Copyright © 2004-2017 
Historical Materials from Southern Patagonia
Two months among the native peoples of southern Patagonia
North American missionaries on the Strait of Magellan, 1833-34
Report (Chapter) :    1     2     3     4  

[Concluded from p. 439, vol. XXX.]

January 8, 1834. Some Indians ascended Table mountain and returned with the intelligence that a vessel was approaching from the southwest. Immediately all the camp was in motion, and the cry of "Barco! Barco! Americana barco" rung from tent to tent. Troops of Indians soon mounted their horses and galloped off to the shore. Nothing seems to produce greater exhilaration among these sons of nature than the sight of a vessel, and I must say that on this occasion my heart partook largely of the general joy, though my emotions and pleasures were not excited by the same hope which animated them. I hoped that the long desired medium of communicating intelligence to my native land was about to be offered. [Mr. Coan]

The scene of confusion exhibited whenever a vessel stops is past description. No sooner had this one made her appearance in the bay, than the beach for a considerable distance was crowded with men, women, and children. All brought their skins, or whatever article they had for trade, presenting the appearance of a fair of the most rustic kind. Their first inquiry was for rum, the next tobacco; for these articles they were completely crazy. The strength of their appetites and passions, and the temptations laid before them, must ever be great obstacles to the spread to the spread of the gospel here.

9. Two vessels from America arrived to-day. Most of the Indians are gone to the bay, and I am left in quiet. Two good women have been assisting me, in making a lion-skin mantle; they show great expertness with the "hodle" as well as many kind intentions. Several of these women take a motherly care of us, always informing us when any thing is in danger.

10. The vessels remain, and of course the Indians do not return. A few returned last night much pleased with the presents of tobacco and bread they had received, and I was not a little gratified to obtain a bite of the latter, as it is the first thing like bread I have tasted for nearly two months; I have felt much the need of it, as my health has suffered from the exclusive use of animal food.

Last night I observed a man lying in one of the tents, much convulsed, and apparently dying. No one went near him, nor did he seem to have any share in their sympathies. This I suppose is generally the case.

Their ideas of futurity are very indefinite. They suppose there are separate places prepared for the good and bad, according to their character here; for the good a place of much happiness, where are many horses; for the bad much torment and fighting; but neither have need of food. [Mr. Arms]

I hoped to obtain a passage in one of the schooners to the west coast of Patagonia, but in this was disappointed, as the captains say they cannot touch any where on that coast.

Went on shore this morning where hundreds of the Indians still remain hoping to get something from the vessels. They obtained a little tobacco, but to my great joy could not procure any rum. They use tobacco only for smoking, of which they are excessively fond. It is practised by men, women, and children, and is usually their first exercise in the morning and their last at night. They use wooden pipes, and one pipe full of tobacco serves for a whole family at a given time. Each one fills his mouth with the fumes, and then getting his head near to the ground, and drawing his mantle completely over it, blows the smoke gradually through his nostrils until he is strangled and intoxicated.

Finding nothing of special interest to retain me at the bay, I mounted my horse and returned to the camp, where I arrived at eleven, A. M.

As there seemed to he little prospect of our obtaining a passage by water to the west coast, my companion and myself determined, if possible, to make immediate arrangements to cross the country on horses, and endeavor to gain that shore by passing the mountains. Whether we can obtain horses and a guide is yet to be determined. To go without both would be absolute presumption, as it would expose us inevitably to perish for want of food.

11. The party of Indians that were pitched twelve miles from us have broken up their camp to-day and have all come and joined our clan; and as we learn that there are no more belonging to this nation we mean to embrace this opportunity, while they are together, for numbering them. Invited the grand captain and the Buenos Ayrean Indian, Santurion, to our tent to converse with them about their country, its inhabitants, the object of our visit to them, our desire to travel the country and cross the mountains, their feelings in relation to establishing a mission among them, etc. These men told us that they had travelled to the north as far as the river Negro, from thence went to the Andes, which they labored to pass, but were prevented by their ruggedness, being composed of rough sharp stones at the base, so that their horses could not climb them — which they showed by very expressive gestures—and being crowned with deep masses of perpetual snow. They also stated that they travelled south along the mountains nearly to the straits, searching for some pass, or some place where they might cross to the other side, but could not accomplish their object; that they found game scarce, and that their horses were in danger of perishing for want of food. They described the country over which they passed with considerable minuteness, and from certain known data, which we used as criteria, we had reason to believe with much correctness. They represented much of the interior as a complete thicket of thorns, in many places impassable. Other parts were deserts of salt, while some places were marshy and others destitute of water, etc. They also described the game which was found in different parts. In one place they said the guanaco abounded; in another the lion, in another the ostrich, and in some parts there was no sustenance for man or beast.

In relation to the inhabitants they state that there was a large nation called Oncas on both sides of the river Negro and between its branches, extending back to a small lake near the Andes; that this nation consisted of many thousands; that they had horses, cattle, and sheep; that they lived in tents of skin and occasionally removed short distances to obtain pasture for their flocks. In the vicinity of this nation is the Spanish settlement and garrison at Rio Negro, fifteen miles from the mouth of the river Negro, to which the Indians resort for trade. This settlement is under the government of the Buenos Ayres, and that government hold a nominal jurisdiction over all the natives.

South of the Oncas we were assured that there were no inhabitants, except the tribe we are with, the Supalios or Port-Famine tribe, with whom we spent some time, and who are somewhat less than a hundred in number, and a party from the Oncas nation of about the same number, who are now in the interior, and whom we have not yet seen.

We labored to explain the object of our visit to them, but could not convey to their dark minds any definite conceptions of the higher motives by which we and those who sent us were influenced. They only had a general impression that we were friends, and that we had ability and disposition to do them good, but they seemed to have no higher ideas of good than that which pertains to this life. Nor was it possible, with our imperfect medium of communicating thought, and with all their debasement of mind, to enlighten them on the pure and elevated subject of Christ crucified for sinners. By presenting tangible objects, such as hills, etc., and inquiring who formed them, we endeavored to ascertain whether they had any notions of a Supreme Being, but their minds appeared perfectly blank on the subject, as though such a Being had never found a place in all their thoughts.

On the subject of a future state we found their notions more definite. They believe in the existence of the soul after death, and in the separation of the good and bad. When the good man dies they say he goes far off to a land of eternal sunshine, where there are pleasant houses, delightful fields, and fine horses, and where they will be supplied with all that they desire; but as they will never hunger or thirst they have no occasion for food, etc. When the bad man dies they believe that he descends down deep into a bad land of darkness and barrenness and thorns, where there is much contention and much sorrow.

We inquired whether they would like to have good men come among them, and bring timber and build a large house at Gregory's Bay; and whether they would give up their children to such men, who would teach them to read and write and cultivate the ground; to make clothing and other useful things. They said it was very good, and that the Indians would leave their children with missionaries to be instructed while they travelled the country for pasture and game; and that they would occasionally visit the establishment to see their children and bring them "much guanaco and much mantle.” We told them that the Indians did not like our books and papers; but Santurion said this was the case with only a few, and that this was because they did not understand them.

I would here remark that the sailors whom we found the other day stated that they brought some books and tracts on shore when they landed, but that the natives soon took them from them and burned them before their eyes. The reason of their prejudice against paper they stated to be, the fact that some of the Indians had died of the small-pox, which they took from some old papers left by the Spaniards at Port Desire, where that disease had prevailed. [Mr. Coan]

On the 12th, the British schooner Sappho, capt. M. M. Melward, of Liverpool, arrived in the bay, bound to California. Mr. H. Penny, the owner of the schooner, first came on shore and became acquainted with the missionaries. The kind attentions received from these gentlemen are gratefully acknowledged in the following paragraph.

Mr. P. now took me on board, and introduced me to capt. Melward who appeared much moved on learning our situation and the object for which we visited Patagonia. He remarked that he felt a lively interest in the missionary cause, and that he loved to meet those who were engaged in it. He very tenderly inquired what assistance he could render us, assuring me that it would afford him no little pleasure to do any thing within his power to help us. His kind offers were affecting, and were made with such undisguised simplicity as at once to give me confidence in his friendship, and to awaken my affection for him. His whole deportment was that of a gentleman and a Christian; and I am told he is a member of the church of England, and that he has regular religious services on board the vessel on the Sabbath.

14. Capt. Congo, who had been made sea-sick by being on board of the schooner during a storm, and who had not obtained so much tobacco from her as he wished, became angry and refused a mantle which was offered to appease him. Before night, however, he came to us with his feelings much softened, and finally listened to an explanation of the whole matter with calmness, and quietly received the mantle which had been offered him. Ho still maintained that the schooner was "malo" (bad) for making him sick, and when he was told that the vessel was not in fault, that her rolling was caused by the water; then the water said he is "malo;" and when he learned that the wind agitated the water, then the wind was "malo." So dark are the minds of these deluded savages that they never look "from nature up to nature's God," nor do they seem to have any notion of an all-pervading, all-creating Deity. So infatuated are they that it is said they will take old swords and knives and go out and fight the wind when it blows contrary to their wishes.

16. By the help of Santurion we took the census of this nation to-day and we found that the whole number is 573. Reckoning the Supalios or Port Famine tribe, at 100, and the clan we have heard of in the interior at 100 (which is probably more than they will number) then, we make only 773 inhabitants in all Eastern Patagonia, south of the Rio Negro, i. e. if our information be correct. And our confidence of its correctness is the more strengthened from the report of the sailors who have been with the Indians nearly a year, and have travelled with them far into the interior, and who unanimously tell us that they have neither seen nor heard of any other tribes, and. that the natives have always told them that there were no more. Indeed one need only to travel a little while in this country and see its sterility, and to learn that the natives subsist only by the chase, in order to come to the unavoidable conclusion that the population must be extremely sparse.

We are told that different parties of this nation sometimes fall out and have severe and even mortal fights with knives and other hard weapons, and this fact seems probable from the many scars found on some of them. They do not, however, appear to be a ferocious and warlike people, and their quarrels only arise from petty jealousies and envies and are soon over.

Saw some of the Indians playing with a full pack of English cards. It is an easy matter to introduce the vices of our country among these men, but it will be hard to eradicate them. Many of them have learned to use some of the most obscene words in our language, and the only entire English sentence I have heard them pronounce is a full-framed oath. I blush for the Christian name, which, instead of teaching these pagans to revere, has first taught them to blaspheme the Christian's God.

17. One woman in the camp has been engaged for some time in weaving a blanket about four feet square, and as it is the first and only process of the kind that I have seen, I spent some time in seeing the weaver ply her trade. The yarn used for this purpose is spun from the wool of the guanaco, and is drawn out with the fingers, and twisted by means of a reed held in one hand. The loom is equally simple with the spinning apparatus. It consists of two poles placed one above the other in a horizontal position and so far asunder as the intended length of the blanket. The warp being cut into threads of proper length is then tied to these poles by each end, so as to be in a perpendicular position before the artist, like the common weaver's harness. The weaver seats herself before this loom, with her woof wound upon a stick for a bobbin, and one end of it tied to an ostrich's feather for a shuttle. Thus prepared she divides the warp by introducing a stick about a foot and a half long between the threads, and before this is withdrawn, shoving her feather shuttle through the space and thus introducing the woof, the stick now serving as a reed to press the woof down to its place. When this is done the stick is taken out and another portion of the warp is divided in the same manner, and thus the thread of woof is extended through it from side to side, and this process is continued till the blanket is completed. The yarn is died different colors, and the blankets are often made with many curious and tasteful figures; but the process is extremely slow — it requiring nearly two weeks to finish one of these small blankets; consequently they are very scarce, and I have never seen half a dozen of them in the nation. Those which are found are mostly used to caparison the horses of the great. In the fabrication of this article may be seen much native genius struggling to develop its energies amidst the almost insuperable obstacles with which it is cramped.

19. The Indian doctor has been practising his art in different parts of the camp during most of the day, and his howling, moaning, blowing, screaming, shaking his rattles, etc., have become familiar music to our ears. Much confidence seems to be placed in his superstitious and ridiculous round of ceremonies; for he is employed by all who are ill, from the great captain down to the meanest individual; and they not only suppose him capable of driving diseases from man, but also from beast; for I saw him at the tent of capt. Congo to-day endeavoring to cure a sick horse. He went through with the same process with the horse as with a human patient, except that he dispensed with the rattles, and probably for the good reason, that experience had taught him that the horse would bear this noisy prescription less patiently than the more stupid savage. Every day brings us fresh illustrations of the dark and debased condition of these men, and excites unavailing sympathies on their behalf. We would preach "Christ crucified" to them, but cannot; and our situation among them is like that of one surrounded by drowning men whom he has no power to save. [Mr. Coan]

On the 24th, the schooner Antarctic, capt. James S. Nash, came into Gregory's Bay, The Indians, having learned that Messrs. Arms and Coan intended to leave them as soon as they should find a suitable opportunity, endeavored to prevent their being informed of this arrival. After some refusals and delays, they at length consented to furnish horses to convey them and their baggage to the bay.

25. Arose early this morning and called for the horses we had engaged to take us down to the vessel, but it was about two hours before they were brought up, after which they were suffered to stray several times before we could get them prepared for our baggage.

Most of the Indians remained on the beach during the night. Those who were in the camp gathered around us for a farewell interview, each one hoping to receive something from us. We endeavored to put some little thing into every one's hand.

Santurion made us a family visit, and requested that we would return and live with them. He also mentioned some articles he wished us to procure in our country and bring to him. When we had finished distributing our presents, the Indians took hold and carefully aided us in packing our horses, and a full escort attended us down to the vessel. It was painful to leave the camp and separate, probably forever, from these rude sons of nature, yet in all the darkness of heathenism. But what was most affecting was to part with our old Indian mother. Her fidelity to us had remained unshaken to the last, and now we bade her farewell, she put on a solemn countenance and commenced a very plaintive song, which continued till we were beyond the sound of her voice.

When we arrived at the shore we found the Indians there very pleasant, and having distributed a few presents we bade them farewell and went on board the vessel. While going from the shore to the schooner, we were passed by another boat going from the vessel to the shore, with Maria and several Indians. When the boat passed ours, an Indian held up a tract, and calling out to our boat's crew to look on, threw it overboard. Old Maria now held up a bundle of tracts, and crying out "Malo! malo!" dashed them into the water with indignant contempt.

When we came on board the Antarctic, capt. Nash informed us that the Indians told him he was bad for attempting to take us away, and that we should not go. For this reason he retained some of them on board with the determination to keep them till he had secured us. Old Maria, he remarked, had stolen the tracts we saw her throw into the water, from his cabin. He also stated that she had torn many of them in pieces on board; that she said they were "Malo!" and taking a tract from a bundle she held in her hand she rent it before the captain's eyes, and then drawing a knife from her bosom, by expressive gestures in connection with the name of my companion, she told him that she was going to meet Mr. Arms on the shore, tear up the tracts before him, and then plunge her knife into his breast. She also pointed to a large Indian standing near with a dirk, who signified that he would do the same. In consequence of these threats, the captain thought it prudent to prevent our coming into contact with old Maria, and for this reason sent her to the shore in one boat, while we were brought on board in another. What was the particular cause of this exasperated state of feeling in the old queen at this time we do not know. She had never exhibited such feelings towards us. [Mr. Coan]

Messrs. Arms and Coan received a gratuitous passage in the Antarctic to the Falkland Islands; and by a similar act of kindness on the part of capt. G. L. Allyn, of the schooner Talma, they were brought to Groton, Connecticut, where they arrived on the 14th of May.

Source: The Missionary Herald, vol. XXXI No. 2 (February 1835), 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