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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



Let no sportsman or amateur naturalist be deterred from visiting Patagonia by the discouraging words of Darwin. When that famous naturalist had climbed the porphyry hills back of Port Desire, and, gazing away over the brown mesa, had seen little worth mentioning even by a naturalist save "here and there tufts of brown, wiry grass," and "still more rarely some low, thorny bushes," he went back to his diary in the cabin of his ship and wrote "the zoology of Patagonia is as limited as its flora." If Patagonia be compared with some parts of the tropics where the forests resound continually with the cries of birds and animals, where butterflies and humming-birds fill the air, and the insects are seen or felt in countless thousands, then, comparatively speaking, the fauna is limited. And yet there were – and are – some forms or life in Patagonia – insects, for instance – which, if Darwin had happened along at the right time, would have made him think the country about as full of life as it needed to be to keep a human being on the jump. There are as many mosquitoes and punkies (gnats) in Patagonia as in any game country I have seen in the two Americas, but the absence of this sort of life at certain seasons is one of the advantages which it offers to the sportsman, if not to the naturalist. For the hardy seeker after the thrills of the chase, with incidental trophies, Patagonia offers inducements quite the equal, all things considered, of any other wild part of the earth.

Of the animals a sportsman could find there the first in point of numbers is the guanaco. My first view of the guanaco was from the companion-way of the steamer in which I coasted the land. It was hanging in the rigging about the mainmast. The ship's captain had been away on a hunt, and had killed two, which were brought on board and hung up while I was writing in my diary down below. I afterward saw guanacos cantering over the hills unsuspicious of danger, and also fleeing toward a far country because certain that danger was near. They were even seen from the deck of the steamer as she ran down the coast. Although certain settlements have driven these animals from three or four old-time haunts, their number in Patagonia is like unto the number of antelope that used to range over parts of the United States. They are seen by the thousand.

In form and habits the guanaco is a very interesting beast. After a man has hunted it a while he comes to think it a model of beauty and grace, but at first view, even on the plains, it seems to the majority of people ridiculous. "It is like a long-legged calf with a neck three times too long," to quote the words of a Yankee sailor I found in Santa Cruz. As a matter of fact it has the body of a goat, but it stands from three to four feet high when full sized. The neck seems to be as long as the body, while the legs, which are as long as those of a deer, are really thicker, and seem thicker than they are, at least in winter, because of the length of hair. The color of the body of the full-grown beast is the red of a red cow, but the pelage is wool rather than hair until the animal is well on in years. However, the pelage of the legs is hair at all ages. In youth the wool is a light, almost a fawn color. At all ages the color of the back shades into white on the belly, while in extreme old age the guanacos are said to turn almost white all over. The track of the guanaco is something like that of a deer, though much larger, while the foot is peculiar in that it has at the under side a very prominent cushion, which projects below the protecting, forked hoof as the foot is lifted into the air, and which at all times probably supports the main weight of the body, making the step very light on the stony desert. The hoof is but a shell surrounding this bulbous cushion. The cushion is covered with a rough but yielding skin, which, though rough, is not calloused as the foot of a barefooted man comes to be.

When Darwin was in Patagonia he wrote some pages about the guanaco, paying considerable attention to its swiftness, its peculiar shape, which indicated that it was really the humpless camel of the South American desert, and its curious cry when alarmed, the exact neigh of a horse. But more interesting than all this was a habit which he believed it had when about to die. Along the Rio Santa Cruz he found the ground under the brush actually heaped up with the bones of the guanaco. Animal after animal had crawled in under the brushy shrubs, and, lying down upon the bones of others that had come there before it, had breathed its last. He also noticed that when a guanaco was wounded by a bullet it immediately headed for the river. The same habit was observed on the Rio Gallegos, but in no other place than these two valleys.

With Darwin's words as a text, Mr. W. H. Hudson, whose Naturalist in La Plata is the most interesting work on natural history ever written, has taken the trouble to reason out the cause for what he says "looks less like an instinct of one of the inferior creatures than the superstitious observance of human beings, who have knowledge of death and believe in a continued existence after dissolution; of a tribe that in past times had conceived the idea that the liberated spirit is only able to find its way to its future abode by starting at death from the ancient dying place of the tribe or family, and thence moving westward, or skyward, or underground, or over the well-worn immemorial track, invisible to material eyes."

With this uppermost in mind, I made haste on reaching Santa Cruz to ask the gauchos and other citizens for horses and a guide to the nearest guanaco cemetery, but they did not understand me. So I got Hudson's book and showed them the picture of the dying guanaco, and translated as well as small knowledge of Spanish would enable, his touching description of the animal in the place of skulls. By and by they understood, and with one voice said:

"It is not so."

"But the bushes and bones are there – thousands of skeletons."

"Without doubt."

"Why, then, do you say the guanaco does not go there to die, or to escape an imaginary evil? Why does he go there? "

"It is very simple. We stand now in the lee of this house because the wind is very cold. Almost one winter in three the wind is much colder – there is a terrible winter. There is much snow, and ice over the snow. Every place on the mesa is covered. To escape the cold storms the guanacos seek the shelter of the bushes. The storm continues many days. They can find no food; they cannot leave the shelter. So they die of starvation, one lying over another. Every plainsman has seen a thousand dead guanacos under the bushes after such a winter, not only here but in the cordillera as well."

However, though the guanaco does not have a dying place, it has a lot of characteristics sure to interest those who are lovers of natural history. Like the North American buffalo, it has wallowing places. On the plains of Patagonia, as on those of the Western States, great saucer-shaped hollows are seen in which the guanaco lies down to roll in the dust, but the Patagonian wallows are often much larger than any I ever saw in Kansas or Texas. The gauchos say this is because the guanacos resort to them in considerable herds – from thirty to one hundred – and at night sleep in them standing, heads out, in a ring, while the kids stand within the circle. This habit protects the young from the wild-cats and foxes. The guanaco has no effective defence against the assault of a panther save in flight. The old male guanaco with a herd of females to defend will fight when a panther attacks him unless the attack is immediately fatal. The canine teeth of the guanaco make a bad wound, and it can kick like a mule, but the panther is so quick and strong that the struggles of its victims are always hopeless.

In the right season each tough old male gathers a harem of from thirty to fifty females, over which he presides in lordly fashion, and in one respect the old fellow is a very good head of a family. He leads the females into the hollows, where the grass is most abundant, while he remains on the highest knoll of the vicinity keeping watch for the enemy, and contenting himself by browsing on the scant herbage he finds about him. At times, however, the guanacos live in vast herds, and then all the older males remain on the higher knolls as sentinels. Their sense of smell is very keen. It is well-nigh impossible to get within half a mile of the sentinels by travelling down wind – some say they can smell a party of hunters that is a full mile away, and even more up wind. If approached carefully on the lee side one may get very close, however, and then the action of the sentinels is something that makes the gauchos laugh. The way the old bucks prance and jump stiff-legged and paw the air and neigh horse-fashion is one of the funniest things the plainsmen see.

But, like the antelope, the guanaco is full of curiosity.

With a little flag or even a handkerchief a man, after concealing himself on the lee side of a herd, can toll them within pistol range by simply waving the cloth in the air at brief intervals. It is likely that the animal distinguishes colors, for the use of two or three flags of bright but different colors excites them much more than one white flag will.

When a herd is fired at with a gun (something that happens rarely in Patagonia) the report excites, but does not necessarily start the beasts running. Indeed, the sight of the smoke may draw them toward the gun. The wounded animal, if able to run, invariably plunges down the nearest declivity, and in the mountains this sometimes means a drop of hundreds of feet. If the animal is one of the leaders the whole herd with it will follow, sheep fashion. A gaucho, who had guided an English hunter from Punta Arenas up into the cordillera, said one shot of the Englishman's rifle one day killed over a hundred guanacos in this way. They all plunged over a lofty precipice. There was a camp of Indians in the vicinity at the time, and the result of the shot made the white man a very great medicine man in their estimation.

Guanacos can climb a mountain or run on a narrow ledge as well as a goat. Though found on the sea-beach, they also feed clear up to the edge of perpetual snow, and are quite at home in either locality. Their food is grass and twigs, but they are not found in the woods, save only as the natural parks along the foot-hills of the Andes might be called woodlands. Even there they avoid going into the clumps of trees.

Guanacos, when taken young, are readily tamed, and for two or three years, or until they get their full growth, make very pleasing pets. They are fond of being caressed, are very playful, and will thrive on any food suitable for sheep or cattle. But in the mating season, after the third year, they become so vicious that it is dangerous for women and children to keep them about. The females are then particularly ill-tempered toward women. They show their dislike by jumping toward the person that excites their anger and striking with all four feet at once. They also spit to a distance of five feet an acrid substance at the objectionable individual. If they knock one down, they will bite as well as jump on him.

The flesh of a guanaco that is under three years of age is very good; that of a yearling or under is delicious, and killed in the early fall, it is fat and tender; to my taste the young are the equal of any venison. The old ones are tough and rank. The Indians do not kill the old ones unless driven to it by starvation, as during a long storm. To the Indian, however, the guanaco is the mainstay of life. From the hide of the full-grown animals he makes his tent, and from the skins of the very young – preferably those of the unborn – with their silky fur he manufactures the great blanket – like wraps that form his distinctive dress. The skin of the hind legs is readily turned into an easy boot, and the skin of the long neck is dressed and cut into strips which form cords for the bolas, straps, and bridles, and horsegear generally in short, serves about all the uses of leather. In the sinews of the back the squaws find excellent thread, and in the wool a material admirably adapted to weaving blankets and filling mattresses and cushions. Nor is that all, for the bones serve various uses, and the marrow is used in place of vaseline, as well as eaten.

Judging by the good qualities of the skins I have seen, the hide of the full-grown guanaco would make an excellent leather, well adapted for valises and such uses, while that of the younger ones would serve admirably for fine footwear and gloves. Skins bring from 25 to 50 cents gold each in the market at Punta Arenas.

A curious kind of ball accumulates in the stomach of the guanaco. It looks something like a stone, but can be readily broken. It is said to possess medicinal qualities, and there is a ready market for the stuff at the settlement.

Next to the guanaco in interest if not in utility is the panther of Patagonia, the felis concolor of the naturalist. Nowhere in the world does the great tree-climbing cat reach greater size or accumulate more fat than on the treeless deserts of the far south. Specimens from eight to nine feet long over all are frequently seen. Though, perhaps, rather lighter in color, they are in all other respects exactly like the panthers of the United States. How it happened one cannot even guess, but the panther is known very much better in the desert than in the United States. Rarely can one read a story of the panther in the States without seeing something about its terrible ferocity toward human beings, while the stories of the panther that comes out of the woods to play with the lonely wayfarer as a cat plays with a mouse, that it may at last crush and eat him, are enough to make the flesh of the unlearned reader creep on his bones. On the desert of Patagonia there are more panthers in proportion to the area and the numbers of other kinds of animals than in any other region of the world. The lonely wayfarer is not often found there afoot, but men have been on the desert unmounted, and the panthers have come to play around them, too. But it is not as a predatory cat that they come. It is as a playful kitten. Individual panthers play by themselves – old ones as well as young – by the hour. They will chase and paw and roll an upturned bush, or a round rock, or any moving thing, and lacking that will pretend to sneak up on unwary game, crouching the while behind a bush, or rock for concealment, to spring out at last and land on a hump of sand or a shadow. Then they turn around and do the same thing over again.

When it is in this frame of mind if a lone human being comes along the panther is as glad to see him as a petted cat to see its mistress. It purrs and rolls over before him, and gallops from side to side, and makes no end of kitten-like motions, and all because of the exuberance of its youthful spirits. I know that the average reader, accustomed to the Fenimore Cooper sort of novels, will think this an exaggeration, but the plainsmen of all Argentina call the panther by a name that means "the friend of man," and that too in spite of the havoc it makes among their sheep.

This name, "the friend of man," applied to a beast elsewhere counted ferocious, arose from an incident well authenticated in the history of Buenos Ayres, though I have no doubt that other instances of the kindly disposition of the panther toward the human race have served to perpetuate the title. /see footnote/  In 1536 the people of Buenos Ayres, then a town of 2000 inhabitants, were reduced to the point of starvation because of a war with the Indians. One writer, Del Barco Centenera, asserts that 1800 of the 2000 died of hunger. The dead were buried only just beyond the palisades, because of the danger from Indians, and in consequence many beasts of prey came to feed on the thinly-covered bodies, a circumstance that added greatly to the terror and distress of the people. Nevertheless, hunger increased so much that many ventured out into woods along the river seeking edible roots, and with some success. Among these was a young woman named Maldonada, who, getting lost, was found and carried away by the Indians. Some months later, peace having been restored, Don Rui Diaz, the Captain of the soldiers, learned that Senorita Maldonada was alive, and thereupon he persuaded the Indians to restore her. He did this, not to relieve her from her slavery, but that he might punish her for what he believed to be her treachery. He thought she had deserted to the Indians, and so he condemned her to be tied to a tree three miles from town and left there to be eaten by wild beasts. This was done. After two nights and a day soldiers were sent to bring in her bones for burial, but to their great astonishment she was found unhurt. She said a panther had remained with her, and had driven off the jaguars and other beasts of prey that came to destroy her. The following sentence is from an old history of the town, and is given in the original for the benefit of those who read Spanish because of a pun in it.

De esta manera quedó libre la que ofrecieron a las fieras; la cual mujer yo la conocí, y la llamaban la Maldonada, que más bien se le podía llamar la Biendonada; pues por este suceso se ha de ver no haber merecido el castigo a que la ofrecieron.

Freely translated this means:

In this manner she that was offered to the wild beasts remained free; the which woman I knew, and they called her Maldonada (ill-bestowed), whom they could better have called Biendonada (well bestowed), since from this happening it was seen that she had not merited the punishment she had received.

The kindness of the panther does not protect him from the assault of man, however. A war of extermination is everywhere waged against the race. Mr. W. H. Greenwood, a sheep-owner whom I met at Santa Cruz, had killed over 1,000 panthers single handed, but in talking of the matter he said panther killing could not be called sport. When started by horse or dogs it runs with tremendous leaps a short distance. It gets tired out quickly, and then leaps into the middle of the largest clump of thorn brush at hand. There it sits up and snarls and looks like a fierce cat. It will claw the life out of any dog it can get hold of very quickly, but the moment a lasso drops over its neck it gives up, and lying down, shed tears as if it knew and dreaded its fate. Panthers are knocked in the head with the bolas, and even stabbed to death with knives by the shepherds, though this last act is really dangerous. The panther will not leap from its crouching place at a man, but if the man ventures in reach the beast may claw his life out, and he may not, too.

As the sheep ranches spread over Patagonia, the panthers are killed off as vermin. The flesh is freely eaten by everybody in Patagonia. Some like it roasted best, but most people prefer it boiled. Roasted it tastes like young pig. It is particularly esteemed because usually fat. The Patagonia plainsmen, as well as the Indians, consume fat as an Eskimo does. This is not because the weather is cold, as the arctic explorer imagined, but because they live on a meat diet exclusively. Vegetables supply the constituents to civilized folks which lean meat lacks. The fat meat is sufficient of itself.

Of the hunting habits of the panther many stories are told, and from these one learns that it is about the laziest hunter in the world as well as the most playful. It creeps up slowly on the guanaco herds, picks out a fat one, and then with quivering fur and flaming eyes it leaps at its victim. Two mighty bounds, no more, no less, and it lands on the back of the guanaco, and with a sweep of its right paw it dislocates its victim's neck. Down the two go in a heap, and then the panther tears open the neck of the guanaco and drinks the hot sweet blood that gushes out. This done, the carcass is usually covered up with brush, as if for future use, but as a matter of fact the condors or other carrion birds usually pick the bones.

That, at least, is the story of a panther's attack when it is lucky. Half the time the guanaco hears or smells its enemy in time to leap away in safety. The panther never chases its game, even when it gets so close as to tear bloody stripes in its flank. At times the panther finds the herd feeding in the open, where no shelter behind which it can reach its prey is to be had. Thereat the wily panther lies down on its back behind a bush that may be afar off, and claws the air, first with one paw, then with another, and then with both. Up will come its hind legs next, or its tail will stand erect, with the tip waving from side to side. These motions are something guanaco curiosity cannot resist. The guanaco comes to the decoy by starts and hesitating runs, but it comes, and so meets its death.

It is a fine savage, the panther. Shepherds told me of losing from forty to one hundred and twenty sheep in a night, the mother with young cubs being the most destructive – not that she may feed her young, but because she is then most playful. She kills for fun. The guanaco is the panther's staple food, but horses, sheep, and young cattle are all liked by it. Indeed, no living being of the desert except man escapes its appetite for murder, one may say, for it claws down the whirring partridge as she springs from her nest, which it afterwards robs of its eggs; it kills the ostrich as he sits on his nest, and then, after hiding his body, it returns to the nest and eats the eggs with gusto; it snatches the duck or the goose from its feeding place at the edge of a lagoon; it crushes the shell of the waddling armadillo; it digs the mouse from its nest in the grass; it stalks the desert prairie dog (Vizcacha Lagostomus Trichodactylus), and, dodging with easy motion the fangs of the serpent, it turns to claw and strip out its life before it can coil to strike again.

And yet, with all this, it makes a charming household pet. I never heard of one being kept longer than three years, but none of those described as pets was ever killed for personal harm done to or even ill-temper shown toward a human being. The shepherds and gauchos agree that the panther is always a kitten at heart, so far as man is concerned, but it has an instinctive dislike for dogs and love for colts and lambs. These failings, in spite of good training, will sooner or later get a panther into trouble on the ranch, and then even the wife and children plead in vain for its life.

If it be thought interesting that a tree-climbing cat like the panther should flourish on the treeless plains of Patagonia, then it is remarkable that two kinds of the colored man's choicest game, the 'possum, should thrive in the same locality. In regions where there never was a tree, and never will be one naturally, the 'possum, with its prehensile tail dragging uselessly behind it, lives as comfortably, and makes just as good a roast, as ever it did where the pawpaws grow. That it has lived thus for ages on the treeless mesa no one need doubt; but when by chance one is transported from the plain to a region of trees, to the valley of the Rio Negro, for instance, the old tree-climbing instinct is found as strong as ever. A mother 'possum that had ten young ones as large as rats, was once taken from her nest to a plantation with trees, and straightway, without any hesitation, she climbed nimbly up, carrying her family with her in the usual fashion– clinging all over her back and sides. Nor had the use of her tail been forgotten.

So much for the ordinary 'possum. There is another sort found that is no doubt indigenous, and it is of a kind to make the eyes of a colored brother bulge with astonishment, for it is at maturity the size of a small meadow mole. There are bushes on the desert large enough to serve these little fellows as trees, and they are, therefore, able to follow their instinctive desire to climb and hang head down by the tail, but the spectacle of one of the little 'possum mothers climbing about a desert bush with her tiny young clinging to her is one of the most interesting sights in nature.

Another animal that is at least in one respect allied to the 'possum is the coypu. It might, perhaps, be called an aquatic 'possum because of its hairless tail and its habit of carrying its young on its back. The naturalists, however, say it is more like the beaver than any other North American beast, and it certainly has a remarkably beautiful pelage. Its flesh is very good to eat, but it is chiefly hunted for the fur. The feature of this animal, however, that at once attracts the attention of a stranger is the location of the nipples of the mother on her back instead of on her breast and belly, as in ordinary mammals. When seen swimming about with her young on her back, as is her custom, the nipples are found above the water line extending in a row from shoulder to hip, where the young can nurse as they are carried along.

Of the weasels, one kind is described as much larger than those in the United States. They travel in packs like wolves when hunting, and are said to have the most malignant and devilish faces of any beast of the desert. All birds and rodents that get within their grasp are torn to pieces in savage fashion.

Along the Andes many Virginia deer are found, but it is only near the forests. They emit a rank odor from the leg glands that is said to be fatal to the desert snakes. The gray fox flourishes everywhere and grows to a rather larger size than in the United States, but he is remarkable for being very short-winded. At least, he is easily tired out. A race of a few hundred yards with a desert horse uses him up, and he falls a victim to the well-nigh unerring bolas of the plainsmen. He is not often killed by the Indians, for he is not fit to eat, but the shepherds slay him at sight because of the number of lambs he kills in the season.

Then there is the skunk, a counterpart in all respects of the skunk of the States. Skunks are very numerous in all parts, and often serve the Indians as food when larger game fails. It is an interesting fact, too, that the Indians capture them when young and make pets of them. There is rarely a collection of wigwams on the desert without a couple of tame skunks playing about.

The skunks, when tame, seem in all respects inoffensive.

The gauchos I met when told that a skunk's bite is supposed in parts of the United States to cause a malady akin to hydrophobia were incredulous. They had never heard of such a thing.

Any reference to the animals of Patagonia that omitted the armadillo would be noticeably defective. It is an animal with habits that must interest an amateur naturalist greatly. There are two forms of the armadillo. Roughly speaking, one is like a hairy guinea pig with a pointed turtle shell over its back and head, while the other is like a thick turtle without any breastplate. The former is very rare even in its haunts on the Andes. The latter is everywhere abundant. As described by all who have seen it, the latter will eat and get fat – very fat – on anything from grass roots to decayed fish or cattle, from an ant to a poisonous serpent, from strawberries to rats and mice. In the wilderness it roams about by day because the cats of the desert persecute it most at night. Near the settlements, where, by the way, it thrives best, it is abroad at night, because man persecutes it in the day. Slow moving, as it seems to be when the traveller sees it at sunset, it overtakes the serpents of the region in a fair race, and kills them by squatting on them and sawing its body to and fro so that the edges of its protective shell cut the snake to pieces. It captures mice by sneaking on them cat-fashion and throwing its body over them like a trap. It grubs for worms; it robs nests of eggs and fledglings. Now, although it eats a great many things that are repulsive to civilized tastes, the armadillo is itself a most delicious article of food for any human taste, civilized or uncivilized. In my journeys as a reporter of The Sun I have eaten nearly every kind of fish, flesh, and fowl served between Ivigtut, Greenland, and Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, but found nothing quite so much to my taste as an armadillo baked in the embers of an outdoor fire on the desert of Patagonia. Nor was my judgment in the matter influenced by hunger, for my first armadillo was served unexpectedly after a plentiful repast of good beef roasted on a spit. It is said that armadillos are not found south of the Santa Cruz River. They are indigenous north of it, but the river's current is an impassable barrier to keep it from spreading south.

All travellers familiar with the desert regions of the United States are at once struck on reaching Patagonia with the remarkable similarity between the two countries. No one could object to the transplanting of armadillos to the prairies and deserts of the United States. They prefer animal food; they are good scavengers. They do no harm to crops, but on the contrary aid materially in destroying insects and other crop enemies. Indeed, they are so valuable in this respect that the Agricultural Department, which imported bugs of one kind to destroy others that were ruining California orange-growers, might well take into consideration a proposition to import armadillos.

Space is lacking even for brief reference to other animals. There is one thing, however, about the majority of all the desert animals that must strike the traveller as the most remarkable thing in nature. The big guanacos, the tiny rodent, half a dozen different kinds of mammals, besides birds, all live without water. I do not know this to be true, but every plainsman with whom I have talked said it was so. The panther, of course, finds a substitute in the blood he drinks, but there are others that do not have even a liquid food. They live on flesh or on the herbs that are never noticeable for having juices in them. Still, the matter is not without a parallel in the United States, for the prairie dogs, the rabbits, and the reptiles of such regions as the Panhandle of Texas and the Colorado Desert live in like fashion.

On the whole, Patagonia is one of the parts of the world for the hardy lover of nature to see when he goes a-travelling. The zoology is, indeed, about as scant, numerically, as the flora; but here, as in all other things, there is a universal law of compensation. Whatever may be lacking in the count of kinds is more than made up in the interesting characteristics of those to be found there.

[end of Chapter IX]

Editor's footnote: This account is taken from Hudson, op. cit. Since Buenos Aires was founded in 1536, the population figure given seems high.