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Memories of Tierra del Fuego
An interview with Frances Flora Roseveare Thompson (née Cameron) (1883-1974)
[as recorded by her daughters, circa 1970]

Flora Cameron was born into a New Zealand sheep-ranching family. Her first contacts with South America were on ships carrying her father's animals to the new lands of Patagonia. As Mrs. Robert Thompson, she raised a family at Estancia José Menéndez, Río Grande, in the Argentine portion of Tierra del Fuego.
["Granny" is the interviewee; "Edwina" and "Maimie" are her daughters. The transcript has been edited slightly for publication.]

1. Shipment of Sheep from New Zealand

Edwina: "When did they take the sheep over, the Corriedales?"

Granny: "Well, I was on the boat twice with them, and last time I went they were there too. I was sitting at the table beside the Captain and he looked very solemn and dejected. I said, "Well what's the matter Captain?" And then he got so worried. "Mrs Thompson," he said, "the sheep are sick and won't eat and they won't drink." And I said, "May I go down and see them?" "Yes," he said, "you come along with me .... and see." Well they had what they call, pink eye. A pink eye whenever killer left the sheep [?] .... hay and all the stuff that Father had put on board, it was all there; and I had even remembered hearing Father talking to a man, in Sawyers Bay, by the fire one day about these sheep. And he said, "when you have them on board, he said, and they take sick, get some molasses he said, they have barrels and barrels on the boats, and dilute it with warm water he said, and sprinkle it on the hay and they'll eat it at once."

So I told the Captain this. "Oh," he said, "we have barrels and barrels of molasses that we're not using, I'll do that at once." "Don't make it too thick Captain," I said, "just make it a little thicker than water and they just eat it ravenously"; and next day they were all alright. ... "Captain," I said, "I'll get a medal for this. That's the second boat I was on and the sheep took sick twice, twice, both times the same." It's just that I happened to hear Father talking to this man about sheep, and how they were sick. They could take them off the boat in Buenos Aires and keep them there for a while on a bit of grass and that, before they send them down to Punta Arenas. But they were alright when they got off. I told Father about it; oh he thought I smart for months." [laughing]

"After that he got to know me, used to come and sit on the boat on the deck and talk to me. He said, "You really mean that you've been living on the island Tierra del Fuego." he said, "I thought no white people lived there." "Oh! Yes," I said, "there's quite a lot of them. If I can rack up my photographs, I'll show you the houses and the people tomorrow. I think I could get hold of them." And was he pleased to see them. He said, I forget how many " .... thirty or forty times round the Horn"; and he said, "We could see a bit of smoke, but we thought it was Indians." "Well," I said, "it was Indians. There was no fires there because there was a lot of bush, if there had it would've been all burnt out." And ah, there was a terrible rough passage going around the Horn, oh the boat nearly went under ... ragging, ragging, ragging ... it was awful, and … the Captain said to me, "Were you frightened?" "No," I said, "I really wasn't frightened. But I didn't like it." The waves were coming right up over onto the decking. I was never in such a rough trip before."

2. Collecting Wild Birds' Eggs

Maimie: "How did you happen to be riding astride?"

Granny: "Oh because I wasn't very good at riding, I hadn't done no riding here at all. Father had no horses here at all, until Mary and George decided better give me a good [?] and a side saddle. I was quite pleased, and a pair pants and, away we went."

Edwina: "Where?"

Granny: "We used to ... goose eggs. Oooh like that, goose eggs in the ground, great big hole in the ground and get the straw away and there was all the eggs. I told you about the time I took off my pants … [much laughter -- difficult to hear the conversation]… big long, woollen trousers over my knees for riding you see because it was very cold and windy. So I took them off in the camp, there was nobody there but the children, and tied the bottom to them, and flung the thing over the saddle. Any minute I thought the darn things might burst --- I would be eggs from head to toots. They didn't, we got them home [laughter], and when we got home … pickled them. [much laughter] And he … cooked them all for cakes and things for Christmas; you can do anything with goose eggs. Oh! It was quite a thing ….

Granny: "Remember when we used to and gather the gull eggs?"

Maimie and Edwina: "Yes."

Granny: "You remember? He used to pickle them ... these half tubs, and use them for cooking. We had a few hens but they never seemed to do anything, I don't think they understood hens, they didn't bother much with them.

3. A Tragic Fire

Granny: "You heard about the awful fire that the children were burnt, didn't you?"

Maimie: "What fire? Where? When was that?"

Granny: "Do you remember the Blackwood's, Joyce Blackwood?"

Maimie: "Yes."

Granny: "…Mrs …. mother and his wife lived up at Despedida."

Maimie: "Yes."

Granny: "Well, it was when we were in New Zealand, that shock, they wrote and told us. In a little shed outside somewhere, where they kept petrol. And these poor little things, four, went in there with a match. Woof."

Maimie: "Ohhh."

Granny: "Oh ..... dreadful. I was glad I wasn't there in one way, but four little children burnt to death. In a little grave up on the hillside, do you remember, the old garden up on the hill?"

Maimie: "Yes, yes"

Granny: "Well the little grave is just up there. With a white paling fence, the four little …"

4. Brother Ray Cameron

[Question: "What happened to your brother Ray?"]

Granny: "For years, he and my husband, before I was married, lived in a little cottage on the port, what they call the new port, where they used to ship the mutton from the island over to Punta Arenas. And they lived there all the time, Ray and my husband; that's before I was married you see, that's the last time I saw Ray. My sister Mary and I rode right across the island and it took us two days to go, to get over there. We got there riding, and stopped and had a meal with them; and I've never seen Ray since and I don't know where to write to him or what to do, you see, now that Alec's gone. The other boys are not interested, only interested in themselves. So, as far as I can see, I mightn't see any more of Ray."

"He was a miserable skinny kid, look at him, not many brains either. I suppose if father had sent him to high school and pushed him on he'd have been alright, but he never got the chance you see. None of us did, none of us did but Alec; he gave Alec everything, I don't know why."

"Soon as Ray left school, father got Alec to take him --- sent him over there. Well he was only a kid, just about twenty-one, and planted him down in Chile. Nobody spoke a word of English or understood a word of English; I don't know what became of the poor boy. Mother wrote to Alex and them but she never got any satisfaction. But I don't think I'll ever see him again."

5. Brother Jack Cameron

Edwina: "Did you have a brother called Jack too?"

Granny: "Yes, Jack. Jack and Willie and George and Alec."

Edwina: "What happened to Jack then?"

Granny: "Well I saw Jack come to meet me at the boat most mysteriously. He'd been away for a trip and he heard that a boat was coming in and Mary had written to say that I was on board. And he came, oh! wasn't I delighted to see him, but didn't he look ill oh, oh he was just skin and bones and his face was grey absolutely grey. I told Mary why don't you bring him out here I said, and pick him up and I said he won't live long, neither he did. He went for a trip, had a good bit of money, had a very good liver Jack. Jack didn't drink or anything, none of the boys drank, none of them."

Edwina: "He went for a trip."

Granny: "Oh yes, he was going to Peru with a cousin, Archie Dow from Scotland. Archie came over to the island as a doctor. Well the next thing we heard of, Jack was dead. He went into a boarding house to spend the night, on the edge of the bush somewhere, I don't know anything about Peru. But he was found in the bush dead, and apparently there had been nobody following him or anything. He had a beautiful gold watch and chain that had been presented to him when he left the island to go to the Punta Arenas to live. And the men collected this money and bought this beautiful watch and chain, and that was still on Jack when he was found dead in the bush, well nobody ever saw him again."

Thanks: Ann Munro
Last updated: 2-IV-2004