The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

++  Letter from Punta Arenas (1885)  ++

You are here:  Home Page  >  People  >  Letters  >  Dr. Thomas Fenton
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  

Dr. Thomas Fenton (1850-1886) was born in Co. Sligo, Ireland. In 1875 he came to Punta Arenas, Chile, as the Magallanes Territory's first medical officer. He was present at the artillerymen's mutiny in 1877, gaining recognition for his attention to the wounded members of the public — among others, to María Behety, wife of the Spanish entrepreneur José Menéndez.

Thomas was an early entrant to the nascent sheep-ranching industry. In this letter he describes his success, and sets out plans for moving away from the practice of medicine into this expanding field. On a more domestic level, he expresses a need for house servants, asking his mother to recruit several back home on a long contract. He explains the arrangements he has made with Governor Moyano of neighbouring Santa Cruz province (Argentina) to hire his brother Arthur, who is also a medical doctor. The letter closes with loving descriptions of his young children.

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

Punta Arenas,
July 3rd/85

My dear Mother,

            I have wished to write to you for a long time, but owing to the unsettled state of things in this place I kept waiting until I could send you a favourable account as to what Dame Fortune has been doing with me during the last few years.

            To commence I must let you know that my sheep farming speculation has been the most fortunate step, and perhaps the most important of my life; in fact were it not for my "hacienda" I could never live with my increasing family on my profession in this Country:  as it is, thank God, I am doing nicely; with my next years increase at lambing time I expect to have upwards of 5,000 sheep and have in the last few days concluded a contract with a friend of mine here /1/ who has the necessary capital to import after February next the number of 6,000 more from the Falkland Islands; our Contract is for 7 years, at the end of which time we shall dissolve partnership dividing every thing between us, by this transaction I gain 1,000 sheep and have half my rent paid $1,000 yearly besides my partner pays half expenses and ½ cost of improvements, buildings, pens, etc. - in exchange of which he is to receive half profits, besides which he pays me 5 per cent yearly on the proceeds for my administration of the "Hacienda"; with ordinary good luck under this agreement I consider my fortune made; if you calculate that from next year I shall commence with 11,000 sheep (ewes) and a yearly increase at the rate of "cent per cent"; or close on it, the next year I shall shear about 22,000 sheep, which after paying all expenses, in wool alone will leave  profit of something over £100 per 1,000 sheep, besides the increase on same, you can understand I can not possibly do very badly under any circumstance -  As regards the all important question of  land I have at last succeeded in obtaining 86,000 hectares, or an extension of 14 miles by 25 more or less, the hectare is 100 metres square, and in English measurement equal to 2¼ acres, so that my estate will be more or less the size of the Co. Sligo and taking it all and all perhaps does not contain so much bad land, if I remember correctly.  I calculate it will safely carry about 150,000 sheep which when stocked up would represent a yearly receipt on wool alone of about £15,000 - 

All this you may imagine to be "Castles in the Air", but at the same time stock increase from year to year, and although it may not be in my lifetime, yet the possibilities are more and not less than I have here stated.  I often have thought what you must have suffered during the "land question", and what a pity you could not sell out everything and come here, as with a capital of £5,000 you would be independent the very first year.  I am trying to negotiate a Third section of land 20,000 hectares next mine, and if you think you are not too old yet to move to a new Country, I can always make room for the whole of you, and believe My dear Mother, you might do worse than follow my fool's advice as I feel perfectly confident that after living a few years in the Country you would wonder why you ever lived so long in Ireland:  why my very Servants in this Country live better than you ever did in Castletown -  We can grow here excellent potatoes and import all kinds of green vegetables, but owing to the high winds in Summer grain does not do, it ripens, but you can only reap straw, however in exchange we have good grass and plenty of sheep and cattle, consequently meat is our cheapest food.  Mutton is very good, for example I sold last season 500 Hoggets (wethers) at $7.50 cents each and when dressed they weighed on average 75 lbs. -  many people have followed my example in importing sheep here, but not until they saw the result of my experiment.  There are now perhaps about 80,000 sheep in the territory where 5 years ago we had none -  My land I have got at last by paying a yearly rent of $1,000 per 30,000 hectares we have however the right of purchase paying 80 cent per hectr. during the first 7 years and increasing each successive 7 up to 21.  When it belongs to the occupier or is again put up to auction this was not the Governor's /2/ instructions towards us, he did all he could to prevent us from having the right to purchase but I have been the principal means of fighting him and obtaining at last equitable terms for the tenure of our land-

            I must now let you know something of my future intentions first I propose giving up my post as Dr. to the Colony towards the end of the year, in the first place my agreement with my partner is that I shall live in the Hacienda for which I receive 5 per cent on the net proceeds, secondly I have an idea that the Government wish to reduce my wages and let me charge every one in the Colony, which I think would not compensate for the reduction, lastly and perhaps the most powerful reason of all is that for the last few years, I have never been able to live on my wages $300 per month which the Government paid me for the very simple reason that every thing here is very expensive, for example I pay the sum of $40 for washing and cannot have it done for less.  Servants cost me $60 per month, and other on the same scale, another heavy item is entertainment the fact is I am too well known, and every one coming here, Men of war, etc., all hold letters of recommendation to me, I cannot turn these people from my door and consequently the Money goes out faster than it comes in.   My "Hacienda" is 45 miles from here and there things will be different, in the first place the simple necessaries of life, meat, fish, fowl, eggs, bread, etc., cost little or nothing, I can kill a fat sheep when I wish and I have a splendid net 50 fathoms long with the sea filled with beautiful white fish "Pejerrey" (smelt) and "Mullet" which are very good eating besides I can have hens and eggs "galore" which with fresh butter and milk and a good barrel of claret, now and again, a man with a family however big, can lead not at all a bad existence, in so far as home comforts go, besides I need not leave off the practice of my profession, I have with the practice of years become a famous obstetrician, and as the pampas are becoming every day more populated, I can always pick up a few gold "crumbs" which would always come in handy -

            There is one thing however I very much require and in fact must have; that is a few good Servants for my house in the Pampas, the most necessary for the present being a washer woman, who can be handy at every thing besides; if you could find me a man and his wife, it would suit me admirably, a young married couple for example, no matter if they have one or two children, I have bread enough for all.  I would pay them £40 per year or even a little more if they could not be had at that, you can get them as cheap as you can, but they must sign a contract with me for at least 7 years; later on I shall require many out door hands for Shepherds but for this year the man and his wife will do, as I have been lately under very heavy expenses on the farm, building little houses, etc., and consequently for this reason cannot spare much money, I send the necessary papers and money to Arthur who can bring them out with him, and also get the due reduction in passage, as colonists to Chile, which will be some where about £5 per head on adults -

            As regards Arthur, I have obtained for him the position as Dr. to the "Argentine" Colony of "Santa Cruz" distant about 200 miles from here, they will pay him equal to £25 per month and table money, it is not much but his expenses will be small, and he can also go in for sheep farming, which in time will be much more of the point, later on I can let him have 500 sheep very cheap; in the meantime I should recommend him to accept Governor Moyano's offer /3/, which at my request has been duly created for him, in any case Santa Cruz would serve him as a stepping stone to a better position in case he does not care to remain long there.

            I have written to Governor Moyano who is at present in "Buenos Aires" asking to communicate directly with Arthur and forward him his nomination, and if possible get him a reduction in the passage to here, when he can wait with me until an Argentine Man of War passes to take him to Santa Cruz; I explain every thing more fully in my letter to him -

            I should like to describe the children to you, but have not time to do it at any length.  First you have Gerald whom you once knew, an active, hardy young scamp whom I have the greatest difficulty in teaching to read, but who can ride 100 miles at a stretch without the least inconvenience -

            Next comes Violet, a very refined quiet child who takes the greatest care imaginable of the poor old father when sick, always bringing him his soup and toast on a tray with a nice clean table napkin and remaining before him with her hands crossed in front of her silk apron, asking for example "shall I bring you another glass of wine father dear?"

            Next comes Miss Mabel a merry passionate young vixen who is very well able to fight her own battles, and cares little or nothing about anyone except her Mother, a very good looking child, and when she laughs, shows all her upper teeth with part of the gums -

            Then comes Magellanes, No. 4 with his strong thick coarse hair, falling in close cropped curls over his high square forehead, fair complexion with great large, blue solemn eyes and slightly hooked nose, with a fixed penetrating expression of face, very much resembling Old Napoleon, which every one will insist on calling him; to my mind he is the "Flower of the Flock" - he is 3 years and some months old -

Then we have "Irish Daisy" ("Virginia Rosa Sylvia" / named after her three Godmothers, the last being H.M.S. of that name).  She has evidently thrown back to some remote "Celtic" ancestor, having a very Irish type of face; fat and good natured eats every thing (that) comes before her and is thankful; she is 2 years and a few months old and altogether a fine looking child -

            Last of all comes little Geoffrey, an exceedingly pretty little chap, fat as a pig, but as passionate and wicked a little spawn as you could possibly imagine, not yet a year old -  They all sing and quarrel in Spanish, but otherwise generally speak English, although the four elder ones speak both languages the same.  While waiting for the bath in the morning you often hear the following conversation -

            Mabel to Magallanes "Tu eres un cochino sucio" (Thou art a dirty pig) Magallanes "Y tu eres una chinita fea" (and Thou art a horrible little ugly Indian Squaw), whereat blows, howls and consequently parental intervention -

            Taking them all in all they are not a bad looking crowd but what is better, Thank God, they are all healthy and well shaped without either fault or blemish -  My great nightmare is, as to how I am to educate them, if I could get some good woman to teach them I would willingly pay a reasonable sum, so that at least they might be educated for a few years, until they were strong enough to go to a good school, perhaps you may be able to recommend a suitable party who would undertake the work - Mary continues fresh and healthy, and a good mother and wife; My own health has not been so good of late; I suffered from dysentery and rheumatism, not to speak of a few grey hairs above the ears, and slightly crows feet about the corners of the eyes, otherwise I am Thank God, pretty well -

            With love to all, I remain ever yours
                                    Thomas Fenton

/1/ Thomas Fenton's business partner has not yet been identified.
/2/ Magallanes Governor Francisco Sampaio's relations with would-be ranchers have been labelled as not "business-friendly".
/3/ Carlos Moyano was a progressive governor of Santa Cruz Territory, responsible for attracting the first sheep farmers from the Falkland Islands [Malvinas] on generous terms.

Text of letter: courtesy of Paul Fenton (III-2012)
Last updated: 20-III-2012