The Welsh in Patagonia

Contemporary nap of the settlement
Modern map

'THE TIMES' Sat Dec 13, 1862


A person representing a Welsh emigration Society left England by the November mail steamer on his way to Buenos Ayres, with a view, in the
first place, to find the best spot for a settlement on the Patagonian Coast; and in the second place, to conclude negotiations already entered into with the Government of Argentine Confederation for the cession, on conditions of a merely nominal allegiance, of a portion of territory to be colonized by Welshmen exclusively. A very small section of Welsh enthusiasts has for many years expressed its apprehensions that the Welsh language is speedily dying out, and that with it the most valuable national peculiarities and virtues will be lost, and that the only way to preserve it as a living tongue is to establish a colony governed by Welshmen and having its affairs conducted in the Welsh language.

These men have of late been exceedingly active. They have fixed on the peninsular of Valdes or its neighbourhood, in Patagonia, about 43 deg. of south latitude, as the only place in the world suited for their purpose. No spot in the British empire, however remote from other settlements, can meet their views, for contact with the English and their language is the very thing they want to avoid.

The project is generally poo-poohed in the Welsh press, which has drawn attention to the fact that Patagonia is generally represented as a country not at all adapted for civilized settlements. Though the promoters of the scheme are almost all of them working men, they have been by no means deficient in energy in replying to these animadversions. They have published a 'Handbook to Patagonia', in which they pretend to quote the testimony of voyagers, from Magellan downwards, to the salubrity of the climate and the fertility of the soil. Being excluded from the Welsh newspapers, they have established an organ of their own, and by these means, together with lectures and deputations, have secured the deposit money of a few intending emigrants. No one doubts the integrity of their intentions, although even the agent sent to Buenos Ayres is himself but an artisan.

Why i was there a Welsh migraton to Patagonia? Michael D. Jones was a nonconformist minister whose mother had been evicted by a great Welsh landowner, Sir Watkin Williams Wynn. Like many other religious leaders of his day Jones looked to emigration as a solution for the problems of his flock. He had come to realise that in the second generation Welsh emigrants to North America tended to lose their language and some of their national characteristics, so he decided to locate his flock in Patagonia which was thought to be fertile and known to be sparsely populated. He sent out two people to report and based on their findings made an arrangement with the Argentine government to reserve land in a place called Chubut Valley. Their aim was to settle in a place where they would be able to live and worship freely as Welsh people, and preserve their language and traditions. Wikipedia entry for Welsh in Patagonia

On the 24th May 1865 the ship Mimosa, of 450 tons, left Liverpool for South America carrying 153 men women and children. The cost for a ticket was 48 British pounds and this price included food, although passengers had to bring their own mess utensils and bedding. The ship arrived at Golfo Nuevo (later renamed Porth Madryn/Puerto Madryn) on 28th July 1865 and the party landed to begin their lives in a new land. Strangely enough, there was only one farmer in the group and this might explain some of the problems they were to face.

As some of the emigrants were becoming disheartened, a decision was made to start moving everyone from New Bay to the Valley - a journey of some 37 miles across the rough and barren land. The journey from New Bay to the Chupat Valley (later named as the Camwy Valley) proved difficult for the new settlers. At last, early in September, the 'Mary Helen' accompanied by the 'Rio Negro' which was carrying a regiment of soldiers and horses on their way to the Valley, relieved the colony.

Patagonia, a barren and inhospitable place, was to prove challenging for the early settlers. Many faced great poverty and hardship as they struggled to make a living from the land. In time, however, they established their own Welsh-speaking communities where they built chapels and schools.

By 1875 the population of the Welsh Settlement had increased to 300 and reached 2200 by 1895. Although the figures never met the expectations of the organisers, this was the heyday of the Welsh Settlement. It was a period of intense activity which saw the development of a railway line, the construction of an irrigation system, and the exploration of surrounding lands.

The first settlers had to put up with many difficulties and problems, including bad harvests and confrontations with the native Indians. But they did not give up and, between 1874 and 1875, there was a second contingent arriving form the Country of Wales and the United States with the purpose of getting more land for farming and growing. Over 500 people from Wales - mostly from the South Wales coalfield, which was undergoing a severe depression. plus a further 27 settlers arrived from New York.

As the Welsh colony in Patagonia flourished and suitable agricultural land became scarce, the colonisers turned their sights towards the Andes. In 1885, thirty horsemen, known as the “Rifleros”, followed the Río Chubut west. On the 25th of November, after travelling 700 kilometres, the Rifleros reached the Craig Goch ridge and descended into a misty valley where Trevelin is today. The following morning they saw before them one of the most beautiful and fruitful valleys they had ever seen, with snow covered Andean peaks providing a perfect backdrop. The horsemen were so enchanted by what they saw that they uttered the famous words “What a beautiful valley” that named the valley Cwm Hyfryd in Welsh. Cwm Hyfryd (Trevelin), in the Andes, is a valley which would not look out of place in Wales. The Rifleros' expedition expanded the colony towards the Andes by a further 600 kilometres and added 125,000 hectares to its lands. It took the original settlers three weeks to cross with horses and wagons. A monument stands in the square in Trevelin commemorating the successful original expedition.

From Madryn on the Atlantic coast, just inland to Trelew and across 600km of steppe to Trevelin in the Andean Cordillera, Welsh-sounding towns and villages pepper the province, showing where the settlers and their descendants spread out (this Google map has the various settlements marked.

In 1875 the Argentine government finally granted the Welsh settlers official title to the land, and this encouraged people to join the colony.Lewis Jones arrived at Caer Antur accompanied by sixteen soldiers and their leader, Julián Murga. They had travelled to the Chupat Valley on behalf of the Argentine government in order to give the lands formally to the Welsh. Julio V. Díaz, a land surveyor, was also among the contingent, and was given the responsibility of dividing the land in the Valley into small farms or 'chacras'. A formal ceremony was held to authorise the establishment of the Welsh Settlement, the Argentine flag was raised, followed by the Welsh Red Dragon, and a document was signed declaring that the name of the first town would be Pueblo de Rawson, rather than Caer Antur.

There were other substantial migrations during the periods 1880-1887. In the period 1904-1912 a considerable number joined the Welsh colony in response to continued economic depression and insecurity in the South Wales coalfields.

Today Gaiman is not dry and arid, thanks to a series of canals which were dug by hand by the settlers. ‘Cwmni Dyvrhael y Gaiman’ was set up to irrigate the land, and the more hours digging canals a farmer did, the less he paid for water. Gaiman is the centre of the Welsh community in Patagonia. There are 5,000 inhabitants. Welsh lessons taught at the school, and a Music School (Yr Ysgol Gerdd) occupies the building which was originally Hugh Pugh’s hotel – the choir meets there regularly. The chapel is also a centre of the community.

By 1902 the valley was being claimed by the Chilean government. The rains fall in the Chilean Andes and form the rivers which flow through the valley before turning and flowing back to Chile. Technically, Cwm Hyfryd should really be a part of Chile, A plebiscite was held to find out which nationality the settlers preferred. The Welsh said that they had lived under the sovereignty and protection of Argentina. The unanimous answer was that it was not “a matter of preference but a question of filial love and loyalty to a country that had been adopted by some of them, and was native to others” . Then, the arbitrator (an English man) accepted the results of this plebiscite. Teacher Owen Williams raised the “Argentine flag” on the school flagpole and our national anthem was sung. That was the end of the territorial dispute.

Hugh Pugh in Patagonia