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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


At the port of Gallegos, I had a long conversation with Edelmiro Mayer, Governor of the Patagonian territory of Santa Cruz. The greater part of this talk was devoted to the sheep business, the one productive industry of the region that now pays a profit to all having capital in it. Of the stories that he told a few will serve as samples illustrating the growth of the sheep business in this new country.

John Hamilton and James Saunders, British subjects, went to Patagonia in 1885, arriving there with £500 each and a thorough knowledge of the sheep business. They bought some land and rented some more from the Government, and expended the rest of their money in a flock of sheep, uniting their funds as partners. As time went on, and they were able to sell wool, they invested their gains in more sheep and more land. In the season of 1893 they sheared 42,000 sheep and were the owners of fifty-eight square leagues of land, of which twenty leagues were paid for in full, and the mortgage on the rest was in such shape as to give them no uneasiness. By the estimate of Gov. Mayer the sale of the wool from the 42,000 sheep in 1894 paid the owners just $42,000 gold clean profit above all the expenses.

Another Englishman – I have lost his name – went to Patagonia in 1886 with no capital save his knowledge of the sheep business and a good reputation. Having abundant testimonials as to his character and qualifications, he got sheep and the use of land on credit: a capitalist was found to grub stake him, as the miners say. In 1893 this man sold out his accumulations for £26,000, and with his wife and children went back to England to live like a lord.

I saw a man at Gallegos who had gone there to work as a carpenter. He did not have $10 when he arrived in fact, he went there in the steerage of one of the Government transports. He had been in Gallegos less than three years, and he had a family to support out of his earnings meantime. Nevertheless, he was the owner of 1000 sheep, of which two thirds were ewes. In the ordinary course, as matters run, he will be a man of independent income in five years.

There are three sailors in the country, who, within five years, were wrecked on the coast and landed with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They went to work on sheep ranches, and now have several thousand sheep each.

"And how many men have gone into the sheep business and failed? " said I, when Gov. Mayer had told of these things.

"Not one."

"Have any big companies tried it?"

"Yes, down on the Chili territory."

"Have any of them failed?"

"Not yet. On the contrary, all have paid big dividends, but, of course, a company may be made to fail by its manager. The business in the hands of individuals of moderate means is just now the best in the world. It is better than 100 per cent."

"I should think everybody in Buenos Ayres, Valparaiso, London, and every other money centre dealing with this region would be rushing into it, then."

"The country is filling up rapidly, but of course capitalists are generally shy of a business that offers such big dividends. Besides, one must learn the sheep business if he would get rich at it, even here."

"How much land remains now for the capitalist to buy?"

"In Santa Cruz territory there are to be had 2500 square leagues of strictly first-class land. It will carry more than 1000 sheep per league, and it is held by the Government at from $2500 to $3000 gold per league, according to location. You can find about 12,000 square leagues more of fair land that can be had at prices considerably less. It would perhaps prove a better investment in the long run. The territory has about 12,000 leagues of worthless land – lava beds, etc., utterly barren – almost too poor to support a guanaco.

"Of course, a very poor man cannot buy even a single league of good land, and he doesn't need to buy. One ought to have some capital with which to buy sheep, but the land can be rented for periods of, say, ten years, subject to purchase at a stated price. If one can raise the money for the sheep, the land need not trouble him. The rental of the best land is but $20 gold, per year for a league."

"What is the cost of sheep now to a man who would invest?"

"From $2 to $2.50 gold per ewe. Rams cost from £2 each up to any price you want to pay for fancy stock. The ordinary ram at £2 is the one to buy now."

"Then, for a fair beginning, how much capital should a man have?"

"Five thousand dollars gold."

"But how did the sailors, with neither capital nor a knowledge of the business, get on?"

"They accumulated both by hard work, and it still can be done readily. The sheep owners are always glad to hire sober young men who are ambitious to learn the business and willing to endure the incident hardships. Their terms are not very attractive perhaps. The learner signs a contract to work for four years. The first year he gets no wages in cash. His food and shepherd's outfit are supplied, but he must clothe himself. The next year he will receive from £2 to £3 per month, and the last year from £4 to £5 a month, according to his ability. He must be a first-class man to get £5, however. Meantime, if he has any capital, he can keep as many sheep of his own as he wants, not to exceed 1000 to begin with. These he may pasture on the owner's land, and the owner furnishes the rams to run with them. He may also keep the increase of this flock of sheep on the owner's range, so that at the end of his four years' apprenticeship he not only may have his experience, but he should have not less than 7000 head of sheep. That, of course, is for the youth with capital to start with. With no capital he would get on slowly, for his wages will not buy many sheep."

"In the United States the presence of young men ambitious to become owners of herds very often serves to deplete the holdings of those who are capitalists," said I. "These young men sometimes gather calves that do not belong to them and re-mark full-grown animals. Are you troubled so in Patagonia? "

"Not yet. We have read about your rustlers, but have had no experience with them, though sheep are more easily stolen than cattle."

"Are you ever troubled with drought?"

"Not in southern Patagonia. This country is really a desert, and yet it is well watered; by which I mean that there are plenty of lakes and springs south of the Gallegos, although the region between these waters is either very like a shingle beach or a rock-strewn waste."

In Punta Arenas everybody seemed able and willing to talk about sheep. Men who owned large herds were in all cases enthusiastic over the present outlook of the business, but their figures were a trifle less booming than those of Gov. Mayer. Thus one man who was manager for a French company owning something over 100,000 sheep, with the necessary horses, said that they made three francs on every head clear of all expenses from the sale of wool alone. The increase of the lambs averaged about 90 per cent. of the ewes, and this was an additional profit. When told that estimates made up the coast called for 100 per cent. increase, he replied that that could be had only where labor was abundant enough to care for the lambs when first dropped. The lamb at birth does not know anything – not even its own mother. Even on finding her by accident it does not know where to get its natural nourishment, but is as likely to suckle a lock of wool as the teat. Such helpless beings need great care, though after a week or so they require no more attention. The long-wooled varieties of sheep are in favor. The lowest average of wool sheared is said to be 7 pounds per sheep. A printed table of statistics which the manager carried showed that the average yield in 1889 in all the Argentine was 4.4 pounds, while that of the United States was exactly that of the lowest yield of his flock – 7 pounds. His range was considered poorer than the average, but it had sustained two sheep to the hectare – one sheep on an acre and a quarter of the range.

The great difficulty that owners of large herds had in making profits, he said, was in finding laborers competent to do the work.

The one disease to which Patagonia sheep are liable is the scab. This is kept under by dipping them in various kinds of baths, the expense for the bath running from $80 to $90 gold per year for every 1000 sheep. The next greatest expense is for the killing of panthers. Every shepherd carries a carbine, and must be supplied with all the cartridges he wants. These rifles sell for less money in Punta Arenas stores than in New York gun-shops, but the annual expense for rifles and cartridges on some ranches is very great.

Foxes and a species of wildcat make havoc with the young lambs, and so these must be exterminated, too. What with hunting down vermin and looking after the sheep to keep them on the range and to dip them for the scab, the French manager had to employ a man for every 2500 sheep in his flock. On the whole, his flocks, numbering a little over 100,000 sheep, cost the company 200,000 francs per year, while the sale of the last clip yielded 500,000 francs, and the price was not high. In his judgment, it would be a very poor business man who, after starting with a good outfit and 1000 ewes on the Patagonia range, did not attain an income of $20,000 gold a year at the end of ten years.

This being the most conservative estimate of the profits of sheep-growing in Patagonia, the picture, as a whole, is certainly enchanting. It will probably remind some readers of the days, something like twenty years ago, when the profits of the cattle business in Texas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and other grass-and-water countries were setting people wild. These readers saw great mansions built and furnished in a style to make merchants smile and artists weep – built out of the profits in cattle. They saw men go into the cattle business one day with no capital but a broad-brimmed hat and the next, so to speak, saw them draw certified checks for tens of thousands of dollars. Patagonia sheep are now just where Texas cattle were when the owners began to reach out from the green bottom lands of the Arkansas and the Platte, the San Augustine plains of New Mexico, and the Rio Grande Valley of Colorado. It is not in the nature of any business to pay 140 per cent. or more profit per annum for any length of time. I do not doubt the figures of either the manager of the French company or Gov. Mayer, but the conditions are now of a kind that cannot last.

In connection with the profits of the sheep industry must be mentioned the effect of rag money on the prosperity of the sheep owners. In both Argentina and Chili the national money was at so great a discount when I was there that a gold dollar would buy from $3.75 to $4 paper, according to the fluctuations of the market. Because of this depressed condition of the currency, both countries had about the cheapest labor to be found anywhere. That is to say, when the currency was inflated and its ability to purchase gold fell there was little, if any, increase in the number of dollars paid to ranch hands per month. Now the sheep owner sells and continues to sell his wool in Europe for gold. He exchanges as much of this gold as he must for paper with which to pay his men; but because the paper dollar has become worth only 27 or 28 cents in gold, he can now payoff his men with less than one-third as much gold as was formerly required. So far as food is concerned, the workmen are unaffected, for they get nothing but meat and a ground root called farina, with Paraguay tea to drink, but for their clothes they must pay four times as much as formerly, because about all the cloth of the region comes from Europe.

The homes and the home life of the sheep owners and sheep herders are well worth describing in connection with what has been said of the great profits the careful and industrious owners may make. I visited one of the best ranches in the territory of Santa Cruz. It was located three miles below Santa Cruz city, and was the property of two brothers of English blood, born in the Falkland Islands. The Falklands being full of sheep and no more land to be had there, these brothers took their inheritance and went over to Patagonia. They selected their range when choice could be made anywhere, and so got two valleys running into that of the Santa Cruz. No matter how dry the season, therefore, they were sure of grass for their flocks, and no matter how severe the blizzards of winter, the sheep would find plenty of shelter under the hills and steep banks and in the lee of the clumps of brush that grow on low ground. The brush, too, was in sufficient quantity and of a size to serve as fuel and for building corrals. It was as good a location as one could ask for.

On the tongue of moderately high ground, where the two valleys united to enter that of the Santa Cruz, they built their house. It was a mansion for that country. The walls were of vertical boards battened with thin strips, and the roof was of corrugated iron. This structure was divided by wooden partitions into four comfortable rooms, of which two contained two beds each, one was a general living room and kitchen combined, and the fourth was a store-room. All but the last had good wooden floors. There was a good wrought-iron cook-stove in the main room, and a table and chairs that had come from a furniture factory. The beds, too, were of factory make, and there were sheets as well as blankets on them. There were a few photographs on the walls – portraits of relatives and friends – and everywhere a profusion of grocery and tobacco-store lithographs. All these things could be seen when the doors were closed, because there were windows with glass in them, and the glass was kept clean. There was a broom in the corner, and the floor showed that it was used regularly. In short, here was a house that was neat and comfortable.

I ate dinner with the brothers. We had mutton roasted over an out-door fire – the best kind of roast – with freshbaked bread, Yankee hard tack, and coffee with granulated sugar and Yankee condensed milk in it. Knowing something of ranch life as it is ordinarily found in Patagonia, I said to one of the brothers:

"I do not believe there is a sheep man in Patagonia that lives more comfortably than you."

"I fancy not," he said. "we have about everything that we want, and do not mean to starve for the sake of saving sixpence extra."

Thereat an employee who had been a sailor, and had turned shepherd with good success, rolled his eyes expressively toward a bright-colored lithograph on the wall above the table. The lithograph was a picture of a pretty girl leaning over a farm-yard gate in a way to show her well-rounded form to advantage, while her skirts were so short that she was at least in no danger of tripping on them when she walked. Jack's gaze lingered on the fair form for a minute, and then he said:

"We have everything that the soul could long for, except society. You can't get the kind of a wife you want to come to this country."

"I've heard," said I, "that the Tehuelche girls are pretty and coquettish in their manners, and not at all averse to marrying stalwart young white men."

"That's so,' said Jack. "I know. I tried it. I gave an old buck six horses for his daughter, and she was the prettiest one in the whole tribe. We were married Tehuelche fashion. They killed and ate half the horses I gave for her, and made a dance, and the medicine man shook his rattles over us, and put charms around our necks to keep the devils off. That was the swellest Patagonia wedding of the year, I'll lay five pounds. So we set up housekeeping. Then the old buck, and the mother, and the grandmother, and the sisters of the grandmother, and the brothers and sisters of the buck and of the mother – Lord! the whole tribe came to visit us. It took ten sheep or a horse a day to supply them with grub. I stood it for a month, and then I got a divorce."

"That's an interesting incident. How did you manage the divorce business?"

"Took my Winchester, and run the damned outfit to the other side of the Cordilleras."

I saw half a dozen sheep men in Gallegos. They had come to the settlement partly on business and partly for the pleasures of society. With a dozen villagers they were seated at a large table in the dining-room of one of the hotels. A huge kerosene lamp overhead afforded fair light – enough at least to show that the crowd was unshaved, unwashed, and squalid. Each man had a tumbler at his elbow. A fat, round bottle that held about a gallon of claret was passed along at frequent intervals to keep the tumblers full. All but one were drinking wine. The exception was an Englishman, and he took whiskey. Half the crowd were playing cards, and there were kernels of corn in little heaps as chips before each player.

"This is a great game," said Mr. William Clark, formerly of Salem, Mass., a ranchman, who acted as my guide. " You play it, eh? Of course you do. Why, man, they've only corn for chips, but they are winning and losing a hundred dollars and more every game."

"So? To judge from their dress they couldn't afford to lose fifty cents."

"Of course they couldn't, but they're rich – most of them. Each red kernel is a dollar chip, each white one twenty-five cents. This is a great country."

"So it is. Is that old fellow with a ragged shirt at the head of the table one of the rich ones?"

"You bet he is. Ragged, eh? Well, rather; but he's the proprietor of this hotel, and owns ten thousand sheep besides."

"And the swarthy old pirate alongside with the big heap of reds – who's he?"

"You call him a pirate? How did you find it out? That's just what he is. He lent me a hundred not long ago, and charged me two per cent. a month. He's the Government blacksmith. He only gets $30 a month, but he has hundreds of dollars loaned out at two per cent. a month. Big pile of reds, eh! You call him a pirate? That's just what he is."

On further inquiry I learned that three men playing at the table with the landlord had incomes better than $2000 gold a year, while the rest were employees on small wages paid in paper, the best-dressed man being a servant on $20 a month. Four had been well educated and two could barely read. Apparently they were all enjoying themselves, and I asked Clark if they were. He looked at me in astonishment.

"Why, man, of course they are. What more could you want?" he said.

The sheep man does not want anything more. Mention has been made of a man who sold out his holdings in Patagonia for £26,000, and then went home to England to enjoy the proceeds of his labor, only to find on arriving there that he was unable to enjoy himself as he had expected to do. This family had lived in Patagonia only a very few years, but the life in a mud hut, where there was not a single restraint of civilization, had changed their habits and thoughts so much that they were utterly out of place among their old friends. To keep her house clean and herself was a burden for the wife, even when she had servants to help her; to wash and shave, and wear a starched collar, made life intolerable for the husband. The latent wild instinct in both had asserted itself until it was beyond control, and they returned with joy to the savage freedom of the desert.

And so it had happened to every sheep man living among his sheep that I met or heard of, except the two brothers near Santa Cruz. That there were other exceptions, I have no doubt, but they were mere exceptions. The ranchmen of Patagonia are almost to a man educated and by their youthful training refined. Some, as said, are university men, but, as a class, they live lives, that, to people of culture and refinement, seem utterly savage. They become so accustomed to this manner of life that they will endure no other.

The desert is a strange region. It is forever bleak, barren, and monotonous to the eye. With its piercing winds and blizzards on the one hand, and its fierce heats and thirsty wastes on the other, it is apparently the most inhospitable region in the world. But it takes hold of the heartstrings of men, strips off their thin veneer of civilization, teaches them joys of which they had heard only such faint rumors as may come in dreams, and so holds them fast. "Such things were and are in men; in all men; in us too."

[end of Chapter XI]