Tierra del Fuego gold rush

5-gram gold coin from Tierra del Fuego by Julius Popper.
Sloggett Bay
Location of Punta Arenas and some of the principal gold findings.

Between 1883 and 1906 Tierra del Fuego experienced a gold rush attracting a large number of Chileans, Argentines and Europeans to the archipelago, including a large number of Dalmatians. The gold rush led to the formation of the first towns in the archipelago and fueled economic growth in Punta Arenas. After the goldrush was over most gold diggers left the archipelago, while the remaining settlers engaged in sheep farming and fishing. Indigenous Selk'nam populations declined sharply during the rush.

First discoveries

In 1879 an expedition led by Chilean Navy officer Ramón Serrano Montaner discovered gold in some watercourses of western Tierra del Fuego.[1][2] However the gold rush was triggered only in 1884. That year the French steamship Arctique ran aground on the northern coast of Cape Virgenes.[1] An expedition sent for its rescue discovered gold in a place called Zanja a Pique.[1] When news reached Punta Arenas many inhabitants left for Zanja a Pique. From Punta Arenas the news then reached Buenos Aires.[1]

The rush and Julius Popper expedition

In Buenos Aires the press portrayed the gold findings comparing it to the rushes of Australia and California.[1] In that city many companies were formed for the purpose of extracting gold.[1] Julio Popper, a mining engineer, was contracted by one of these companies in Buenos Aires. Popper then proceeded to recruit a number of Dalmatians from the many immigrants that lived in Buenos Aires those years.[1] With these workers Popper set out to exploit the findings of El Páramo in San Sebastián Bay.[1] Another camp was established in Sloggett Bay at the southern coast of Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego.[1]

The gold rush reached the Chilean islands south of Beagle Channel so that by 1893 over thousand men, most of them Dalmatians, lived there. However, by 1894 gold extraction begun to decline in these islands and deposits became gradually depleted.[1][3] A number of enterprises formed in the 1900s to extract gold from the islands south of Beagle Channel ended with meager results.[3]


During his work in Tierra del Fuego Popper was involved in the killings of native Selk'nam, which came later to be known as the Selk'nam genocide.[4][5]

Around the island gold diggers, sheep herders and "even police" are reported to have assaulted Indian camps to acquire their women.[2] This created even a shortage of women among Fuegian tribes.[2] The capture and control of women in the main island worsened conflicts between rival groups.[2] There are also reports of trade of women during deals between men.[2] By 1894 Porvenir consisted of five houses, two of them liquor stores and a third one a brothel.[2]

The Dalmatians involved in the gold rush gradually left mining activities either to return to Dalmatia or Buenos Aires or establish themselves in Punta Arenas.[1] The gold rush caused an improvement in the geographical knowledge of the poorly known islands south of Beagle Channel and linked them to Punta Arenas.[3] Gold extracted in Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego generally left the zone without improving much the economy of southernmost South America, but in the case of the gold extracted in from the islands south of Beagle Channel much of it ended up in Punta Arenas were it fueled economic growth.[3]

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Martinic Beros, Mateo. Crónica de las Tierras del Canal Beagle. 1973. Editorial Francisco de Aguirre S.A. Pp. 55-65
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Bascopé Julio, Joaquín. SENTIDOS COLONIALES I. EL ORO Y LA VIDA SALVAJE EN TIERRA DEL FUEGO, 1880 -1914. Magallania
  3. 1 2 3 4 Martinic Beros, Mateo. Crónica de las Tierras del Canal Beagle. 1973. Editorial Francisco de Aguirre S.A. Pp. 65-75
  4. Odone, C. and M.Palma, 'La muerte exhibida fotografias de Julius Popper en Tierra del Fuego', in Mason and Odone, eds, 12 miradas. Culturas de Patagonia: 12 Miradas: Ensayos sobre los pueblos patagonicos', Cited in Mason, Peter. 2001. The lives of images. P.153
  5. Ray, Leslie. 2007. "Language of the land: the Mapuche in Argentina and Chile ". P.80
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