Copyright © 2004-2017 
Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
John MacLean, honorary sheriff: official correspondence, 1902-1906
A rancher on the frontier -- in his own words   [102 letters, mostly in Spanish]

Background to this collection of letters
compiled from the original materials

Location Communications Population Possessions Economy
Comisarios Guards Incidents References

John MacLean's district, known as "Punta del Monte", was located in north-central Magallanes, about 70km NNE of the town of Punta Arenas, lying between the Strait of Magellan and the Argentine border (location: 1902 map; modern map). Its estimated area was 3,000 km². The land is lightly undulating, with no high elevations. Moderate rainfall supports grassy pampas, which attracted sheep-ranchers from an early date. Woodlands provided material for domestic heating [1]. Native shrubs and trees included roble (genus Nothofagus), calafate (Berberis buxifolia), romerillo [perhaps mata verde (Chiliotrichum diffusum )], pampa tea (Satureja darwinii) and murtilla (Empetrum rubrum[2].


At the start of the 20th century, land transportation was still animal-powered: horses were preferred for individual travel; carts were often ox-drawn; poorer folk simply walked. Two major routes crossed the district: one from Punta Arenas eastward to Río Gallegos, in Argentina; the other from Punta Arenas northward to Última Esperanza (present-day Puerto Natales). Six roads or tracks spread out from the comisaría, known by the names of ranches or other natural features: Ciaique/Romero, Dinamarquero, Rio Bautismo, Oazy Harbour, Pozo la Reina and Monte Alto/Bartlett. Other tracks led to Laguna Blanca, Penitente, El Zurdo (Argentina), Morro Chico and Gallegos Chico [3]. Although there was some kind of postal service [4], it seems likely that letters and goods were often handled by private arrangements among the residents. Private telephone service to Punta Arenas was available at Estancia Dinamarquero and at Fenton Station, although official intervention seems to have been needed to authorize its use by the comisaría [5].


There is little evidence that indigenous groups were still present in the district by this period [16]. The population was around 200 (mostly Chilean male farm workers) [6]. Some farm managers and shepherds were British. Their surnames included Bartlett, Cameron, Doolan, Dunican, Finlayson, Harries, Johnson, Kogan [perhaps Cogan], MacLean, MacQueen, Scott and Wood. For this reason, a few letters in the collection are written in English.


The typical shepherd would have had few personal possessions and be simply dressed. Here is a list of items found on the body of a man lost in the winter [7].

1 Longines watch 20 cents
1 chain with a silver coin (shilling) 1 pencil
1 penknife 1 tin whistle
1 fieldknife 1 coloured handkerchief
1 pipe 1 package of newspapers
1 block of tobacco 1 pair knee-boots

There were two commercial establishments: a hotel known as «Pozo de La Reina», operated by Blas Martinovich, and a general store at Estancia Dinamarquero [8].

The following ranches (predominantly sheep-raising) were recorded in 1902 [9]:

name operator #hectares #sheep
Dinamarquero/Romero Braun & Cameron 70,968 36,000
Fenton Station Fenton & Waldron 60,000 46,000
Gallegos Chico (#1) Finlayson 21,613 3,000
Gallegos Chico (#2) Menéndez 21,616 3,000
Gallegos Chico (#3) Doolan 15,000 3,000
Oazy Harbour Roig & Co. 60,000 72,000
Panteon Frayssineau & Co. 9,710 6,000
Punta del Monte MacLean 10,000 2,800

Note the sharp contrast in scale: the 3 largest ranches occupied 71% of the land and ran almost 90% of the sheep. These holdings were undoubtedly better capitalized, and their operators probably had the pick of the best pastures. Whereas all land was rented from the Chilean government, this arrangement changed in 1903, when these lots were sold by public auction [10], fetching high prices. Most small operators lost tenure at this time, and were compelled to move on. [Ironically, Henry Reynard, of Oazy Harbour, the acknowledged founder of ranching in the region, considered that the prices being bid were too high, and opted to move to Argentina].


The rural area of Magallanes Territory was initially divided into 12 districts, each administered by a comisario, who represented the Governor and Police Force (both based in Punta Arenas) in matters of public order and administration. Each comisario was assisted by one or more guards [11]. The qualifications and method of selection of the comisario are unknown: we may suppose that most were ranchers resident in the respective district. In John MacLean's case, the appointment was honorary, and his allotment of two guards was withdrawn "for budget reasons" at the end of 1903.


It appears that some of the guards were simply trustworthy applicants, untrained in police work [12]. Several notes and letters in the collection attest to a working level of literacy [5, 13, 14]. Their allotted equipment was as follows [15]:

2 uniforms 2 horses
1 Mauser rifle 1 sabre
1 bandolier 100 rounds of ammunition
2 saddles  
  • birth+death: civil registration
  • death: discovery of corpse
  • death of British national: communications with consul
  • arrest of thieves, transfer/expulsion of prisoners
  • search for escaped prisoners, navy deserters, draft dodgers
  • enforcement of licencing laws: store, hotel
  • illegal closure of public highways
  • termination of lease on public lands
  • population census
  • inventory of livestock and farm instalations
  • collection of botanical specimens
  • registration of animal brands
  • guards: discipline, hiring and firing, salary payment
  1. letter, undated
  2. letter to governor, 3 June 1903
  3. letter to governor, 4 April 1902
  4. letter to governor, 31 October 1903
  5. letter to governor, undated
  6. letter to governor, 17 January 1904
  7. letter to comisario in Punta Arenas, 25 November 1902
  8. letter to governor, 7 September 1903
  9. inventories, 22-28 June 1902 (et seq.)
  10. receipt for notice to quit, 2 January 1903
  11. letter from governor, 29 December 1903
  12. letter to comisario in Punta Arenas, 4 June 1903
  13. note by Aros, undated
  14. letter to Aros, 24 September 1903
  15. letter from comisario in Punta Arenas, 10 May 1902
  16. letter to comisario in Cabo Negro, 10 June 1903

Duncan Campbell
August 2006