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Two American missionaries visit the Tehuelche Indians at Gregory's Bay, 1833-1834
The Daily Journal of Rev. Titus Coan [extract]

Sunday, January 5th, 1834 through Saturday, January 11th, 1834

Sabbath Jan. 5th. The Indians have been interchanging visits with the Queen's party during the day. We have not yet seen the Queen but one of us will probably go up to her camp tomorrow. I am told that there are about 500 Indians with her. I learn that these savages play at cards, which diversion they call "Berrica" and also at dice which they call 'Terraci'. Their ball playing they call "Sonkey" and in this they have been engaged much today. About sunset my attention was turned to the tent of Captain Santario, just on our right, by the noise of groaning, rattling etc. On going to the tent I found the Captain complaining of sickness, while one of their superstitious doctors was sitting over him, moaning, sucking his thumbs, striking his breast, blowing through his fists, then sucking the eyebrows and face of the passive patient, blowing upon him and rattling over his head two dry bags of rawhide in the form of junk bottles in which were a large quantity of small pebbles. This round of ceremony he continued until I should suppose that even a well man would be sick and a sick man dead under the operation. What the notions of this people are on the subject of sickness I have not yet been able definitely to learn but suspect that they believe it to be inflicted by evil spirits.

Monday Jan. 6th. My companion went up to see the other camp of Indians today and returned in the afternoon with the Queen and several others of her party. Santa Maria is an aged woman and is living with a man by the name of Kahatech, who, I am told, is her fourth husband. She is considerably civilized, has visited the Falkland Islands, converses tolerably in Spanish, and appears mild and amiable in her disposition. She has four sons viz. Captain Parpon, Fourloon, Checo and Bistante, the oldest of whom is a Captain in the party. On entering our tent, the Queen presented me her hand with all the civility and kindness of a mother, and then introduced her husband for whom she manifests much affection. We prepared a dinner of boiled meat and the Queen and her husband partook of the repast with us in American style. After dinner our conversation turned on various subjects and she enquired of us how long we would stay, what we brought with us, when there would be any more vessels at the Bay etc., and invited us to go and live with her. This invitation however we thought best to decline for the present, as we do not expect to find a family that will treat us with more kindness than the one with which we have continued since our landing. On telling Maria that I would visit her at her house in a few days, she insisted on my returning home with her today, and spending some time at her residence and her importunity became so great that after several excuses I at length assented to return with her. After presenting her with a scarlet broadcloth cloak which we had made on board the vessel during our passage out, and also with a hatchet, some knives, thimbles, needles etc. with which she was much pleased, I mounted a horse which was prepared for me, and at sundown set out with the old Lady for her house, where we arrived soon after dark. On our arrival the Indians crowded around in scores to obtain, as I supposed, a peep at the American stranger. I was invited immediately into the Queen's tent which is larger than the others, yet made and furnished in the same style, and contains several families. The Queen dresses in a mantle os skins, wears a few beads around her wrists, and when she rides out puts on a pair of boots made of the skin of the horse's legs; but in none of her personal attire is she distinguished from a private individual. When I had taken a piece of roast meat, my bed of skins was prepared and the old Lady covered me with all the care of a tender mother.

Jan. 7th. On arising this morning the good old Queen brought me a piggin [small wooden bucket, Ed.] of water, and a piece of soap to wash my hands and face, and soon a fine breakfast of boiled meat was presented with salt to flavour it. Soon after this the old Lady enquired how long I would stay, and when I told her that I must return today she urged me to stay until tomorrow, as she had before done to spend several days at her house. While I remained she did all in her power to render my visit agreeable, and I have seldom been treated with more simple and genuine hospitality, even in a civilized land, than by this aged woman. Finding that I could not be persuaded to tarry another night she girded a horse for herself and another for me, and about 3 P.M. set out with me and escorted me back to our encampment, where she again remained until near sundown, and then mounted her horse and returned to her own […]. As I was about to leave her house she presented me a new guanaco mantle, finely painted, and seven hen's eggs which she had preserved from a hen which she keeps in her tent with much care. At the time Brother Arms paid her a visit she gave him a mantle of Lion skins which was the only one of the kind in her possession. In the Queen's house I saw a man whom the Indians call "[Padre?]" and who acts as a kind of priest among them though I cannot learn that he has any official duties to discharge, except in burying the dead. The padre wears his hair and his mantle like the women which varies a little from the men, lives in celibacy, performs hard labour and is supported by others. I have witnessed no funeral rites as yet, but I am told that when a man dies he is buried in a small hole in the ground, the pa[dre] treading down the earth over him, and that then his horses and dogs are all killed, and his mantle, tent and whatever articles were in his possession are all burned.

I am informed that the marriage ceremony of these people consists only of killing a horse and eating him. The bride is purchased of her father with a horse or something equivalent. Polygamy is said to be common among them.

Jan. 8th. Some Indians ascended table mountain near us this morning, where they obtained an extensive view of the Straits and returned with the intelligence that a vessel was coming into the Bay from the southwest. Immediately the whole camp was in a bustle, and the cry rang from tent to tent, "Americanna bark, Americanna bark," and troops were soon mounted on their horses and galloping off at full speed, to greet the approaching stranger. Nothing seems to furnish occasion for greater joy among these natives than the sight of a vessel approaching their shores; and I must say, that on this occasion, my heart partook largely of the general joy, though my emotions were not excited by the same hopes as theirs, viz. to obtain tobacco and rum. As we cannot both leave our tent at a time, I remained at home while my companion took a horse and went down to the vessel. At evening he returned and informed me that she was a French brig from Valparaiso and bound to Havre, and that the three American tars who have been for a long time with these Indians, had shipped on board of her, and that the Captain very kindly offered to carry us to France passage free if we wished to go.

Jan. 9th. Arose this morning and set out before sunrise, to visit the French brig in the bay. Found multitudes of the Indians on the shore, where they had spent the night in the open air. As the wind was high and the sea rough, no boat was sent on shore from the brig this morning and about 8 A.M. she was put under sail and wafted out of the harbour. Just as her sails were unfurling to the wind, two vessels were descried at a great distance, coming in from the east. This excited new shouts of transport among the Indians, as it also caused a new thrill of joy on my heart strings. Wind and tide opposing, the vessels beat hard to get into the bay, where they arrived and cast anchor a little before sundown. By this time many hundreds of the Indians were on the beach and their camps were nearly evacuated. The vessels proved to be two Schooners from the U. S. viz. the Peruvian of Boston, bound to the Society Islands [French Polynesia, Ed.], and the By-Chance, Captain Cavell of New Bedford, bound to the Sandwich Islands [Hawaiian Archipelago, Ed.]. The latter anchored within hailing distance of the shore, and on my speaking her the Captain immediately sent his boat and took me on board. From the deck of this vessel I hailed the other and was invited on board of her, but as the wind arose and the tide was so strong that five oars could hardly steer it, it was thought not prudent to send out a boat either to the other vessel or to the shore, so I concluded to spend the night on board the By-Chance. What I had most hoped and longed for, however, was denied me viz. letters, or intelligence from my friends in the U. S. All was silence, deep and painful silence, in relation to them. But notwithstanding my disappointment, this reflection cheered me, to wit, they do now and then send and[?] wish and a thought after me: though all other communication is intercepted, so after a season of conversation with the captain and scribbling a line to a friend, and when "the Sea-fowl" had long, long been "to her nest" I repaired to my cabin, not only "reconciled to my lot", but even rejoicing in it.

Jan. 10. The Peruvian, finding her situation unsafe, got under way early this morning and beat up the bay about a mile where she again came to anchor. Went on shore where the Indians remained by hundreds during the night. The sailors traded with the Indians for a few skins and mantles, giving them chiefly tobacco in return. Of this poisonous article they are extremely fond, and they will remain on the beach without shelter, and with only food enough to prevent starvation, for a whole week, should a vessel remain so long, for the sake of obtaining this disgusting weed; and after all not one in twenty of them get a particle by staying. They use the tobacco only for smoking, drawing their mantles over their heads in the exercise, and swallowing the fumes, blowing through their nostrils etc. until they are completely intoxicated.

Congo the Great Indian Captain put a new mantle and a piece of meat into my hands, wishing me to present them to the captain of the Schooner in his name. Accordingly I put them into the boat and sent them on board. Finding nothing of special interest to detain me longer at the bay I mounted my horse and rode home, where I arrived at 11 A.M. Had conversation with my companion about obtaining horses and a guide to travel to the North and West, and, if possible, cross the mountains and visit the shores of the Pacific. My grand object in visiting the vessels in the bay was to obtain, if possible, a passage to the western coast, but in this I was disappointed, as the vessels do not stop anywhere on that coast. We feel anxious to travel this country more extensively, but our way has, as yet, been hedged up and we are looking and waiting for the finger of Providence to point out the path we shall take. To attempt to explore this country without a guide would be presumption, as, in addition to the many other obstacles we should be in imminent danger of perishing with famine, the animals of the country being so fleet and wild that none but these Indians can take them.

On board of the By-Chance I found the three young American sailors who shipped in the French brig yesterday. The Schooner spoke the brig in running out of the bay and took these men on board. I found them divested of their Indian dress, washed, and comfortably clad in the attire of seamen. This change of raiment was given them on board the brig. Their appearance was so much altered that I did not recognize them at the first, and when they addressed me by name I enquired where they had seen me. The poor fellows were much elated at the opportunity of leaving these shores where they had voluntarily and foolishly exiled themselves for so long a time.

Jan. 11th. The cry of "another bark" from the south ran through the camp this morning and Brother Adams seeing through an opening in the hills a vessel sailing towards the north, took horse and went down to the bay. On his arrival he found that the vessel was only one of the Schooners which left the bay this morning and was driven back by contrary winds. The Queen and her camp have all come down and pitched their tents with this party today. Invited Captain Congo, and Santa Rio, both of whom speak Spanish, into our tent and held a long conversation with them relative to this country, our mission here, their desire for missionaries to live with them, and some other subjects. Both of these men tell us that they have traveled the country extensively, that they have been to the north and west as far as the Andes which they found covered with snow, and so steep, rugged and stupendous, that they were unable to cross them. Captain Santa Rio describes three nations of Indians inhabiting Patagonia, distinct from each other in their habits, language etc. On the northern boundaries of Eastern Patagonia along the River Negro are the Oucas, of whom there are several thousands, living in tents of skin, partly agricultural and partly nomadic in their manner of life. They have cattle, horses, sheep etc. and raise various kinds of fruit and other productions of the earth. They remove occasionally to short distances to obtain grass for their cattle, when it is spent in one place.

South of these is an extensive tract of barren country, uninhabited and almost impassible. It is laid down on the map as a great salt desert. Santo Rio says it is covered with thorns, or prickly shrubs, so thick as to render traveling very tedious.

Still farther South is Southern Patagonia extending to the mountains on the west, the Atlantic on the East, and the Strait of Magellan on the South. This is the country we are now exploring, and is in the possession of the Saint Croix [Santa Cruz, Ed.] Indians with whom we are, who are the sole inhabitants except a few around Port Famine who are a sort of mongrel race, partly horsemen and partly boatman, and who have intermarried with the Saint Croixes. These are called "Yamschooners", a name given to all the Indians on Terra del Fuego and on the Islands and Shores of Western Patagonia. They are an inferior race in size, figure, intellect and habits, wearing no clothes and living in the lowest state of Savagism [sic]. On the subject of a future state, which we brought forward in this conversation, we find their notions very similar to those of the North American Indians. They believe in the existence of the soul after death, and in a distinction between the good and bad. When the good man dies they believe his spirit goes very far off to a land of eternal sunshine and uninterrupted bliss, where there are many pleasant houses, and delightful fields, and where all will be supplied with fine horses and every thing which his heart desires; but as they will never hunger nor thirst, they will have no occasion for food etc. When the bad Indian dies they say he will descend down, down, deep to an evil land, filled with darkness, and barrenness and thorns, where there is much contention, and much sorrow. We could not find that they have any notions of a Supreme Being. When one presented tangible objects to their sight, as Mountains, the Earth, the Sun etc., and enquired who formed these things, their minds seemed blank, as though it was a subject on which they had never bestowed a passing thought. In relation to matrimony they assured us that polygamy was common; that some men had 2, some 3, some 5 and others even 7 wives. On enquiring how they would like to have American Missionaries sent to teach them to read and write, and to instruct them in many good things they seemed pleased with the idea, and said it was good; and when we suggested the thought of building a large mission house at Gregory's Bay, where their children might remain and be instructed, while they roamed for sustenance for themselves and their horses, they were much animated with the subject, and said that the Indians would all leave their children with the Americans, and would come now and then to see them and bring them "much guanaco and much mantles."

They were very anxious to know if missionaries would be sent and how many moons it would be before they would come, whether they would build "cassa grande", together with many other things in relation to the subject, all which they said was "much bono". We proposed to Santo Rio to go through the camp in a day or two with one of us and tell us the number of occupants in every several house, that we might thus obtain the census of the whole tribe. To this he cheerfully assented. After a long and particular conversation on the Geography of the Country we have been led to change our minds in relation to the attempt to cross the Andes to the north west, as both these Captains say they have been to these mountains and traveled all along their bases, but that they were unable to cross them, as they found them extremely steep and high, and so rugged with sharp flint stones, besides being covered with glaciers and perpetual snow, that no horse could climb them. We had determined, if possible, to obtain horses and a guide and attempt to force our way through the country and cross the mountains, somewhere in the neighborhood of the peninsula of Tres Montes, but the facts we have obtained today convince us that such an effort would be fruitless if not presumptuous, and we have, therefore, abandoned the idea and determined to wait either for a passage by water to the Western Coast, or to return to our native land according to the indications of Providence.

Soon after this conversation the camp to which the Indians had but this morning returned from the beach was again put in motion by the cry of "Barko barko at Gregory's Bay". On enquiry we were assured that a vessel was coming in from the east. I therefore took a spy glass, and mounting a horse in company with Captain Congo, ascended the mountain for observation; but no vessel was [to] be seen. On descending from the mountain Captain Congo said to me "Ingus hablao much mentair". i.e. the Indians tell many lies.