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Early writings from Southern Patagonia
Title: The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn
Sub-title: A study of life in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia
Author: John R. Spears
Publisher: G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1895



A most remarkable colony is that which the Welsh have made in Patagonia. Rarely, if ever, in the history of the Americas have emigrants from the old country been surrounded by conditions and circumstances so discouraging as those to be described in this story of that colony, and rarely, if ever, has a colonizing project originated as did this the Welch [sic] colony that is now flourishing on the banks of the Chubut River, 750 miles southwest of Buenos Ayres. Although one must really see the country to appreciate fully what the colonists endured and have achieved, yet I fancy that some of the facts are of sufficient human interest to make the story fully worth the telling.

The colony is known by the name of the river on which it is located – Chubut. It was formed by immigrants who left their homes, paradoxical as it may seem, because they were patriots. They were all Welshmen, who, because the laws of Great Britain have compelled the use of English in Welsh schools since the year 1282, when Prince Llewellyn fell, determined to found a colony in such an out-of-the-way part of the world that they could, unmolested, perpetuate the mother tongue of Wales. The prime mover in this matter was Dr. Michael Jones of Bala College, and he was assisted by Mr. Lewis Jones, who is now a resident of the colony.

These gentlemen looked the maps of the world over, and they read the descriptions of all the unsettled parts which travellers out of the way had written, the ultimate conclusion being that no habitable country in the world could offer such complete isolation as the Patagonia region of the Argentine Republic. There came a time afterward when they began to doubt whether the land they had chosen was really habitable, but it was then too late to turn back.

An appeal for a grant of land was made to the Argentine Government, and that is an appeal that is never made in vain by any colony acting in good faith to any Latin-American Government. It is true that efforts were made to dissuade the Welshmen from going to Patagonia, but those efforts were intended for the good of the colonists. They were asked to take the fertile lands of the north instead of the desert of the south. No one but the promoters of the colony believed that any settlement could exist in the desert, and never did promoters come nearer to losing heart and yet succeed.

It was on July 28, 1865, that the Welsh pilgrims first landed in the region they had chosen. At that time the whole of Patagonia, between Rio Negro and the Strait of Magellan, was in precisely the same condition that it was when Pedro Sarmiento's colony starved to death in the strait, when Cavendish discovered Port Desire, and when Darwin explored a part of the remarkable Santa Cruz River. Nor was that all. War was incessantly waged between the people of the republic (who were pleased to call themselves Christians) and the people of the desert plains, who were called savages by the self-styled Christians. And the savages, as has been told, had the best of the fights. The whites occupied one settlement on the Rio Negro, but only by favor of the red men. What could a handful of Welshmen, unused to plains life and wholly ignorant of savage warfare, do with such fierce warriors?

The time came, however, when the Welshmen were asking each other, "What would we have done without the Indians?"

As said, it was in the last week of July, 1865, when the Welshmen first saw the land where they intended to perpetuate their mother tongue in its purity. July in Patagonia is the mid-winter month. A sailing ship took them to the southeast corner of New Gulf, a nearly circular bay in the coast, seven hundred miles southwest of Buenos Ayres. Here it put them out on the gravelly beach, gave them some food and water, and then sailed away. There were 150 souls all told. How utterly alone they were, and how far away from civilization can be better appreciated when we remember that in those days no merchant steamers had yet gone down the coast to pass the Strait of Magellan, and that the only white men living south of the struggling settlement on the Rio Negro were a disconsolate gang of convicts, guarded by an equally forlorn squad of soldiers in a stockade on the strait just mentioned. The Welshmen were separated from all civilization, even the Argentine kind – a kind to which they were not accustomed – by the stormy sea on one hand and by hundreds of miles of desert on the other, a desert that was utterly impassable save by the Indians, who alone, in those days, knew where the widely-separated springs of fresh water were to be found.

Nor were their immediate surroundings any more cheerful than a contemplation of the region that lay between them and the far-away settlement on the Rio Negro.

They had landed on a pebbly beach near the foot of a low, white alluvial cliff into which the elements had eaten holes large enough to be called caves. Beyond the cliffs the arid desert, a mixture of sand and pebbles, rose in sweeping undulations to a crest perhaps six miles away and four hundred feet above the sea. They were walled in by desert ridges. There was not a green thing in sight, but only ragged brown desert brush and an occasional yellow, dry bunch of grass. There was neither house nor hut for their reception or shelter, and, worse than all else, there was neither stream nor pool nor spring of water fit to drink anywhere within fifty-one miles. That was the kind of a country to which these 150 Welshmen came to plant a colony that should live by agriculture.

The Pilgrims who came to Plymouth Rock because they could not make the world elsewhere worship according to the dictates of their consciences, had a tolerably bleak time of it according to the orators on New England Society days, but if one wants to hear stories of real hardships endured by pioneers, let him go to Chubut and talk to one of the older Welshmen.

The first thing done was, of necessity, to dig a well for water. They found water, and the well is still there. A drink from its depths will carry a Yankee cowboy back to his old haunts on the plains of Southwest Kansas and No Man's Land, instantly; that is, it will carry his thoughts there. He will say "gypsum" or "alkali" with something verbally stronger still, as soon as he gets his mouth empty. Indeed, one need not look five minutes anywhere around New Gulf to find plenty of gypsum. Nevertheless, the water would support life after a fashion, and the Welshmen turned from the well to make shelters of the caves nature had provided.

From the work of arranging their scanty household goods in the caves these pioneers went forth, not to sow and plant, but to make a road. They were in the region where they were to find homes, but the actual home sites – the farms of 240 acres that were to be theirs – lay fifty-one miles away over and beyond the crest of the desert amphitheatre within which they had landed. They had to mark the trail lest they get lost, clear it of brush and level its irregularities, and then they must needs transport themselves and their belongings over it to the banks of the Chubut River.

And all this they did to find at last that, save for a deposit of black loam in parts of the valley of the stream, they had come to a land as desolate as the shores of New Gulf. The desert walled them in. The wells filled with alkali water. The north wind was like a blast from the furnace in which Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego fell down, and almost every wind came laden with a brown fog of sand. They had sought isolation ; they had found it with a vengeance.

Nevertheless, these Welshmen – and they were all miners, too, and not farmers – began work to make homes and farms. They laid out a capital city, which they named Rawson in honor of the Argentine Cabinet officer who had interested himself in their behalf. It was a sorry capital then, but duplicates of it can be found in the Texas Panhandle. It was a town of dugouts and mud huts. There was no timber for houses. They planted gardens. They looked the region over. They began to learn how to hunt the guanaco and the ostrich that roamed over the desert.

And then came the Indians, the huge-framed Tehuelches, to whom the early explorer of the region had given the name of Big Feet (Patagonians). It was a notable day in the history of the settlement, but not a day of bloodshed. The Tehuelches and the Welshmen became friends at once, partly because the Indians, on learning why the whites had sought the isolation, comprehended the matter in a way that made them feel a brotherly regard for the intruders such as they had never felt for any other whites. The Welshmen had come to find entire freedom in the desert, and that was something the freeborn son of the desert could appreciate.

That was an excellent beginning, but only a first victory. There were many other foes on the desert. There were the panthers, the great, lean, sly cats that are called also American lions. They swarmed on the uplands and by night came to the settlement for the blood of horses, cattle, and sheep. There were locusts in clouds that obscured the sun. There were wild geese, ducks, and coots from the river – the winged pests were in legions. It was a waterless region and uninhabitable for man beyond the valley of the stream, but in the thorny brush of the desert millions of nature's allies in her warfare against man found breeding places.

For the first year the colony was to be supplied with provisions by the Argentine Government. The contract was faithfully kept. The colonists hoped to raise enough food for their own use after that, but their hopes failed. The hot winds destroyed the few results of their labors which birds and beasts had spared. Nevertheless, they held on for another year, the government supplying their needs, although, meantime, more colonists had come. Then came another failure of crops. The reader will say it took a lot of pluck to hold on after that for another year. So it did. These Welshmen were full of it. Not only for another year, but for another, and another still – for six weary years those men fought the gaunt wolf that stood at their doors. Then came prosperity, but with leaden footsteps.

That the colonists did not perish absolutely of starvation was due first to the persistent care of the Argentine Government. Uncle Sam was counted generous when he gave to every immigrant 160 acres of land. The Argentine Government not only gave these immigrants 240 acres of land each, on the condition that they improve it somewhat and live there two years, but it established a commissary department in the colony, and for nearly ten years gave free of cost all supplies of food and clothing needed to keep them alive, and as late as 1877, when crops had begun to flourish well, still extended a generous helping hand. This was done in spite of the fact that these Welshmen were avowedly clannish. They had come to establish a Welsh colony, and had obtained permission in advance not only to preserve their own language, but to govern themselves and to live free of taxation. Under the terms of the original concession, they were of value to the Argentine nation only in the fact that they were to break up and cultivate so much wild land. They could not have been made to fight for the land of their adoption even against an invading host of Brazilian monarchists. No government was ever more generous to colonists than the Argentine.

Goods were sent to Chubut by the ship load. But more than once the ship went wrong, and the goods were lost. Then came the time of dire distress when only their good friends the Tehuelches could save them. The Welshmen were starving on several occasions when the Indians came down the river and brought succor – guanaco, and ostrich, and panther meat in abundance, with skins for clothing. As the corn of the Massachusetts Indians saved the Pilgrim Fathers, so the meat of the Tehuelches saved the Welshmen. But the Tehuelche Indians have not now to mourn, nor do the Welshmen now hang their heads in shame at the mention of any King Philip. White men made war on the Tehuelches and exterminated them, but no Welshmen, though the colony was then self-supporting, took part in that hateful enterprise, and when the red remnant were forced at last to give up the fight, they came down to the Chubut River and surrendered to the fair-dealing white men, who had called them brothers and meant what they said. More pitiful still, when one brave old chief, wounded to death, was breathing his last in Buenos Ayres, he smilingly looked about him and said:

"I am going to the Welshman's heaven."

As said, for six years, the colonists struggled against failing hopes, eating only the bitter bread of charity, struggled to maintain themselves where they could perpetuate their language in its purity. In 1871 came the turn in the tide. A dam was built across the Chubut River in that year, and an irrigating ditch taken out. Of course they did not finish the canal in one year. It was a ditch thirty-six feet wide on top, eighteen on the bottom, and six feet deep, and year by year they lengthened it out. When the water kissed the warm, dark soil, it was like the kiss of the maiden on the lips of the grateful beast in the fairy story. The desert was transformed into a blooming garden.

And here is an interesting fact. For six years the colonists had eaten no bread, save what was given to them. They would, therefore, get clear of that evil first of all. They sowed wheat and barley, and they sow little else to this day. Whatever may happen, the Chubut man will never again have to ask for bread of anybody.

However, as said, progress was slow. The first ditch was not well located, and when an unusual drought came the water of the river did not reach the ditch, and the crop failed in spite of it. Then, too, there were the wild pests at all times – the locusts and the wild fowl. Even after eleven years of irrigation – in 1882 – there was a failure from the drought. But that set them to building a greater ditch, of which they all now make boast.

About five hundred settlers came out in the early years of famine, but the number dwindled to less than two hundred in 1871. In 1880 the result of irrigation had swelled the number to eight hundred, and in 1885 there were double that number. In 1880 the settlers were scattered along the valley for about twenty-five miles from the mouth of the river, and there was a sort of a village at each end of the settlement. The houses were, as a rule, even then mere huts. Wagons, and carts, and horses were had in sufficient number. In fact, the Government at Buenos Ayres had provided all of these things. But the abundant harvests of 1880 and 1881 gave a boom to the settlement which the failure of 1882 only checked temporarily. The colonists went up stream to a valley thirty miles long beyond a narrow cañon and took up land there. It was there that the head of the great new ditch was located. They have since gone to a third still higher. They have, in fact, taken up all the available land for seventy miles along the river. They have 270 miles of main irrigating canals. The largest has a cross section measuring 75x9x36 feet, and the whole 270 miles cost £180,000. There are 3250 people in the settlement.

Some of the details of their condition from time to time remind one of the Yankee frontier settlements. They began their religious life in the colony with union services, and got on comfortably until they prospered. Sectarians floated in on the waters of the irrigating ditch, so to speak, and there was a burst of zeal in building up denominations that brought a growth in church outfits quite equal to that in the area planted – rather larger, in fact. Among the 2000 people of 1883 there were two independent congregations with ordained ministers, who held regular services in chapels, of which "the walls were baked brick, the roofs were wooden, with a layer of mud on top, and the wooden benches had good backs to them," as one of them described the places of worship. They had also a stone-walled chapel in a third place, and held regular services in schoolhouses in other places. The Methodists had a brick church with an ordained minister, at Rawson, and held services in the upper valley. The Baptists had a fine chapel at Frondrey, one of the little villages that sprang up, and an ordained minister for it. In fact, there were, in all, seven ordained ministers in the colony, and in 1884 the Episcopalians brought out the eighth. Every one of these had his 240 acres of land, and everyone worked his own farm and got rich, as his neighbors did, raising wheat.

It is a significant fact that up to 1884 the colony did not have a single physician. It scarcely needed one. Still some one was sure to break a limb every two or three years, and the colonists were right glad when, in 1885, a man with a diploma came there and took up the usual allowance of land.

In 1883 a number of Welsh prospectors came from Australia to Chubut and went as far back as the Andes. They found several croppings of lignite, which at first were thought to be good coal, and that made a stir. The stuff is now used for fuel to some extent in the houses, and it is to be found that five tons will serve for about two tons of Welsh coal.

Then they found gold and went to work filing claims.

The gold, however, lies only thirty-one leagues from a port on the Chili coast where a German steamer calls once a month, so that the diggings, which include placer as well as quartz workings, will hardly benefit Chubut save as a market for produce may be created. About $50,000 gold has been invested in the workings. The Yankee traveller is sure to be informed, too, that "a Texas cowboy named Marshall has a store at the camp, and he says the diggings beat California."

Then it was observed that the desert plains above the upper parts of the inhabited valley swarmed with guanacos as the desert plains of New Mexico once swarmed with antelopes. Droves of from 5000 to 7000 were seen. It was rightly argued that sheep could live where the guanaco did. The Chubut colonists are going into the wool business, though slowly, and this is certain to be the greatest source of wealth to the colonists in the future. Bunch grass grows on the uplands. It is in scant quantity, but it is there. Water flows through the valley. The man who has water can hold all the sheep that can feed on the desert back of his farm, and that means at least two thousand. Sheep thrive wonderfully in the pure air and on the dry gravel of Patagonia. Everywhere along the coast the shepherds boast that every sheep is worth a gold dollar a year clear profit, besides the increase in the flock. But this statement should not lead anyone to go to Chubut to begin life, because all the available land in the valley has been taken up. Meantime, after irrigation brought crops, the subject of transportation had agitated the colonists. The mouth of the Chubut River had an impassable bar. Nearly all freight, previous to 1885, was either brought to New Gulf and carted thence over the old trail to the valley, or else was brought in tiny sailing vessels which, at the time, when the melting snow on the head waters made a freshet in the river, could work in over the bar. The surplus grain had to be shipped out in the same way. There was a weary and an expensive haul by the one route; by the other, a tedious and expensive waiting for high water. In 1885, a company was formed to construct a railway from the valley to New Gulf, and the Argentine Government granted a charter, and gave a subsidy of 204 square miles of desert land. I guess the subsidy isn't worth much, for there seems to be no way to get water on it. They even carry water from the Chubut valley to supply all employees along the line, now, but a road of a metre gauge was built, and a very good road it is, considering that English stock and materials were used.

Building the road involved the making of two new town sites – one on the gulf and one at the railroad terminus. That in the Chubut valley has been built up, but half a dozen wood, iron, and mud huts are all that can be found at Madryn, on the gulf. Still Madryn is an interesting town. It has a ruler, appointed by the President of the republic. He is called the Prefect. His district is a sub-prefect, and he is a sort of an autocratic mayor. Lieutenants in the navy get all such appointments in Patagonia.

Madryn also has a Captain of the Port and a squad of sailors to help preserve the dignity of the Prefect, and the Prefect has an assistant Prefect, who ranks a little below the Captain of the Port. Outside of the official group, but on excellent terms with it, is the railroad group. This includes an agent, who is a well-educated Welshman, and a telegraph operator, who is the charming daughter of the agent. To rank with the non-commissioned officer and the Jack tars of the official group there is a foreman and a gang of railroad trackmen. Then there are two lighters afloat in the bay for the transfer of freight to and from the Argentine naval transports, which come down from Buenos Ayres once in three weeks. These lighters are excellent sea boats, instead of having the models that lighters in New York have. One is a schooner and the other is a sloop, and five men man the two.

The railroad has prospered moderately. It has 5000 tons of wheat to carry from the colony every year, besides some small packages of ostrich feathers, guanaco skins, and products of Indian workmanship. It carries in dry goods, groceries, and hardware, and several passengers a month pass over it each way. A train runs over the road every time a ship comes to port – say once in three weeks. In fact, the company is going to extend the line up the valley. The people living seventy miles above the end of the road want better facilities for shipping their wheat, and they are going to have them. This branch of the road will very likely have a train once a week to accommodate local passenger traffic. In case the gold mines develop half the wealth they are expected to, the railroad will be carried right away up to the diggings.

Patagonia railroad building is not expensive. All Patagonia between river valleys is everywhere ballasted with proper gravel for a road-bed, and is so nearly level that the ties can be laid, as they were laid on Texas lines years ago, right on the natural surface without turning a shovelful of dirt. As compared with some Yankee railroads, the only railroad in Patagonia is no great affair; but when compared with some others it leaves them out of sight, because it pays dividends as well as develops the country.

To sum it all up, here was a colony that might well have been called a failure before the people reached their destination. It was called a failure by about every impartial observer who visited it during the first ten years of its existence. Nevertheless, in spite of the drought, in spite of alkali, in spite of homesickness, in spite of all the myriad drawbacks to which it was subject, it prospered at the last, and is now worth millions sterling.

But alas for Dr. Michael Jones of Bala College! Alas for Mr. Lewis Jones, now of the colony! They planted their hosts in the uttermost parts of the earth that the shade of Prince Llewellyn might flourish and his language be spoken in its original purity forever. So the shade did flourish and the language was spoken for many years, but when prosperity came there was an influx of other tongues, along with an Argentine Governor and an official staff. Spanish was the language of the Argentine, and was necessary for all official business. Under the Argentine law every child born in the colony was a citizen of the republic, and it was a republic of which even the descendants of Prince Llewellyn did not need to be ashamed. The Welsh youngsters, indeed, have grown up to look with pride to the broad blue and white stripes of the flag under which they were born. They are children of the desert – and they love that desert – love it so well that they never lose an opportunity to speak in its favor; and they speak of it with the soft vowels of the Castilian, rather than with the consonants of the Welsh.

[end of Chapter VIII]