Again Southward Bound

We embarked from the port of Montevideo on the Oriana, an English ship of the Pacific Line, running from Liverpool to the Brazilian ports, Montevideo and the west coast of South America. She was a big comfortable ship. On her decks were many large pens, each containing half a dozen splendid Romney rams, which had come from New Zealand to Montevideo and were now being reshipped to Punta Arenas, a port on the Straits of Magellan. What good ones they were—thick, sturdy, hardy-looking and woolly. I spent much time studying them. They had stood the voyage perfectly, as it was all the way through a cold climate, and curiously enough they had once passed in sight of the island of Tierra del Fuego, to which they were now returning. There were many Englishmen on the ship, interesting and strange men that they are, and the time passed happily. One of the passengers was Alec. Robertson, a young Scot who had ridden a great deal in Patagonia. He told me of the difficulties, the short, thin grass, the cold winds, the need of twelve horses—six for Ms own riding and six for a guide. Another Englishman showed me, to my astonishment, a map of south-ern Patagonia, showing that it is nearly all divided into rectangular tracts, apportioned to sheep-ranchers or estancieros and fenced with good wire fences. I had expected here to find things pretty wild, about as nature made them, in fact, so this was quite a surprise.

The hot weather disappeared soon after we left Montevideo; in a day or two I was wearing a fur-lined coat on deck—the coat that I had so often reviled, as it hung so warm-looking in my stateroom coming down by Brazil. The sun was far in the north, and it seemed natural to ,see it thus. We sighted no land until we reached the entrance to the straits. Early in the morning we came in; the shores were rather close, barren, treeless and showing yellow grass. However, on the slopes and here and there were a few buildings, a woolshed, maybe, or shearing shed, with corrals and house, all set down in some sheltered valley, secure from the prevailing hard winds. It reminded me of the rougher part of the range country of Wyoming, but there was less grass than in Wyoming, and no trees. The shores of Tierra del Fuego were lower and yellow with grass, and in the distant southwest mountains glistened with eternal snow. We were in the heart of the best sheep country in South America, nearly 1,500 miles south of Buenos Aires and nearly 2,000 miles south of Corrientes, the northernmost point that I was destined to reach.

We were not so near the south pole as I had fancied; we were only as far south of the equator as Yorkshire is north of it, and in the latitude of the southern part of Hudson’s Bay. However, these southern latitudes are colder than the corresponding ones in the north, and we were below the line of successful cultivation of farm crops. In my notebook I find this :

“Hello! It is cold! We are nearing Punta Arenas town ; the white caps are dashing up finely ; back from the coast a little way are high, rough hills and on their sheltered sides are the remains of ancient forests; they tell me of beech, but they look to be mostly dead from fires. The land looks grassy, though, and some sheep can be seen from the ship.”


Punta Arenas is a most interesting city, the farthest south of any town in the world, if we except Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego. The city is solidly built of stone, for the greater part, with paved streets of stones as large as peck measures. There are good shops where one can buy almost anything in the way of personal needs at moderate prices, as it is a free port. Some of the residences are pretty, with one or two aspiring to grandeur. It has its plaza with flowers and a tree fully eight feet tall. It also is one of the windy places of the earth. Punta Arenas is in Chilian territory, as Chili owns the land along both shores of the straits and a little more than half the island of Tierra del Fuego; in fact, the territory of Magellanes, as this Chilian land is called, is a region about as large as the state of Ohio, roughly speaking. Much of it is water; some of it is high, rough mountains, but a great area is good grass-covered land, both of hill country and of plain. It is a wonderful country for sheep. That seems all that it is suited for, however, being too cold for agriculture, and rather too thinly grassed for beef cattle.

I had a happy time of a few days at Punta Arenas. Kind old Consul John E. Rowen had a snug cottage there with a garden in which grew currants, gooseberries, strawberries and hardy flowers. He had also a fire beside which I sat in the evenings with satisfaction. It was a live town. There were German and English wool merchants; their great warehouses were filled with wool, and men busily assorting it. I saw no Yankees. It was a delight to go into the great wool lofts and see the piles of delightfully clean, strong, soft, wool, all of uniform quality. The German wool merchants were glad to give me information. This was the home of the Romney sheep. The original sheep had been more of a Lincoln or Leicester type, coming from the Falkland Islands. The Romneys proved hardier and better suited to the cold, bleak surroundings ; so they were being used more and more largely, and by cross-breeding were supplanting the other breeds.

I longed exceedingly to cross the straits to the island of Tierra del Fuego, said to be the best sheep country in South America, but circumstances were against me. In the first place that enormous territory is leased from Chili by one great company, the Sociedad Explotadora. The terms of this lease are very favorable to the company, and the lease was about to expire. Further, the company owned the little steamers that ply these waters and at that time it was not desirable that an inquisitive Yankee should be spying around over their sheep-runs. The men were kind and courteous to me, but they did not make it possible for me to see their sheep farms on the island. I did not wonder at this. The company gave me all the facts that I required, with a full report of its operations. It does a great business and is managed splendidly by New Zealanders.

The land is divided into great runs, each one in charge of an expert pastoralist. They have both cattle and sheep; their lands are on both sides of the straits and they own as much land as would make a fair-sized state and lease the rest. They had about 1,200,000 good sheep, which were intelligently managed. Seeking to know what the production of wool cost them, I learned that it cost them nothing at all, as the sales of mutton, tallow and pelts more than paid all expenses. They have their own freezing works and plants for rendering out tallow from sheep too old or too big for the English market. I was told that on the island Lincoln sheep grew as large sometimes as yearling calves and were then not liked in England. They were therefore boiled down for their tallow, or more likely these days, were canned. Now the company is importing many Romney and Corriedale rams, finding them better suited to their needs than any others.

There is a considerable popular outcry against the Sociedad Explotadora because of its having a monopoly of the best sheep lands—in fact, of nearly all the lands in that region ; yet, after all, it is not a world-loss. It is like what we call a big trust, intelligently managed. The pastures are conserved and improved ; the maximum amount of wool’ and mutton is taken from the soil at the lowest cost, and it is put on the market of the world as cheaply as is possible, so there is no world-loss. Further, from what I saw of the native population (not Indian), about Punta Arenas, I think it as well that the land is not open to settlement in homesteads or small lots, as is our public land in North America. And yet there were intelligent Englishmen dispossessed to make room for this giant company. It is true that they were bought out, but they had to sell. The Falkland islanders brought sheep to these lands. At first there was trouble with the Indians, who would raid the sheep, driving off whole flocks and killing them out of mere wantonness, or bogging them in morasses. Now the Indians are nearly extinct; a few are being “civilized” and are dying of tuberculosis.

I called on His Excellency the Governor of the territory, Señor Chaigneon, who received me with kind courtesy. Alas, my new-found Spanish words, learned with so much care on shipboard, seemed to be none of them applicable to the case, so I had to use an interpreter, and that robbed an interview of much.


“Your Excellency, I wish to know about the land laws of Chili. Can I get a copy of them from you?”

“Señor, there are no land laws in Chili at all like yours of North America,” was the smiling response. –

“Then, Your Excellency, if I wish to buy land here in your territory, how may I secure it?”

“You apply to me for a grant of it,” was his reply.

“And that settles the matter?”

“Yes, only my grant must be confirmed by the President at Santiago.”

I am not a calumniator of a foreign people’s government, but I confess that I came away smiling and saying to myself, “Well, we protest in the United States if there is some little irregularity in the administration of our land laws, but our worst sins against the people would look white compared with what might happen down here.”

Later I conceived a motto that might with propriety be placed over the entrance to the Government house at Punta Arenas : “We protect the rich; God will look after the poor:” That motto might very likely be placed over the entrance to the Government houses of more than one South American republic.

All the land near the straits is taken, fenced and occupied ; there is no chance of any increase in the number of sheep here; indeed a hard winter might thin them considerably. There is no farming done, although oats are sown for hay to feed the horses of Punta Arenas. The crop is cut green and brought often to town in ox carts, drawn by huge gaunt oxen. Potatoes will mature sometimes. Drouth, high wind and frost are serious drawbacks to agriculture. Far in the back country, near the Andes, there is yet a little unoccupied land, but it was being stocked at the time of my visit, and it is unsafe land when severe winters come with much snow. Sometimes all the sheep then perish.

What is sheep-farming like down here? It is the simplest process possible. The pastures are carefully fenced; the flocks are turned into them; once or twice a year the sheep are dipped; scab exists in the flocks on some estancias. The lambs are marked, the sheep are shorn, and some driven away and sold. Often they are taken to the frigorificos (freezing works) by small steamers that ply along the coast and penetrate the maze of water passages that intersect the land. Men never feed the sheep; there is no possibility of that. There are no wolves. Wild dogs once abounded and are still occasionally seen. The puma or mountain lion is uncommon, but it is destructive when it does appear. Many Scottish shepherds are employed as also are Scottish, English and New Zealand managers. Native people of Spanish blood who own estancias quite generally employ English managers. The native labor is “Chilleno,” a mixture of Spanish and Indian—a small, muscular, dark-skinned people who work well when mixed in with other and good men. I confess that these Chillenos did not appeal to me as a class, though their efficiency as plainsmen and ox-drivers bringing wool down from far distant estancias is first-class. There are men whom I, unarmed at night, had rather meet.

The Argentine Government sent here to meet me Dr. Juan Richelet, a veterinarian and inspector of the southern provinces. He was an educated, cultured Uruguayan, and a genial companion. I think that he did not understand my liking for long walks over sheep pastures, my climbing hills just to gaze from their tops, or my wandering to places alone.

The pastures spread quite down to the town of Punta Arenas; they are covered with a thick, close sod, almost like our Kentucky bluegrass, but the herbage is of a different species. It is a shorter and finer grass. Nowhere else in South America did I see such excellent pasturage, although I was told that it was .yet finer on the island. I walked long distances over these pastures, studying the grasses, the shrubs and flowers. Fire had killed nearly all the forest trees in that region; there had been but two species—a beech and a “robley.” They would never be reproduced, but fine, thick grass occupied their places. However, the blackened trunks looked dismal in a land where trees are so rare. Some of the trees had trunks three feet thick. There are saw mills near by, and fair lumber is made, competing with our wood from the United States, which also comes to Punta Arenas. I admired much the fine-bodied sheep, full of Romney blood, their appearance of perfect health and the lusty lambs, weighing then often as much as 125 pounds. There were in the pastures too those great-framed gaunt oxen that are so able to draw heavy loads.


One day we drove to Rio Seco, where there is a great establishment for freezing mutton for export to Europe. Down by the water’s edge was the plant; the offal was thrown into the water, where it was devoured by thousands of gulls. I suspect that it is now made into fertilizer, as is being done in other similar establishments near by. We saw the lambs enter the chutes and emerge frozen as hard as icicles, ready to be shipped to European markets. The work was well and cleanly done, and the Englishman who eats the mutton will have no reason to complain ; the lambs are prime as they go in and should reach English shores in good condition.

I spent an hour searching for traces of parisitism in the carcasses, but found none. There are no traces of our hateful and fatal nodular disease, or stomach worms. Either these diseases have not been introduced, which seems incredible, or the dryness and cold are fatal to their propagation. This then is the one absolute paradise for sheep that I have found. It has no internal parasites or wild beasts and not too much snow in winter or heat in summer and it has abundance of sweet grass. Would it be a good place for mankind of our sort? I think so. What makes me feel so is that I saw a tiny garden sheltered from the wind by a fence, and in that garden the finest pansies that I have ever seen were in bloom, and back of it the yellow Scotch broom was a blaze of yellow. But let no one go there to farm; it is far too cold, too boisterous and the land is now all owned and held too at relatively high prices.

The land is measured in square leagues of 2,500 hectares or nearly 6,250 acres. On the best lands one can carry 3,000 or more sheep to the league in summer and winter.

At the frigorifico they paid $2 to $2.25 each for superior lambs. Wool at Punta Arenas was worth about twenty cents a pound, more or less, according to its quality.

I do not know that I am uncommonly ignorant, but I had come to Punta Arenas meaning to go on horseback northward, perhaps as far as the beginning of railways, at Bahia Blanca. In that manner I would see the estancias thoroughly. It was a good plan, the two drawbacks being that there was no feed for horses enroute and the distance was about the same as from Chicago to the Utah line. To get a man to take me with carriage northward only to Rio Gallegos would cost about $100, so reluctantly I took my friend’s advice and engaged passage in a coasting steamer for the next point of study, Rio Gallegos, a distance of about 200 miles.

Perhaps some reader will be disappointed and say, “Why, he is making a most superficial study of the country.” It is true, but my time was limited and I had to see as much as possible of all the sheep raising regions that lay between Punta Arenas and Corrientes, a distance of 2,000 miles to the northward. It was necessary, then, to move on.