Arrowheads found in the Chacabuco Valley are remnants of its first inhabitants
The first human inhabitants to Patagonia arrived about 12,000 years ago, from further north in South America. The inhospitable geography of the far south never encouraged communites to settle in one place; instead, they hunted guanaco and rhea, or fished and gathered shellfish in nomadic groups. Unlike the native groups farther north in Chile, the Patagonian groups (the Tehuelche and Selk'nam) were never incorporated into Spanish colonial society.
The name "Patagonia" originates from 1521, when Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan landed on the Atlantic Patagonian coastline en route to becoming the first person to circumnavigate the globe. He encountered some Tehuelche Indians; taking them to be giants, he called them "Patagones," after the Patagon, the dog-headed giant in the Spanish novel Primaleon. Tales of a mythical race of people, twice the height of ordinary men persisted in European accounts of the region through the 18th century. These accounts have since been disproven—and most of the Teheulches, along with other indigenous communities, tragically have disappeared since sheep farmers moved into the region—but the name stuck.
Charles Darwin in Patagonia
In 1832, the young geologist Charles Darwin circumnavigated the horn of South America while surveying aboard the HMS Beagle. Fascinated by the landscape, he journeyed inland from the coast, finding impressive fossils long the way. As he wrote in his renown travelogue Voyage of the Beagle:
“The first landing in any new country is very interesting, and especially when, as in this case, the whole aspect bears the stamp of a marked and individual character …. The guanaco, or wild llama, is the characteristic quadruped of the plains of Patagonia; it is the South American representative of the camel of the East. It is an elegant animal in a state of nature, with a long slender neck and fine legs. They are generally wild and extremely wary…..The sportsman frequently receives the first notice of their presence, by hearing from a long distance their peculiar shrill neighing note of alarm... I have more than once seen a guanaco, on being approached, not only neigh and squeal, but prance and leap about in the most ridiculous manner, apparently in defiance as a challenge.”
The Settlement of Patagonia
Remote and inhospitable, Patagonia resisted Spanish and then Chilean / Argentine settlement until the late 19th century. National pride—and competition between Chile and Argentina—fueled the settlement process, as each nation sought to establish a presence in the south. "Territorial integrity" remained a pressing issue throughout the 20th century, with border guards from both nations dying in shoot-outs.
In the 1860s, the Argentine government granted dissident Welsh settlers land rights in coastal Chubat province; during the following decades, the government encouraged Scottish settlers to moveto the steppes of Patagonia. With them came their sheep, millions of them, largely to produce wool. The Chilean government, looking to consolidate its position in Patagonia, responded by encouraging European (mainly German) immigrants to settle in the south. By World War II, Patagonia had millions of sheep, but still few settlers: the Santa Cruz province alone had 7.5 million sheep on 1,500 estancias (sheep ranches).
However, raising sheep on Patagonia's fragile, arid soils proved unsustainable ecologically and economically. Overgrazing led to desertification, rendering land unproductive and prone to wind erosion. By the 1990s, with the global wool price at a low, many estancias were abandoned and the number of sheep in the region had plummeted.
In recent decades, eco-tourism has taken off, especially in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. In recent decades, travelers from around the world have flocked to Patagonia to visit parks like Torres del Paine.
History of the Chacabuco Valley,
the heart of the future Patagonia National Park
Old Lucas Bridges' house
As a rare East-West valley running from the Andes to the Patagonian steppe, the Chacabuco Valley has a particularly rich history. Through studying the three hundred archeological sites in the Chacabuco Valley, we're discovering that native Tehuelches have moved through the valley for thousands of years, using the area as a route from the eastern steppes to the southwestern shores of Lake General Carrera.
Centuries later, Patagonia's most famous pioneer, Lucas Bridges, became the first European to settle the area. In 1915, he herded thousands of sheep from the Argentine steppe into the Chacabuco Valley, and established Estancia Valle Chacabuco, which would become one of Chile's largest livestock operations. After leaving to fight in the First World War, Bridges returned with his family and set about wresting the farm into profitability. Impressively determined but lacking in ecological awareness, he blasted a mule path through nearby peaks to transport wool to Chile's Pacific coast, fought off the pumas that ate his flock, and bridged the Río Chacabuco by fashioning cable from 6,000 strands of fencing wire.
Throughout the 20th century, Estancia Valle Chacabuco remained a giant sheep ranch, with over 30,000 animals tearing up the 173,000 acres of grasslands. Dozens of gauchos lived in various small outposts throughout the valley, watching over flocks. But as increasing wool production in Australia drove down prices, keeping livestock became less profitable. Cramming more sheep onto already-degraded grasslands, in hopes of returning to profitability, only worsened overgrazing and pushed the operation into debt.
In 2004, this failed ranching era came to an end when Conservacion Patagonica purchased Estancia Valle Chacabuco from a Belgian family that had owned the ranch for several decades. With the development of the Patagonia National Park project, the scars of overgrazing have begun to heal, and a new economic future is emerging for the Chacabuco Valley, and the Patagonia region.
Learn more about the history of Valle Chacabuco
A History of Valle Chacabuco
(8/28/12) We’ve put together a history of the Chacabuco Valley, including relevant regional events and political movements. Check it out!