The British Presence
in Southern Patagonia

++  Letter of John MacLean  ++
to the Governor of Magallanes (1918, translation)

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John MacLean was a Scottish Highlander who arrived in Patagonia around 1883, in the initial phase of the sheep-raising industry in Magallanes Territory (Chile). Most of the early operators rapidly amassed land and wealth, but John was the exception. By 1914 he was occupying a section of rough land at Canal Lescano, near Puerto Natales. Even then, the Tornero concession, granted by the central government in Santiago, threatened to expel him from this precarious holding.

In this letter, written in 1918 to the Governor of the Territory, John pleads for just recognition of his 35 years' contribution to the development of the region. He requests the Governor's assistance to rent his land directly, closing with the wistful hope that he will be permitted to enjoy a peaceful old age, surrounded by his children and grandchildren.

[His pleas were finally successful: John and his children worked the same section of land until his death in 1940. The text is taken from his copy book: it has been lightly edited to facilitate reading.]

To the Governor of Magallanes Territory

Dear Sir,

I, John MacLean, British citizen, resident for the past thirty-five years in the Territory of Magallanes, father of twelve children, occupant of public lands, respectfully declare that since the year 1914 I have been farming a section located in the region of Última Esperanza whose limits, as shown on the British navigation chart, are: to the North, 51º30′; to the South 51º50′; to the East, the unnamed mountains bordering Last Hope Inlet; and to the West, the unnamed mountains surrounding the channel called Canal de las Montañas. I have made significant improvements to this land.

This land was occupied by Messrs. Mauricio Braun and Juan Blanchard, who applied for it on June 24th, 1912, for the purpose of developing industrial establishments, such as ranches and sawmills. Two years later these gentlemen sold me the rights to the occupation permit issued to them by the office of land survey, along with the installations then present in the said land. I acknowledged their receipt, everything being recorded in a contract of sale whose documents were signed by the interested parties on April 30th, 1914.

Now, however, this land is shown as located within the area of the Tornero concession: this is to say that I shall shortly be obliged to vacate it, abandoning the improvements I have made with my modest wealth and personal labour. I appeal to you, Sir, to grant me your valuable protection so that my formal rights may be recognized by the Supreme Government.

But I wish to emphasize that our legitimate aspiration for recognition of our rights of occupation in no way signifies that we aspire to obtain these lands free of charge; on the contrary, we wish the Supreme Government to grant them to us in direct lease, without the intervention of persons who speculate with state property. Having established this, allow me to present additional reasons in support of my application.

As I said earlier, I have resided in this Territory for thirty-five years and I have devoted all this long period to the ranching industry. I can affirm that I have witnessed the development of this industry, now a very rich source of production, since its beginnings up to the present date, when it has attained a prodigious and unexpected level of development.

I can say in all sincerity that for many years, the capital I brought to this Territory, which I had invested in the first sheep that I bought in the Falkland Islands at 18 shillings each to farm in Chilean Patagonia, did not even yield me a reasonable rate of interest. At the time of the first auctions of public lands I was unfortunately not able to participate in the public bidding because my modest capital was invested in the animals and in the installations that I had made on the public land which I was occupying.

It is worth noting that, at the time I mention, the price of a wether fluctuated between $3.00 and $3.50 and the price of wool was three pence per pound; with the result that, on one occasion, three bales of wool from the Territory, when auctioned in England, did not even realize enough to pay for their shipping.

As can be seen, in those years the ranching industry did not yield the abundant profits available today; on the contrary, its results at times were quite paltry, when not ruinous on account of the severe winters. This circumstance meant that the poorest ranchers, living exclusively on the production of their flocks, were in a precarious state, and my means did not allow me to become a landowner. I bore with resignation the painful loss of the lands on which I had worked for so many years and where many of my children were born, being obliged to search for vacant public lands to occupy with my family and my animals.

I can say that the ranching industry in Magallanes began in 1883. Its first years, as in any new industry, were risky; and, before the first settlers could establish themselves firmly, they had to overcome the natural obstacles of terrain and climate, plus the absence of communications and the shortage of means of transport, to be able to bring the first sheep from the Falkland Islands and the Argentine Republic. In remembering this somewhat distant period, it would be unjust of me not to name Messrs. Juan Bitsch, José Menéndez, Elías Braun, Nogueira, Fenton and Waldron, Saunders and Hamilton, Eberhard, Mauricio Braun and the undersigned, who may be considered to be the first and longest-established settlers of public lands in Chilean Patagonia.

But, if it is just to recognize that these persons have contributed their quota of effort in support of the development of the ranching industry in the Territory, it is no less just to recognize also that Fortune has favoured almost all of them greatly, with the exception of myself. All the persons named, barring me, are owners of immense tracts of land, not counting the lands that they hold by concession: it can be said, without exaggeration, that the entire ranching, industrial and commercial activity of Magallanes is in their hands.

However, the undersigned, less fortunate than they, has been unable to progress, owing to circumstances beyond his control. In the first years of work, several very severe winters caused me considerable losses of animals, taking me to the brink of complete failure; I did not lose faith, but persevered, putting more energy into the work. Fortunately, milder winters allowed me to recover somewhat from my past losses, and little by little I was able to increase my stock, albeit not by an appreciable amount.

As can be deduced from all that I have said, I am one of the first settlers on the land of Chilean Patagonia; I have twelve children and several grandchildren, all Chilean-born; I currently work a section of public land in the region of Última Esperanza, which I shall soon have to vacate, handing over my improvements to the current concessionaires, unless the Supreme Government determines otherwise.

Therefore, Sir, if you consider that these merits entitle me to petition for the protection of the Supreme Government, and to request that I be granted direct lease of the land that I currently work without the intervention of third parties; and if, seeing the merits of my position, you were to use your influence in my favour and obtain for me what I have endeavoured to request, I shall be in your debt for procuring my peace of mind, to face my last years of life in this corner of the homeland of my children and grandchildren, surrounded by my own folk, with the personal satisfaction of having worked thirty-five years for the progress of the Territory.

My claim is just.

J MacLean (signature)
Pto. Natales
August 16th, 1918

Thanks: Juan & Sergio Mac-Lean
More information about the family in biographic page
Created: 3-II-2016