The story so far:
My grandmother and mother were born in Bell Ville, originally named Fraile Muerto, and this series of posts is the result of my research into this village, later a town. There were English farmers in the countryside and (mainly) Italian immigrants in the town, and I descend from both.
Part 1: The history of the area up to the mid nineteenth century.
Richard Seymour in later life
The arrival of English pioneers
In January 1865 a young Englishman by the name of Richard Seymour sailed from Liverpool bound for the River Plate to make his fortune. He and his friend Frank Goodricke purchased land in the south east of the province of Córdoba, in an area near the village of Fraile Muerto. They were beguiled not only by the low price of land, but also by the sweeping vistas of never ending, well-watered pasturelands with an attractive river flowing through them, imagining it full of contented sheep. He was told he was close to the indian frontier, but they paid scant attention, judging that the government, so desirous of foreign investment, would protect them.
The railway did not arrive for another few years, and at first Seymour was obliged to travel around the country by diligence, the most uncomfortable form of travel he had ever experienced. The carriage was pulled by 6-8 horses which were changed every 4 leagues (20km) –
A diligencia in the 1860's
“...A man rides on each of the animals, who pull from the girths and proceed at full gallop without the least regard to ruts, holes, etc ... roads are not macadamised, being nothing in fact but a track over the prairie. About 6 unfortunate beings are able to go inside this machine, which looks rather like an aged coach, and two more can sit in front with the driver...
“The accommodations at the post-houses are not very splendid, the beds consisting of our own rugs on the floor; and our dinner... was usually walking happily about when we arrived, and not therefore remarkably tender when it appeared on the table. The country through which we passed was, as usual, perfectly flat, with only a few occasional bushes or a rancho, that is to say, a mud hut, to be seen; a few deer and ostriches sometimes appeared, but the most frequent objects were the large hawks called caranchos, who were generally engaged in picking the bones of some dead animal; they are much hated by the sheep farmer, as they take every opportunity of killing his young lambs, by picking out their eyes...”
He goes on to remark that English knowledge of South American geography was very shaky, for once back in England years later he was often asked by “intelligent people” what it was like to reside in a remote part of the Southern States of America, and how the Civil War had affected him.
Seymour and Goodricke worked very hard to set up their farm, named Monte Molino because it was the name by which the land was known locally. It was all very basic for a long time because they could not afford to build a proper house. They shared a rancho – a humble little abode made of mud and straw, along with many dogs who helped with the work, and the farmhands they employed. There was no fencing or moat to protect them at first, and they were soon to learn the disadvantages of being so exposed.
Traditional romanticised view of a 19th century rancho in Argentina
Nearer to reality
They staffed their new farm with what they could get – sometimes English or Irish, other times gauchos, the lawless men of European descent who roamed the pampas; or local residents, and wanderers on occasion. He frequently mentions their capataz (foreman) Gumersindo Lisada, who clearly interested him as a character –
As Gumersindo Lisada might have looked in his Sunday best
“…a handsome, clever man, to whom we at first took a great fancy – was celebrated at Fraile Muerto as being the very worst character in the whole country. He professed a great regard for us, but cheated us, I believe, on every possible occasion, and did no work he could possibly avoid. His redeeming point was his courage, and perhaps, in his own peculiar way, he may have had a liking for us… On one occasion he defended his wife and two children successfully in a mud rancho from a sudden attack of Indians, with no better weapon than an old horse-pistol, the unfortunate woman concealing herself behind the door with her baby in her arms, holding her hand on its mouth lest its screams should betray her presence…”
He was starting to find the tales of indian hordes descending on unsuspecting farmers a bit unnerving. On a trip to a neighbouring village to try to buy sheep, he heard one such tale which clearly made a deep impression on him. The late owner of the estancia they were visiting and his capataz had been killed in a fight with Indians just outside his house the year before, when the latter had stood bravely by his master and made an attempt to rescue their cattle from these invaders. This was the first proper account of indian attacks that they had been told of but they consoled themselves with the thought that they were 60 miles farther from the frontier and therefore not very likely to attract the notice of the marauders.
They didn’t have long to wait before they were proved wrong. There were by this time 12 people living at Monte Molino, of which 9 were male adults as there was work going on – at last - digging a ditch round the property and round a further piece of land for the purposes of planting maize.
Some time after breakfast one morning Lisada, the capataz, was on the roof trying to work out where and how far the horses had wandered looking for good pasture in the night – the roofs of the houses were built flat for the purpose of serving as a lookout post – when he saw some hundred horsemen in the far distance advancing at full gallop. At first they thought it was just horses, but as Lisada chillingly explained, it was the Indian custom on a raid to cling to the sides of their horses so as to conceal their true numbers.
The men ran the bullock-wagon into the gateway over the ditch, blocking the entrance, and snatched up their guns and pistols. Seymour gave each of the men a weapon, took up his own gun and revolver, and waited for the attack. Meanwhile, Lisada’s wife Salomé rushed into the house with her two children and a small trunk, which must have contained all her valuables, and concealed herself in a dark corner where, they afterwards learned, she kept up her spirits during those trying moments by smoking cigarettes.
Ten minutes later the horsemen were within 400 yards of the house and they realised that the actual number of Indians was nearer 50, with the rest being unmounted horses. They halted, and the mounted men galloped to within 50 yards of the ditch, fanned out and surrounded them on all sides, and again halted. Seymour instructed everyone in his party not to fire until it was clear that their intentions were hostile. They stood facing them, waiting until they came closer.
“...Lisada now shouted out that if they wished to fight we were quite ready to accommodate them, at which intimation a short parley took place among the Indians, after which 3 of them rode close up to the edge of the ditch, first leaving their long spears stuck in the ground, and one who was evidently a gaucho acting as interpreter, said that the cacique (the chieftain) wished to speak with the owner of the estancia.
I therefore put down my gun and revolver, and walked forward to the edge of the ditch to meet the cacique and his two attendants, having first desired my companions to fire at once if they saw any symptoms of treachery. The conversation was conducted through the interpreter, as the two Indians could only speak a word or two of Spanish, and was begun by the cacique expressing a wish to come into our house, which polite offer I respectfully but firmly declined. He then told us he had lost his way, the party having come out on an expedition for hunting ostriches, and had not the least wish to injure us, but was, on the contrary, extremely anxious for our friendship.
The cacique, an old man with grey hair, was better got-up than the rest, wearing a large gaily-coloured poncho. Their arms consisted of spears about 10 ft long, many of them ornamented with bunches of feathers tied round the handles; and bolas, which they carried either round their waists or attached to the pommel of the saddle.
The conversation continued in the same amicable tone, the cacique next mentioning that he was very poor, and would be glad if we would give his men some clothes. This request I at once complied with, and brought out a few old things, presenting him with an old straw hat of my own, which he at once placed on his head with evident satisfaction. I also gave them some caña and tobacco, and Lisada and our other peon, seeing the friendly turn affairs had taken, crossed the ditch and handed cigarettes to our visitors, conversing with the interpreter, the only one of the party who dismounted. Whether this excellent man had been previously known to our equally respectable capataz, I cannot say, but they talked to each other with great apparent interest. The Gauchos who reside with the Indians have usually committed some atrocious crime which places them beyond the pale even of Gaucho civilisation.
The cacique made repeated declarations that nothing should induce him to injure his new and dear friends, or tempt him to touch their horses, and as we felt very uneasy lest they should fall in with Frank and his companions, whom we were every day expecting with the sheep, we said something about them, when the obliging cacique assured us again that, being friends of ours, they need fear nothing from him.
After staying nearly an hour they all rode slowly off, but before they went we crossed the ditch one by one, and shook hands with the cacique, who was able to say “Adios amigo”. We were watching the departure of our unexpected and unwelcome visitors with feelings of extreme joy, when to our dismay, we suddenly saw them all draw up on the rising ground about a mile from our house, when half their party rode towards our horses, and in a few minutes they had driven them up to their own troop of unmounted horses, and the whole body were off like the wind, in a northerly direction. It was impossible to pursue them, as we had only three indifferent horses, on one of which however, Lisada galloped after them for some little distance, shouting like a madman, but I am sure he had not the least intention of overtaking them.”
Lisada later explained to them that the troop had left them unharmed because they had observed quantity of weapons at their disposal. A neighbouring farm was not so lucky when they were raided the following day, its owner divested of most of his possessions. In fact, their neighbour had recognised the straw hat being worn by the cacique and with sorrow concluded wrongly that Seymour himself had perished.
Bibliography will be listed on the final post.
Next time: Indians and Gauchos