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Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
Two months among the native peoples of southern Patagonia
North American missionaries on the Strait of Magellan, 1833-34
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[Preface from the original publication]

The embarkation of Messrs. William Arms and Titus Coan, destined to explore the southern portion of South America, with a view to enable the Committee to decide on the expediency of establishing a mission to the native tribes in that quarter, was mentioned at page 459 of the last volume. The plan of the mission, and the expectation, till near the time of their embarking, was that they should proceed to the western coast of Patagonia, and land near the 47th or 48th degree of south latitude, and thence visit the coast, the adjacent islands, and, if practicable, penetrate into the interior among the Araucanian bands, near the southern provinces of Chili. Respecting the field presented in that vicinity for missionary labor, the Committee had received very favorable information. But as no opportunity was found for conveying them directly to the western coast, passage was obtained for them in a vessel bound to Gregory's Bay, near the eastern entrance of the Straits of Magellan. It was hoped that from this point they would be able either to cross the Andes near the straits, and then move up the western coast; or else penetrate the country on the eastern side of the mountains, till they should reach the latitude mentioned above, and then cross them, and thus reach the point of their destination. But both those courses were found to be beset with insuperable obstacles. On the north they found an extensive desert, through which none of the Indians would consent to conduct them. On the west the Andes, covered with perpetual snow, presented a very formidable barrier, while, from all the information they could obtain, the western coast, for many hundred miles, was almost destitute of inhabitants, rendering travelling by land nearly impracticable. No conveyance by water could be obtained. They were, therefore, compelled, after collecting what information they could respecting the few small bands of natives which roam over the country east of the mountains and near the Straits of Magellan, to return, without reaching that portion of the country which it was especially intended they should explore, Much information has, however, been obtained by them relative to the southern extremity of the continent, together with the manners and character of the inhabitants, and the methods by which they and the more northern tribes must be approached, which may be of great benefit in devising future measures for sending them the gospel.

Messrs. Arms and Coan embarked at New-York, August 16th, 1833, in the schooner Mary Jane, capt. Clift; landed at Gregory's Bay, November 14th; re-embarked at that place, on board the Antarctic, capt. Nash, January 25th, 1834; arrived at the Falkland Islands on the 28th; and commenced the homeward voyage, March 9th, in the schooner Talma, capt. Allyn, and arrived at New London, Ct. May 14th.

In addition to the acknowledgments which have before been made, of the kindness of Silas E. Burrows, Esq,, owner, and capt. Clift, master of the schooner Mary Jane, in which Messrs, Arms and Coan received a gratuitous passage to Gregory's Bay, both the missionaries and the Committee would express their obligations to Mr. Penny, owner, and capt. M. M. Melward, master of the schooner Sappho of Liverpool, Eng., for very seasonable supplies furnished by them when touching at Gregory's Bay; to capt. J. S. Nash, of the schooner Antarctic, of Westerly, R. I., for a gratuitous passage from Gregory's Bay to the Falkland islands, and a month's residence on board his vessel; to capt. Pendleton, of the ship Hamilton, and capt. Davison, of the schooner Hancock, of Stonington, Ct., for politely accommodating them on board their vessels, without charge, while detained at the islands; and to capt. G. L. Allyn, of the schooner Talma, of Groton, Ct., for a gratuitous passage from the Falkland Islands to New London, Ct. Messrs. Arms and Coan were thus enabled to accomplish the whole tour, from the time of their embarkation at, New York, till their return to their native land without expense to the Board.

Extracts from their separate journals will be given in this and subsequent numbers of this work.

November 14, 1833. Arose this morning and found our bark quietly at anchor under the shores of Patagonia. It is now the opening of a southern summer, yet the high hills on the north and south are capped with snow. At an early hour we went on shore with capt. Clift and some of the sailors, in order to search for the natives, none of whom had yet made their appearance. We landed upon a fine sand beach, and, ascending a steep bank about a hundred feet, obtained a view of an extended landscape, terminated in the rear by Table mountain of moderate elevation. On the bank we found a few low thorn bushes just putting forth small yellow blossoms. With these we made a smoke in order to raise the Indians; a smoke being a well known signal among them, and, when discovered, always leading them to the spot whence it arises. After waiting some time without seeing any of the natives, we returned on board the vessel. At one, P. M., we went on shore again, in company with the captain, intending to travel back into the country in search of the Indians. Taking au Indian trail, we pursued our way over a rolling surface, alternately crossing hills of gradual ascent and descending into intervening plains, some of which appeared to have been submerged during some part of the winter. The soil appeared to be alluvial. The hills were sandy and sterile; and the intervals, consisting of a rich black mould, were covered with thick and tall grass. Found several plains where the natives had formerly encamped, at one of which we saw two huge joints of a whale's spine, some six or eight miles from the shore. Saw only one guanaco in our walk, and on our approach he bounded across the plains to the distant hills with the fleetness of a deer. Passed some small basins of water, in which there were a few upland geese. Now and then a small bird cheered us with a passing note, while the wheeling curlew poured out his shrill and solitary strains "on the distant air," and the young rook came screaming in our ears with all the impudence of the ape. As we passed along we often set fire to the dry grass to raise a smoke. Horse tracks were every where seen, but no Indians appeared. At length the declining sun, and our weary limbs admonished us to return. We arrived at the shore at night, after a walk of about twenty miles.

On returning from this excursion I could not help reflecting upon the affecting contrast between this and my beloved country. Here are no fields smiling under the hand of the husbandman; no gardens and orchards dressed in vernal beauty; no harbors adorned with the waving flags of commerce; no cities lifting their turrets to the clouds, no peaceful villages sprinkling the hills and plains, and no glittering church spires pointing the weary pilgrim to a "better country." Art and science have never shed their genial influence over this benighted land, nor has the light of salvation yet dawned upon it. Generation after generation have gone down to the shades of death without one ray to cheer the dark valley, or a "morning star" to give promise of an everlasting day. [Mr. Coan]

15. The captain and myself went out this morning with a view of penetrating the country still further, and if possible to find the camp of the natives. Finding a path that had been considerably travelled, we followed it until we came to the foot and western extremity of Table mountain, when we saw a smoke rolling over the opposite side; and soon after a man showed himself on the top. We passed on a few rods and observed a man on horseback with several dogs following him, shaping his course for the vessel. Considering our object accomplished, we returned; and by the time we had reached the shore three others had arrived. They all wore mantles made of the skins of the young guanaco; and two of them had check trousers and morocco boots. Their arms and breasts were naked, except what was covered by their mantles loosely thrown over their shoulders and bound round the waist with their bolas. They wore nothing upon their heads but a narrow fillet about an inch wide, with which they tie their hair, which being nicely parted over the centre of the head is suffered to hang loose about the shoulders. The bolas is an apparatus used for taking their game, and consists of three balls inclosed in hide and attached to leather thongs about a yard and a half long, which are fastened together. It is used by taking one of the balls in the hand and whirling the others round; and when sufficient momentum is gained, it is thrown forward and winds itself around the legs of the animal so closely that it is easily taken. [Mr. Arms]

At four o'clock, P. M., four natives appeared on the shore opposite our vessel. They were mounted on horseback and attended by a retinue of more than twenty dogs. In a little time my companion and the captain returned when a boat was sent to bring them on board together with three Indians who accompanied them, leaving one to keep their horses. Being desirous of seeing the head quarters of the Indians before we landed our baggage, we proposed to the young man who appeared to be the head of the party, to conduct us to their camp, where we would spend the night and return to the vessel in the morning. Understanding him to assent to our proposal, we went on shore, where he selected each of us a horse, and he mounting a third led us rapidly over hills and plains towards a mountain behind which we supposed the tribe to be encamped. At length he halted. We urged him to proceed, winch he did; and we soon met a party of Indians with bows and arrows. Our guide now inclined to return to the beach; but by repeating our requests to lead us to the camp we again succeeded in pressing him forward. As we advanced we were frequently met by small parties of the natives on their way to the vessel. At length the sun set and no Indian camp and no more natives appearing in sight, our guide could be persuaded to go no further and we were obliged to return. The young man now led us with a more cheerful countenance and a more rapid movement than before but it was not until ten o'clock at night, that we arrived on the shore opposite our vessel. Here we found about twenty savages encamped in the open air, with their horses grazing around, and a multitude of dogs mingling with them. Not expecting our return till morning, our friends on board the Mary Jane had retired; and as she was anchored at some distance from the shore, our hailing was not heard and we were obliged to cast in our lot with the Indians. Weary and hungry we set down in their circle around a little fire of faggots, which, by its faint glimmering, just served to render the dark visaged savages visible. An aged man roasted a piece of meat, a portion of which he brought to us. After partaking of their hospitality, our young guide spread some skins upon the ground for our bed and we lay down to repose under the lofty curtain stretched over us by the hand of our heavenly Father. Each of us was kindly covered with a thin blanket, and thus, amidst horses and dogs, and savages, we slept calmly and peacefully until the morning.

16. Returned on board early this morning and made arrangements for holding an interview with the young man previously mentioned and his father in relation to our mission among them. When they came on board capt. Clift very kindly introduced us to them as men who loved them, and who had come a great way to visit and do them good. He told them that he wished to leave us with them for a season, and requested that they would furnish us with provisions and treat us with kindness; all which they agreed to do, with much readiness. We inquired about their people and about one Maria, who we had been told was the queen of their tribe. They informed us that Maria and most of the Indians were at a considerable distance on a northern excursion, and that they would return in one moon. We sometimes found it difficult to make ourselves understood, as we had no other medium of communication than natural signs and a smattering of the Spanish language. When the necessary arrangements were made, we took our baggage on shore and pitched our little cloth tent among the natives, expecting to return no more on board the vessel, as she was to leave the first favorable wind. Capt. C. went on shore and rendered us all the assistance in his power, generously offering us any thing from his vessel which we needed for our comfort. We found the Indians miserably poor, having little to eat, and ready to beg our last morsel of food unless it was concealed from their sight. Their horses and dogs also were so hunger bitten, that many of them were mere shadows.

17. Sabbath. Remained in our tent most of the day. From morning till night we were thronged with the curious natives, who crowded into every vacant corner of our habitation, watching all our motions and examining all our effects, and even the clothes on our persons. Poor men! They gaze upon us as superior beings, and while we shed the tear of commiseration over their denudation and wretchedness, we have no medium by which to communicate to their understandings or their hearts a knowledge of that God who has made us "to differ." — The Indians spent the day in chatting, singing, laughing, smoking, sleeping, and eating. Indolence and filthiness are two very prominent characteristics of these savages, and appear in bold relief on the first interview. Our old friend brought us a piece of roasted guanaco, although he has but a pittance for himself and family. He seems to look upon us as his children and divides his morsel with us. [Mr. Coan]

18. Both the males and females paint their faces either the whole or in part, commonly with black or dark brown, which gives them a savage appearance. Almost never washing, even their hands, the color of their skin appears almost black, though when they are washed they are only swarthy, or perhaps a light olive. Their hair is as black as a raven, long and rather coarse, though much less so than that of the United States' Indians. Their cheek bones are high and broad, which gives them the appearance of having large faces of an angular figure. Their bodies are well formed, with straight limbs, round and plump — feet large, and their height from four and a half to six feet. [Mr. Arms]

Whenever these natives espy a vessel approaching their coast they always repair immediately to the shore, and will remain there, even though pinched with hunger and exposed to the weather without shelter by day or night, until it disappears. The first inquiry among them is for rum and tobacco—two poisons which have been administered to them by our seamen; and so great is their eagerness for these strange stimulants, that I believe they would lie upon the beach exposed to wind and storm, until they were on the point of starvation, with the bare hope of obtaining a dram or a plug of tobacco. They are also fond of bread, molasses, and other articles of food, and are often anxious to obtain muskets, ammunition, and knives, though they have but little knowledge of the use of the first. It is truly distressing to learn that our own countrymen have also plunged into the most loathsome debaucheries with this unhappy people, and rendered almost inveterate those polluting vices which carry death in their train, and spread a fearful blight, over all that is lovely. Even here, in this obscure corner of the earth, almost unknown to the naturalist, the merchant, the philanthropist, or the Christian, the missionary of the cross has been preceded by the apostles of Satan; and that disease which may well be compared to a "dart stricken through the liver," and which "eats like a canker;" which is as a fire shut up in the bones, burning "to the lowest hell," is reciprocally communicated. To the honor of the vessel which brought us out be it said, that the improper conduct here alluded to has not been allowed by the captain, and as he is a firm advocate of temperance, and commands his vessel under that banner, no ardent spirits have been given to the natives.

19. Arose early, and went out to look for the schooner, which was riding at anchor in the bay when we retired; but it was gone, the wind having favored during the night. The waters slept or rolled as before; the mountains wore their fleecy crowns; the hills reared their naked brows, and the plains rested in loneliness; but wherever the eye turned no traces of civilization were seen, its last vestige had floated away like a vision of the night, and nothing remained to relieve the sight from those dreary features which make this land as a waste, howling wilderness. [Mr. Coan]

It affords them great amusement to see us write, and they seem to think that it is some wonderful thing. They usually appear pleasant to one another and often divide the presents they receive with their fellows. They seem to regard private property, each one having his own, and though their tent is common, there seems to be no interference. One horse is usually tied near the tent, so that when water or other horses are wanted, they are not obliged to go on foot. [Mr. Arms]

20. The rain having ceased, the horses were all brought up at an early hour this morning, and capt. Louie, the young Indian before mentioned, invited us to prepare for a removal. Accordingly we struck our tent and put our baggage in readiness for the horses. In loading these animals I was astonished at the burdens they were made to carry. After some skins, etc., had been put upon one of the horses, our chest lashed to a heavy trunk to balance it, was put upon him, and upon those a bag, as heavy as a common travelling trunk, was placed, and above all this a woman was mounted to guide the horse. The horses gear is very simple. The men use a rude saddle constructed with pieces of wood, and somewhat resembling our saddle-tree; and the women a sort of pillion of skins, and like the men, ride astride, hut without stirrups. The bridle is made of skin, with wooden bit, and usually without a head-stall. In packing the horses the women did the labor, while the men lay or set upon the ground as idle spectators. For want of a sufficient number of horses, some of them carried double riders. When every thing was in readiness we mounted our horses, and taking a sturdy Indian behind me, moved onward in company with our young friend, capt. Louie, who led the van and directed the movements of the party. Our progress, I should judge, was about four miles an hour. The day was cold, and the wind strong and piercing. After riding eight or ten miles, the Indians halted under a bunch of thorn-bushes, kindled a little fire to warm or smoke themselves, and then proceeded onward, stopping occasionally when they found a bunch of bushes as before. Saw many guanacos standing as sentinels upon the surrounding hills, or grazing on the extended plains; but as we approached them they would skim the plains "like a hind let loose," and soon disappeared. As we advanced the young captain suddenly halted, gazed a moment towards the hills on the left, and then plunging his spurs into his horse's side, darted like an arrow across the plain, with hair and mantle streaming in the wind — dogs and Indians following him. The rest of the party moved on steadily with the baggage. Inquiring the cause of this strange movement, one of the savages pointed in the direction the young man had gone, and said, "Guanac, guanac," giving us to understand that he was pursuing a guanaco. In a few minutes he rejoined our party, having taken the animal he pursued. The guanaco is a species of the lama, somewhat larger than the deer, with long legs and neck, and cloven feet. He color is a pale red or sorrel, and white. The head and ears resemble those of horses. It is clothed with wool, like the sheep, though this is interspersed with long hair. It neighs like a colt, and at a little distance might easily be taken for that animal. Its slower movements appear laborious and ungraceful, but when pursued by the hunter, it moves with great celerity, and appears hardly to touch the ground. The flesh is very palatable, and after a cold and hungry ride of some twenty miles, a piece of it, which the captain roasted and brought us, was really grateful.

We reached the camp at four P. M., after a ride of twenty-five or thirty miles, which we performed in about seven hours. Here we found a company of the savages inhabiting ten tents of skin. On our arrival the natives gathered around us, men, women, and children; first standing and gazing upon us at a respectful distance, till encouraged by our attentions they gradually approached nearer, apparently welcoming us with mingled surprise and joy. Our baggage, even to the smallest article, was brought safely, and capt. Louie, who had taken special charge of it on the way, now stowed it carefully in his tent, and remained by it until our own tent was erected and prepared for its reception. As soon as the bustle was a little over our old Indian mother boiled a piece of the guanaco which had been taken on the way, a liberal share of which was brought to us for our supper. Young Louie came and sat down by us, and began to inquire the American name of many things around, and in return told us what they were called in the Patagonia tongue. He and all his father's house appear very attentive and friendly to us, and we have already reason to be thankful that the good providence of God has put us under the care of this family, as they are evidently the most intelligent, hospitable, and prepossessing of any of the natives we have yet seen. As the sun set, the crying of the little ones in the tents, the barking of dogs, and the noisy mirth of numerous children, engaged in merry gambols about the camp, revived the associations of childhood and brought domestic scenes of my native land vividly to recollection. [Mr. Coan]

21. We found ten tents in the camp, but it would perhaps be impossible to tell how many souls there are in them, though from a little calculation I should judge about fifty. The tents are made of the skins of the old guanaco, sewed together, and so spread over poles that are stuck in the ground for that purpose, as to cover the top and the sides, except the front, which is always to be eastward and entirely open. On this side they build their fires.

The provisions that we brought from the vessel being about exhausted, we applied to the natives for some, but had only to ask the question and we were plentifully supplied, though we had neither bread nor any substitute for it. We should undoubtedly have been spared the trouble of even asking, had we waited a little longer. [Mr. Arms]

[To be continued.]

Source: The Missionary Herald, vol. XXX No. 10 (October 1834), published by The American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions, Boston, USA.

Originals: Titus Coan Family Papers, Library of Congress, Washington DC

Copied and transcribed: December 2006