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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



This is the story in part of one of the most interesting and most unfortunate tribes of Indians known in the history of American aborigines – interesting because of their remarkable qualities of mind and body, and unfortunate because they have been almost exterminated by changes in their habits, wrought by Christian missionaries. It begins with what was said of them and their country by the early explorers, and it ends where the missionaries began what was intended to be the work of civilizing them. It tells of the race as God made it. What the white man did for it will be told later.

The Cape Horn Archipelago, as the islands south of the Straits of Magellan may be called, contained when discovered, and still maintains, three distinct tribes of Indians. One tribe occupied the island of Tierra del Fuego to the north and east of the coast range of mountains, of which Mts. Darwin and Sarmiento are the chief peaks. It was a land tribe; that is, they rarely if ever built canoes, and they subsisted almost entirely on such products as the land afforded. Another race occupied the islands to the west of Cockburn Channel. They were always, so to speak, a race of sailors; they built canoes, cruised about their region as fancy or the prevalence of food dictated, and were very little dependent on land beasts for food.

Last of all, we come to the tribe that lived and now exists among the islands lying south of Tierra del Fuego and along the very narrow south beach of that great island itself – a tribe that might well be called the Antarctic Highlanders, since they live further south than any other known people – and the land they occupy is but a succession of mountain peaks. These people are known as the Yahgans.

The known history of the Yahgans begins in the stories told by the early navigators of the region – a brief matter – merely the record of what the early navigators saw of them – but it is worth printing in part here because it is interesting, and because the reading of the mistakes made by the early travellers will help to impress on the memory the peculiarities of this remarkable tribe.

Darwin, the naturalist, under date of December 25, 1832, wrote of the Yahgans:

While going one day on shore near Wollaston Island, we pulled alongside a canoe with six Fuegians. These were the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld. On the east coast the natives, as we have seen, have guanaco cloaks, and on the west they possess sealskins. Among these central tribes the men generally have an otter skin, or some small scrap, about as large as a pocket handkerchief, which is barely sufficient to cover their backs as low down as their loins. It is laced across the breast by strings, and according as the wind blows it is shifted from side to side. But these Fuegians in the canoe were quite naked, and even one full-grown woman was absolutely so. It was raining heavily, and the fresh water together with the spray trickled down her body. In another harbor not far distant, a woman who was suckling a recently born child came one day alongside the vessel and remained there out of mere curiosity while the sleet fell and thawed on her naked bosom and on the skin of her naked baby! These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. At night five or six human beings, naked and scarcely protected from the wind and rain of this tempestuous climate, sleep on the wet ground coiled up like animals. Viewing such men one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures and inhabitants of the same world … There is no reason to believe that the Fuegians decrease in number.

Quotations might be multiplied but two or three brief ones relating to the land in which the Yahgans lived will suffice: King says that "the vegetation is magnificent in some places, and under the shelter of the great forests some plants are found that would be considered delicate in England." Captain Cook agrees with this, and describes the wild celery as among the delicate vegetable productions, but he concludes that "it is the most savage country I have seen. There is no place in the world which offers such desolate landscapes." To this may be added the testimony of Admiral Anson, who said emphatically that it was "the most horrible country which it was possible to conceive."

On the whole, it appears from reading the stories of these early navigators that the land of the Yahgans, while lacking the eternal ice of the Eskimo land, was bad enough, and in the matter of storms it was worse even than the region of Baffin's Bay. As for the difference in the people, it is apparent that the Yahgans were believed to be far more wretched than the people of the North, because the Eskimos were clothed in the warmest of furs and lived in huts, which, if made of ice and snow, were still perfect shelters from the furies of the storms, while the Yahgans went naked and often slept unsheltered from the snow and the freezing sleet that fell in every month of the year.

The islands on which are found the homes of the Yahgan Indians are almost without exception mountains that rise from the depths of the Southern Sea. As one sails among them the idea that here is a mountain chain that at some time long past was suddenly submerged in the sea is irresistible. For miles and leagues one may coast along without finding a beach wide enough to furnish a foothold, not to mention a place for hauling up a yawl. That the mountain is as precipitous below the water as it is above is easily proved, for soundings with the deep-sea lead line often give 60 to 100 fathoms within 100 feet of the shore line.

Rising to the height of 1500 to 2000 feet, these precipitous mountain peaks are lacking in nothing to make them grand and impressive. That they seemed desolate to the early navigators none need doubt, however, for the old-time sailors had a ship wretchedly unfit for such stormy seas, and he was ill-clad, half-fed, and homesick. No mountains seen through riffs in storm clouds and between marching columns of freezing rain could seem pleasant to them.

But wherever there is shelter from the prevailing gales a narrow beach is found commonly. Above this grows a forest of trees, of which the greater number are the antarctic beech, and nearly all the rest are species of magnolia. Some grow to a diameter of two feet and a height of fifty. Nearly all of the trees are green the year round, and the magnolias are of a particularly bright and beautiful green.

As one climbs the mountains the trees are seen to be of smaller and smaller sizes until at from 1000 to 1500 feet above the sea mosses take the place of trees. Above the mosses come barren rocks and eternal snows. In many parts of Beagle Channel, and especially at the east end, there are fairly level spaces bordering the water, with foothills that are rolling instead of craggy. Even at the foot of Mount Misery, on the east end of Navarin Island, a mountain that got its name from the severity of the gales that come from its gulches, the scenery is anything but desolate and horrible. Indeed, natural grassy meadows and green groves so alternate with park-like beauty over the undulating ground, that one scarcely can resist the idea that all those open spaces in the woodland are the work of man. The eye involuntarily seeks for farm-house and barn, while the sight of the red-haired guanaco makes the scene all the more pastoral, for the wild beasts seem in that picture very like domestic animals.

My own view of the picture was under peculiarly favorable circumstances, for, although in the month of May, which corresponds to the November of the North, the sun was bright and warm, the water sparkled, and a breeze sweet and gentle just stirred the grass on the lawns and lifted the green-leaved boughs of the trees. Seen on another day, when whirling snow-laden squalls came down from the mountain to rip open the sea and hurl its foam five hundred feet into the air, the picture would have had a different aspect, but no landscape which contains green meadows and green trees the year round can be called "desolate."

As to the meteorological condition among the islands the experience of the missionaries there during twenty odd years has cleared away many myths. Some of Captain Cook's men nearly froze to death in the land of the Yahgans, but it is a fact that even the confined waters (salt) do not freeze over often or remain frozen for any long time, while a prolonged storm, during which the thermometer ranged from 10° to 15° Fahrenheit, is mentioned in the missionary records as an unusually cold spell. At the worst, the thermometer at Ushuaia has not gone lower than 12° below zero, Fahrenheit, and Ushuaia is about the coldest spot in the region, because it stands under lofty, glacier-covered mountains that shut out the rays of the sun for nineteen hours out of the twenty-four during the short days of winter.

One white man at Ushuaia told me that it was a climate in which winter and summer alternated every week, and that describes the matter fairly well. That it is better than people elsewhere suppose may be inferred by the fact that the white men now there, while admitting the frequent recurrence of boisterous storms, invariably said it was "the healthiest climate in the world," and a few said they liked it better than any other.

Having considered the Yahgans' country and its climate, we now come to their homes and home life. Of the Yahgans as architects and as tailors, I am bound to say that they have been well described by the old-time explorers. The hut was a structure made of poles and a thatch of brush and grass that was of about the shape of a Yankee haycock, and only a little larger. It was open on the lee side, the thatching, such as it was, covering two thirds of the circumference to windward.

The fire was built just within the door or opening, and the inhabitants sat on grass or moss that partly covered the earth floor. It was sometimes customary, where the Indians expected to live for some time in one place, to scoop out the earth of the bottom of the wigwam and heap it up against the brush wall, thus making a saucer shaped cavity for the floor, the brim of which rose high enough to serve somewhat as a wind break. Moreover, the limpet and other shells gathered by the squaws were commonly piled to windward of the hut. But even then, if judged by any white man's standard, the Yahgan house was as bad as any in the world.

So, too, of his dress. He wore a single guanaco or sealskin across his shoulders, holding it in place by thongs that crossed his breast. This was the best he wore. They were often stark naked, save for a breach clout, and the children were always so. The traveller who visits Hermite Island, in the immediate vicinity of Cape Horn, will find them so at this day. Living thus, "shelterless and naked in a land of fierce and freezing storms," one need not wonder that even scientific observers believed the Yahgan "the most miserable specimen of humanity to be found on earth."

And yet all who thought him either physically or mentally uncomfortable when in his natural state were entirely wrong. On the contrary, he was about the healthiest and happiest savage that ever smashed the head of an egotistical, meddlesome white man.

The Yahgan was built for the climate where he was found. He was in one respect like the whale that lived in the waters about him. He had a coat of fat under his skin that was very much better for him than the best of flannels and blankets. Besides, he had a custom that at once protected him from the cold and rendered him offensive to his white discoverers. He greased himself all over frequently with any oil at his command, and that is a custom worth remembering by people who may be cast away or lost in cold climates. Had the early explorers imitated instead of despised the Yahgan, they would have had fewer tales of suffering to tell. In these later years, sporting men of the United States have learned that when about to enter long-distance swimming matches they can endure the cooling effects of a race through the water much better if they coat themselves thickly with some such grease as vaseline. The Yahgan used whale oil as we use vaseline. The explorers spoke of his "filthy greasy skin," but the scientific sporting man of New York now imitates the Yahgan, even though vaseline gathers during a swim any flotsam that comes handy by. The Yahgan was "shelterless and naked in a land of fierce and freezing storms," but he did not freeze; he did not even shiver in ordinary Cape Horn weather.

However, one can understand why the explorers did not perceive the real condition of the Yahgan. They were cold in spite of thick flannels, and it was but natural that they should judge others by themselves.

But one cannot so easily understand how the explorers fell into such errors as they did about the ingenuity and the mechanical skill of the native. The results of Yahgan handicraft were everywhere visible. He could not make either a good house or a broadcloth suit. In his hands a white man's coat was ripped to pieces and the strips used for decorations. But there were his canoes and his weapons – especially his canoes. The Yahgan boats are mentioned slightingly, if at all, by nearly every traveller who has visited the region.

"The boats are unwieldy and logy, and the Indians seem to have no knack of propelling them at any sort of speed," says a latter-day writer, who saw a canoe of the kind in the Straits of Magellan. This was the writer's judgment in the matter. But along with his judgment he gave the dimensions of the boat. It was "about twenty-five feet long, four feet wide, and three feet deep, with comparatively sharp ends." The facts as I saw them are so, save that the ends seemed to me to be extremely sharp.

Now let any civilized canoe expert imagine a boat of those proportions with lines in an exact arc of a circle, and then let him say whether he knows of any superior model among either civilized or savage nations – a model better adapted for combined speed, safety, and capacity than this. My own experience with Indian canoes includes the kayaks and oomiaks of the Eskimos in Greenland, the dugouts of old Providence Island in the Caribbean Sea, and the bongos of the Bay of Panama, but I am bound to say that the most graceful canoe, as well as the strongest, I ever saw was made by the Yahgan.

However, one fact about these canoes will convince anyone who knows what Cape Horn storms are that the Yahgan canoe is of a remarkable model. The Yahgans used them in navigating the waters of the Cape Horn Archipelago. Further than that, both the Rev. Thomas Bridges and the Rev. John Lawrence, who for twenty years have been familiar with the Yahgans, told me that they never heard of a Yahgan being upset in his canoe until in these later years, when the possession of axes and the teachings of the missionaries led the Indians to substitute dugouts of an entirely different model for the canoes they had made in the old days.

Judged only by his house and his clothing, the Yahgan was of a lower grade of intelligence, or at least was worse off, than many brutes. Judged by his canoe, he was a naval architect who produced a model to which the designers of yachts in the United States and England are in these days of "spoon" bows approaching, but have not yet equalled.

When the Yahgan would build a canoe he stripped wide pieces of bark from the tallest and smoothest tree trunks he could find, using shell axes, in the old days, to cut the trees. The bark was stripped from the trunk with a wooden tool, something like a chisel, and of the very shape found most advantageous by the white men who, in Pennsylvania and the Adirondacks, supply hemlock bark to the tanneries. Having his bark off the tree, the Yahgan cut the strips into such shape that when sewed together they would form a canoe with a midship section, say four feet wide by three deep, that was almost the arc of a circle. From this section the model tapered away almost on the arc of another circle. It had a sheer at once pleasing to the eye and well adapted to ride the most tempestuous seas in the world.

To brace this bark sheathing the Yahgan made ribs of split saplings that looked like hickory barrel hoops, ribs at once strong and light-while the rails and beams were made of round wood. The bark strips were sewed together with whalebone taken from whales stranded on the beach. The ribs, rails, and beams were lashed in place by sinew, usually guanaco sinew, for that curious animal is found on several islands of the Yahgan region.

Into the bottom of this canoe the Yahgan put an inverted sod perhaps two by three feet large, and on this his squaw built a small fire for warmth. Forward and aft of the fire were put little layers of brush and grass. The man squatted on the grass forward of the fire, and his favorite squaw, if he had more than one, was just aft of it, the terms forward and aft being used to indicate only the direction in which the canoe travelled, for both ends were alike. The other squaws and the children were distributed further from the fire. A squaw with an infant would keep it in her lap. The squaws paddled, the men used the weapons.

But one may doubt whether the Yahgan canoe shows greater ingenuity than Yahgan weapons and implements for obtaining food do. Mention has been made of the shell axe. It was made of a five-inch clam shell, or one larger. A rounded stone was lashed with sinew to the hinge side of the shell to give weight and make a good hand hold. Then the opposite side was ground to a cutting edge by rubbing away the softer inner or convex surface on a smooth rock. Yahgan chips made with this tool were small, but to see the rapidity with which an old Yahgan makes the blows, or better still, to see the wavy surface of a strip of wood dressed with a shell axe – a paddle, for instance – is a matter of interest almost worth a journey to the region. With this tool the Yaghan felled trees, or fashioned his harpoon, or stripped the blubber from a stranded whale, or trimmed his o'er long bangs, as occasion required.

When compared with the stone axes used by aborigines who knew not iron, this shell axe is a striking illustration of noteworthy differences between the Yahgan and the other tribes. The shell axe was frail, but keenedged. It required a quick but delicate hand to manipulate it. The stone axe was blunt and heavy. Impelled by a rude hand, it smashed its way through whatever opposed its progress. With the shell axe in hand, we begin to perceive somewhat of the mental habits and character of the Yahgan Indian – to see, at least, that he preferred to accomplish certain ends by delicate means rather than by sheer brute strength.

Then there were his harpoons. I have one of which the head, made from a whale rib, is twenty-five and one quarter inches long. To make a diagram of it let the reader place a dot on a sheet of paper to represent the point, and then draw from this dot two straight lines that shall diverge from each other only one inch and three quarters when twenty-one inches long. That will give an idea of the beautiful taper of the weapon. It has a single barb, at once deep and strong. It is secured to the shaft in such a way that when a seal was struck the harpoon head dropped from its place in the shaft, or handle, after which the handle was towed broadside on through the water by the wounded beast. Of course, towing the harpoon shaft in this fashion impeded the animal's flight more than towing it end on would do.

Another harpoon that I have is twenty-one inches long, and but one inch wide and a half inch thick at the base, but instead of one heavy barb near the base it has a series of twenty-six small ones along one side. These barbs hook back like shark's teeth, and are about as keen-pointed. Nothing of better shape to hold fast could be devised by a fish-hook maker. Indeed, the turtle hunters of the West Indies, who have a steel harpoon of a similar shape, do not make as well-formed barbs. The harpoon of one barb is for seals, otters, and small whales (large whales were never attacked unless stranded), while the other form was for the various kinds of birds found in the region.

For fish spears the Yahgan lashed two or three of the bird harpoon heads to a shaft in such a manner that the points were spread out and the harpoon heads formed a V or a tripod, as the case might be, and the barbs were all on the inside. The fish were speared at night by the light of a torch. By having two or more of the harpoon heads on the shaft the chances of hitting the dimly seen fish were of course increased, and, moreover, a fish caught between two of the harpoon heads and impaled by a third, was held no matter how it struggled or what its strength.

Nor were the spear and harpoon handles merely saplings cut in the forest. The Yahgan used a perfectly round handle for one harpoon and a six-square handle for the other, and both were worked from solid wood with his wonderful shell axe. I speak now, of course, of the original native weapon, and not of what the modern Yahgan buys of white traders.

If any reader owns one of the old specimens of Indian workmanship let him keep it with great care, for the workmen who could make them are dead and their art is lost forever.

Less showy but equally remarkable were the peculiar wooden chisels with which the squaws stripped limpets from rocks six feet under water and brought them to the surface, although they were as heavy and as ready to sink as stones.

For gathering shell-fish the squaws made baskets of rushes. These baskets were of the shape of the plain earthen cooking jars found in the old ruins and cave dwellings of New Mexico and Arizona.

For a long-range weapon the Yahgan used the sling. He saw the Ona Indians with their bows and arrows. The Onas also used the bolas, which are the favorite weapons of the Patagonian Indians. With the Ona Indians the bow and the bolas were used with great success in killing the fleet-footed guanaco. Now the Yahgan, as said, found the guanaco in his own proper country as well as when he went visiting the Onas on the borderland, and he must have fully appreciated all that the Onas could do with their bolas and bows. Some of the Yahgans even learned to use these Ona weapons, but they never adopted them. The reason is not far to seek. The Yahgan sling had a much greater range. The missionaries tell about Yahgans killing birds afloat at a distance of two hundred yards. To hit any wild fowl at that distance with a rifle would be called right good shooting. The guanaco was knocked down and stunned by heavy round pebbles at ranges up to one hundred yards.

Why, then, did not the Ona adopt the sling? The answer is an interesting one for the student of anthropology. The home of the Ona was on the prairies of Tierra del Fuego, where round pebbles are not to be found, but material for bows and arrows is abundant. The Ona could not burden himself with pebbles for a sling when journeying across these prairies. On the other hand, the Yahgan lived on the beaches, where rounded pebbles were forever at hand, and when he travelled it was not afoot, as the Ona did, but in a first-class canoe, where he could carry as many pebbles as he wanted.

The Yahgan sling was made of a piece of raw hide, to which were attached strings of braided sinew that always ended in fancifully wrought knots.

The Yahgans did not fish with hooks, because they could catch more fish without. The squaws caught the fish. They paddled to the fishing ground in the morning and at night, when for an hour each time, the light being just right, the fish would bite. The line was a strand of seaweed, which may be had there, slender and strong, of any length up to a hundred fathoms, perhaps. Bait – meat – was tied to one end of the line, which was loaded with a sinker of stone rounded to a shape to sink swiftly. The fish swallowed the bait and the squaw drew it gently but quickly to the surface. Then she snatched the fish into the boat and the bait from its gullet with a motion that Georges Bank codfishermen understand, and then let her bait run quickly down again. Some fish, too large to land thus, were speared when they came in sight. The time for fishing was so short that the squaws had to improve it to the utmost advantage, especially as there were many days when the storms prevented all fishing. They had no time to waste in removing hooks from the gullets of fish. It is a fact that when hooks were given them by seamen they never used the things for fishing. The Yahgan squaws did not know the joys of taking four-pound trout with a seven ounce rod, but they had just as much fun as do the New Yorkers who go out to the fishing banks every summer day, and they caught more fish, too.

The Yahgan household utensils were few in number and of the simplest character. He made neither pots, nor kettles, nor cups, nor basins, nor any sort of receptacle for liquids. He never boiled his food, and when the missionaries came to the Yahgan land the Indians found the spectacle of a pot full of boiling meat a most entertaining one. And yet the Yahgans tried out the oil from whale blubber and other fats, and stored it away for future use. The fat was impaled on a stick that was then thrust into the ground close to a bed of coals. The oil was tried out thus, and it dripped down into the shoulder blade of a guanaco kept for the purpose. When the hollow of this bone was full, the oil was poured into a bladder or into the bladder-like leaf of a seaweed that can be found everywhere in the region. Moreover, there were large clam and other sea shells on every beach. These served every need of the Yahgan in the way of cups and basins. What he needed to make he made with unusual neatness and skill, but he knew when he had enough and worked for nothing whatever beyond.

If, now, it has been demonstrated that the early explorers looked at the Yahgan products through prejudiced eyes, the reader will pass with increasing pleasure to a consideration of the habits of thought and mental capacity of this Antarctic highlander. I quote Darwin in this matter, because he was the most eminent of all who have seen the Yahgans, and should have been less liable than others to make errors.

Darwin had on his ship a Yahgan called Jemmy Button, who had been carried to England and taught some of the English language. Of this Yahgan Darwin said: "I should think there was scarcely another human being with so small a stock of language."

The Rev. Thomas Bridges, who now lives opposite Gable Island, in the Beagle Channel, has for nearly forty years made a study of the Yahgans and their language. He has made out of this study a complete grammar of their language, and has written what is practically a complete Yahgan-English lexicon. Fully to appreciate the facts that appear in these two manuscript books, one must not only be something of a linguist, but must have knowledge of other aboriginal tribes. For instance, it is helpful to know that Ensign Roger Wells, Jr., U. S. Navy working in Alaska, prepared an Anglo-Eskimo Vocabulary of 2263 words, and an Eskimo-English Vocabulary of 2418 words. To quote from a pamphlet issued by the Alaskan Bureau of Education in 1890, Circular of Information No.2, the most important contribution to a knowledge of the Eskimo language is in process of preparation by L. M. Turner, in his observations made in 1882-84, at Point Barrow. "It will contain a vocabulary of the Koksoagmyut of over 7000 words."

Cruden's Concordance of the Bible gives 7200 words exclusive of proper names; Cleveland's Concordance to the Poems of Milton gives Milton's Vocabulary as 17,377 words, while Shakespeare himself had a vocabulary of about 24,000.

But the Yahgans, despised by many as "savages of the lowest grade," pitied by a few as "most abject and miserable creatures" – these Yahgans had a language from which has been compiled a vocabulary of over 40,000 words.

As I have said, this is a story in part of one of the most interesting American tribes. How small is the proportion of the story that I can give may be inferred from what has just been said about their language. Where did they get or develop all those words? Are those 40,000 words the remains of a language which, under other circumstances, was greater, or is the vocabulary now at its greatest state of perfection? How does it happen that such a remarkable mental development was found in a people that lived as these Yahgans did? Questions multiply, but no answers are found.

Anthropologists suppose that the peoples living at the ends of the earth under adverse circumstances are "conquered races, exiles, or criminals." It is guessed by some who have read of the Yahgan that he comes from some ancient Peruvian or Brazilian civilized tribe, and fled in war time to Cape Horn. But the Yahgan language is not that of Peru or of Brazil, or even that of the lost tribes of Israel. There is in it nothing to connect it with any of the other great languages of the world. Why, then, should we think incredible the possibility of the Yahgans having originated where they are? In the alluvial beds of Patagonia and of Tierra del Fuego are found the petrified remains of the opossum, the kangaroo, and the monkey. The ostrich and a modified camel (the guanaco), now live on the desert plains of Patagonia. Who, then, shall say positively that the Yahgan race has not lived through the cataclysms that destroyed the opossum and the monkey and left the ostrich and the camel?

Some years ago the Chili Government sent an expedition to explore the Yahgan country. The report made by the commander on his return refers to the Yahgan language as "nasal and harsh; it sounds like the barking of a dog," but all who speak the language agree that it is as soft and sweet to the ear as a love-song in French.

To make a study of the construction of this language here would be impossible for lack of space, even if I knew the facts, but something of the way the Yahgans talked to one another will be interesting, because it gives an insight into their character. Let it be remembered that this was a tribe of so-called savages, and that among savages the squaw is supposed to be a wretched slave. To the casual observer the Yahgan squaw was a slave. She paddled the canoe "while the man sat in the bow holding his weapons." But the Yahgan squaw's life was certainly not without its amenities, if one may judge by the language.

Thus the Yahgan man never spoke to his squaw of any property in the family as "mine." He said "ours" instead. He even said "our harpoon." He never gave orders directly to either squaw or child. If he wanted something done he would use an expression that meant "Tell to do"; it was as if he said to his squaw, "Have some one do so and so." More remarkable still, there was no such word in the language as "obey." They said instead, "Oblige me by," " Make me the favor of," "would you be pleased or be so kind as to do this or that?" Even when the Yahgan was angry and wished to drive away an offensive person he used a polite sentence.

As among civilized people certain terms and names may be used between man and wife, or when talking to a physician or between two men talking alone, without incurring an accusation of using indecent language, so among the Yahgans there were certain forms of expression for use in private and others for society. In short, it was a modest race; in this respect it was, perhaps, the most remarkable of all the American Indian nations.

They had poets and novelists and historians. They knew, for instance, how to tell in the most delicate fashion those sly stories in which the point was found in the thought of the listeners, and not in the words of the speaker – where the speaker's words suggested but did not say the thought. No people in the world enjoyed well-told stories of the kind more than they, but only the skilful – the literati – were permitted to tell them. A gross expression was never permitted in company. It is a lasting pity that none of these tales has been preserved for study. The missionary taught the Yahgans that their soul's salvation was imperilled by such thoughts, and the remnant of the race has become so degraded in every way that the best of this wonderful oral literature has been lost.

They had songs, but no music as civilized people understand that word. Their songs were what travellers call "monotonous chants." However, they danced to some songs, and their words were poetic if the song did lack jingle and varied intonations.

"Food was abundant in the old days," said the Rev. Thomas Bridges, "and life was easy with them." Hence the Yahgans had abundant leisure to sit about the hut fire and talk to one another. Their conversation is best described by the word bright. They were as quick-witted – as quick and brilliant at repartee as the Irish or French. They also made many puns. They were what may be called a "clubable race," to borrow a Johnsonian expression. The missionaries say that within their limits of knowledge they were ready and logical thinkers. Sarcastic remarks and cynical observations' abounded in their fireside conversations, as well as flashes of kindly humor.

In politics and religion they were almost equally interesting. They had no form of government – neither chief nor legislative council – but public opinion ruled with an iron hand. Theirs was the simplest form of a republic. When men violated social usages, as sometimes happened, the guilty were ostracized, and such was the habit of thought among them that this ostracism drove the guilty one away to live by himself. Occasionally several families were thus driven into exile together, but I did not learn of the existence of any such colonies of outlaws as that found below St. Lawrence Bay on the Siberian coast or the Kevalinyes, whose home is back of Point Hope in Alaska.

Crimes against property were rare. As to the property of white men they were called thieves and robbers. Fitzroy is particularly severe on them in describing their lax notions about property. It seems to me, however, I that the Yahgans and all aboriginal tribes, for that matter, have been unjustly condemned in this matter. That they took things that seemed of infinite value to them, which did not belong to them, is not denied. But this act was not morally what the same act on the part of a civilized man would have been. Among the aborigines – especially among the Yahgans – there was much property held in common. It was no harm among them to take of a neighbor's fuel; his paints were freely divided; his wood for use in making paddles or spear-shafts was practically common property. All food taken was equally divided, and when chance threw a prize, say a wrecked ship, in their way, all shared the valuables found. So when they saw among white men a superabundance of good things, the taking of what they saw did not seem the evil thing that it would have been to the conscience of a white thief. They were, in short, socialists rather than thieves.

Crimes against the person were avenged by the injured one or his relatives, so that feuds and vendettas led families to hunting each other, hither and yon, across stormy seas and into wild and secluded nooks and inlets. But the Yahgan did not delight in open warfare or bloodshed. Warfare with neighboring tribes was almost unknown. The nearest approach to it was when some Yahgan family went hunting some family of a neighboring tribe to avenge an injury suffered by some member of the aggressive family. On rare occasions other families in both tribes took up the quarrel.

The Yahgan could work himself into a foaming passion – he literally frothed at the mouth in his rage – but he preferred to make even murder a fine art. He would plan and scheme for months in order that he might revenge himself without making an open attack. It is said that even the strong and influential in a clan would work in this fashion when seeking revenge on the weaker ones, who might have been crushed by a blow at any moment.

A favorite way of killing an enemy was found in the practice of gathering the eggs of the sea fowl. In the Cape Horn region the sea fowl make their nests on the faces of precipices that literally overhang the stormy seas. There is but one way to reach the nests. The egg gatherer must be lowered by a rope from the brow of the cliff. The Yahgans had an excellent rope in the long stalks of seaweed common in the region, and the egg harvest was for most of them a time of rejoicing. It was also the time for bloody revenges. The one who sought revenge would ask his enemy to go seeking eggs, and that was an invitation not to be declined. Even when the invited one suspected a sinister motive in the cordiality of the request he must needs accept, because a refusal would be construed by his neighbors into an acknowledgment that the other had cause for seeking revenge. And such an acknowledgment would justify the other in more open means of revenge, and would stamp the refuser as a coward also.

So the invited one would smilingly accept the invitation. With his heart sinking within him, he would follow the leader to the crest of the awful precipice, look down five hundred feet to the crags at its foot, and then without a word suffer himself to be lowered over the brow at the end of a rope that he knew would soon be chafed until his weight would break it.

These Yahgans had no knowledge of God or of a life to come. That they should have faced certain death in a frightful form thus calmly when they were young, and life was still sweet, and a loved wife and children would be left to other hands, is one of their most interesting characteristics.

Although about all the crimes known to Yahgans grew out of the relations of the sexes – although there was almost invariably a woman in every case – it is a fact that the grossest crimes of passion known to civilized races (such as incest) were unknown among Yahgans.

Marriage was a matter of purchase and sale; wives were sold, sometimes, by husbands, and daughters were invariably sold by fathers. The marriage ceremony consisted in painting the girl in a certain fashion for several days before she was delivered to her husband. A new canoe was very often the price of a girl. It is a curious fact, illustrative of Yahgan society, that a father sometimes sold his girls to men whom he did not really like. A man of influence could have any girl he wished; her father would rather let the transfer be made than offend the man of influence, and that, too, when the influential fellow already had a wife or two. But there were forms and methods in the marriage negotiations that were dear to the Yahgan heart. The dicker for a wife as conducted amounted to what would be among civilized people at once an intrigue and the negotiating of a treaty. It was because of this delicacy of feeling among the Yahgans that the brutal white whalers and seal hunters that came to the region were unable to do any serious damage to this race previous to the year 1870. The Yahgan would not tolerate the rude lasciviousness of the white seamen, and until taught that it was wicked, stood up, man fashion, and fought in defence of his wives and daughters.

In religion the Yahgans were oddities, though not unique. They knew nothing of God, and had no word expressive of such an idea. To the great grief of the missionaries, there was nothing in the Yahgan language by which the idea of an everlasting, all-powerful God who must be obeyed could be adequately conveyed to Yahgan listeners, nor had they any word for or thought of a future life.

But the Yahgan's mind was not wholly material. He believed in spirits or supernatural and invisible beings, but these were invariably terrible. There was a spirit of the forest, and another of the water, and another of the kelp. Crouching over his tiny fire by night, the Yahgan heard weird voices among the waving trees on the mountain side above him, he felt the breath that scattered the embers of his hearth, he saw the deluge that drowned out even his brightest flames, and all these were manifestations of a power that was ill-defined in his mind, but nevertheless real. The Yahgan mother in this fearsome presence clasped her babe more closely to her bosom, not that it was cold, but to save it from some grasping hand that was always expected, but never came.

In the eddying waters of the tide rip was a boisterous devil that strove at one moment to throw the canoe into the air, and the next to suck it down to the unknown region below, while in the beds of kelp lurked a silent spirit that with soft and slimy touch grasped the bottom of the canoe, and held it fast until at times the frantic occupants leaped overboard and disappeared.

In their thoughts of death the Yahgans were perhaps unique. They had a word which meant dead. When a seal had been harpooned, or a tree cut down, or a fish beheaded, they said that death ensued. The thing killed was dead. They had another word which meant lost. If a tool were mislaid so that it could not be found, or if a dog were left somewhere on the coast so that he could not find his way to his master's hut, the tool or the dog was lost.

In times of sickness or of wounds, the Yahgans gathered about an afflicted one and with rude incantations strove to save the ebbing life until the spirit had gone forever. Then they quickly took up the body, and, carrying it out of the wigwam, buried it where it could be most easily put out of sight. This done, they returned and painted their faces in such fashion that all other Yahgans who beheld them could tell how closely the dead one had been related to the living, and the cause of the death – whether by disease, by accident, or by murder. This was their only way of showing they were in mourning. They rarely spoke of the one who had passed away, and when they did so speak they never said he was dead. They said he was lost.

This also was a matter of grief to the missionaries.

When they would have spoken to the Yahgan of his dead relatives they could not without offending him seriously; at least that was the condition of affairs when the missionaries first came.

They had a folk-lore that is now for the most part forgotten, but one of their traditions was at the foundation of a cruel custom. Long ago, they said, a Yahgan woman chose a great rock instead of a husband, and, in consequence, bore a child that was at once a human being and a stone. When this hybrid grew to man's estate it turned against the tribe, because, perhaps, of indignities suffered by its mother, who was ostracized. No Yahgan man could stand against it, though numbers could temporarily overpower it. They, therefore, combined and thrust harpoons through it; they chopped it to pieces; they weighted it with rocks and cast it into a lake; but after each apparent death it appeared again in another part of the coast as healthy as and rather more malicious than before. The monster was rapidly becoming an invincible terror, when, by chance, it stepped on a thorn, which pierced its heel and the monster was unable to extract it. Its heel was the one part of its body where a mortal wound could be inflicted. From the effects of this thorn it became gradually weakened, and they were eventually able to destroy it altogether. The memory of the deeds done by this being was so terrifying, that the tribe determined that no such thing should ever come again to wreck their peace.

To prevent such a coming they invariably destroyed at birth any infant that came into the world not perfectly formed. The Yahgan's stature was not such as to meet the approval of the British explorers from whom Americans have obtained their ideas of Yahgan forms, but there never was a natural-born cripple to be seen among them.

What the Yahgans' claims to physical beauty were may still be learned by one who sees them at the Hermite group of islands, but in the Beagle Channel they have been so altered by new clothing and habits of life that scarcely a trace of their old-time form remains. The description of the old-time navigator is not attractive:

These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled.

They are elsewhere spoken of as having dark, copper colored skins, or skins of the color of iron rust, while Captain Fitzroy pictures them as almost black. One may admit that these old explorers had good eyes, that they generally described with accuracy what they saw, and yet may prove that the Yahgans were not hideous.

To begin the argument, it must be said that the missionaries, who had no interest in making the untutored Yahgan appear in a better light than that in which he was found, say that he was a polite and affectionate husband and father, faithful in the care of widows and orphans, a generous neighbor, and an ardent lover. Food was abundant, and hard labor rarely necessary. He delighted in what civilized people call the higher pleasures, the joys of good stories, witty sayings, quick repartee, and he had almost unlimited opportunity for cultivating the faculties which gave him greatest pleasure. How could such a man be hideous?

The answer to the allegation made by the explorers who called the Yahgan so is not far to seek. They never saw the Yahgan. They only saw the coating of paint and whale oil that covered him, and because this was offensive to them they called him hideous. The Yahgan when washed clean, did not look like the Yahgan clothed in whale oil, smoke from the ever-present fire, ashes, powdered iron ore, pipe clay-what not. When washed he was not black; he was not even copper colored. He was as white as the quarter bloods one sees in the Cherokee nation and as well featured. The young women were very like those of mixed blood who grace the halls of the female seminary at Tahlequa, the Cherokee capitol. The modern tourist camera proves it. Yahgans had straight black hair, great dark eyes, full red lips, breasts like a Greek Venus, rounded limbs, and small hands and feet. Better yet, they had a merry, hearty laugh that was irresistibly infectious. They flushed with pleasure, and blushed and drooped as if from a blow when shamed.

If ever the moans of outraged Indian maidenhood were charged up by the Recording Angel against the brutality of the civilized man, it was when the sufficient arm that protected the Yahgan girl was withdrawn through a misapplication of the gospel of peace.

Just how the Yahgan maiden lost that protecting arm – just how it happened that the forecastle brutes came to be free to go and come as they pleased among the Yahgan homes – will be told in the next chapter, but what that arm was is found in the tales of seamen cast on these shores in the old days, or caught napping there when seeking fuel or water for their ships.

When a band of Yahgans saw a crew of white men ashore in former times, their course of action was governed entirely by the numbers of the whites, or, rather, by the comparative strength of the two parties. If the whites were stronger, the Indians were peaceable; when it was safe to do so, the Indians set out to exterminate all the whites but one. Leaping into their canoes, some of the Indians would paddle out to cut off retreat toward the sea, and when they were in place, the rest would rush down on the seamen, and if possible save all alive for the time being. Then all the clan gathered about the captives and selected one of the whites – saved him alive, but forced him to witness the dying struggles of the rest. Very often those doomed to death were made to stand in a row facing the one that was saved, that he might the better witness their despairing faces and see the blood gush from their wounds. Eventually the one who was saved was taken to the Straits of Magellan, and there placed on board the first ship that appeared. It was perfectly plain that a man from each crew was thus sent back to the whites that he might tell other whites of the fate that befell all foreigners who landed in Yahgan land. They wanted the whites to keep away from them, and they took a most effectual means to keep them away. With certain death staring in the face, any crew that was outnumbered by the natives, even the sealers, took care to avoid going among the Yahgans. The Yahgan's deliberate ferocity – ferocity that was exercised with a purpose – was the sufficient protection of the Yahgan maidens.

As has been said, the Yahgans had an abundance of food in the old days. The cold waters about Cape Horn swarmed with whales. So numerous were the fur seals that one sealing schooner got a "first knock down" on one island of 11,000 head. The hair seal, the otter, and the sea lion were found by the thousand. Swans, geese, ducks, penguins, gulls, beat the air and ploughed the waters in uncounted hosts. There were fish in the sea and guanacos on the land. For a vegetable food there was" a bright yellow fungus," "elastic and turgid," that had "a mucillaginous, slightly sweet taste, with a faint smell like that of a mushroom." There were wild currants and strawberries that tasted more like a raspberry than like its northern namesake. There was a berry that grew on a thorny bush (berberis). But the mainstay of the Yahgan was the shell-fish. Mussels and clams covered every rock under water, and these were alone sufficient in number and in food qualities to preserve life for long periods.

The explorers say the Yahgans ate guanaco meat raw. The Rev. Thomas Bridges denies this. He says, in a lecture on the Yahgans, prepared for delivery before white folks:

They toasted whale or seal blubber on pointed sticks stuck in the ground, and caught the oil in large mussel shells placed underneath. As these filled they poured the oil into bladders for future use. They tried out fish fat by putting it in large shells and placing heated stones or shells on it. They cooked large birds whole by burying them in the coals with hot stones placed inside. They baked eggs by placing them, after a small hole had been made in each shell, on end close to the embers and turning them from time to time. They uniformly ate the blood of animals, but always cooked it in shells first. I have never seen or heard of the Yahgans eating any kind of meat or fish raw except certain kinds of limpets. I have occasionally heard of their heating water by dropping hot stones into it, but they did not cook their vegetable food. In winter, however, they warmed the frozen fungi that formed a part of their diet.

A thousand other interesting facts and characteristics of this long-despised tribe remain untold here.

There was their habit of carrying dry bird's down to catch the spark when they struck fire with the iron ore they found on one island only.

They had a tradition that in by-gone years a great flood raised the waters to the level of certain lines on the mountains, to which they point the traveller.

They were sensitive about growing old, and it was because their beard grew late in life and so indicated advancing years that the men plucked it out.

They were a long-lived race, and some probably lived to be a hundred in the old days.

They were not cannibals, but held human life as sacred as civilized people do. It is admitted that in times of dire distress, through prolonged storms, they sacrificed one (an old woman) to save the rest, but if that made them cannibals then an American army officer held in high esteem is a cannibal.

When food was scarce those who got it divided all they had with those less fortunate, and while hunting away from the huts the men subsisted on the inferior parts, that they might carry the parts most esteemed to the women and children.

They did not beat their wives, nor did they punish their children.

To sum the matter up, this was a race, more than three thousand in number, called the most abject and wretched people in the world, and yet, "in their circumstances and with their materials, their work was perfect." They were called savages, and yet neither governor nor judge was needed to preserve the prosperity of the nation. They were called heathen, because they knew not God; and yet, prompted by an inner light, they took no thought for the morrow, they visited the widow and the orphan in their affliction; neither was there any among them that lacked. Clear-eyed and strong-limbed, they were able, twenty years ago, to face the white destroyer as they faced the howling gales that swept their rugged coasts.

To-day the traveller can find, though he search diligently, rather less than three hundred, but to one who knew them in the old days those seen anywhere now, save on Hermite Island, would not be recognizable. The Rev. John Lawrence told me that they were civilized, but to one who can understand and appreciate the aborigines as God made them, this change, instead of being a matter of congratulation, is one that should make every white man connected with it hide his head in shame, and every other one who sees it shed tears of pity.

[end of chapter III]