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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



Although a considerable part of the story of Tierra del Fuego has been related already in the chapters on the Yahgans, their mission, and the Cape Horn gold diggings, there are yet a number of objects of human interest there which remain to be considered. According to the old-time explorers, a voyage around the coast of this great island was one of the dreariest as well as the most dangerous in the world. Dangerous it was and still is, but in a well-found steamer the traveller may find a sufficient variety in the island and its products and peoples to more than repay him for all the risk and discomfort.

Of the Tierra del Fuego matters not yet more than touched upon there is the settlement called Ushuaia, wherein is found the seat of Government of Argentine's part of the island. Ushuaia is a remarkable capital. It stands nearer the south pole than any other civilized village in the world, for one thing. For another, it probably has fewer inhabitants than any other capital town in the world.

Of the landing of the first white man on the present site of Ushuaia, enough was told in the last chapter. That was the beginning of the settlement as a missionary station. The town, as an Argentine settlement, was founded in September, 1884, and the Argentine flag was for the first time unfurled over the first building erected for the use of the officials on October 12 of the same year. Ushuaia, however, was then made only a subprefectura – the residence of a naval Lieutenant, who had the powers of an American Mayor rather than those of the Governor of a Territory. The Argentine Government was at that time very busy planting colonies along the coast of Patagonia and at other points south, because the dispute which it had had with Chili over the light of possession had been settled but recently. These settlements were made to take actual possession of the land acknowledged to be Argentine territory, and one was necessary somewhere on the south coast of Tierra del Fuego, because Argentine had secured a large slice of that island.

Very few people knew anything about Tierra del Fuego in those days. The few hardy prospectors who had ventured across the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas in a search for gold nuggets had not been lucky enough to make them speak well of it. A few sheep ranchmen had gotten hold of some pasture land on the north coast, but they had had to keep their shepherds armed with Winchesters because of the predatory habits of the Ona Indians who lived on the prairies of that part of the island. There was one spot, however, where the Indians were known to be harmless, because white men had been living among them for a long time there, and that was the mission station on Ushuaia Bay, in the Beagle Channel. Moreover, Ushuaia Bay was known to be a well-sheltered harbor, where the anchor of a ship would get a right good hold on the ground. So, after sending a fleet to erect a lighthouse on the east end of Staten Island for the benefit of a commerce in which it had no part, the Argentine Government ordered the fleet to go around into Ushuaia Bay and establish a subprefectura. The building of such a station would tend to encourage the exploration and development of the island, so the government believed, and so the event is slowly proving. But just why the place should have been raised to the dignity of a capital is past finding out, for it was a sufficient check on Chilian aggression as a sub-prefectura, while the expense to the government is now several times greater.

I saw Ushuaia for the first time under rather unfavorable circumstances. The sky was overcast with storm clouds; roaring gusts of wind, laden with snow, came driving along at frequent intervals, and the region at the water level was buried under snow that was at no place less than two feet deep. It was on the 23d of May, just at the beginning of the antarctic winter. We had been steaming all the morning along the Beagle Channel, under the shadow, so to speak, of the glacier-covered range that overhangs the south coast of Tierra del Fuego, when at about noon the range turned away to the north from the channel, making a curve so that a half-circle of lowlands like the floor of an amphitheatre was left between it and the line of the range. Into the westerly side of this floor, where the waters could wash the feet of the lofty mountains, there projected a rounded bay, the mouth of which was well guarded, but not obstructed, by a low island and a long sandspit on the west. It was an ideal harbor, and, after what had been said of it on board ship, there was no difficulty in recognizing it as the site of the capital of Tierra del Fuego.

A little later we rounded the island and then the settlement came into view – apparently at that distance a single row of houses standing at the water's edge. Nor did a closer approach change the appearances very much, for although not exactly in a row nor washed by the waves, there was only about a score of buildings all told, and none of them was above a hundred paces from the bay.

And right curious these houses were. First of all, of course, was the capitol building, a one-story structure in the form of a right-angled U standing with the wings away from the sea.

This building was made of wood, and it was painted to that peculiar shade of red that in old times was so much favored by the Yankee farmer when he had put up a new barn. A little to the right of this stood the home of the Governor. This, too, was a frame structure, but it was in the form of a Central American hacienda – a low, rectangular affair, with a peak roof that ran down over all four walls to form a wide veranda on all sides. The rest of the buildings of the town can best be described by saying they were duplicates of the dwellings to be found in the mine camps of the United States. Everyone had plain, unpainted wooden walls, and everyone a corrugated iron roof. A few had garden plots enclosed with fences of split pickets, but the majority were unenclosed. They were all scattered along the narrow slope of one of the foot-hills of the great mountain range. This slope is in summer grassy.

Back of the scattered row of houses the first ridge had once been covered with a forest, but the trees for ten rods or more up the slope had been subsequently cut for fuel and other purposes, leaving a field of stumps. Above the clearing the forest rose rapidly in solid rolling ridges until six hundred feet above the sea. Then the forest thinned out, and in clumps and bunches of brush spread up the mountain side for a few hundred feet more, to disappear entirely at the edges of the glaciers and banks of eternal snow that were piled among the rugged rocks clear to the crests three thousand feet above the sea.

To add to the sombre aspect of nature incident everywhere to the winter season is the lack, in Ushuaia, of sunshine. The Beagle Channel is in 55 degrees south latitude, so that in winter the nights are long and the days brief at best, while even such lengths of days as they might have in the open is cut down by the shadows of the lofty crests. The sun does not get above these crests until almost ten o'clock, and it disappears again soon after two o'clock. Even then its face is so often hid by the snow clouds above the crests that one may almost say that the village in winter is shrouded in perpetual gloom.

As a port Ushuaia showed a substantial wooden pier over one hundred feet long, built by the government for the use of its officials. At some distance from this was a smaller and more slender pier, built by a merchant. There was anchored in the bay the dismantled hulk of what seemed to be a big, worn-out, seagoing tug. It had really been a tiny cruiser, however. Another vessel of a similar model, but much newer and well painted, was a cruiser kept there at the call of the Governor, but just what he might want to call it for did not appear. Moreover, the tubes in her boiler had gone wrong and she could not have answered anybody's call. In addition to these two there was quite a fleet – say half a dozen sailboats of the sort used by Cape Horn gold-hunters, sloops and catboats from twenty-five to thirty feet long, while a tiny schooner that had once been used by the missionaries lay rotting on the beach some distance around to the west. The vessels afloat, as they veered to and fro at the ends of their long cables, gave some air of life to the harbor, an air that was increased by two or three Indian families, who were paddling about in the wretched little dugouts the missionaries taught them to make in place of their old-fashioned bark canoes of Viking model.

Here, then, in the score of mine-camp shanties along the beach and in two broken-down hulks afloat, lived the inhabitants of the capital of Tierra del Fuego. If the town itself was curious, its people and their manner of life were found to be no less curious when one came to get acquainted. Small and wretched as the place was, it had a complete outfit of the officials and assistants needed for the dignity and peace of the most populous territorial capital anywhere. There was a complete list of executive officers, with secretaries and servants; a complete list of judicial officers, with clerks and servants; a complete list of police officials, from a commissioner to a patrolman; a file of soldiers with commissioned and non-commissioned officers; a crew of sailors for the vessels, with the usual officers, a school teacher (male), and a matron for a girls' school.

The town had also six citizens – plain, every-day folks, not entitled to wear uniform. All told, the number of inhabitants was less than sixty. I went on shore to learn something more about the local government than what I could see from the steamer. They told me that the Governor was in Buenos Ayres working for an appropriation to make improvements.

"Improvements in what?" I asked.

"Just improvements about the place." "How much money does he want?"

"Who knows? He ought to have $20,000."

"What one thing, for instance, would he do with the money?"

"Well, there is the shed back of the Capitol, where the sawmill is. That ought to be enclosed to keep the weather off the machinery."

"Would that cost $20,000?"

"It should do so. You'd make it cost that if you were Governor and had to live here. Nobody gets pay enough to make it worth while staying."

"Will the Supreme Court sit to-day?"

"I beg pardon."

"Will any Judge hold court to-day?"

"Oh ! Scarcely. What made you think such a thing likely?"

"When are courts held, then?"

"They aren't held. No cases to be tried."

"Not even a police case?"

"No. Do the people you have seen look like criminals?"

"Certainly not. Where can I find the school-house?"

"There is none."

"Where do they hold school, then?"

"They don't hold any."

"Why not? "

"There aren't any children here."

So the questions and answers ran about all official doings, if that term may be used in connection with the life in the town as a capital.

The truth was that the executive department of the government had nothing to execute, so to speak. The courts had no dockets, the police had no beats to patrol, and no criminals to arrest. The soldiers did not even stand guard, nor had the sailors either a watch or lookout to employ them. Of all the government employees there was but one class that had any employment worth mentioning. The cooks and their assistants had to labor daily. Even these were well-nigh out of a job when I arrived. Owing to negligence on the part of some one in Buenos Ayres, the supplies of flour and about all other kinds of food had been allowed to run out. We carried thirty half-starved sheep to the settlement from Punta Arenas, and these were hailed with delight, because everybody there except the plain citizens was on short allowance.

I made a tour of the place, wading through snow up to my knees. I found three people engaged in useful occupations. One was a squaw, who was pulling the hair from an otter skin in the store run by one of the plain citizens. In the kitchen attached to this store an Englishman was getting dinner and a German was cutting meat for sausage. In all I saw three women in the place, but it was said three more could be found. There was not, they said, a heating stove in town, nor was there a cord of fuel in any one pile. The men were usually found standing in what might be called the sitting-rooms of the houses, or in stores conducted by the plain citizens. They usually had their hands in their pockets. All wore heavy sack coats, which were kept buttoned to the chin, while some had mufflers about their necks.

The plain citizens were composed of Englishmen, Italians, and Germans in equal numbers. Three of them were Argentine citizens, and the others were cosmopolitans.

When, in the course of conversation, I referred to a trip I had made to some Colorado mining camps, the plain citizens with one accord brought out specimens of ores that I might pass judgment on them. When I protested that a brief residence in a couple of mine camps would by no means make a man a judge of ores, they thought I was over-modest. They all had specimens of gold dust, but aside from this there was nothing of value save a chunk of iron said to have come from a limitless bed, and a piece of ore from which a Buenos Ayres assay had obtained an enormous per cent of nickel.

I asked about the gardens. They said that cabbages, turnips, carrots, parsnips, and a few other hardy vegetables flourished in the season. I saw cabbages and turnips as big each as a peck measure, but the potatoes were in no case larger than an English walnut. The wild grass of the region was said to be very nutritious, and the appearance of the fresh meat I saw in the stores indicated that it was so. One merchant, Mr. Adolph Fique, had taken up enough prairie land on the west side of the bay to carry 6000 sheep or more, and this he was stocking with every prospect of success, because the Rev. John Lawrence, in charge of the missionary station, had very fine flocks and herds in the same region.

The stores were established for trade with the prospectors and Indians. It will readily be believed that prices were high. The prospectors bought goods with gold dust, while the Indians traded furs, weapons, and models of their old-fashioned canoes for the goods they wanted. The traders found a sale for the curios on the Argentine naval transports that call there every three weeks. The stocks carried in the stores were liquors, navy bread and other cured foods, tobaccos, clothing, and cheap cloths, and miners' tools. The goods are named in the order of the demand for them.

When asked if there was anything there to interest a sportsman, one replied:

"No. We get all our game from the Indians."

The Indians did the only out-door work that I saw done on shore. There were goods landed from the steamer, and a gang of Yahgans from the Mission hauled them from the little pier belonging to the merchant up to the merchant's store, a distance of perhaps 150 yards. In spite of the depth of snow, they used a hand-cart for that purpose. I did not see a sled or toboggan in the settlement. If anyone there knew how to make and use a sled, he did not, apparently, have the energy to use his knowledge. In fact, no white man seemed to have energy enough to do anything. As said, everybody stood about muffled to the chin and with his hands in his pockets. They gazed out of the window at the bay and the mountains; they gazed at the goods behind the counters in the little stores; they gazed at the blank walls and read for the ten-thousandth time ordinances and edicts issued by various officials and pasted up there. Doubtless all would have been glad to sit down – to gaze from comfortable arm-chairs instead of standing up to do it. But they couldn't do that. There were no arm-chairs, for one thing, and then the rooms, having no fire, were too cold for comfort when a man sat down.

On the whole, a more cheerless life than that of the people of this austral capital would be hard to imagine. They do not work. They do not read. They do not converse more than is necessary. They neither flirt, frolic, fight, nor fish. They have no interest in botany or zoology, and they keep no record in meteorology. Their interest in geology is confined to the finding of pay dirt, and they look for that in only the most desultory and cursory manner. A stay of three days is, in winter at least, enough to make anyone agree that "nobody gets pay enough here to make it worth while staying." Even the chance of enclosing a shed at a cost of $20,000 would not keep a Yankee there much longer than the time needed to enclose a shed.


From Ushuaia we steamed away east for thirty miles, and there found, as the sailors said, that the mountains on the north side had all fallen down. In place of lofty peaks and rugged crests of rock, snow, and ice, there were on the north side low, rounded hills, with luxuriant pastures and beautiful forests. South and west lay Navarin Island, and this was one huge ridge that reached far above the clouds. That is to say, the land on the north of the channel was open to the sun and sheltered from the fierce, cold storms that came from the colder regions south and west. The change of climate was remarkable. There was neither snow nor ice in sight save on Navarin Island and the distant mountain tops, and even then it did not descend within several hundred feet of the sea.

In the midst of this charming district, living on the shore of a little bay that afforded excellent anchorage for our steamer, we found the Rev. Thomas Bridges, the founder of the Ushuaia Mission, but who for seven years had been engaged here as a ranchman and farmer. All of the pasture land in sight, and more, too – eight square leagues lying along the Beagle Channel – belonged to him. On the prairie-like Gable Island he had a flock of 4500 sheep that needed no other attention than an occasional visit and shearing in the season. On the mainland he had herds of cattle, a band of horses, and a great drove of pigs. He had miles of picket fences enclosing his pastures. He had a great garden patch on a sunny slope, where all the hardy vegetables grew in profusion and potatoes attained a size to make the Ushuaia product seem worthless. His house was a great, two-story frame enclosed with iron – in form and convenience like the house of an English country gentleman of wealth – though the appearance, due to the iron, was somewhat outre. There were sheds and storehouses near by, and a pleasant pavilion on the lawn that overlooked the bay. Afloat was a great lighter for carrying the produce of the farm to the steamers and the imported goods ashore, besides a regular fleet of small boats, cutters, and sloops, for pleasure and for visiting various parts of this estate, with its twenty-four miles of water front.

Nor was the interior of the mansion in any way behind the general appearance of the estate. There were rich articles of furniture, a library (probably the only one worth mentioning in Tierra del Fuego), pictures, and bric-a-brac. As a home, the house showed but one thing that could be criticised, and that was the room in one corner where clothing, food products, tobaccos, tools, etc., were kept for trading with prospectors and Indians, but that has probably been removed by this time to a separate building erected for the purpose.

The family of Mr. Bridges consisted of himself and wife, his wife's sister, two charming girls under sixteen, and three sturdy boys, only one of whom, a lad in his teens, was at home, the other two being on other parts of the estate. To aid these in the work of the estate, there was a small colony of Yahgan Indians living in little houses that were located behind a hill out of sight of the great house. The squaws had been taught to do housework, of course, and the men the heavy work of the farm. In addition, each male member of the family had a young Indian valet.

Ranching on the Beagle Channel (this ranch stands further south than any other in the world, by the way), is very profitable, according to Mr. Bridges, in spite of the high latitude and the distance from the market. The sheep yielded enough wool to net a gold dollar per head, in addition to which the increase of the flock that season had been 108 per cent. of the ewes. The care of his herd of cattle cost something, because at that time he had to have a man ride the range to keep the cattle from straying off up among the mountains, but when a fence, then in course of construction, was completed, the cattle would in every way rustle for themselves. The pigs, too, cost nothing. They roamed the forests, living on the tiny nuts the antarctic beeches produce, and certain vegetable and fungus growths produced by nature. This food produced most excellent pork for cured meats. Such labor as was needed was furnished by the Indians, who were satisfied with the food the ranch produced, and sufficient clothing for themselves and families, in lieu of cash pay. The long experience which Mr. Bridges had had as a missionary had taught him how to manage the Yahgans without friction and at small expense.

As to the market, the wool was shipped to England, via Buenos Ayres. The surplus pork, bacon, beef, and vegetables were sold right on the farm to the prospectors and wandering Indians, who came with gold dust and furs. The prices obtained were something to make glad the heart of any farmer, bacon bringing an English shilling a pound, and fresh beef sixpence. On the whole, Mr. Bridges must have an income not much below $8000 a year in solid gold from his ranch, besides the increase of his stock, and the improvements he is making in the estate.

The acquiring of this estate cost Mr. Bridges very little. The land was given to him by the Argentine Government under circumstances which show that he is an adroit man of business. In 1887 there was quite a stir in Buenos Ayres over the Argentine portion of Tierra del Fuego. The government had sent Don Ramon Lista, a traveller and man of letters, on an exploring expedition along the east coast. Herr Julius Popper, a German engineer and man of letters, had conducted a prospecting expedition across the island and had found gold in quantities around San Sebastian Bay. The stories and lectures of these two men filled the newspapers for some time. At the height of the interest Mr. Bridges, the missionary, arrived in town and delivered a lecture or two on the island as he knew it, and on the wonderful Yahgan tribe of Indians. Especial interest was paid to the Yahgans, and the populace became enthusiastic over the missionary who had passed so many years of his life in that out-of-the-way region. Taking advantage of this, Mr. Bridges said in the course of one lecture:

Our life among the Yahgans has been eminently practical, with a view of leading them to cultivate the soil, keep cattle, build permanent huts, and live in a more orderly and settled manner. The improvement which has taken place in their condition since is wonderful. They have learned the arts of civilized life. They have acquired the skilful use of firearms, and some of them are splendid sportsmen. They are acquainted with the value and use of money, English or Argentine, a good sum of which is continually passing through their hands, as they prefer selling for money rather than bartering. They occasionally visit Sandy Point and the Falkland Islands, and are thus thrown in contact with a civilization which they are anxious to attain to.

My object in coming to Buenos Ayres has been to obtain a grant of land in the Beagle Channel on which to create a farm, and employ native labor upon it, thus seeking to supply a want in reference to agricultural products which we have long felt, and at the same time insure the well-being of some of the natives.

Land on Beagle Channel did not then seem of much consequence to the people of Buenos Ayres, so Mr. Bridges, under their influence, got a water front twenty-four miles long as a gift from the National Government. It was the only stretch of land fit for a ranch on the channel, and he got it all.

An officer of the steamer I was on said the land was given under the impression that it was to be used by the missionary for the benefit of the tribe, and that even then Mr. Bridges would not have got it had the government known that the "wonderful improvement" in the condition of the Yahgans, of which the lecturer spoke, had been confined to a handful of individuals, while the tribe, as a whole, had dwindled from 3000 healthy heathen to a few hundred diseased beggars.

However, Mr. Bridges had told just what he came for – to get land "to create a farm and employ native labor," and so supply a want for agricultural products "which we (the missionaries, of course,) have long felt." Mr. Bridges supplies agricultural products for a price, and he employs some Yahgans, who, as he believes, are better off when sawing logs by hand into fence rails for, his ranch than they were in the old days sitting around an open fire eating whale blubber and telling stories. As to the prices he charges, it must be said that he merely shows good business tact. They are always considerably less, even according to those prospectors who do not like him, than charged by Ushuaia merchants, though still from three to five times as much as charged at Punta Arenas (Sandy Point), in the Straits of Magellan.

The prospectors, disposed to criticise Mr. Bridges for making the best business possible of his farm, alleged, without offering any proof of their charge, that Mr. Bridges got his money for stocking the farm by taking clothing which generous people of England sent to the mission for gifts to the naked savages and trading it to the Indians for furs, which he sold for his own private benefit. I do not believe he did that. It appears from the missionary record (see page 56, South American Missionary Magazine of London, March, 1879, and page 39, February, 1881, for instance), that the missionaries did trade with the Indians for furs, and that the clothing which the Indians received was usually, but not always, paid for with either labor or furs. The missionaries did sell clothing sent out to be given to the Indians, but they made no secret of it, and the donors learned the facts in the magazine, The missionaries did not want to pauperize the Indians, they said, by giving gifts. But the profits of these trades went to the society. In 1881 Capt. Willis of the mission schooner in a letter spoke dolefully of the prospect for buying skins on the society's account, "as there are so many sealing vessels out." Capt. Willis spoke also (see page 233 of the magazine) of three canoe loads of Indians who "exchanged otter skins for clothes, and were eager for tobacco."

The missionaries should not be accused of misappropriation of goods simply because the thrifty society wanted to increase its cash income by trading at a tremendous profit with the Indians, for whose eternal welfare it had been created.

Of course Mr. Bridges has been trading with the Indians on his own account, but it was, no doubt, with goods purchased with his own money. One reads so much of the dangers and privations which fall to the lot of missionaries that the fact that they all receive good salaries is always overlooked. The salary of a missionary down there was never less than £120 per year cash, while he received his board and lodging free in addition, of course. Then there was land at Ushuaia where the missionaries could pasture herds bought with money they saved from their incomes. They naturally took advantage of their opportunities. They bought cattle and sheep which were carried there on the society's yacht. The climate and the pasture favored them. The herds and flocks increased. What with his lawful private trade and his lawful stock business while a missionary, Mr. Bridges, no doubt, had ample means for stocking his farm when he left the society's service to turn farmer that he might "insure the well-being of some of the natives." With his twenty-four miles of water front, his cheap labor – the cheapest, for the purpose, found anywhere – and his ready access to market, Mr. Bridges will, doubtless, become one of the wealthiest land-holders in the south part of the continent.

There is one other point which a captious critic might bring against Mr. Bridges, but is one the prospectors would not be likely to think of. Some of the land he now holds once belonged to a number of Yahgan families. Their title was not the indefinite one which a tribe might make to the territory it occupied, but a very clear title, a title that any civilized government would acknowledge. It was theirs by right of possession and improvement. The Yahgans had built houses and had fenced and cultivated this land before Mr. Bridges thought of getting it for himself. One would like to know that Mr. Bridges bought the rights of these Yahgans after he acquired title from the Argentine Government, and that he paid for them more liberally than he was accustomed to pay for labor on the mission grounds.


Mention has been made of the fact that although all the adventurers in the South Sea were ready to enslave and kill fellow-men found under other flags, and endure all sorts of hardships, as well, for the sake of gold, they nevertheless sailed right past Tierra del Fuego without a stop worth mentioning regardless of the sea beach and grass-root placers that were to be found at many points along shore. Almost equally curious is the fact that the Spaniards in the eighteenth century and the Argentines in these last years should have spent much money in planting colonies on the desert coast of Patagonia when north and east Tierra del Fuego, with a better climate and a soil very much better, lay idly awaiting appropriation. The parts of Tierra del Fuego, with the adjoining islands that made the old explorers shiver, were all to the south and west. The "most savage country I have seen" was found by Captain Cook on the weather side of the Andean range, where it rises south of the Strait of Magellan. All Tierra del Fuego, save for that west coast range, is a great alluvial bed, the work of floods operating during untold ages; and Tierra del Fuego is a triangle-shaped island almost as large as the State of New York. In the old-time mud lie the bones of oldtime monkeys, kangaroos, and parrots drowned in floods in the days when Tierra del Fuego had a tropical climate. It is apparent that in old days there was a strait across Patagonia where the Gallegos River is now found, and there is a distinct break in the Andes there. So, too, on Tierra del Fuego there was a similar break running across from San Sebastian to Useless Bay. Both regions are rising rapidly from the sea also. But, unlike Patagonia, the low parts of Tierra del Fuego are wellwatered prairies, while the foot-hills of the mountain range are covered with forests of saw timber.

In addition to this, the climate is, considering the latitude and the proximity to Cape Horn, marvellously good. The reason for this is, of course, found in the height of the mountain chain, and of the mountainous islands west and south. These fence off the storms that cover the mountains about Ushuaia with ice and snow. A snowfall of six inches is counted deep on the prairies, and if it lies forty-eight hours on the ground the circumstance is remarkable. On the other hand, there are sufficient falls of rain to keep the prairies covered with the most luxuriant grasses. Because frosts come in every month it is not a good farming country; but, on the other hand, it is rarely cold enough to freeze over the fresh-water ponds.

Probably Argentine has the best part of the prairie region of Tierra del Fuego, but the first attempt to take advantage of the rich pastures was made at Gente Grande Bay, opposite Punta Arenas. Mr. Steubenrach [Stubenrauch, Ed.], the British Consular agent, seeing that sheep flourished on the more sterile plains of Patagonia, got a concession from Chili on the Tierra del Fuego side, and after erecting fences and buildings, carried sheep there from the Falkland Islands, "placing a missionary in charge of the farm." The hiring of a missionary was a diplomatic stroke. He was expected to civilize the Ona tribe of Indians living on the prairies and make shepherds of them. This work was begun in approved fashion. Powwows were held and presents distributed. The Onas in increased numbers came to the ranch, and made many signs of good-will. But they stole sheep by night, nevertheless – rounded up great bunches of them, which they drove away to some convenient spot, and then hobbled them by breaking their hind legs. In this condition the sheep could still feed and the Onas could feed on them at will.

Thereat the missionary held more pow-wows and argued the matter with them. He explained that eternal perdition awaited the souls of Indians who stole sheep. The Indians were not troubled by that prospect. Indeed, it is said, they wanted to know what awaited white men who took land from the Indians without paying for it, and they could not or would not understand the reply the missionary made to them. They seem to have been as obtuse in understanding points of law regarding land titles as North American Indians have always been. So they went on taking sheep in lieu of rentals for the land.

Finding that threats of future fire did not avail him, the missionary sent to Punta Arenas for Winchesters and men to use them. Thereafter the propagation of sheep and the growth of barbed wire fence, and the slaughter of Indians went on together in right merry fashion, for everybody but the Indians and an occasional white man caught napping.

The sheep business is spreading slowly, as all things are done in Spanish American regions, but it is a sure growth. It will eventually cover all the grass land of the island, in spite of the Onas, just as it spread in Australia in spite of the black fellows, and as cattle spread in Texas in spite of the Comanches.


The Ona tribe is a distinct race inhabiting the prairie region of Tierra del Fuego. The traveller who goes around Tierra del Fuego in the Argentine transports is sure to see several – children and women, as a rule, who have been captured by the soldiers that make occasional forays from two of the three stations that the Argentine Government maintains on the island. One of these two stations is at Paramo, mentioned in the chapter on the gold diggings, and the other is at Thetis Bay on the south-east corner of the island. At both of these stations one may usually find a couple of officers and a soldier or two having their families with them. The Ona children are used as servants in these families, and when the families return to Buenos Ayres they carry the youngsters along with them. I saw a full-grown girl and a half-grown boy, brother and sister, taken there in the steamer I was on. In the city they get "a sufficiency of food" and a "semi-annual distribution of clothing."

It was the doings of a party of Ona Indians that gave Tierra del Fuego its name. The Onas have always inhabited the part of the island which Magellan first saw, and their habit of signaling one another by means of fires led them to make extraordinary smokes at the marvellous spectacle of the ships of the navigator. Magellan naturally called it the Land of Fire.

It is a curious fact that the Onas have been mentioned very little in the stories of Cape Horn travellers in comparison with what is said of the Yahgans and the other tribe of the region called the Alaculoofs. Nearly all of the early navigators fell in with Alaculoofs, but so far as I remember only Darwin and Fitzroy make special mention of the larger and strange tribe of the prairies of Tierra del Fuego. Cook did see some and he partly describes them, but he did not understand that a part of the clan he saw was, as his illustration seems to prove, of the Yahgan tribe and part of the Ona.

The reason the Onas were overlooked is made plain to the modern traveller. They were a land tribe; they did not make canoes and they had no horses. The Indians with canoes came off to the ships of the explorers. The Onas could not do so. Moreover, the explorers kept to the north shore of the Strait of Magellan, east of the narrows, because of the more sheltered anchorages there, and so they saw the Tehuelches of Patagonia, but missed the Onas.

People who know the results of white visits to aboriginal tribes will congratulate the Onas. Modern explorers of Tierra del Fuego, – the prospectors and the plainsmen of Patagonia, believe that the Onas and the Tehuelches are of one origin. In proof of this it is alleged that the languages of the two are so much alike that the two tribes understand each other when brought together.

This brings us to one of the most remarkable facts in connection with the Onas. They do not build boats and neither do the Tehuelches of Patagonia, but considerable numbers of Onas have been found in Patagonia and may still be found there.

How these Onas got over to Patagonia without a boat is an interesting question, but it is not unlikely that they swam across on some hot day in summer at the first narrows in the Strait of Magellan. A strong swimmer could easily cross there at slack water, in spite of the low temperature of the strait.

The Onas in their native land have no horses. They have in these last years captured a good many from the sheep men, but they have eaten them as fast as they got them. Horse meat is the greatest of delicacies to them as it is to the Tehuelches. Their chief dependence for food is the guanaco that abounds in Tierra del Fuego and a prairie squirrel. In the chase they depend on bows and arrows and the bolas chiefly. But the Onas often kill the guanaco by surrounding a bunch and running them down. Thus the Ona has become, probably, the best cross-country runner in the world. One shepherd told me that often, when mounted on a firstclass mustang, he had been obliged to chase an Ona five miles across the plain before he could get "within killing range of the thief," and even then the Indian was not unlikely to double or dodge and escape altogether.

The picture of an Ona Indian flying for life across the prairies with a relentless horseman in pursuit is something to stir the blood of the spectator; it would stir the blood of a citizen of "the boundless plains" of the United States in one way, and that of "the Quakers in the effete East" in another, however. But it is a picture often seen in these days in Tierra del Fuego.

The home of the Ona is as bad as any in the world. A saucer-shaped hollow big enough for a bed for all the family is scooped in the ground. In the little ridge about this poles and brush are placed, and over the weather side of the brush is thrown a skin or two. The fire is usually built just without, but near the door of the hut. It is more useful for cooking food than for imparting warmth. The Onas at night allow the fire to go out. To protect themselves from the cold they resort to a novel blanket. They all lie down on the ground with the children in the middle of the huddle, and then call their dogs to come and lie around and over them. It is a poverty-stricken Ona family that has not enough dogs to cover it out of sight. The dogs are a sharp-nosed but hairy lot, and they certainly keep the family warm.

The fact that all the tribes of the Cape Horn region build such wretched houses has always been taken as a proof of their lack of intelligence. How great a mistake was thus made in the case of the Yahgans has already been shown. The Onas, as will some day be learned, are also misjudged. The reason for building so frail a shelter is apparent on a brief consideration of their method of life. They are necessarily nomads. When the food of one spot was eaten they had to migrate. Now, the Onas had no horses or beasts of burden, as did the Tehuelches. They could not carry big skin tents about as the Tehuelches did. So they built a temporary shelter only. In the coldest weather a location near the seashore, where mussels and fish abounded, was usually chosen, and there they built larger and better wigwams. When they migrated to Patagonia and acquired horses they made skin tents. They did not make poor shelters from any lack of intelligence.

The skin of the Ona is remarkably white for one who lives all but naked in the open air. Their hair is black, but lustreless, and they have a curious habit of singeing off the hair so as to leave a tonsure on top of the head just where the North American Indian allowed the hair to grow long for a scalp lock. The face is oval, the eyes dark and pleasant, the cheek bones not too prominent, the nose sometimes quite prominent, and the mouth full and with regular but yellowish teeth. Because whiskers come late in life, and so are an indication of coming age, the men pluck them out, through a desire to appear young; but after thirty-five they let the beard grow because of the pain of pulling so many hairs as then come. They are remarkable for using combs made of whalebone. No other tribe near Cape Horn does that.

Their shoulders are broad and strong and the chests deep. The mothers have hanging breasts, but those of the maidens are well-rounded and firm. The arms and limbs are round and sinewy, but the stomach, especially after a square meal, is very prominent.

Of the capacity of the Ona's stomach, one story will serve. A girl of about fifteen, who was captured on a northern ranch, refused to eat for eight days, and then appetite got the better of her temper. A sheep had been roasted whole for the dinner of the rancher's family, but the Ona girl was allowed to begin on it, and seeing that her appetite was good, she was not interrupted. When she had finished, so they say, she had cleaned all the bones of the sheep.

For making a fire the Onas carry bits of iron are, which come from an island in the Alaculoof region, west of Tierra del Fuego, and are obtained by barter with that tribe. Flints and agates abound in the Ona country, and these with the ore and a bit of dry fungus, always carried wrapped in a bit of hide or a bladder, enable the Ona to light a fire even in a rain-storm.

The Ona bows are made of native wood worked into shape with shell knives where civilized knives are not to be had, but so many prospectors have been killed by them in recent years, that the tribe is fairly well supplied with cutlery. Then, too, barrels drift ashore from Cape Horn ships, and the iron hoops are made into knives. The ships also supply materials for tips for the Ona arrows in the shape of whiskey bottles. Very fine points are made from glass by the Ona artisans. The arrows are made of a kind of reed, and are so light as to be wellnigh useless when fired against the wind.

Very little is known of the Ona language, save that it is as harsh as the Yahgan is liquid. Their religious beliefs, too, are unknown. When in distress, as when captured by the whites, the old cut long and deep slashes in the chest with any sharp thing at hand; but when once they find themselves well treated they become bright and cheerful and affectionate, and rarely evince a disposition to leave their captors. From what is said of these captives (who are in all cases held, as said, practically as slaves, in that they receive only food and clothes for their labor), it is plain that the Ona is an aggressive warrior toward the whites only because of ill-treatment.

When the Rev. Bridges and the Right Rev. Stirling once made a journey across the island they had not one bit of trouble. They did not kill anybody, did not have any cause for firing a gun, or making either an aggressive or defensive movement. Damnable ill-treatment on the part of the whites is at the bottom of all the Ona aggressiveness – and Ona suffering.

The only effort that has been made to alleviate the sufferings of the Onas at the hands of the whites was the establishing of a Catholic mission near San Sebastian Bay. When I was there no success had been attained by the mission. On the contrary, a priest, who had gone with a guide to seek for the Onas, had failed to return, and when a party of sailors from the nearby sub-prefectura went to look for the two, they found their heads only. The Onas have been made to suffer so much that they will not now trust anyone.

When prospectors have disappeared only their bones have usually been found, and these were always marked either with fire or human teeth. The Onas eat the whites they capture, hoping thereby to obtain the white man's valor.

In their fierce fight for their homes, the Onas have an advantage in the fact that the dividing line between the Argentine's and Chili's shares of the island runs through the heart of their country. Each white nation is very much opposed to allowing the other to invade its territory with an armed force, and so the efforts of the sailors and soldiers of either side must end near the line, if not on it. So pursuit of the Onas is always ineffectual. Nevertheless, the shepherd will drive them into a corner at last by extending his wire fences, and then extermination will come.

It is an interesting fact in medical science, that the Onas a long time ago discovered a sure and speedy remedy for the chief ill that Indians are heir to through association with the whites, in a decoction of the thorny bush that grows on the plains, and is known to science as berberis.


One tribe inhabiting the Cape Horn region remains to be mentioned. It is found exclusively among the islands west of Punta Arenas and Cockburn Channel. I wish that I had the facts for describing it. This is the tribe that has been mentioned so often by people passing through the Strait of Magellan. They were invariably called Fuegians by all who saw them, and were described in terms to indicate that they are the most wretched, the most filthy, the most degraded, and the most terrible beings on earth. As I said, I should like to know the facts, for these descriptions, except as to their appearance to a casual observer, are valueless. The Yahgans were described in equally severe terms.

On the beach at Punta Arenas the citizens pointed to a dismantled sloop that was hauled up to be sold at auction. She was a ragged thing, say twenty feet long. There was a large hatch amidships with splashes of blood on it, and a number of holes where Winchester bullets had come up through the boards from below. She bore the name of Teresina B. With four men as a crew and a cargo of tobacco, rum, old clothes, matches, hard bread, cheap cutlery, etc., she had sailed away from Punta Arenas for a trading voyage to the Alaculoof Indians. Her crew were bound, in a small way, on a voyage like that of the great Magellan; they meant to get valuables in return for things of little value. When about forty-five miles south of the town they sent a man ashore in a small boat for wood and water, and that was the last ever seen of the man. The next morning three canoes loaded with Indians came in view. Thereat one of the white sailors urged the sloop's captain to make the Indians stay away, or at least to permit but two or three men in one canoe to approach at a time. To this the captain replied that the Indians were Christian Yahgans from Ushuaia, and just what were wanted.

"Very well," said the sailor, "you may do the trading. I'll go down below."

He went below and drew the hatch almost to its place and fastened it. The captain and the other sailor remained on deck to trade, the sailor sitting over the companion-way.

As the Indians drew alongside it appeared that they were Alaculoofs instead of Yahgans, and they dropped their paddles, and, grasping their harpoons, attacked the whites. Both white men were badly wounded by the first harpoons thrown. The sailor fell into the cabin, his head badly cut, and all life apparently gone. The captain had life enough to try to crawl down, but the Indians were on him, and he was harpooned to death.

Then the Indians swarmed on the sloop, and the man who had fled to the hold opened fire with his rifle. The Indians tried to get at him with their harpoons, but the white man's weapon was too much for them, and they had to flee.

This is the story the man who hid in the hold told after he got back to Punta Arenas, bringing the body of the captain and the wounded sailor. It may be true. The Indians have been swindled and openly robbed, maltreated, and murdered often by these Punta Arenas traders, and if they did not retaliate sometimes one would not think well of them.

Early in 1894 the Catholics of Punta Arenas established a mission station in the Alaculoof territory. Possibly this mission will do the Indians good instead of harm.

[end of Chapter V]