Chapter 32


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Patagonia

It was not an easy task; water was scarce, food was in short supply; there were no forests as in Pennsylvania to provide abundant building supplies and wild game. One group exploring the valley and crazed with thirst, were forced to shoot a hawk to drink its blood. Window coverings were made from the stomach lining of the flightless rhea. Even the joyful birth of the first Welsh child in Patagonia, Mary Humphries, did little to dispel the belief of the settlers that they had made a mistake in coming to such a desolate, inhospitable location. The colony looked as if it were doomed to fail for lack of food.

A temporary respite from famine was made possible through the efforts of Lewis Jones, who brought a number of sheep, cattle, pigs, poultry and horses from Buenos Aires, along with some wheat, potatoes and blankets on the Mary Ellen, which had earlier failed to land supplies due to a violent storm. A diet of mutton salted with seawater helped fend off starvation. Further help came when the Denby arrived from Buenos Aires with more supplies later in the year.

One night, when things were really desperate, a strange dog appeared that wandered out of the encampment into the prairie where it caught guanaco and wild hares, both valuable sources of food; the dog was duly baptized as Antur (liberty); it then disappeared from sight, but its diet was eagerly adopted by the starving Welsh who were completely unaccustomed to hunting wild animals.

The settlers also benefited from cordial relations with the native Indians, the Teheulche, who showed up one day with their chief, curious to see what was going on. It was the Teheulche who taught the Welsh how to catch the guanaco, rhea, and those other sources of food available on the prairie. In addition, the Indians would exchange meat for bread, going from house to house uttering the very first Welsh word they learned mixed with their Spanish to produce "poco bara" (a bit of bread). The meat was invaluable and ensured survival.

Some problems occurred at first with the Indians' stealing Welsh goods and even burning a few houses, but all in all, relations benefited both sides. Many Indians learned to speak Welsh; some of their descendants still do, and take part in the annual bilingual Trelew Eisteddfod with pride.

Despite the bounty provided by the supplies of meat, much suffering continued. Early trials, including many mistakes in misunderstanding the climate and the soil of the area led many to consider leaving Chubut altogether for a more northerly province. They were persuaded to stay by Lewis Jones and Abram Matthews. In November, 1867 the situation improved: a ship brought much-needed supplies, but more importantly, Rachel Jenkins suggested to her husband that channels be built from the Chubut River to irrigate the land. She had noticed how the river sometimes burst its banks and considered how their planted vegetables would benefit from water brought from the river.

This has been considered by many local historians as the one decision that changed the history of the colony, for it was irrigation that saved the valley. Welsh hands toiled feverishly with whatever tools they could find to build the canals and dykes and pumping stations. The following spring saw a bountiful wheat harvest. Success meant that the government at Santa Fe took serious notice of the colony, and one immediate result was that Mr. Rawson sent additional food and livestock.

The Welsh had arrived in the desert and had been delivered. In a roughly built barn that was used in Rawson as a public hall, Abram Matthews delivered the first sermon "Israel in the Wilderness." But more settlers were needed and the appeal went out. Additional immigrants, attracted by what was happening in Chubut arrived in 1875 and 1876, mainly from Wales but also from New York State. In 1877 a new chapel was opened in Gaiman with minister John Evans in charge.

Chapter 32 Continued
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