THE Tierra del Fuego of the geographies and encyclopoedias is a dreary land of snow and ice, of glaciers and rocky wastes. Let me tell the reader what the real Tierra del Fuego is. My information conies from what I have seen, and from the men who have lived upon the great island and visited nearly every part of it.
The archipelago of Tierra del Fuego contains as much land as Kansas. It is wider from east to west than from Cleveland to Chicago, and from north to south it is longer than from New York to Boston. The archipelago is made up of hundreds of wooded islands, mostly mountainous, but a few of which have valleys and plains covered with rich grass, on which sheep and cattle rapidly grow fat. The largest islands of the archipelago are Onisin, or King Charles Southland, or Tierra del Fuego proper; Desolation Island, which lies near the western entrance to the Strait, and along which I coasted for miles on my way here; the Isle of St. Ives, Clarence Island, and Dawson Island, a little farther to the eastward, and the large islands of Hoste and Navarino on the south. Cape Horn itself is on one of the small islands on the southernmost part of the archipelago.
The chief island is Tierra del Fuego proper. It is half as big as Ohio, and now supports hundreds of thousands of sheep. The island is unequally divided between Chile and the Argentine Republic. Chile owns nearly all of the islands of the archipelago and most of the sheep lands of Tierra del Fuego proper. The lands of the Chilean part have been taken up within the past few years under leases from the Chilean government. The Argentine portion is not so well settled, owing to the difficulty of access and the uncertainty as to the boundary. Still from what I can learn the Argentines have some of the best lands. Nearly all the southern and eastern portions of the island are plains, wide stretches of moorland, covered with grass, which in summer is green, but now in winter has turned a reddish brown. The other parts are made up of mountains, valleys, and plains. Around the west and south coast is a rim of mountains, many of which rise almost precipitously from the water, and which probably gave Darwin the basis for his statement that there was not a level acre of ground upon the whole island. The plains are in the interior. Running midway between north and south, and extending across the country, there is an elevated table-land and beyond this to the north is a second elevated plain.
The grasses of the plains are rich, but they are so largely eaten up by ground-rats that it takes from three to five acres to support a single sheep. The rats burrow in the earth, cutting it into holes like a prairie-dog town. They make it impossible to drive over the plains with a waggon, and horseback-riding has to be at a slow pace. Only cattle will drive the rats away, and they are used to tramp the ground for the purpose.
It seems strange to think of a dense vegetation in Tierra del Fuego. One might almost as soon believe that grass could be raised on an iceberg. The truth is, however, that the winter climate of Tierra del Fuego is milder than that of Canada. The lowlands are seldom covered with snow for more than a few days at a time, though you are in sight of snow and glaciers on the mountains all the year round. The climate varies in different parts, but it is generally cool, cloudy, and windy. The most objectionable feature is the wind, which at times blows for days at a stretch and sends the chilly air through one’s bones in penetrating blasts. Tierra del Fuego is in the latitude of Labrador, but so is a large part of England and Holland; and I imagine that, barring these winds, « Tierra del,” as they have nicknamed the island, has winters more like those of northern Europe than the winter of Labrador.
The vegetation is that of the temperate rather than of the frigid zone. The mountain slopes, up to about one thousand feet, are walled with a growth of trees, ferns, and mosses so dense that it is almost impossible to get through the entanglement. On the sides of the steeper mountains the trees, instead of growing straight up, crawl upon the earth ; so that a tree, with a trunk as thick as a man’s waist, is not more than three feet high, but spreads over a large piece of ground. This is probably due to the mountain snow, which presses the trees down to the ground and still keeps them warm enough so as not to impede their growth.
And what kind of trees do they have down here at the tail end of creation ? The most common is the beech. There are vast forests of antarctic beeches in Chilean Tierra del Fuego, the trees of which are eighty feet tall and six feet thick. They make excellent lumber, and some are now being cut down and shipped to Buenos Aires. One species of the beech tree is of our ever-green variety; another is a common beech like that of our Central States. There are also trees of the magnolia species. There are twenty-five different varieties of shrubs and bushes in Tierra del Fuego, besides wild gooseberries and wild raspberries. Wild strawberries of great size and delicious flavor are found in their season, and there are also wild grapes and wild celery. Ferns are to be seen almost everywhere; indeed, they seem to be indigenous in certain parts of the country. The sheep-farmers raise cabbages, potatoes, turnips, and peas in their gardens, and they tell me that in the spring and summer the pastures are dotted with wild flowers.
Tierra del Fuego has been called the “Klondike of South America.” So far, however, there is no justification for the term. There is plenty of gold, no doubt ; but as yet no large quantities have been discovered, and that found is difficult to mine. The gold is all placer gold; some of it is in the shape of nuggets as large as marrow fat peas, but the greater part is in leaflets or scales.
Most of the mines are in the southern part of Tierra del Fuego proper and the islands adjacent. The gold is found on the shores, the clay containing it running down under the water and being exposed only at low tide. The ground is covered with shingle and sand, which must be removed before bed-rock is reached. At the Slogget Bay diggings, for instance, there are six feet of sand and gravel above the bed-rock. This has to be shovelled off, and at the next tide the gold-bearing clay is again covered. Almost similar conditions exist at the washings on the island of Navarino and elsewhere. From what I was able to learn there are, I should judge, only a few places where gold has been found in profitable deposits, and these are nothing in comparison with the great gold mines of our Western States. There are two or three companies now at work who use sluice boxes with machinery pumping the water from the sea and gathering the gold dust with mercury and copper plates. Most of the mining, however, is spasmodic and uncertain. The territory is exceedingly difficult to reach, and prospecting is coupled with such hardships and expense in the way of getting supplies that the American miner had better stay at home.
But let us look at the savages who live at the lower end of our hemisphere. I have already described the Alacalufs or Canoe Indians; they are found only on the waterways of the western part of the archipelago. Tierra del Fuego proper and the larger islands are inhabited by two tribes, each of which is different from any other Indian tribe of South America.
The Onas are found chiefly in northern and central Tierra del Fuego ; they are very savage and wage war on the whites. Only a short time ago two Chilean naval officers were killed by them while surveying one of the smaller islands. When found the Chilenos were naked, their clothing having been stripped off, and in one of the bodies were found twenty-five arrows with glass heads.
The shepherds often shoot the Ona Indians at sight, for they say it is cheaper to kill than to civilize them. The Roman Catholics have a mission station on Dawson Island, not far from Tierra del Fuego, on which are some Onas, but most of the tribe are still wild. In their natural state the Onas go naked. When captured by the missionaries they may be induced to wear clothing, but one seldom meets with a brave who will not part with his suit of clothes for a plug of tobacco, or a squaw who would not, in a driving snowstorm, take off all she has on for a piece of red cloth or a string of bright beads.
In their wild state the Onas sometimes wear a strip of guanaco skin over the shoulders. The adults have breech cloths, but the children wear nothing save the coating of fish oil with which they are liberally smeared. The oil serves to keep out the cold ; and so far I have yet to see an Indian shiver, although in my winter flannels and overcoat I myself am none too warm. The Tierra del Fuegans have been painted by travellers as wretched and miserable in the extreme. They appear to be sleek, fat, and well-fed, and are generally good-natured. The Alacalufs I saw wore a perpetual grin, and the Onas and Yaghans are, when among themselves, full of good humor.
In travelling along the shores of Tierra del Fuego you stumble now and then over an Ona house. It is merely a hole in the ground with a wind-break of branches or trees bent down and tied together over it. The hole is about three feet deep and just big enough to contain the Indian and his family. They use it chiefly at night, crawling in and cuddling up together with their dogs lying about and over them for warmth. Such fires as they make are for cooking, and are in front of and outside the dug-out sleeping-place. They do not like to stay more than a night or so in the same place, as they have an idea that the devil or evil spirit is after them, and that they must move on or he will catch them.
The Onas are of a good size, though not such giants as travellers have painted them. The men are usually about six feet tall, and the women about five feet, five inches. The Yaghans are much smaller, and the Alacalufs are between the two. Were it not for their stomachs, the Onas might be said to be well-formed. They are straight, deep-chested, and muscular. The women when young are plump and well-rounded, with fine necks and breasts. They are, however, great gluttons, and sometimes gorge themselves so that their stomachs are stretched out like drumheads, and extend out into pot-belliedness. They have lighter skins than our Indians and have high cheekbones, flat noses, straight, dark eyes, and rather full, sensuous lips. Their hair is straight and black, and among the men the fashion is to have it singed at the crown, forming a sort of tonsure. The women let their hair grow, and it hangs down over their shoulders. The men do not have beards until late in life, and as they do not like to appear old they usually pull out the stray hairs on their faces; an Ona seldom has a beard before he is thirty-five or forty.
The Onas apparently do not care whether their food is fresh or not. Before the advent of sheep-farming in Tierra del Fuego, they lived on fish, fungi, and guanacos. Guanacos are wild animals of the same genus as the llama. They seem to be a cross between the deer and the camel, and in size look like a very large sheep. The Onas run them down with their dogs and follow them also on foot. They are fast runners, and take steps as an Argentine man who lived on the islands told mesix feet apart. When they kill more game than they can eat, they bury what is left over in the bed of a stream and corne back a week or so later and eat it. This is especially so of the sheep they steal from the whites. They drive the sheep off in flocks of five hundred or more, get them well into the forest, and then have a big feast. They then break the legs of the remaining sheep and drown them in some deep stream, leaving them there until the chase by the farmers is over, when they go back for another but now well-rotted feed. They eat the decayed flesh of stranded whales which they find on the shore, but, as a rule, do not go out in canoes to fish as do the Yaghans and the Alacalufs. They also make traps to catch game. They use only bows and arrows in war and for hunting ; the arrows used to be tipped with flint, but now they are pointed with pieces of glass, made out of the broken whiskey and wine bottles thrown out by the steamers passing through the Strait of Magellan.
The Ona women weave very pretty rush baskets of a bowl shape. They cure the skins which their husbands bring in from the hunt, and sew them together with sinews into robes or rugs. The Onas, I am told, have no Great Spirit, or God, as our Indians have. They believe in polygamy, one man having several wives, which he buys of their fathers at as low a price as he can.
Before the whites came there were something like three thousand of the Yaghan Indians. They were described by sea captains as a healthy, hearty, naked, savage race. The English early established a mission in south Tierra del Fuego and persuaded them to put on clothes. It is claimed that with the wearing of clothes came consumption and pneumonia, and that these ailments have reduced their number to less than five hundred. The head of the mission among these Indians is the Rev. Thomas Bridges, who owns a big sheep-farm in. the south. He has an Indian settlement where the people live in houses, and where they farm on a small scale. The information I gathered about the Yaghans I owe almost entirely to Mr. Bridges. He says they live in groups of about thirty families; they are not cannibals, as has been charged, and they do not eat raw meat. Their principal food consists of mollusks, fish, sea calves, birds, strawberries, and fungi. Their women cook these things in different ways; they cook birds by placing them on the coals and putting red-hot stones inside of them; they bake eggs by breaking a small hole in one end and then standing them upright in the embers before the fire, turning them round and round to make them cook evenly. They cook the blood of animals, but, as a rule, eat their vegetables raw. The women are both fishers and hunters. The men make the canoes, but the women paddle them; the latter are good at the oars and usually are better and more fearless swimmers than the men.
One of the wonderful things about the Yaghans is their language. With no means of writing, yet they have a vocabulary of about forty thousand words. Mr. Bridges, who has made a Yaghan-English dictionary, gives this as the number. The Eskimo use, it is said, less than ten thousand words, and Shakespeare’s vocabulary, it is known, contained only twenty-four thousand words. The contrast, in the case of the Yaghans, is therefore remarkable.