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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


A number of surprises await the traveller who visits Patagonia, but probably none is greater than the sight of the tramps sure to be found at almost every port. There is nothing especially surprising in the quality or grade of the tramps; they are the same uncleanly loafers that offend the eye on the highways of the United States, but to find them on the desert and tramping from place to place, that is remarkable.

For, consider what Patagonia between the Rio Negro and the Strait of Magellan is as a place of human residence. The settlements are hundreds of miles apart. One who rides from place to place cannot travel in a straight line, but must go hither and yon to reach the springs of sweet water, and even then, in many places, the known springs are from 100 to 130 miles apart. In very many parts of the desert, only the best horses and men can stand the terrors of thirst and heat by day and of thirst and cold by night.

Worse yet, it is for the most part a trackless desert. No wagons are used, and the hoofs of the unshod horses that are occasionally taken over the route do not leave a trail that anyone can follow. Nevertheless, in spite of all this – in spite even of the fierce storms of sleet and hail – tramps are to be found at about every settlement, and in some way they get on from place to place, seeing the country in true tramp fashion, and living on the food and wearing the cast-off clothing and drinking the liquor they beg from the more or less industrious people found in the region. I say more or less industrious people advisedly, for the reason that tramps are found not only among the ranches of the energetic sheep farmers, but also in the wigwams of the Indians.

I got my first view of a Patagonian tramp at the first Patagonian port I entered Madryn, on the shore of New Gulf. The Captain of the Port had a United States wife, and, on learning my nationality, made me at home at his house. While I was in the parlor talking to a number of people a man came to the open door and knocked. The Captain's wife came to the Captain and said:

"There is that vagabond again." Then she asked me if I had expected to find tramps like the Yankee article in Patagonia. I followed the Captain out in order to see the fellow, and found a man with unkempt red hair under a badly worn soft hat, a face that was of a pinkish red color and blotched with big freckles, a thin, sandy moustache, and thin, sandy beard, a coat and trousers but no shirt or socks, and a pair of shoes that were almost devoid of soles. In the presence of the official he was meek and deprecatory. He wanted to make an explanation, but the official would not listen. A naval sailor was called and ordered to put the tramp into a lockup. Thereat the tramp brightened up greatly, and walked away talking cheerfully in very bad Spanish to the sailor.

Then I learned something about the tramp. He had appeared at Madryn some weeks before that, saying he had come from Buenos Ayres on a ship. He was looking for work, too. Still no ship was then in from Buenos Ayres, and when ranch work was offered to him he said that it was a kind of work that he could not do. He loafed about Madryn, sleeping in the lee of one house or another, and begging food first of the few families there and then of the seamen who helped to keep up the dignity of the Government establishments. When people began to treat him coolly he wanted some one to take him to a little settlement sixteen miles away along the shore of the gulf. No one would do it, so he started away afoot. He had just returned from that settlement when I saw him.

"What will you do with him?" I asked.

"Give him some breakfast."

"And then?"

"He will have dinner. In the morning, after coffee, he must go."

There was but one route for him to travel – the little railroad that led to the Welsh colony of Chubut. It was a route fifty-one miles long and without water, but no one doubted that he would walk it without trouble. I guess he didn't walk it, however. The one train of this road came to town next day. I saw the tramp standing beside it while the crew were busy with their work. There were in the train some open box cars, and some that could be easily opened. While I was looking at the crew the tramp disappeared and I saw no more of him, although I was in Madryn two days longer. I think he beat his way to the colony in a freight car, tramp fashion. The Welsh colony is sixty miles long and has some thousands of inhabitants, all of whom were once poor, but have now at least enough to eat and to wear. They remember when they were poor, and they will give food and cast-off clothes even to this vagabond.

Still there was a mystery about the fellow. I wanted to learn how he got to Madryn in the first place, but all that he would say was that he had come in a ship, which was obviously untrue, unless he had come from some small sailing vessel beating along the coast. But that seems an impossible explanation of the matter, and the mystery remains.

When in the course of time I reached Rio Santa Cruz and went ashore I found a drowsy-looking white man sitting on the beach talking to a native Argentine of mixed blood. The white man, though somewhat sleepy, was indignant, to judge by his expressions and accent. Seeing me he stopped his flow of profanity for a moment, and then said:

"Beg pardon, s-s-stranger. Are you English?"

"No, I'm a Yankee," said I.

"Glad to –hic – hear it. That's whi'-whi' man's country. S-s-see tha' ship?" (Pointing to a brigantine anchored in the stream.) "S-she 's English. S-so 'm I. T' – hic –t' 'ell with her. I'm one of her crew. Th' Captain left me – hic –here becau' drunk. S-s-said this bes' place for me; going t' leave me here."

"Oh, I guess not. He's got to carry you back to London, or wherever the ship cleared from."

"Lonnon be damned. I 'm from S-s-sandy Point. Wish t'-hic-'ell I was there now. Tha's God's country, eh? 'F 'e don' take me 'board to-ni', going walk S-s-sandy Point surer 'n fate."

Finding conversation with the sailor growing more difficult with each sentence, I asked the Argentine man about him, and learned that he was originally one of a crew of a ship wrecked on the coast of Tierra del Fuego several years ago. The crew had in some way reached Punta Arenas, or Sandy Point, as the English call it, in the Strait of Magellan, where most of them had found life so pleasant that they could not tear themselves away for any length of time. This man had been sailing in the fleet of little traders that have Punta Arenas for headquarters, but had signed articles on the brigantine, and was in duty bound to return in her to England. She had come into the Rio Santa Cruz for a cargo of wool, and was then well-nigh loaded. The men, of course, had been obliged to come ashore for the wool with small boats, and as a result this man had been able to get drunk. He had been worthless as a foremast hand, and so the skipper had taken advantage of his drunkenness to get rid of him.

"Well, will he walk to Punta Arenas?" said I. "Y' are dam' ri' I will," interrupted the sailor.

"Who knows?" said the native, with a shrug of his shoulders. "Many of them try it, as he will. Not many arrive there."

The last I saw of this fellow was on the evening of my last day in Santa Cruz. He was curling down to sleep on the lee side of a bunch of bushes. He was rather drunker than when I first saw him. He had been drunk every day while I was in port, and this, too, though penniless.

Down at the Rio Gallegos I found two more English-speaking tramps. Both claimed Punta Arenas as their home, and both spoke of it as the chief centre of the world's delights. Both were miners, they said, and they had come from the low-tide diggings a few leagues down the beach. Both had been sailors at one time and shepherds at another, and both were about as worthless as any vagabonds I ever saw. They were there during all the time of my stay, and they took pains to speak to me at every opportunity. They said each day they were going to start the next day for the strait colony, but I guess they remained where they were until the authorities forced them away.

That the tramps were numerous enough at Gallegos to be considered a public nuisance was evident from the fact that copies of a tramp ordinance were posted conspicuously in the bar-rooms. This provided that all persons found within the town limits who were without occupation or employment or means of support, and any one found begging should be arrested by the police, and on conviction before the Justice set to work "on any public improvements that the magistrate may direct for not more than two months."

I called the attention of one of the tramps I met to this ordinance.

"I twigged it the first day," he said. "I haven't done much but lie around and twig things since I came, but I've got an occupation. Yes, sir, I'm a miner, and I'm here to buy horses for the outfit down the beach. Just as soon as I can get a herd of $50 horses together at $20 each I shall cut this town dead."

Inquiry at the various ports showed that professional tramping in Patagonia had developed from a variety of causes. In the north the old-time professional loafers simply extended their journey from the capital city to the Rio Negro. It seems that cattle and sheep breeding have in some way a strong tendency to make men over-hospitable. On the pampas of the Argentine, in the sheep stations of Australia, and among the ranches of the American prairies the wayfarer is not only welcome, but is made to feel that he is so. In the United States the abuse of this hospitality has pretty well destroyed its old-time heartiness. The Yankee ranchman now wants to know the character of his guests before making them welcome. In the Argentine known loafers are invited in. Men are found there who own horses and ride about from ranch to ranch, never doing a stroke of work from one year to another, and yet are made welcome at a single ranch table for weeks and months at a stretch. I have never heard of such a custom elsewhere, except in Australia. These pampa vagabonds have extended their routes to the Rio Negro ranches since the destruction of the Indians made it possible to settle the Rio Negro valley.

Next came the tramp element to the Welsh colony at Chubut. These Welshmen were supported absolutely for six years, and in part for ten or more by the Government. As a rule, the Welsh were of too sturdy a make to be injured by the charity, but some were overcome by it. They learned the desert routes from the Indians. They even strolled away with wandering bands of Tehuelches and became desert nomads.

Then when the Welsh had prospered and were able to employ laborers on their farms, there were disagreements between masters and men, which ended in the men going away, anywhere to get clear of the hated employer.

When I was at Gallegos I fell in with William Clark, formerly of Salem, Mass., of whom mention has been made who owned a fine ranch up the river. Clark had only two days before left his ranch to come to town, and the first thing he told me was that he had been entertaining a citizen of the United States who had come along on afoot without a cent of money and scant clothing. The man had been employed on a ranch by one whom Clark knew to be a hard master, and had left because of ill-treatment, going away without taking his own clothes. Clark was indignant at the treatment the Yankee had received, and not only fitted him out comfortably, but gave him a good lift on his way towards the more settled region to the south. Very likely this Yankee wayfarer was a reputable man, but Clark admitted that vagabonds were becoming numerous – men who told stories of ill-treatment at some ranch afar off to gain the sympathy of the impulsive ranchman to whom he was talking.

In connection with the tramp of Patagonia must be mentioned the white men, who for more than fifty years have made their homes among the desert Indians for varying lengths of time. The Tehuelches learned a long time ago that white men, and especially white sailors, were skilful in a variety of arts useful to the Indians, and moreover that they almost invariably carried knives and other useful or ornamental things in their pockets. Whenever a ship came to anchor in the Strait of Magellan in former years the Indians came down to the beach to welcome the crew ashore. First of all, there was the trading of furs and feathers for rum, tobacco, and tools, and the last of all, was the coaxing of some of the crew to desert the ship. The Indians were wily. They told the sailorman that he was so skilful in his arts he should be made a chief, and so become entitled to a fine wigwam, many horses, and all the wives he wanted. Jack's bosum heaved with joy at the bare thought of such luxuries, and when opportunity offered he gathered as much plunder as possible from the vessel and fled to the Indians.

Then he found he had made the mistake of his life. He was not only robbed of all his plunder, but in every case was stripped of all his clothing except a shirt or a thin coat, a pair of trousers and possibly a pair of shoes. In many cases the shoes were taken also, leaving the poor devil to walk barefooted over the stony desert. Instead of becoming a chief he was made a slave, who had to gather fuel and to do other work beneath the dignity of the lordly Tehuelche. He had to walk when the camp was moved, and, what was worse than all else – it simply broke Jack's heart entirely – instead of having many pretty Indian girls for wives, he became "the white fool," the butt of the entire band down to the smallest youngster. Neither guile nor bravado nor real bravery ever availed to make Jack a chief, though cases are known where a man of good natural abilities did work out the condition of a slave to that of a warrior. The lives these men led were of the greatest hardship on account of the severity of the climate and their lack of clothing, so that many died from exposure. Others were killed in quarrels, and the happiest fate that could befall the runaway was to be carried back to his Captain and delivered up for a ransom, that he might receive the punishment he deserved when he stole from the ship and his comrades. The Rev. Titus Coan, the Yankee missionary who went to Patagonia, but concluded that the Arab-like life of the Tehuelches was unsuited to Yankee missionary tastes, found runaway sailors among the Tehuelches. That was in 1833. I did not see any of them when in Patagonia, but the gauchos told about them, and I have no doubt they are to be found there now.

It is common for people of New York who have accumulated enough money to enable them to retire from business to speak of themselves as "living in independent circumstances." They can live without work. These tramps are also in independent circumstances. They can live without work. It was written, that if a man will not work neither shall he eat. We now find ourselves obliged to modify the old-time interpretation of this scripture. I do not pretend to offer any suggestion in the matter of relieving the toilers from the incubus of the loafers but those who are engaged in solving the problem, ought to know and to consider the fact that in desert Patagonia the number of tramps is greater in proportion to the population than it is in the well-settled parts of the United States.


[end of Chapter XIII]