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Friday, March 16, 2012

The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn

This is a poorly named book, for the contents are much more diverse than the title indicates. It's full of the life of people, places and wildlife of Patagonia.

The Gold Diggings of Cape Horn 
by John R. Spears

"How many sporting houses in town?"

The barkeeper smiled blandly.

"A plenty," he said; "you'll find the best looking girls in the second house beyond the postoffice right up this street."

"I meant gambling-houses," said I, "but since you've mentioned sporting women, how many dance-houses does this place support?"

"One. It's the house I mentioned. Both the girls like to dance, but of course one of them has to furnish the music. They've got one of these--how do you call them--pianos that turn with a crank, eh? It's a fine instrument, I tell you. Of course, if you want to take a chum along you can get a boy to turn the crank."

"Wait," said I. "What was the number of the biggest gang of cowboys you ever saw come to town?"

"I suppose as many as twenty."

"Did they have any money?"

"You bet they did."

"And did they spend it?"

"As quick as the Lord would let 'm."

"How many men have you seen coming from the diggings with dust?"

"Half a dozen, maybe. Why?"

"Did they blow in the dust?"

"Well, rather."

"And yet there is only one dance-house in town and that has but two women in it?"

"That's just the size of it."

"Let us return to the subject of gambling-houses. How many have you?"


"Do they have big play there?"

"That's what they do--sometimes."

"Where is it? I'd like to see it."


The barkeeper hesitated a moment, and then went to the door and looked up and down.

"I don't see a member anywhere," he said, "but some of them will be in at dinner, and I'll introduce you."

"Does one need an introduction to get in?"


"What! Police watch it in a town like this?"

"Police? No. It's a private club, gentlemen, eh? They would admit you on your card, I dare say, but it pleases the army and navy members to observe the usual formalities. Did you think it was run like a saloon?"


The home of the Ona is as bad as any in the world. A saucer-shaped hollow big enough for a bed for all the family is scooped in the ground. In the little ridge about this poles and brush are placed, and over the weather side of the brush is thrown a skin or two.

The fire is usually built just without, but near the door of the hut. It is more useful for cooking food than for imparting warmth. The Onas at night allow the fire to go out.

To protect themselves from the cold they resort to a novel blanket. They all lie down on the ground with the children in the middle of the huddle, and then call their dogs to come and lie around and over them. It is a poverty-stricken Ona family that has not enough dogs to cover it out of sight. The dogs are a sharp-nosed but hairy lot, and they certainly keep the family warm.

The fact that all the tribes of the Cape Horn region build such wretched houses has always been taken as a proof of their lack of intelligence. How great a mistake was thus made in the case of the Yahgans has already been shown. The Onas, as will some day be learned, are also misjudged.

The reason for building so frail a shelter is apparent on a brief consideration of their method of life. They are necessarily nomads. When the food of one spot was eaten they had to migrate. Now, the Onas had no horses or beasts of burden, as did the Tehuelches. They could not carry big skin tents about as the Tehuelches did. So they built a temporary shelter only.

In the coldest weather a location near the seashore, where mussels and fish abounded, was usually chosen, and there they built larger and better wigwams. When they migrated to Patagonia and acquired horses they made skin tents. They did not make poor shelters from any lack of intelligence.


When Darwin was in Patagonia he wrote some pages about the guanaco, paying considerable attention to its swiftness, its peculiar shape, which indicated that it was really the humpless camel of the South American desert, and its curious cry when alarmed, the exact neigh of a horse. But more interesting than all this was a habit which he believed it had when about to die.

Along the Rio Santa Cruz he found the ground under the brush actually heaped up with the bones of the guanaco. Animal after animal had crawled in under the brushy shrubs, and, lying down upon the bones of others that had come there before it, had breathed its last. He also noticed that when a guanaco was wounded by a bullet it immediately headed for the river. The same habit was observed on the Rio Gallegos, but in no other place than these two valleys.

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