The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

++  The Great Patagonia Sheep Drive (1888-89)  ++
4,000 head of sheep leave Río Negro bound for the Strait of Magellan

You are here:  Home Page  >  Historical Themes  >  Great Sheep Drive
home page English   site map Site map   names of persons Databases   recent additions News   contact webmaster E-mail   text search Search   about this site Orientation   página inicial Español  

This account of the Great Drive ("El Gran Arreo") of sheep and horses from Río Negro to Southern Patagonia was written down by Henry William Reynard (H.W.R.) around 1920 (some 30 years after the events described). The primary informant appears to have been John Hamilton, one of its principal participants. Other members of the overland party included Henry Jamieson, John (Jack) MacLean and Thomas Saunders.

NOTE: The text names William Saunders, rather than his brother Thomas, but this may be a mistake. Certainly, the surviving Diary of Thomas Saunders undoubtedly describes the same journey, and clearly fixes the start date as September 1888. Some texts mistakenly give different years (for example, see below).

Soon after his return from the Santa Cruz expedition, Mr Hamilton, with Mr Jaimeson [sic throughout - Jamieson, Ed.], Mr Will Saunders and Jack McLean all started by sea to Monte Video with Capt. Hayes on the P.S.N.C. "Cotopaxi", and from Monte Video by boat to Buenos Aires.

From Buenos Aires, about the year 1885 or 1886 [sic], Mr Hamilton, Will Saunders, MacLean and Jaimeson trained to Bahia Blanca and bought a troop of horses and went North into Tandil district to buy more horses, and back to Bahia Blanca with about 300 head of mares and horses. They set trek with some peons to Rio Colorado, which they followed up for about 30 leagues from entrance and there camped at a big lake for a few days to rest the horses before striking South to Rio Negro. It took two days to reach Rio Negro, through very scrubby country with no roads, and great difficulty in keeping a Southerly course, on account of the patches of scrub. There were no settlers between the Rio Colorado and Rio Negro. At Rio Colorado they found an old guide ..................

" who directed us to this big laguna where we rested, and who agreed to take us across from there through these unknown tracts to Rio Negro. He was the only one who knew the way, and had been there before - the guide's name was Ringo Barrio, and he was one of General Roca's guides at the time of the expedition by Argentine against the Indians - he was lame, owing to a shot he had received in the leg during that campaign. On arrival at Rio Negro, we purchased sheep, after swimming our horses over the river to the South side. We remained at Rio Negro for several weeks, getting sheep together and resting horses. The horses were gradually tamed on the trek. The sheep were bought in several lots, cross-bred merinos, price about 1.30 each. After getting the sheep together (the dogs were taken with us from Punta Arenas) we started off on the journey South, with about 4000 sheep, about October. The first watering place was at a small stream called Rio Valchetta, about 40 leagues South of Rio Negro. Fortunately it rained between Rio Negro and Rio Valchetta, and the sheep had water on trail.

On arrival at Rio Valchetta we found a large encampment of Indians, some of whom were Araucanian Northerners, Tehuelche and Pampa (about 100). They visited us and we visited them without any ill feeling or incidents of trouble. We camped there for about a week before again striking South. We lived on guanaco, ostrich, never mares but occasionally wethers.

After Rio Valchetta the country changes its aspect - lava is to be found on the surface and hillsides - several extensive valleys apparently cut out of lava, one of which we followed in a Southerly direction. From Rio Valchetta we had an Indian baqueano as far as Chubut, and followed an Indian trail for a good many days, hemmed in by rocky valleys, one of which terminated in a round open basin where there was a small salt lagoon and fresh springs of water running into it, named by the Indians "Chassicoo". The sheep had to be driven over a very high cliff to reach the high pampa on the South side - here lions were congregated by the score, from all directions, having come to get fresh water at these springs and to kill game that came for water too. Here, no sooner had darkness set in than the lions began attacking the sheep - we chased them away in moonlight and fired shots many times, and they as often came back, or others; this happened until day-break, when a lot of sheep were found dead, a number of which had been carried off some distance from the camping ground. At this place the horses remained for a day or two, while the sheep had to be moved on at once to avoid more killing - the journey always in a Southerly direction, but with many turns to get at water.

During the halts at resting places, the country was explored East and West. MacLean and Hamilton drove the sheep and Saunders and Jaimeson and baqueano the horses and mares - the dogs got very tired, and the sheep often very footsore from little cactus, which pricked their feet, and rests were frequent. We also had hounds for catching guanaco and ostrich.

On getting to a series of rocks like the Frailes, we drove the sheep there and discovered most beautiful feed - water in sort of sheer streets cut in the lava, a glorious place. These rocks struck in the pampa about 30 leagues North of Chubut, Cerro Colorado [Sierra Colorada] was the name of the rocks.

Mr Hamilton climbed up to the top of the rocks, and with his glasses saw animals moving about 3 leagues away - these were cattle, and he came hurrying down and told the others, and they all went up and had a look too, and sure enough they were cattle. Next morning bright and early we picked our best horses and off after the cattle, and got quite near them in the valley - about 30 head, and were surprised that they did not clear off and split up; instead, we were able to get round them and head them for the rocks where the sheep were, and the cattle went there splendidly, and into these narrow street-like valleys. Here, with lassoos and rifles we started to kill and catch bullock, but when we killed the first one, the others smelt the blood, and started to bellow and charge and got very wild, and the noise among the rocks was terrific. Still, we killed about five and skinned them, and lived well for some days and a lot of meat we took to a salt lagoon, and made charqui of it. We carried some of it with us to Chubut, and there exchanged some of this meat for bread.

At Chubut we stayed for about a month and shore our sheep and sold the wool to an American who was there buying the wheat from the Welsh settlers. We had to shear our sheep ourselves, and it took some time; here quite a few lambs were born and grew strong enough to drive on with us. Lambs born on the track had generally to be killed, as they could not travel.

On our arrival at Chubut we had no money left, but our wool, which Jaimeson sold, made us well off once more, and happy. After provisioning ourselves afresh we crossed the River Chubut and from there followed a S.W. course until we struck the Rio Senguer, now known as the Rio Chico.

At Chubut the old Indian stayed behind, but we employed another wandering individual to help us, who pretended to know some watering places and the general direction S., but he was very short sighted, as we found out to our cost on the trail. We followed the R. Senguer in a S.W. direction for about three weeks or a month, resting periodically in the river valley. After this we sighted Lake Musters, and camped there for several days, revising the country in the direction of Gulf of St. George and looking for water further S. before leaving the lake - the baqueano was no good and we could not depend on him. We selected our route, hoping to reach the Rio Deseado at a point about half way from the coast to Cordillera.

This was very poor country and difficult driving - on one occasion we sent our wandering baqueano a day's march ahead to find a watering place and light a fire before moving camp. He did not return, nor light a fire - the sheep could not be left longer where they were, so we marched on, hoping to find water in hilly looking country ahead. We found water at last, but the baqueano was missing. After the horses came to the encampment no further marching could go on until we had hunted for the baqueano. Fresh horses were caught, and each one took a piece of meat and fresh water, so that whoever found him would have a feed for him. We searched for him for several days, and could find no trace or tracks.

The previous day, as the sheep were being rested in a large flat where there was no pasture, but dry clay surface, Hamilton erected a cairn of stones, to pass away the time, thinking that in future years it would serve to show that some one had passed there. So the lost man, in wandering backwards, saw this cairn of stones and went up, out of curiosity, to look at it, and rest before he made another attempt to reach the high land. After sitting there for some time he realised that the stones had only just been removed, and although bewildered and exhausted from hunger, he noticed a big trail-like mark close to the stones, and saw the sheep tracks and dung, and followed this trail Southward, where, after a time he met Mr Saunders and Jaimeson looking for him. He was given a feed at once, and a drink, and taken to the encampment. He told us he had taken the wrong direction, and travelled W. and wandered about looking for water. He came to a small lagoon, with his horse tired (as he always galloped the guts out of him at first) and here, he said, several lions wandered 'round all night frightening him. After daylight, having finished all his grub, he came across a flock of ostrich feeding in a corner on the edge of the lagoon - they were so surprised that several ran into the water - he jumped off his horse and followed them - two of them turned 'round and were coming back facing him, when, instead of trying to catch one, which he could have easily done, he put out his arms and tried to grab two, with the result that he missed them both, and lost his only chance of getting grub. He was a bit stupid, but after a day was all right again. "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush".

Finally we reached the Deseado, and found the valley very swampy, at the Southern approach. We found it impossible to cross the sheep there, and after exploring the river East and West, we came to the conclusion that the only alternative was to make a bridge of some sort to cross over the horses and sheep. We cut the thickest bushes we could find, propped them up with large roots, and tied them all together with guanaco hide, and then covered the surface with long grass and covered this with turf, which served as a bridge to cross the sheep over. The bridge was about five yards long.

After going along on the South side, we struck Eastwards - we found that no river existed; the water all ran underground, so all our work of bridging could have been saved had we known this before. There were here and there water holes in the river bed.

Our sheep got into the custom of tracking South, and would graze on without being driven often. We also had a troop of about 8 horses and a mare, which travelled with the sheep at the same pace and went quite easily. The other horses were also in troops with their madrinas, and could be caught fairly easily but the odd horses not in troops took a good deal of catching. At first, when the sheep left Rio Negro, they always tried to go North, but after a time they changed and got used to going South, so, if they moved off by themselves, they forgot Rio Negro and would travel South. Sometimes, while we had our mate, the sheep would travel on by themselves, always in a Southerly direction, and we would follow them up. We travelled about an average of 3 to 4 leagues a day.

After following East for some time, when the volcanic hills on the South appeared to terminate we again headed S.E. in order to strike San Julian, where Donald Munro was the only settler - there were no houses in St Julian then. After marching until we thought St Julian must be near, we rested, and Mr Saunders took two horses and went ahead to look for the port, where we knew there was good water and grass, and we wanted to stay here a while. In the course of two or three days he returned to us and told us he had found the port of San Julian, giving us the direction, which we followed and reached San Julian, where we found Munro living in a tent, with a small flock of sheep. He was awfully kind to us, and we were delighted to get there - he gave us a full share of the few provisions he had for himself. We explored a good deal 'round about San Julian, and left the sheep there for the winter in charge of MacLean, and Hamilton, Saunders and I continued South with the horses to Otway Station.

(I forgot to mention that in the cheerful territory at Rio Chico, we all got diarrhoea and had to move off, but MacLean was too ill to travel, and had to be let rest; the sheep went on, and in a few days the horses overtook the sheep, and brought along MacLean, who had got over his illness).

We continued with the horses to Otway Station, passing the Santa Cruz at Gregorio Dianos [sic, Ibáñez], a place where there was a settlement, where we swam our horses and cut across to the Coyle, about where MacGeorge's now is; there were a few settlers about then - Mr Halliday near Gallegos, Mr Rudd, Mr Felton and others, and from here on to Otway Station. The distance from San Julian to Otway Station we did in about a month, without any extraordinary event taking place. "


After resting some time at Otway, another journey was decided upon up to Rio Negro. Will Saunders, Will Rudd, and Mr Hamilton went by boat to Buenos Aires and then direct by small boat to Rio Negro and bought more horses and sheep, and got the drive all ready to start. Mr Hamilton returned by sea to Punta Arenas, and Will Saunders and Will Rudd set off on trek for Patagonia. They took nearly two years on this journey, and lost 7,000 sheep between the Rio Negro and Rio Valchetta, as it was a very dry season and the trip was very very difficult - the sheep had to be driven over 50 leagues without water.

After Mr Hamilton arrived in Punta Arenas he returned to San Julian to bring down the first lot of sheep. The second Rio Negro trip was started only a month or two after the first one was finished.


The sheep from San Julian were driven to Paliaike, and were the first sheep to start Paliaike with - Mr Jaimeson kept his share of the sheep on the Coyle, and his share of horses, and these were the animals with which he started Moyaike estancia, along with the 150 sheep and their increase, purchased from Elizabeth Island, which had been left temporarily at Denaquero [sic, Dinamarquero, Ed.] while he had gone to Rio Negro with Hamilton, Saunders and MacLean to fetch more.

*     *     *     *     *     *

Previous to all these records which Mr Hamilton has given to me (H.W.R.) he says that the country from Rio Negro to Punta Arenas was previously travelled by John MacRae, Robert Gillies, George MacGeorge, Jack Rudd and one or two others with them, who drove horses from Rio Negro to the Straits of Magellan paving the way by their enterprising energy, for all others who afterwards made similar journeys. Part of these horses were sold and the rest they kept for their own use.

It must not be forgotten that the original pioneers, the above mentioned men, deserve the very greatest credit for making the country known as a whole, from Bahia Blanca to the Straits of Magellan. Their early enterprise in being the first to bring stock through the centre of Patagonia, made it easier and apparently of less risk and possible to those of their countrymen who followed their magnificent example.

Source: Reynard family papers
Thanks: Robert Lemaire (IX-2013)
Page created: 30-XI-2013
Last updated: 7-II-2014