The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

++  Letters from Puerto Deseado (1912-1913)  ++

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The brothers Robert and Donald Nicolson, early settlers in north-eastern Santa Cruz province, were originally from the county of Caithness, in the far north of Scotland. From these letters, written to home, we learn that their father was a fisherman, and one brother a crofter. Among the persons mentioned are several of the Bain brothers, who had emigrated from the same part of Scotland. These frank reports, written over a period of a year, give an idea of the effort involved in establishing a sheep-ranching operation in this part of Patagonia, and the risks, uncertainties and difficulties that were entailed.

[The text has been lightly edited to improve reading comprehension.]

Koluel Kaike
December 1st, 1912

Dear Brother

Received your letters yesterday and glad you are getting on all right, for things here are not so good as was expected. This is the worst year we have had since I came to Patagonia - very poor lambing and shearing. I finished shearing about a fortnight ago and Hercules /1/ is finishing today. Koluel Kaike /2/ marked 3,000 lambs and shore 20,000 Kilos of wool, less than last year. I only marked 800 lambs and shore more or less the same quantity of wool as last year. Hercules marked 4,000 lambs but their wool is not weighed yet.

There was no rain or snow this year at all - every day blowing gales of wind - worse than last year. The river did not come down this year, so there is no grass. The sheep is giving a lot of work to keep them. There is nothing in the vado [riverbed, Ed.] but strange horses. Dan put his cart horses outside and he lost them all: he has got nothing now to cart the wool.

There is no word of the camps being sold yet; I don't expect they will be sold this year. The railway is no further ahead than when you left; there is nobody working on it at all now. The inspector for the camps will be here on the 3rd of this month; we are waiting to see if we can get any information about when the camps will be sold, or if it is worth while fencing the 81. /3/

We can get any amount of sheep on halves; sheep is very cheap - you can get them for nearly nothing - we have the offer of all Willie Bain's sheep that is in Hercules and another 3,000 from Mazarredo. /4/

I have made no arrangement with your sheep yet, but if Hercules won't keep them, Tadeo will take them on halves. I was speaking to him about them the other day. If he takes them, he wants money to buy a troop of horses, for he lent his money to Celestino and he died, and now he cannot claim anything. So, if you don't need your money just now, I will pay 8% for it - that is, if we fence the 81. So write and let me know if you need it or not.

Angus did no work since he left Kelly: there is nothing doing of no kind. Jim Forbes is working in Hercules. Sinclair Sutherland landed all right - he is working with Willie in Mazarredo for the shearing. I did not see him yet, but he will be up here soon. Every other thing here is the same as you left; there is nothing new of no kind. The only thing - everybody that has flocks is making for the Mountains, for there is no water.

I did not get the papers you sent yet to see about the Land Bill. If you get that Park of Clyth /5/, I think it will be better than here. I believe you had a very wet summer there. I saw Jamie Mane [Main?, Ed.] in a paper for a prize for the horse; surely the hen turned very good when he got a prize for him.

How is David getting on? I had a letter from him, but I never wrote him yet: I must write to him soon, for he will be wondering [why] I never answered him. George was telling [that] Backie was coming out here with Willie's wife. How is Aunt Jessie getting on? Tell [her] I was asking about her.

I have no more news to give you, just till we hear about the camps. Write and tell me all about this Land Bill, and about the fishing, and how much Father grossed this year.

From Your Brother
R[obert] Nicolson

[Letterhead: Stubenrauch & Cía., Sucursal de Puerto Deseado]

Est. Los Hercules
Jan 24th, 1913

Dear Brother,

You must excuse me for not writing sooner: I was pretty busy and you know yourself how I like to write letters.

Well, we have got finished with the lamb-marking and shearing; there was a very poor lamb marking everywhere this year. But I marked pretty good in Hercules in comparison to other places: I marked 4,180-odd lambs. Ambrosio marked 450 and Robert marked about 600 - it's very poor. D[onald?] Bain marked 3,500. The wool is very light this year, but a very good price.

I had a telegram from Maraspin the other day telling me he sold Ambrosio's wool at $9.33 - that's a good price - there were 20,758 kilos. There is none of the rest of the wool sold yet, but we are expecting something like $10.

This is a very dry year, much drier than last year. I am busy just now opening out water for the sheep. I have got the camp divided in two halves and a ram paddock up. I'm giving over W[illiam?] Bain's sheep on the 26th.

Angusie has just finished their new 8 leagues of fencing: they have all 81 inside and they are getting 8,000 sheep on halves - 4,000 from Hercules, 2,000 from Koluel Kaike, and 2,000 from Josefina /6/ - so I think it is a very good business.

Jim and Angusie did not work long together: they parted before they were finished at Kelly's. Now Jim is going to work in Desea[do]. The Simer[?] is still with me - everything is fine now.

I'm hearing the train whistling, so I must go over to the station at Kilometre 250 /7/; if not, I'll lose her.

Write soon and give me plenty news; you did not give me any news at all in the letters you wrote. How is yose [perhaps, your folks]? I am wanting [to hear] about all the mannie's wifes and girls [...]

With nothing further at present, hoping you are all 5 well. Tell Jamie to write me a few lines. I'm going to write you soon again. With kind respects from your loving Brother,

Donald Nicolson

April 20th, 1913
Kilometre 225

Dear Brother,

You will be wondering [why] I did not write you sooner: I have been that busy since a long time, I had no time to write. I got your two letters dated Jan. 3rd and 19th some time ago, but I had no time to answer them.

I had the hardest year's work this year since I came to Patagonia. We fenced the camp in the 81 - 8 leagues /8/ - and we have 8,000 sheep on halves on it: we got all the sheep W Bain had in Hercules and 2,000 more from Josefina, and 2,000 from Koluel Kaike. We had a lot of trouble to get the Indians shifted off: they're all off now, there's only some mares left inside the fence, which we can drive out any time.

We did nearly all the work ourselves. We had two men for a month helping to put up the fence. We rented the carts and mules from Koluel Kaike for carting and laying out the material. The dip and corrals and house will be finished about the end of this month, so we don't need to trouble anyone for a dip.

If we get the camp for a few years, we will make a little in it. If not, we will lose money in it. We got $12,000 worth of credit from Stubenrauch /9/, so it will take a year or two to pay that up. George and Angus and myself have the whole thing between us. The only money we put in is a troop of horses each, and our work, so the farm has to pay up for itself. George is in charge, and after this month he has to make the best of it he can, for I have got other things to do.

I am on my way down to Josefina just now for the rams. Willie Bain is in Buenos Aires meeting his wife, but he is expected back one of these days; it's likely I will see him before I go up again. Dr Escobar is here just now from Buenos Aires fixing up all Ramos's affairs: they are at Hercules just now.

Your sheep I have not got them yet. I can't get them till after they take the balance just now, for they don't know how many you have to get. I made arrangements with Tadeo to take them on halves, and in the end he got the offer of a bigger flock from Martinez in Caleta [Olivia] and then he would not take them; he was a good man and I did not want to lose him, so I gave all my own sheep to him on condition that he would take your ones along with [them].

But I would have to sell [all?] the big wethers, so your capons I sold just now to the butcher in Kilometre 200 for $4.30 - all that will turn out fit for killing; the rest Tadeo takes over when I get them. I got $7.20 for my work this year. I think Hercules got something about the same. I did not get the account of your wool yet, but I think everything is fixed for.

Dan was in Caleta last week. That money you want, I will send it as soon as I go to the port. I have got that many things to do just now, I don't know what to do first. I will write you soon again and send your accounts when I get them from Dan.

From Your Brother,
R Nicolson

Rio Deseado
September 3rd, 1913

Dear Brother,

Just a line to say I am getting on all right, as I hope you are getting on the same. The winter is over here now, but we had it very bad while it lasted - the most snow I saw in Patagonia yet. There are big losses of sheep everywhere in the South: on some farms the losses are as high as 20 and 30 thousand, but up this way it was not so much. Nearly everybody lost some - from 2 to 5 hundred. I did not lose very many - more or less about 2 hundred, for I had them in good order before the winter; but just now they are that poor I could not dip them. There were a good few of your old ones that died. We lost the least sheep in the 81 of anybody. Hercules lost a good lot also, but I could not say how many.

I got the money for the 219 wethers I sold, and I have to get 86 yet out of Hercules. Those ones I will sell at lamb-marking, so that makes your total 810 sheep. I don't know if that is right or not. I am sending your account of your wool so you can see if it is right. I have not been to Caleta yet, but your money is there in my name.

I was in Deseado the other day and I sent you a $1,000 that will do you just now. Sinclair Sutherland paid the money you gave to him and also £5 more to send to his Mother; so as soon as you get money, you will have to give her £5. I am not getting any letters from you: the last two you wrote, Dan got them and I never seen them. I had a letter from Jammie[?] the other day: he told me he is going to the sea this year.

I have no time for writing just now, for I am going to fence tomorrow in the the 81. We are dividing the camp in two halves and we want the fence up before the lambing starts. I am carting the material just now and we have some job getting it across the river. We had to take it all across on horseback: the river was not so big for years as it has been this year.

Angus Bain might be home this year after shearing. I was thinking of coming myself, but I am not sure yet. There is no word of selling the camps yet, but they will likely sell them this year.

I have no more news to give you. Write soon and tell me how you are getting on in your croft and if Father is doing anything at the fishing.

From Your Affectionate

/1/ Hercules: estancia located between Colonia Las Heras and Koluel Kaike, Santa Cruz Province
/2/ Koluel Kaike: location near Pico Truncado, Santa Cruz Province; estancias in this district founded by Donald + Robert Nicolson, and Donald Bain
/3/ "81" apparently identifies a parcel of land: perhaps a lot number.
/4/ Mazarredo: community close to Golfo de San Jorge, department of Deseado, Santa Cruz Province [also spelled Mazaredo]
/5/ Clyth: a community in eastern Caithness county, Scotland; "park" may be the Scots word for "field"
/6/ Josefina: probably the estancia south-east of Caleta Olivia, Santa Cruz Province, founded by William Bain
/7/ Kilometre figures refer to distances from the railway terminus at Puerto Deseado.
/8/ Eight leagues of fencing are equivalent to 40 kilometres. Assuming a square layout, the area enclosed is 10km per side, or 10,000 hectares.
/9/ Stubenrauch: prominent German businessman, based in Punta Arenas (Chile)

Original letters held by Edith Russell of Benoni, South Africa
Photographic copies by Christine McKenzie (XI-2011)
Last updated: 26-XII-2011