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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



The story of the nomads of Patagonia living east of the Andes – the Tehuelche Indians, – is, on the whole, more cheerful reading than that of either of the other tribes of the region. For over 350 years after they were discovered by white men they maintained an undisputed sway over their desert territory. They were visited by missionaries, but were never brought into the enervating subjection to them that ruined the Yahgan. They were physically and mentally a noble race of aborigines, and when at last they went down before a merciless civilization, they fell, man fashion, face to the enemy.

Brief space will suffice here for a resume of what history tells of them. It was on April 1, 1520, when they first saw "men with faces like the snow." Magellan had happened into St. Julian harbor. They came with wonder to see marvellous vessels that brought him, and it is said that they tell around their camp-fires to this day of the trick by which he succeeded in loading two of their chiefs with chains that he might carry them away forever.

The Tehuelches were afoot, then, but it was not many years before horses from the Spanish settlement at Buenos Ayres had spread to the Strait of Magellan, and so the explorers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries found them mounted. They were not a vicious race; on the contrary, they were of kindly disposition, and even playful when well treated, though their experiences with the whites eventually taught them duplicity, theft, and outrage. But their good dispositions did not attract white settlers, because the whole of Patagonia, east of the Andes, was a desert that seemed wholly incapable of supporting a civilized being.

However, the Jesuits came to them bringing the cross in one hand and apple-seeds in the other. The cross did not flourish, but the apple-seeds planted about the lakes in Western Patagonia grew into a great forest, that has produced abundance of fruit and much strong cider ever since.

Later still, at the end of the eighteenth century, Spain attempted to establish colonies at Rio Negro, Port St. Julian, and Port Desire. They did some little trading, but the Indians very properly mistrusted the good faith of the whites, and in 1807 Patagonia was once more abandoned to the natives, save for the one post on the Rio Negro known as Carmen de Patagones. This was maintained partly because of the great salt fields found on the desert near the town. But the terms on which it remained unmolested by the lordly Patagonians were exceedingly humiliating to the Spanish rulers of Buenos Ayres and of the settlement. The whites had to pay an annual tribute of cattle, knife-blades, indigo, cochineal, and other goods as rental for the Indian-owned land they occupied.

We read in the history of the State of New York that in the days before the Revolution, the brave old Mohawks used to send a warrior, now and then, alone among the Hudson River and even the Long Island tribes, entering this or that village, walking in the midst of a group of the head men, and while they cowered in his presence, addressing them as squaws and denouncing them for this and that failure in their duty to the noble tribe he represented. In like manner, even until within twenty-five years of this writing, has a Tehuelche chief from the desert of Patagonia been known to ride alone down the main street of Carmen de Patagones to the plaza. Reining in his horse by the low-peaked stone monument still to be seen there, he would shake the great skin mantle from his brawny shoulders, strike the butt of his spear a ringing blow on the pedestal of the monument to call the whites about him, and then, in disdainful words and with imperious manner, ask why the tribute had been delayed. All of this the whites bore meekly and meanly. They could not fight the Indians successfully, and they were willing to submit to such treatment because of the profit in the trade they carried on with their red masters.

If anyone wants fully appreciate how degrading trade is to the human soul, let him read the stories or white traders among red buyers.

In modern times – rather in the nineteenth century, two efforts to convert the Patagonians to Christianity have been made, one of which is of especial interest to American readers, because undertaken by a citizen of New York at the behest of the American Board of Christian Missionaries of Boston. One Captain Benjamin Morrell had been on a sealing voyage along the Patagonia coast, through the strait and up the Chili coast, and on returning had brought an interesting story about the aborigines. The story was printed in book-form and the missionary society people read the book, and were thereby led to send out a couple of missionaries to look over the region and the people Morrell had described. Mr. Titus Coan, then a student at the Auburn Theological Seminary, and a Mr. Arms of Andover were selected. A sealing schooner took them to the Strait of Magellan, and on November 14, 1833, at the beginning of the warm season there, they landed. That they were kindly received and well treated scarce need be said. They brought a tent and a variety of articles, which were of the greatest value to the Indians, but they were never robbed. On the contrary, they were freely supplied with the best the Indians had. In return the missionaries did some work, such as sharpening knives, making wooden spurs, etc., but, on the whole, the missionaries lived on the charity of the Indians. Their experiences and thoughts have been preserved in a book entitled Adventures in Patagonia, by Titus Coan. They travelled about with a host that for a time was composed of Tehuelches or Patagonians proper, and of Onas who had come over from Tierra del Fuego. They had to live on such food as the country supplied, of course, and to endure the vicissitudes of the climate.

They remained only a few days more than two months, leaving the region in a sealing schooner on January 25, 1834. They had had enough of life with a nomadic race on a stormy desert like Patagonia. Horseflesh was not suited to their stomachs nor tent life to their inclinations. The Indians had told them plainly that no missionary could succeed who would not live Indian fashion, and that settled it. Of course these Patagonians had souls, Mr. Coan was sure those souls were going to be lost, absolutely sure of it, unless, indeed, some one taught them "the way of life." But there were souls elsewhere in the world that needed saving, too – among the South Sea islands, for instance, where snow was unknown, and horseflesh was not esteemed a dainty. It would be much more comfortable to convert wicked South Sea Islanders than Patagonians.

As was said, for 360 years after Magellan's infamous disregard of the rights of man, the Indians of Patagonia in their conflicts with white aggressors held their own. It was a pity in the eyes of a humanitarian that there should have been conflicts, for all were utterly needless, but, on the whole, the Patagonia day was bright.

Then came the setting of the sun. The day of all the Patagonian Indians was ended. The "progress of civilization" demanded the extermination of the desert races. The pressure of Christian owners of cattle and sheep for new pastures demanded that the best of the hunting grounds of the Indians be taken. The frontier of settlements in Argentine had to be extended to the Rio Negro because cattlemen wanted the land, and the cheapest way to make the extension was by war. In these matters the civilized people of the Argentine have been as much like the civilized people of the United States as two bullets from one mould.

This war of extermination cannot be described here, but one feature of it may serve to give the reader some idea about its general characteristics.

It was not uncommon for the soldiers to take a stalwart Indian prisoner, and after tying him so that his struggles would be unavailing, to cut his throat slowly with a dull knife.

"I have often seen them haggle away at a Tehuelche throat – haggle and saw, while he writhed and begged for the stroke of grace, for full five minutes before the artery was severed and his life-blood made to spurt out on the sand. And while they tortured each victim thus, they would turn to anyone not of their nationality and say, by way of apology for their cruelty:

" 'He is no Christian.' "

So said a German to me in Buenos Ayres, a man who had been with both of Roca's expeditions, and of whose veracity there need be no doubt whatever.

Shocking as was the cruelty meted out to the Indians, only the sight of it could stir the indignation of the spectator more than the excuse for it which the soldiers gave – "he's no Christian." And yet, before the reader's feelings lead him to a bitter condemnation of the soldiers, let it be remembered that, according to the orthodox religious teachings in these United States of North America, there were in the air, about each group of those Argentine soldiers, numbers of evil spirits watching the torture of each unfortunate Indian – watching with eager malice the moment when the Indian's soul should be released, that they might bear it away to the realm "where the worm dieth not and the fire is not quenched." The soldiers tortured for five minutes, but these devils will torment each Tehuelche soul for all eternity. And, what is more, could the reader enter the precincts of the unfortunates and ask why the soul was tortured, he would get, word for word, the very excuse the Argentine soldiers gave:

"He is no Christian."

The home region of the Tehuelche is a section of the bottom of the South Atlantic Ocean lifted up where man can see it. There are salt lakes and beds of salts, left there when the sea-water was for the most part drained away. There are traces of ocean salts everywhere. It is an alluvial region; a well-driller would find many layers of sand, gravel, clays, etc., but no rock beds, save in a few places where volcanoes bubbled up, nobody knows when. The only volcanic rocks the traveller alongshore will see, however, are at Port Desire and south of the Rio Gallegos. At Port Desire the bluffs on the north shore are volcanic, while some leagues south of Gallegos is a range of volcanic peaks that show conspicuously above the plain. Elsewhere the traveller sees only a desert that is for the most part level, but has been worn into gulches along such streams as exist and shows, as one travels inland, a terrace-like formation. It is an arid desert for the most part, but springs and fresh-water streams can be found every hundred miles or so. "You will rarely have to pass more than one night without water if you journey from Punta Arenas to Buenos Ayres," as an official at Santa Cruz said.

But inhospitable as the desert seems to be, it has afforded during the knowledge of man subsistence for herds of guanacos and flocks of ostriches, probably the only beings that survived all the changes in the region since the days when monkeys, parrots, kangaroos, and elephants abounded in the unsubmerged parts. The desert seems to have been peculiarly well adapted to guanacos and ostriches, and the flesh of these with dandelions, bunch grass-seed, fungi, etc., seems to have been peculiarly well adapted to sustain a race of men that were physically magnificent. An official at Punta Arenas told me that the measurements of one hundred Tehuelche men, taking them as they came to the settlement, gave an average height of over five feet ten inches. When it is considered that some of these were half bloods, or men having had Argentine and Chilian fathers, the average indicates a great race. The missionary, Titus Coan, found a noticeable number of men six feet six inches tall in his day. Rarely, if at all, will such a one be found now, but the gauchos and others with whom I talked assured me that men of six feet three and four inches were quite common. Patagonia has always been a region favorable for developing the human frame, and in the days when the Tehuelches were horseless, and so had to outrun afoot, the ostrich and guanaco, there were giants beyond doubt among the race that averaged the tallest on earth. Their frames were not only large, but their strength was prodigious. A man in health could really drag a balky horse across the desert.

By the Indian standard they were a handsome race. The men showed intelligent, vigorous minds in their faces. Their foreheads were high, their noses of the Roman type, the nostrils not unduly expanded. Their teeth were simply perfect; so were their eyes. Those I saw in the settlements showed a heavy, stolid expression, but the gauchos said that look was not a good indication of their character; that when in their desert wilds the men as well as the women were a merry-faced, laughing lot. The young folks are everywhere brightfaced and of cheerful dispositions. The young women are said to be particularly attractive, having very light skins for Indians, beautiful limbs, firm and well-rounded breasts, heads poised like young queens, and faces that show a mingling of modesty and coquetry quite impossible to describe or catch with a camera, but nevertheless within the appreciation of even a blasé beholder.

Like many of their white cousins, the Tehuelche girls continually chew gum – the exuded and hardened juice of the incense bush that abounds on the desert. So, too, do the Tehuelche men, for that matter, and they say it preserves the teeth. Certainly no people have finer teeth than the Tehuelches.

It is impossible to give anything like an accurate estimate of the number of red inhabitants of Patagonia either now or at any period since the days of Magellan. The Rev. Titus Coan thought the Tehuelche tribe numbered 1000 in 1833. Don Ramon Lista, an Argentine writer and explorer of good repute, says that when he was among them just before the war of extermination they numbered 500 warriors, or nearly 3000 souls all told. There are now a few at Coy Inlet, a few hanging about each settlement, and a few along the Andes – perhaps 500 all told, according to the gauchos.

For an estimate of the Tehuelche mental calibre we can readily resort to their mythology, fables and proverbs of which, fortunately for ethnologists, a number have been preserved. The scientific world is especially indebted to Don Ramon Lista, who was careful, when among the Tehuelches, to collect as much of what may be called their literature as possible. As examples, here are two Tehuelche fables:


A fox challenged a stone to run a race. The stone begged to be excused.

"Let us run down the slope of this hill," insisted the fox.

"I am very sorry, but you had better keep out of my way."

"You think to overtake me? What foolishness! I run like the wind."

"We will run," said the stone.

The fox darted away like an arrow. The stone began to roll, and then to jump and to jump, until it wounded to death its rival just as he was arriving at the foot of the hill.


A panther met a fox wearing a crown tuft.

"What a beautiful ornament you wear! How did you make it?" said the panther.

"Very easily," said the fox. "I cut open the head with a flint, and then introduced into the wound the beautiful plumes of an ostrich."

"How admirable! I wish to go through the same process. Would you take the trouble to do it for me? "

"With a thousand pleasures."

And the fox rasped the head of the panther till the skull got thin, and then broke it in with one stroke of the flint.

So the panther died.

Here are three proverbs :

The dog follows the fox and kills it, but then comes the panther and kills the dog.

Nothing spurious can be good.

The little feather flies more swiftly than the great one.

In his religious beliefs the Tehuelche is as interesting as in other matters. There is one good god and from him all good things come. He is so good and kind that he is never offended. He does not require worship from the Indians, but according to the gauchos they have a ceremony of thanksgiving peculiarly interesting. In the early summer, when the young of the guanaco and the ostrich are numerous and easy to take, ostrich eggs still to be had and pasture is at its best, the Tehuelche cacique gathers his clan and decrees an offering to the good god. Thereat a young mare is lassoed, brought to a convenient spot, and there thrown down and secured on her back so that she cannot thrash around with her hoofs. Then all the people gather around while the man who is handiest with a knife draws his keenest blade, slashes open the breast of the mare, cuts out the heart, and holds it, still quivering, up in the presence of all, that it may become the offering by all of a living heart to the god to whom they give thanks.

They believe in evil spirits and there are medicine men and medicine women among them. Curiously enough, the medicine women are commonly young and the handsomest of their clans. These medicine mixers drive away evil spirits by incantations, but if the ordinary medicine fails, then all the men assemble, and, mounting their horses, ride furiously around the camp, firing guns into the air and waving their war-like implements about their heads.

Apparently here is a field in which the Salvation Army missionaries would be very successful. The home of the soul after death is in the sky – somewhere in the blue vault they see by day, and the road to it lies by the way of the glories of the west at sunset. Of old they used to burn all the effects of the deceased that he might have them in the other world, but now a small outfit of horses and dogs is sufficient.

With them the witch and the sorcerer are stern realities, but the Tehuelches never torture their supposed witches to death. The desert air never trembles with the moans of old women whose misfortune it is to be sullen or insane. But when one cuts his hair or trims his finger nails the clippings are carefully burned. So, too, are all effects left behind when moving the wigwams. The witch is supposed to obtain a devilish power over anyone when she can get hold of any such part of him.

In dreams – "when the heart sleeps, the mind sees a glimmer of the things to come," they say.

In music the Tehuelche is not much of an artist. The skin of a guanaco stretched over a hoop or bowl makes a drum. The bone of an ostrich leg, with holes cut into it, makes a sort of flute, which in turn is used to make the sinew cord of a bow to vibrate with a tum-tum noise.

The Tehuelche year begins in September, and the lapse of it is noted by the position of Orion. The four seasons are known as the fat time, or the fall; the cold time, the season of new grass, and the season of ostrich eggs. The moon measures the months, and one word serves for the name of the day and the sun.

In his astronomy the Tehuelche has named the Southern Cross the track of the ostrich, and therein has shown himself superior to the whites in at least one matter. The milky-way is the path of the guanaco, and the clouds of Magellan are the guanaco wallowing places, while Mars is the carancho, a conspicuous, eagle-like vulture common on the desert.

Following the tendencies of the age, the Tehuelches have become republicans. There are chiefs now, but in the old days the chief was a deal more of a ruler than now. In these days the chief is to the clan what the ablest and most experienced of a party of hunters in the Adirondacks is to his associates. He knows the woods and woodcraft better than the rest, and the rest therefore listen to his advice. In the quarrels over trivial matters in camp the head man will often serve as peacemaker, because where a quarrel spreads a division of the clan follows, and the chances of success in hunting are greatly diminished. It takes a good many people to draw a circle around a bunch of guanacos in an open desert.

The marriage ceremony begins with an exchange of presents between the bridegroom and the girl's parents. Then a small tent is erected for the young couple and they are placed in it until night, when all the people gather around as big a fire as they can make near the tent. As the fire burns up at its brightest the males, beginning with the chiefs and ending with the boys, dance, in sets of four, while the squaws look on critically. The dress of the dancers includes a breech clout, a sash about the shoulders, and two feathers in the hair. The divorce ceremony consists in leading the woman back to the tent of her relatives, a ceremony rarely known, however. As the head of a family, the Tehuelche is kind and considerate to the woman and very affectionate to the children. They pet and fondle and kiss each other and use words of endearment. Sometimes they quarrel in the family, of course. There are white men a plenty – even Americans, alas, who beat their wives. So there are Tehuelches who do so.

On the other hand, although the story of it may seem like a fable to the reader, the truth is, that hen-pecked husbands are found in as great proportion among the Tehuelches as among the whites. But, on the whole, it is agreed by all who know the Tehuelches that in their homes they are the happiest people imaginable.

The one vice – rather the root of all evil – among the Tehuelches is the love of liquor. Robes, weapons, horses, daughters, and wives will all be exchanged for rum, and there are traders crossing the desert every day of the year seeking out their camps to sell the stuff to them. Then, too, there are apple orchards on Lake Nahuel-Huapi. In the season great festivals are held at the orchards. Then the apples are made into cider in skin-lined pits, and the fermented stuff is consumed in vast quantities. The Tehuelche, when drunk, becomes quarrelsome, and murders are then common, although the squaws hide all weapons before a festival begins.

The weapons of the Tehuelche are like those of the gaucho – lassoes, bolas, and knives. They also make bows and arrows, spears and what the gauchos call "the lost bola." The lost bola is simply a stone of convenient weight at the end of a three-foot cord, It is intended for battles only, and is called lost bola because when thrown it is not usually recovered again. The effective range of this lost bola is ordinarily 100 yards, and in some hands twice that. Iron bolas are the favorites, because being smaller for the weight they have a longer range, and because, too, they are more easily seen and recovered after a cast across the dull-colored desert than pebbles are. The Tehuelches carry guns and pistols to some extent, but chiefly for use against the spirits.

Because of his use of the bola the Tehuelche is, in a sense, a sportsman as distinguished from a pot hunter. The game has a running chance for life. However, the usual way of capturing game is for the men to draw a circle about a bunch of guanacos when pumas and ostriches are often enclosed and killed. When on the march the women with the pack train serve as a part of the enclosing circle.

The tent of the Tehuelche is a large affair. It is what would be called in this country a shelter tent, or a lean-to open in front. It is of rounded exterior, like the fourth part of an orange. It has a frame of forks and ridgepoles, and is covered with guanaco skins. Other skins serve to divide the interior of the tent into rooms. Whole families and their guests go to bed in a single room in the out-of-the-way parts of the United States, such as the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, but the Tehuelches are modest enough to divide their sleeping places so that parents and children, boys and girls, and guests are separated by curtains of horsehide. For beds they have cushions made of coarse blankets stuffed with guanaco wool, and they know the comfort of pillows, which are made of soft skins stuffed with guanaco hair.

They are very modest in dress. From the time they are five years old they wear a cloth secured about the loins by a belt. To this the women add a gown in these days, and the inevitable robe of guanaco skins, while the men and women both wear the robe and boots made of the skin of a colt's hind legs. The old style of boots stuffed with straw that gave the name of Patagones to this really small-footed race was abandoned soon after horses were introduced.

In sexual morality, it is said, when the subject is first broached to the gauchos, that the Tehuelches are a bad lot, but when one asks for details he finds that in their natural state they were by no means lascivious. They have been corrupted terribly by the traders who swap rum for furs, but all the whites agree that the Tehuelche women were by nature modest and delicate, and, when compared with other aboriginal women, at once most patient, bright, cheerful, and helpful companions, and faithful as well.

For cooking the Tehuelches use the long steel bar common among gauchos for suspending a roast over the fire. The gauchos say the Indians are always in such a hurry to begin eating that time to cook a roast through is never allowed. The outside of the meat will be crisp, and even burned, while the centre is still raw. No matter; steaming slices are slashed off, and, dripping with hot juices, conveyed to the mouth. But having tried some of these slices myself, I can advise the reader to wait a like opportunity before condemning the Tehuelche's taste in roasts. Besides that, one must keep in mind that they are greedy only after a long fast, and that under such circumstances even the lordly white man has been known to eat half-raw meat. They also carry big kettles for boiling, and a rather better outfit of dishes than the gauchos use. These things they get of the whites in exchange for ostrich plumes. In the old days they used to broil their meat on the coals, and even now they fill small animals with hot stones and then bury them (hides on) in the embers, and so make a right good dish.

They are called dirty – even vile – because they oil themselves all over with the marrow of ostrich bones. As a matter of fact they are in most matters cleanly. They bathe daily when near a lake or stream (the men separate from the women), and when the floor of a tent is by accident fouled the careful squaw always cuts out the earth to a depth of two inches and throws it away. They are also called dirty because they eat the viscera of animals, the lungs, stomach, etc. They also eat unborn guanaco kids and unhatched ostriches. One can tell about such doings in a way that will make the Tehuelches seem to be a very disgusting lot. And so the descriptions generally run. But when one remembers some kinds of food the most civilized white men eat, there is found to be very little difference in such matters between the two races.

Indeed, when one has seen these Indians – has noted their self-restraint, their dignity, and gracefulness of looks and bearing, their gentleness and consideration one for the other, the utter lack of servility among them; more than all, when one has noted the brightness of their minds, the ease, for instance, with which they learn a foreign language and grasp ideas entirely new and foreign to their environment and habits of thought one all but loses patience with the pride of race and egotism of religion that have named them savages.

A visitor to the meeting place of the Societe d'Ethnographie of Paris, sees upon the wall above the President's chair this motto :

Corpore diversi, sed mentis lumine fratres.

The truth of that motto is never more apparent than in a contemplation of the Indians of Patagonia.

[end of Chapter VII]