Trelew And The Welsh Colony

“We drew up at a neat station, Trelew, the principal town of the territory of Chubut, the metropolis of the colony of the Welsh. But what was wrong? Will one never find things as one had dreamed they would be? I had pictured here a transplanted Welsh village, with picturesque cottages, overgrown with roses and creeping vines, its narrow streets densely shaded by green trees that forever drew sustenance from limpid streams flowing at their feet, as once one saw in the charming villages of Utah. Instead, what did I see? A typically Spanish town, with its plastered houses set flush with the sidewalks, bare of ornament or architectural grace, with hot, glary, dusty streets and not one tree shading them. True, there were a few houses of English village architecture. For these I was devoutly grateful, yet they were the exception. The village lies on a little plateau, slightly above the valley. Below it is an irrigating canal where picturesque oxen water after their long journey from the Cordilleras. Across the irrigating canal is a lot of hideous waste land, black and no doubt rich, yet unwatered and untilled. Beyond that are farms and trees and orchards.

“To comprehend it all one must learn something of the history of Chubut. It lies in a pleasant latitude, about the same as that of Rochester, N. Y. It has a fine climate, cool but not cold, although somewhat subject to late spring frosts. Its winter climate is so mild that there is not often skating at Trelow. If I were to go to South America to select a home where I could reproduce things with which I might be familiar in England or the United States, surely Chubut would be the place that I should visit. In Wales there has long been an old prophecy that some day in Patagonia there should arise a Welsh nation. Next came a law in England that all children should learn the English language in the schools. Wales had never been truly conquered by the English, for a large part of the people had retained their truly unspeakable language. It cut them to the quick to think of having their children taught English, so a movement arose to emigrate to Patagonia and there found the new Welsh nation, the cornerstone of which should be godliness and one of the ornaments the marvelous language of Wales.

“Lewis Jones led the colonists, the first coming in 1865. They came like children, trusting, hopeful, ignorant of conditions. What would men of Wales know of a desert and the manner of life adapted to the desert? Few of them had money, and as to many their chief possessions were children and a devout religious instinct and training. Just why they did not at once return on seeing this desolate land I do not know; perhaps because the captain would not take them back free and they had no money. At first they lived in caves, near the sea; then they moved to the valley of the river and sowed wheat. It is said that they would have died of starvation had they not been fed for a time by kind-hearted Indians. Later the Argentine government, delighted to have settlement made in Patagonia, sent them food. Thus they lived through a few dreadfully lean and hungry years. They built a little city which they called Rawson, near the mouth of the river. It was then possible to sail a ship to Rawson. Ships drew less water then than they draw today. Now no more ships touch there because of a bar at the mouth of the river, and be-cause the water is too shallow in the river itself.

“After a time these stubborn Welsh people learned that it was not merely an accidental `dry spell’ that had overtaken them on Rio Chubut, but that drouth was the normal thing. Some one led the way, and a canal was dug to lead the water from the river to the land. Watered, it produced wheat abundantly., also barley, clover, garden stuff, apples, grapes and other fruits. Settlement spread up the river for more than thirty miles. There was plenty in Chubut. Many little churches stood in the valley. They were built of brick, either burned or sun-dried. The population was almost solidly Welsh. Few indeed could speak English. Far re-mote were the Spanish settlements to the north, and the colonists dreamed that they would be unmolested; that they would never have to own allegiance to Argentina, even if that country had fed them. Argentines have their faults, but a lack of patriotism is not one of them.

“A Spanish governor was sent to rule over Chubut. He endeavored to enforce certain unobserved laws. One was that all young men must assemble and practice military drill on Sunday. This law was abhorrent to the Sunday-observing Welsh people. Another law was that they must be taught in schools in the Spanish tongue. This was the last straw. The Welshmen abhorred the whole scheme and with bitterness sought eagerly to have England intervene—perhaps to annex the land. England once had a claim on Patagonia, but relinquished it, possibly on the damning testimony of Charles Dar-win, and refused now to trespass on rights admittedly Argentina’s, so the Welshmen had to submit with what grace they could. Some left the colony; some ‘remained and learned that after all Spanish is a pretty language, and I think the rule of Sunday drill has been abolished. Today the grand-daughter of one of the original colonists is the principal of the public schools of Trelew and teaches in the Spanish tongue.”


But the Spaniards were the least of the Welsh-men’s troubles, after all, though they seemed a serious enough trial at the time. The Spaniards misname the Welsh, calling them “Galenses.” So far as I could see, they were not at all Galenses either, but just ordinary Welshmen. They do not change much, be they born in the old world or the new. I remonstrated with my interpreter for thus misnaming the poor, inoffensive Welshmen, but he did not understand me, and returned, in amazement, “But señor, they’ are Galenses.” That settled it; I could not argue against him.

The real, sure and terrible troubles of the poor Welsh colonists came from the behavior of the Chubut River. It is a long river, rising in the An-des and flowing 350 miles through the desert. It is smallish in the dry season; one can ford it in many places then. In the Andes and along their base, there is a great snowy region where the climate is changeable, as it is elsewhere, so that during some winters the snow piles high on the hills. When the snow melts away there may be trouble all the way down the valley. In thirty-seven years there have been four terrible overflows, one of which remained over much of the land for eight months. These floods swept away homes and churches, washed great channels through the fields, destroyed orchards and naturally discouraged the people. Nature down there is not tame, gentle or manageable, as in Wales or England. It will require years of struggle to successfully subdue her.


The territory of Chubut is one of the larger di-visions of Argentina, situated south of parallel 42. It is roughly speaking about 300 miles from north to south, with an average breadth of about 310 miles. It contains approximately 930,000 square miles, is a little larger than the state of Oregon and has about the same area as Great Britain, with-out Ireland. Chubut lies south of the maize-growing regions of Argentina. As a matter of fact, there is hardly any agriculture practiced there, excepting farming by irrigation along the Chubut River, where maize does not ripen well. However, the grapes of Europe ripen beautifully. The summers are made up of bright, rather hot days with cool nights ; the winters are mild with little snow and seldom ice enough for skating at Trelew, on the Chubut River. The country may some day be distinguished for the production of fruit.

The coast regions of Chubut are arid, the rain-fall being about 6 inches and in some years there is far less rain than that; in fact, there are entire years when there is hardly any rainfall at all. As a consequence, vegetation assumes the characteristics of arid regions, with many’ shrubs resistant to drouth, with some thorny species and some cacti, and under and between the shrubs some little grasses. There is little or no water on the surface. Wells are often as deep as 150 to 300 feet. There are yet no well-drilling or boring machines in operation; hence the procuring of water is a costly enterprise, beyond the means of the ordinary man. The ranges are so thinly grassed that ordinarily a league of land will support but 1,000 sheep, though there are estancias where 1,250 or even 1,500 are kept per league. In the west as many as 4,000 may be run on a league. The sheep consume much be-side grass; they nibble the brush and while ordinarily they do not become very fat they keep in good thriving condition on such forage.