bearing layer, but without finding it although the indications along shore were good. They abandoned the spot after a day or two and went away. Then another party came along some time later, and just for luck concluded to sink the well a little deeper. That was the luckiest conclusion they ever came to. Within one foot they struck pay dirt, took out over 100 pounds weight (48 kilos) within a month, and sailed away content. Their story, when told at Punta Arenas, sent a host of eager fellows down there to get what was left, and, singular to relate, about every man who went there among the first three boat-loads did well. But when I was passing this point only the smoke of the camp-fire of one lone gold-digger could be seen faintly beneath the Asses' Ears. He was the last of the plodders, according to the Hansens, and was likely to become as rich and as mean as some folks they knew in Punta Arenas – men willing to get rich by saving and scrimping out of a paltry $10 a day.

And then there was the little bay on the Tierra del Fuego mainland, called Port Pantaloons. No man of any experience ever thought of landing there to look for gold. One glance was sufficient to show that no gold could be found there. So everybody supposed, at least. Instead of steep banks, showing the well-known layer formation of Cape Virgin, was a gentle, grassy slope, with a brook that came splashing down a woody ravine. It was a pretty enough place – in fact, the scenery was probably what made a party of seven greenhorns from Punta Arenas, out with a little schooner, put in there and land.

Did I believe in the old saying "A fool for luck"? Well, if I didn't I would after living in Punta Arenas a while. These seven greenhorns made a camp and went washing for gold at Port Pantaloons. At the end of five weeks to a day from the time they left Punta Arenas they were back again, and had exactly four kilos of gold (say nine pounds) each. And every man of them took the first steamer for Europe, intending to settle down and live on the interest of his money instead of having a good time in Punta Arenas, as he might have had.

Of course, there were a lot of people at Punta Arenas who made haste to go down to Port Pantaloons to clean up what these greenhorns had left; but, remarkable to tell, when the experienced miners came to wash where the greenhorns had been, there was found nothing left to clean up. The greenhorns had found a pocket, and had cleaned it themselves.

And then there were the Cape Horn group and New Year's Island off the north coast of Staten Island. The Hansens had visited both localities and had found, as they said:

Plenty of the stuff, but it was too fine for our sluices without mercury. Besides, we didn't have a proper ship for these waters. She was only a ten-tonner. If you want the gold you can have it, but nobody from Punta Arenas will help you get it. It takes too much capital to set up copper-plate machines there, and those that have the capital have not the pluck to face the sea in these waters. I suppose you could average fifteen grammes a day without mercury if that would satisfy you.

But of any spots in the Cape Horn region, Sloggett Bay, on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego, about forty miles west of the Strait of Le Maire, is the most tantalizing. More expeditions have been fitted out in Punta Arenas to go to Sloggett Bay than to any two gold diggings besides. Almost every expedition has gotten gold, and yet never did an expedition there pay the outfitters. Indeed, more lives have been lost trying for Sloggett Bay gold than at any two points besides. And that is saying a good deal.

There is a man now in Punta Arenas who went down to this bay in a well-built little schooner, which was manned by fourteen men all told. They had heard of the gold found there – gold "in nuggets as big as kernels of corn" – , and nothing should stop them in the work of getting it, they said. They moored their little craft with long cables and chains, and made everything as snug and safe as the most experienced sailors and sealers could suggest. Then they went to work, stripping off the six-foot layer of gravel that overlies the gold-bearing sand and carrying the latter up out of reach of the waves; for they had to work at low tide. The gold is all under water at high tide.

They were a hardy lot and enthusiastic. They worked all of every low tide, and ate and slept during high water. They got on well with their work, for a time, but they made a terrible mistake. They slept in their schooner and kept no lookout – trusted to their moorings to hold them fast. One night they went to sleep, as usual, well-tired from hard labor. Then came one of those fearsome gales that characterize the region. With a speed and power that are beyond description, it picked up the schooner on the crest of a wave and dashed it into kindling wood on the beach – dashed out the lives of thirteen of the men as well. One only was left alive, and, curiously enough, he was entirely uninjured.

"The first I knew that there was a storm," he said, "was when I woke up lying on the beach, with the wreckage around me."

This man did just what might be expected, they say, of any one of the Cape Horn miner. He camped on the beach, and worked away at the pay streak as best he could, until rescued by other prospectors; and he is still a gold seeker in the Cape Horn region.

Sloggett Bay is really no bay at all. It is a roadstead with sheltering walls on the northerly and westerly sides, and a very good bottom to hold an anchor. It is about as much of a harbor as a ship would find on the bar off Sandy Hook, save that there are mountains along shore instead of low, sandy beaches. For a northerly or westerly gale the shelter is as good as anyone could wish, but the waves from the southeast drive in with appalling fury. Indeed, any southerly gale is dangerous, for the whirling squalls slew a small boat around until broadside to the combers and then the end comes before the unfortunate gold hunter has time to think twice.

The gold of Sloggett Bay is marvellous gold. It is, as said, nugget gold as distinguished from gold dust. The traditional "nuggets as big as kernels of corn" are to be had there. I have seen them myself, and when one has seen a handful of such stuff he does not wonder that prospectors keep trying again and again, in spite of the fair certainty of death.

The pay streak at Sloggett Bay lies under water, as it does elsewhere throughout the Cape Horn region, but it is harder to get, because it can hardly be said to crop out at all. One must strip off about six feet of sand and gravel at low tide, and then shovel out the pay streak, carry it up clear of high tide, and there wash out the gold. Of course, when the tide comes in again the space stripped of the covering sand is recovered, and stripping must be done over again at the next low tide. That is very discouraging work, but no form of coffer dam yet devised by the miners has saved it.

They all agree that there is only one way in which the Sloggett Bay field can be worked, and they think that that way would probably fail too. The ideal Sloggett Bay outfit would be a big steam dredge, fitted to scoop up sand, gravel, and pay streak all together, and after running the stuff over the sluices and copper plates, to discharge the debris in a lighter, that could be towed away and emptied in water too deep to work. If such an outfit could hold on for a week, they say it would pay for itself. If it could hold on for a month it would make its owners rich. That it might hold on for a week or two is reasonably probable, but the chances are that it would become a mass of wreckage even before it reached the bay. The prospectors say that no dredge ever built for harbor work could stand a southeast gale there for an hour, and yet the sailors among them say that a dredge built specially for the work on the lightship model, with proper ground tackle for mooring fore and aft, could stand the gales there as well as the storms on the Georges Bank of Massachusetts are weathered by the lightship.

Among the stories the miners tell of the luck they have had is one that, whether true or false, is interesting, for even if false it shows that the man who told it was an original liar; as a matter of fact, I have no reason for doubting the story. Mr. Thea Benfield, whom I met in Punta Arenas, said that during a journey from the strait up the coast he stopped one day under one of the vertical earth banks called barrancas in that country to pick out a fossil that he saw protruding. The relic proved to be a part of a mastodon's lower jaw, having two teeth still in place. It was in bad condition, and he was about to throw it away, when he saw that in a split in the top and side of one tooth was a bit of some foreign substance to which he applied his knife. He found that it was gold, that had, as he believed, been deposited there in fine grains by the action of water, and that the grains had united as deposited. The gold, as he says, was in a split in the tooth evidently made there when the jaw was broken. He related the story in support of a theory in regard to the origin of nuggets which he held, thus: Gold, as it comes from the broken-down quartz veins is usually very fine, but as the grains are carried along by the water they fall into little cavities, where, by the action of chemicals in the water, they are united. The split in the old tooth had at some time been lying in a place where gold dust had silted into it until it was about full, and the particles uniting had formed a curious nugget. Unfortunately Mr. Benfield was more interested at that time in getting gold than in questions relating to the origin of nuggets, and so smashed the tooth to get the stuff. He got, he says, over eight grammes from the tooth. If his story be true, he might have obtained many times the value of that much gold for the relic intact, but he did not think of that at the time, and so we have only one man's word in relation to the matter.

It is a remarkable fact that, in spite of all the prospecting done, no gold-quartz veins have yet been found. Louis Fique, a merchant at Ushuaia, in the Beagle Channel, showed me a specimen of nickel ore that had yielded a remarkable per cent on the first assay; but the only bit of gold ore I saw or heard of was a small piece of free-milling stuff belonging to Bruno Ansorge of Paramo. It was rich, but where the vein was none could tell, for it was from a bit of drift rock called float by the miners, and had been picked up between Useless and San Sebastian Bays.

Very likely the placer gold found in all the streams of Tierra del Fuego (stream gold as distinguished from that in the beach), and that in the streams emptying into the Straits of Magellan, comes from veins yet to be found up in the mountains where the streams rise. Very likely search would discover the veins.

But the search would have to be made under circumstances that would make the fair-weather prospectors of Colorado and the grubstake eaters of the Mojave desert gasp. The mountains of the Cape Horn region are snow-topped the year round. The cold is not so intense as the early travellers would make one believe, but there is a strength and a twist to the gales – especially a twist – that is beyond description. And the gales come every day in summer and every week in winter. Expeditions have traversed Tierra del Fuego with horses, but the cheapest and the most comfortable way (in spite of the danger) to prospect the region is from a well-found boat. Moreover, every land expedition must contain enough men to keep up a military guard, because of the hostility of the Indians, while two well-armed, sober men, can defend a well-found boat from the savages, and if skilful and cool can usually escape the danger of storms.

But neither from boats nor from a land expedition has anyone as yet been able to explore the higher parts of the mountain sides. Indeed, where nothing else prevents it, the tropical luxuriance of the evergreen beeches and magnolia brush heads off the hardy prospector. It is hard work climbing up rocky gulches and declivities under the most favorable circumstances, but when one must face fierce gales of wind and at the same time hew his way through a solid mass of brush covering the whole space to be explored, the task becomes too great even for a Yankee prospector. It never has been accomplished, and possibly it never will be accomplished; but, as they say very often down there, who knows?

There is not a mine camp in all the Cape Horn region south of the strait, though Paramo, with its three buildings, and say thirty men, is known as a camp. The placers, as found on almost every sandy beach of the region, are all soon worked over, and thereafter pay only day wages. So no camp or village springs up, as would happen were a rich true fissure vein to be found. But Ushuaia, in the Beagle Channel, the capital of Argentine Tierra del Fuego, has three stores and a small mixed population, besides the troops that maintain Argentine dignity, and, with its occasional Indian visitors, its happy-go-lucky architecture, and its heaps of empty bottles, is not unlike a North American mine town.

The headquarters of the Cape Horn miners will be found at Punta Arenas. The peculiarities which makes Punta Arenas at once one of the most interesting, and one of the most disappointing towns in the world, will be described in the next chapter but it may be said now that miners' supplies – picks, pans, clothing, and food – are cheaper here than at any other miners' supply town in the world. But while a man may get these things at a low price, he has to buy a boat instead of the burros he would buy in the States to carry his outfit. A couple of burros cost say $35 in Colorado, but here he must buy a sloop or a catboat, and he ought to buy a schooner fifty feet long instead. Now any kind of a boat fit to carry even the amphibious prospector of the Cape Horn region costs at least $100 in gold, and must be fitted out at a cost of from $25 to $100 more not to mention the mining outfit proper.

The prospecting sloop of the Cape Horn region is usually of the model of the little oyster sloops to be found about the harbor of New York. The hold is stowed full of provisions, tools for mining, and lumber for sluices. Naturally these prospectors carry a much better supply of food than prospectors elsewhere do. The Rocky Mountain prospectors with their burros must needs be content with meal, beans, bacon, and, perhaps, coffee, but in the Cape Horn region they carry a great variety of stuff in tin cans and Chili [Chile, Ed.] claret by the half barrel. All this costs money, but it is none too good for that climate. And even the best-provided outfits are sometimes away from home so long that the supplies are exhausted.

They sail away south feeling quite certain that they will be back soon with their vessel ballasted with gold, but the shortest time spent away from port by any party I heard of was that of the seven who returned from Port Pantaloons in five weeks. The Hansens were away eleven months in 1892-93.

Every year some sail away, and the sail disappears beneath the white peak of Mount Sarmiento, plainly seen from the water front of Punta Arenas. After three or four months the "White Wings outfit" or the "Mary G. outfit" is casually mentioned by the bar-room groups as one that should be heard from before long. Two or three months later the outfit is mentioned frequently and with ominous looks and shakings of the head, while an anxious-faced wife or mother is seen hurrying to the beach whenever a sail appears in the south, to learn if it be the one she thinks of as she lies awake every night listening to the Cape Horn gales. She goes down quickly, but she comes back slowly and with a dry throat as she learns that it is neither the White Wings nor the Mary G.

The region seems but a narrow space as one looks at the maps, but it is a wide one with labyrinthian channels and hidden bays, the ports of many a missing sloop and catboat of which never a trace will be found to tell the tale of disaster. It is a region where no man with a wife or other person depending on him should enter, but for the young and independent fellow, who can gain vigor and courage in facing the mad freaks of an Antarctic gale, there is no place better than that beyond the Straits of Magellan. He may not get rich – the chances are that he'll be glad to work his way north in the stoke hole of some steamer – but he will have had an experience that will make him contented to live thereafter in the milder region of Uncle Sam's domain, and will, moreover, fit him to make his way there better than he could have been prepared in any other way.

[end of chapter I]