The Journeys of Francisco Moreno

The Journeys of Francisco Moreno: Views on nature in the southernmost part of Argentina – 1873 -1906

This article analyses views of Eastern Patagonia that factored into the discourse of Francisco Moreno, an Argentine naturalist and geographer in the late 19th century. An analysis of the documents shows that his preoccupation with countering the belief at the time that the Patagonia was a “useless desert,” coupled with his sense of deception with the process of land distribution after the military conquest of the region, motivated Moreno to donate three leagues of his land to create the first Argentinean national park, the Nahuel Huapi.

(A version in Portuguese of this paper can be found here)

Since the colonial period, the southernmost part of the American continent was never actually controlled by the Spanish crown. The harsh climate and Amerindian resistance were some of the factors that hampered European colonization in the region. To the east of the Andes, in the early 19th century, a latitudinal borderline separated the Amerindian territory in the south from the Plata provinces in the north. The border began in Buenos Aires, traversed Córdoba and San Luis, and ended in Mendoza. The independence of Spanish colonies led to a period of conquest of the region south of Pampas and of Eastern Patagonia by the several States that preceded the unified Argentine Republic, specifically the United Provinces of the Río de la Plata, the Argentine Confederation and the State of Buenos Aires. However, during the first half of the 19th century, progress was slow; the Plata provinces were embroiled in an internal conflict between Unitarianists and Federalists, and their military efforts were concentrated elsewhere, not in an advance toward the south.

The definitive unification of the provinces and the creation of a lasting institutional order began in the 1860s, giving rise to Argentina, but the country would have to wait for the end of the War of the Triple Alliance (1865-1870), with the liberals’ rise to power, to definitively conquer the region south of the Pampas and Eastern Patagonia. This process, which was carried out at great cost to Amerindians, came to be known as the Conquest of the Desert [Conquista del Desierto] and the Desert Campaign [Campaña del Desierto].

In 1868, Domingos F. Sarmiento, the chief defender of Argentine modernization and the author of Facundo: Or Civilization and Barbarism [Facundo – Civilización y Barbarie], became president. Sarmiento launched a liberal program based on production for exportation, free-trade policies, European immigration, and compulsory and universal education. The following president, Nicolás Avellaneda (1874-1880), went a step further with this liberal agenda by initiating a systematic program of defense against Amerindian attacks to the Argentine territory. The new strategy was based on the construction, inside indigenous territories, of a continuous trench that would halt the free movement of Amerindians into Argentine provinces. And series of forts connected by telegraph was built in addition to the trench. This entire complex was known as the Alsina’s Ditch [Zanja de Alsina] for it had been conceived by Minister of the Army and Navy Adolfo Alsina. The ditch also served as the physical demarcation of the border, signaling the presence of the Argentine State in regions previously ruled “a la barbárie .” In 1877, Alsina died and the position of minister of the army and navy was assumed by Julio Argentino Roca, who promptly engaged in a war for territorial conquest toward the south. Within a few years, the entire region to the south of the Pampas and the northern part of Eastern Patagonia had been conquered. The area’s original inhabitants had been killed, captured or expelled to the southernmost part of the continent. Due in part to the success of his Conquest of the Desert, Roca became the eighth president of Argentina in 1880.

While the Argentine army extended the border to the north of Eastern Patagonia, the government sent expeditions to survey and demarcate the territories lying beyond the conquered lands. Francisco Moreno promoted and participated in some of these expeditions, becoming the primary Argentine explorer to map the region in the late 19th century. As an explorer, a natural scientist and an advocate for the region’s colonization, Moreno was a key figure in the process of incorporating Eastern Patagonia into the Argentine Republic.

The conquest of Amerindian territories, which reached its peak at the 1870s and 1880s, was crucial for Argentina’s great economic development during the years of the Liberal Republic. This period spanned from 1880 to 1916 and was characterized by a reinforcing of the program idealized by men from the previous generation, such as Sarmiento. Jorge Luis Romero considers this period a revolutionary period, one of deep structural changes in an Argentine society that grew more Europeanized and literate due to expanding immigration and the universality of elementary education. Thanks to the new lands that became available after the Conquest of the Desert, Argentina came to occupy an important place in the international market as a supplier of meat and grains. With the infusion of capital from England, new railroads were built to connect the meat- and grain-producing regions to the export ports, mainly Buenos Aires. The Liberal Republic also witnessed the proliferation of public buildings; indeed, the La Plata Museum, idealized by Francisco Moreno, opened its doors at 1888.[1]

The first expeditions

Between 1874 and 1896, Francisco Moreno took part in several expeditions to the Patagonia, where he collected and described both animal and plant species, mapped lakes, rivers and mountains and claimed them in the name of the Argentine State, collected countless archeological artifacts and fossils and came into contact with Amerindian peoples in these hitherto unexplored regions, writing ethnographic reports about them. In recognition of his services to the country, the Argentine government gave the explorer lands located in the foothills of the Andes. At the end of his life, Moreno donated part of his lands for the creation of the country’s first national park, the Nahuel Huapi. What led Moreno to donate his lands? What motivated the explorer to decide that a section of the Patagonia should remain unscathed, saved for future generations? An analysis of Moreno’s travel reports and letters helps clarify these matters.[2]

Moreno’s first expedition to the Patagonia took place between August and December 1874. Concerned with the growing Chilean presence in the southernmost part of the continent, the Argentine government decided to send an expedition to the Santa Cruz River Basin in order to expand geographic and scientific knowledge of the area. After hearing of the government’s decision, Francisco Moreno requested permission to take part in the journeys and, hence, became a member of the crew. The expedition headed south along the coast in a schooner christened Rosales. After a single stop at Carmen de Patagones, the expedition reached the mouth of the Santa Cruz River, in the southernmost section of the continent.

Between September 1875 and March 1876, Francisco Moreno carried out his second expedition to the Patagonia, supported by the Argentine Scientific Society and the provincial government of Buenos Aires. This time the goal was to reach the Nahuel Huapi Lake. One of Moreno’s aims was to find the mythical Andean passage used by Mapuche Indians in their travels from Chile to Argentina. The passage would provide the Argentineans access to the Chilean port of Valdivia. Despite official support from the provincial government of Buenos Aires, the expedition had few resources and was composed of a single member – Francisco Moreno himself. The naturalist took a train from Buenos Aires to Las Flores, a small village that signaled the end of the railroad at the time. After that, he took a boat, a stagecoach and a horse toward the south until he reached Carmen de Patagones, stopping along the way in Azul, Bahia Blanca and Fortín Mercedes. At every new stop, Moreno made small incursions in the surroundings to study the region’s geology and geography, and to collect animal species, fossils and archeological artifacts. In Carmen de Patagones, Moreno hired an armed group of Indians and cowboys to accompany him. The next stage was Fort General Mitre, 90 kilometers to the east of Patagones. There he met Miguel Linares, the mestizo nephew of Chief Shaihueque, who ruled the Nahuel Huapi region. Miguel Linares, together with a group of Amerindians, was pursuing a gang of cattle thieves, and Moreno was able to travel with his group all the way to Chichinal, 450 kilometers to the east of Fort General Mitre. After Chichinal, Moreno’s group separated from Miguel Linares and continued for days until it reached the junction of the Limay River and the Collón Curá River. Moreno then sent a messenger to Caleufú, which housed the Amerindian villages of Chief Shaihueque, asking for permission to enter the territory of the “Lord of the Wild Apples.” Shaihueque decided to receive Francisco Moreno in his territory. During the time he stayed among the villages, Moreno managed to obtain Shaihueque’s permission to go up to the Nahuel Huapi Lake, but he was forbidden to go to the trans-Andean passage and cross over to Chile. He became, in his own words, the first white man to reach the lake from the Atlantic.[3]

In his third great journey, Francisco Moreno set out to discover the source of the Santa Cruz River, in the southernmost region of the Patagonia. The expedition took place between October 1876 and May 1877. Moreno believed there was a need for a reconnaissance mission to the region and proposed such to the minister of foreign relations, Estanilao Zeballos, who agreed to provide government support for the excursion. For this journey, the government offered Moreno the Santa Cruz schooner, under the command of Captain Luis Piedrabuena. The ship set sail from the port of Buenos Aires on October 20 and sailed down the Argentine coast until reaching the mouth of the Chubut River, where Moreno encountered the members of a Welsh colony that had settled in the region eleven years earlier. During his twenty-five days in the Chubut region, the naturalist explored the banks of the river on horseback and traveled to the foothills of the Andes. Moreno and the Santa Cruz crew then continued their journey by sea until they reached the mouth of another river, the Deseado, where they found the remains of a Spanish fortress built by Francisco de Viedma in 1780, in one of the failed attempts to promote colonization in the region. After repeated failures to sail up the Deseado River, they moved to the mouth of the Santa Cruz River. They anchored the schooner in the river’s estuary and traveled by boat to the Isle of Pavón, 54 kilometers upriver. The island hosted a small, ten-person village founded by Luis Piedrabuena in 1859, for many years the only permanent Argentinean society in the region. Before heading upriver, Moreno and his men visited an indigenous village of Tehuelches Amerindians and bought four horses to be used during the expedition.

Moreno’s expedition was not the first to attempt to reach the source of Santa Cruz River. Before him, three other attempts had been made, of which two had been unsuccessful. In 1834, the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, had attempted to travel upriver in three whaleboats. After traveling 15 days, and before reaching the source of the Santa Cruz River, FitzRoy and his crew – including Charles Darwin – decided to head back on account of the many hardships they had suffered en route. Further attempts had been made by the Englishman, G. H. Gardiner, in 1867, and by the Argentine sub-lieutenant, Valentin Feilberg, in 1873, who had been the only one to reach the lake at the river’s source. Ironically, Feilberg had mistakenly assumed he had reached another lake, the Viedma Lake, which had already been explored and baptized.

Moreno’s expedition involved six other men, including rowers, soldiers and hunters. They had a six-oar boat that was towed upriver by horses along the banks. Whenever horse-drawn towing became impossible, the men jumped off the boat and hauled the boat themselves. This process made the journey extremely difficult. Burning heat by day, Antarctic cold by night, relentless winds, paltry hunting and puma attacks were some of the difficulties the travelers faced. And there was still an even greater challenge: to overcome the danger of the Santa Cruz River. After a month of traveling, they finally reached the great glacial lake that gives rise to the river. Francisco Moreno baptized it Lake Argentine [Lago Argentino].[4] Once settled along the lake, Moreno and his men set out to explore the surroundings on horse and the lake by boat. After two months, the travelers returned to the Isle of Pavón and, from there, they rode to the Chilean city of Punta Arenas, where they took a steamboat to Buenos Aires. In 1879, just over two years after the 1876 expedition, Moreno released a version of his travel report for the general public entitled Travels to Southern Patagonia [Viaje a la Patagônia Austral].

Between 1879 and 1880, with support from the national government, Francisco Moreno undertook a second journey to Lake Nahuel Huapi, his fourth expedition to the Patagonia. His original plan was to explore the entire Atlantic coast of Argentina, from Buenos Aires to Cape Horn, the southernmost point of South America. For this endeavor, Moreno requested a warship from the government but, due to bureaucratic problems, he only managed to get a reconnaissance river steamboat, which, according to the naturalist, was unfit for sailing in Antarctic waters. This was Moreno’s excuse for disobeying government orders and ceasing to map the Argentine coast, opting instead to go back, by land, to Lake Nahuel Huapi, where he had been three years earlier. The expedition headed up to Viedma by sea, at which point Moreno and part of his crew left the boat and continued by land towards the mountain range. This time, the naturalist took a different path from the one he had taken on his first journey to the lake: he decided to reach the Nahuel Huapi from the south. After a few days of traveling, they reached the indigenous villages of Chief Inacayal and Chief Foyel, both under the command of Shaihueque; there, Moreno first heard that Shaihueque was discontent with the Christians. The chief was claiming that the army had suspended food supplies and had arrested and charged six Amerindians with the murder of cart drivers who had been taking provisions to the troops camped at the Negro River. At that time, General Roca was just launching his Desert Campaign, and it became ever clearer to the Amerindians that even those who were allies of the Christians, such as Shaihueque, could be attacked; indeed, this actually happened in 1882. Moreno knew he ran the risk of being arrested or killed by Shaihueque, but he decided to press forward toward the lake, still obsessed with the idea of discovering the secret passage to Chile. The Argentine naturalist left Inacayal and Foyel’s indigenous village with a smaller group, including Utrac, Inacayal’s son. On January 18, Francisco Moreno returned to the Lake Nahuel Huapi, almost four years after his 1876 expedition. After a few days exploring the region, Moreno and his team were captured in an ambush by Shaihueque’s men and were taken to the banks of the Caleufú River, where they were held as Tehuelches’ prisoners. The chief wanted to offer Moreno and his men to the Argentine government in exchange for the Amerindians who had been arrested by the military. Four years after Moreno’s first visit, there was certainly a different attitude among the indigenous villages, and Shaihueque had to intervene to prevent his men from killing the Argentines. In the meantime, however, the explorer planned his escape in secrecy. On February 11, sixteen days after being arrested, Moreno and his men took advantage of their indigenous guards’ drunkenness and fled in an improvised raft down the Collón Curá River. His escape continued for days, down the Limay River and then over land, until Moreno and his men arrived, barely alive, at the Fort Chichinal. They were fortunate, too, for the fort was about to be abandoned by the troops. From there, Moreno headed back to Buenos Aires.[5]

Maps [6]

moreno1 moreno2 moreno3

An Argentine Patagonia

In the 1870s, the explicit goal of the publication of Travels to Southern Patagonia was to make the Argentine public aware of the “large part of the country” that was still unknown. Many people saw the Patagonia as a useless desert, and Francisco Moreno believed that this lack of understanding was the source of its poor reputation among Argentineans. The explorer sought to change this view of the region by adopting a scientific discourse to highlight its exploratory and developmental potential. Moreno believed that only science was capable of portraying the Patagonia as it really was – full of natural resources and incredibly fertile. Moreno’s discourse in Travels to Southern Patagonia was both a report of his scientific practices in exploring the region and a defense of science as a necessary tool to reveal nature’s truths. His viewpoint was teleological – seeking to prove the utilitarian value of his object of study and, at the same time, pursuing scientific objectivity. Such objectivity, however, meant he could not deny the obvious difficulties inherent in region’s colonization.

The occupation of the Patagonia was the root of Moreno’s motivation, and knowledge was important because it was a prerequisite to colonization. This was a complicated enterprise; in the colonial times, the Spanish had tried to settle the region on more than one occasion, never meeting with success. Moreno believed that the advancements in science during his lifetime would enable successful new attempts at colonization. The scientist argued that knowledge of the geography, geology and climate were fundamental to determine where and how to colonize. Using scientific discourse, he wanted to change Argentineans’ opinions of the region, proving that colonization of the so-called desert was feasible. Moreno wanted to fill in the existent gaps on the maps, convincing the Argentine government to promote rational occupation of the territory.

The underlying basis of Moreno’s discourse was the territorial expansion of the Argentine State. Moreno’s expeditions took place during a period in which ownership of the Patagonia was still an issue. By the end of the 19th century, Argentina faced Chile as a direct competitor in the pursuit of the continent’s southernmost extremes. The neighboring country was already leading the way with the founding of Punta Arenas, in the Strait of Magellan, in 1843. The threat from European forces was somewhat more remote, though not totally implausible as the British had taken over the Falkland Islands in 1833. Thus, the incorporation of the Patagonia into the Argentine State was a matter both of military conquest, already underway from the north, and of colonial settlement by those who considered themselves a member of one country or the other.

Moreno’s main concern was to make Argentineans aware of regions that, by “law,” belonged to Argentina. For him, both human history – as attested in colonial documents – and natural history confirmed that the region of the Patagonia to the east of the Andes belonged to Argentina. This rhetorical certainty legitimated scientific prospecting and the military conquest. The explorer assumed the Argentine nation to be the legitimate heir of all colonial lands from the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. To lose Eastern Patagonia would mean a further amputation of rightly-owned territory, a kind of symbolic castration of a masculine Argentina. Moreno’s view was that Argentina, despite its role as a protagonist in colonial independence from Spain, had been robbed of regions that had originally belonged to it:

“Nunca pude comprehender cómo una nación viril, dueña de extensísimas zonas, desde el trópico hasta el polo antártico, no se empeñaba en su estudio de lo que la naturaleza misma le señalaba como suyo. De nuestra indiferencia, y por lo que pretendemos haber heredado de España, resultó siempre la pérdida de buenas porciones de aquella herencia…” [7]

There was a tension between the discourse and the reality. In his words, the explorer legitimated possession of lands based on history and nature, but reality forced him to acknowledge that full control of the region would only occur with the effective settlement of the region by the “Argentine” population, and this, in its turn, would only be possible if an economic base could be established. Indirectly, Moreno was acknowledging that, in fact, Eastern Patagonia did not belong to Argentina and his rhetorical efforts to legitimate possession of the territory were insignificant if colonization were not pursued in earnest. This awareness that the regions he had visited were still terra incognita led the explorer to pursue symbolic demonstrations of the State’s ownership of the territory. Moreno did this by planting eucalyptus seeds and the Argentinean flag wherever he went.

Views of nature

The eastern section of the Patagonia is a vast treeless plateau disadvantaged by strong winds. Covering an area of 670,000 square kilometers, and spanning from the Andes to the Atlantic and the Colorado River to Tierra del Fuego, the region is considered the largest arid region in the Americas. Given its altitude and latitude, it is classified as a cold desert. In the northern part, the region includes some areas that are suitable for agriculture, and the valley of the Negro River is one of the few Patagonian areas that supports intensive agriculture in Argentina today. But the majority of the Patagonia is characterized by climate and soil that are adverse to agricultural activity. The climate and vegetation change significantly in the narrow strip of forest at the Andean foothills, which sports a more humid climate than the steppe covering the eastern part of the Patagonia and a few species found only in this specific area.[8]

Moreno’s description of the region included contradictory elements – on the one hand, the author sought to counter those who claimed that the Patagonia was a “useless desert;” yet, on the other hand, he was unable to deny the harsh reality he himself had experienced in the regions he had reconnoitered. In Chubut, home to the Welsh immigrant colony, Moreno noticed the sparse vegetation of a region unfit for agriculture: there was little more than cactus and shrubs, typical of a cold and arid climate. He saw practically no trees on his journeys, with the few that did appear having been planted by colonists, and there was little variety of vegetables. The few fields that could be used for livestock in the region were appropriately called “oases.” And along the plateaus that abutted the valley of the Chubut River, the even scarcer vegetation formed a desolate path. Thorny plants with twisted trunks comprised “a monotonous environment, hostile to man.”[9]

During his trek upriver along the Santa Cruz River, Moreno describes the journey in desolate tones. Heading up a hill early in the expedition, he lamented the “very sad view” that lay before him, with “bare, arid and pallid mountains” to contrast the “monotony” of the landscape. Some lakes gave the lands a “certain variation,” but not enough to break the uniformity imposed by the lack of vegetation and the sun-scalded rocks. The region was a human, biological and geological desert; even geographic accidents that stood to “sooth the eyes and offer the traveler reason to study” did not exist. The “oppressive monotony” led the traveler to desperation. The nature of the “rock savannas” were poor and brought about a sense of “dejection” similar to that of the tropics, as a point of comparison. The vegetation, composed primarily of grasses, was paltry. The scarce fauna consisted merely of guanacos, rheas, insects and birds of prey. The banks of the river included somewhat more varied vegetation, with a few bushes and cacti, though it was precisely these that tripped up the boat’s towrope. By Moreno’s estimate, “the sterility stretched out like a true curse over the country.”[10]

Moreno saw the desert as a place lacking life, a place with “few animal species” and no demonstration of the luscious vegetation common in other regions of the continent. This sensation of abandonment by living nature, which normally decorated the landscape, was confirmed by the fact that luscious vegetation had once proliferated in these parts of the Patagonia, as proven by the fossils that Moreno had collected. Nature had quit this landscape, leaving a desert in its wake.[11]

Moreno also thought of the desert as a place devoid of humans. The desert was where the forces of climate and geology pursued their “unhindered course,” making life difficult for any man who chose to live or traverse there. The author counterpoised man, whether white or indigenous, with the empty desert. The region through which he passed was a “grandiose, yet solitary amphitheater,” frequented only by a few animals. The desert’s monotony was broken only by the occasional incursion of the “Argentine or Tehuelche hunter, or by a Chilean deserter.”

“Mientras el hombre no ha penetrado en esta comarca, todo es soledad en ella, nada se mueve; los animales tranquilos cumplen con las exigencias de la vida, reposan y se alimentan; pero la presencia de nosotros, enemigos de casi todas las obras animadas, interrumpe hoy esa aparente soledad.”[12]

This negative view that Moreno presented of the desert regions of Eastern Patagonia was not repeated with such intensity in the face of the natural landscape of the Andean regions. There, the Patagonia was always “imposing.” Moreno described a series of natural accidents in the region: the “raised, snow-capped mountains,” the “volcanoes,” the “lakes and rivers.” These imposing scenes affect the Amerindians in the region, who expressed “superstitious respect” for these “giant manifestations of nature.”[13] Upon reaching what he came to baptize as Lake San Martín, Moreno noted the stateliness of the rock towers in the region. He described a huge peak, whose uppermost section seemed to parade like the “imitation of a medieval castle.” Another peak reminded him of “gothic cathedrals” that “were resplendent” with the white snow, forming a “marvelous landscape of greatness and solitude.” For those like him, born on the horizon of the plains of the Pampas, the revelation of these landscapes is even greater. The author contrasts the Argentine plains to the Andes. The plains dweller feels “oppressed” before a landscape whose light is obscured by the shadow of the mountains. Only when the sun is at its zenith does the plains dweller feel content with the view of the “distant woods” that await him to be “converted into comfortable dwellings.” The sheer scale of the Andes placed civilized man’s ability to dominate the landscape in visible check.[14]

The two journeys to Lake Nahuel Huapi provided Francisco Moreno with less dry, agrestic landscapes than those found in the southern Patagonia. Located in the northern region, along the division with the Pampas, Moreno considered the valleys of the Colorado and the Negro Rivers propitious for agricultural and grazing activities. He deemed the region of Salinas Chicas to be “very beautiful, with very good fields and springs and excellent water along the edges.” The native grasses “naturally planted by nature” were better than those in the province of Buenos Aires.[15]

All told, the region with the promising future was that surrounding Lake Nahuel Huapi, the area known as the Wild Apple Country [País de las Manzanas]. Moreno recorded his impressions on his first visit to the lake:

“Los días que allí pasé no se borrarán jamás de mi memoria, y su recuerdo siempre me será grato… Allí, solo, admiraba ese panorama y no podía dejar de presentarse a mi espíritu la idea de la pequeñez con que aparece el hombre ante esas gigantescas obras de la Creación, y al mismo tiempo la imponderable magnitud de los esfuerzos hechos para llegar a investigar la naturaleza y sorprender sus secretos.”[16]

Moreno believed that the “clear water” lake, with the “picturesque and grandiose image” it formed with the mountainous backdrop was one of the “most beautiful landscapes of these lands.” This scene made him feel tranquil in spirit, a contrast to the chaotic festivals in the indigenous villages where he had earlier stayed.

Unlike the arid desert of the south, the region would be the center of the Patagonia’s future colonization. The rivers that descended from Lake Nahuel Huapi and traversed Wild Apple Country comprised a type of “Patagonian paradise” in the splendid valleys formed by water erosion. The “immense forests” provided abundant wood for construction. The vegetation was “luscious.” The smell of the strawberry fields permeated the Andean air like “the fragrance of balsam wood.” The geraniums and other flowers created a backdrop of “living colors.” The grasses grew more than a meter in height. There was an abundance of wild animals, including horses, who had reached “sizes and beauty heretofore unknown.” The region could sustain populations and industry, which would allow for “our effective domination of the continental extreme.” Nahuel Huapi was a strategic location that would ensure possession of those territories that everyone in Buenos Aires had deemed so inhospitable.[17]

Moreno dubbed the region “Argentina’s Switzerland” and he compared it to places in Europe. The cliffs “overshadowed by cypress trees” whence “crystal streams” descended and woods similar to the “parks designed by man” that held “revelations in [their] steep crags, obscure and wild” created a landscape like the Black Forest of Germany. Moreno’s comparison is notable for its view of nature, as the Black Forest is a region that has been manipulated and reforested since the Middle Ages. Moreno hoped that Nahuel Huapi would become a civilized place for recreation, a place where nature would be tamed and rectified for man to take advantage. Criticizing the cosmopolitan nature of the Buenos Aires elite, of which he himself was a part, Moreno stated that he hoped for the day on which Argentineans “would open their eyes to the proof” and “seek, in their own country, the beauties that so seduce[d] them in foreign lands.” After Nahuel Huapi, there would be no more need to seek European “natural” beauties, as ones of superior quality existed right in Argentina. Lake Nahuel Huapi, for example, was called the Argentine Lake Leman, in reference to the famous Swiss lake although, the author was of the opinion that the former was “more grandiose” than its Swiss counterpart. In a letter penned in 1883 to General Bartolomé Mitré, three years following his expedition to the region and after Argentina’s military conquest of Nahuel Huapi, Moreno hoped that the first building constructed by the army in the region, a “humble ranch in the middle of the woods,” would become “the base for the New Geneva, which, in his “dreams as an explorer, he saw being built aside the Argentine Leman” [18]

In 1880, after his second expedition to Lake Nahuel Huapi, Moreno sent a report of findings from his travels to the ministry of the interior and of foreign affairs, Benjamín Zorrilla. The author wrote up a summary of his travels and described a few places suitable for grazing and agriculture in irrigable fields of the mountain valleys. In describing the Nahuel Huapi, Moreno counterbalanced the beauty of nature with man’s utility. The woods were “splendid,” containing flowers of “soft color and extraordinary fragrances.” “Everything was magnificent for future settlement,” the author wrote, as wood for construction was “abundant,” the fields “excellent” and the streams “numerous.” When conversing with those who viewed the Patagonia negatively, Moreno’s rhetoric proclaimed that he “did not expect to find another similar landscape in the so denigrated Patagonia.” Moreno continued to highlight the beauty of the landscape and how suitable it was for settlement. Esquel, one of the locations were the Amerindians of the region camped, was described as one of the “most beautiful stops,” one that could easily be used for settlement. For Moreno, an “Argentine city had to substitute the rest stop of the nomadic Amerindian;” despite the Amerindians’ having accepted Argentine nationality, their nomadism was an impediment to Moreno’s considering them full citizens. Although Amerindians headed by Chief Shaihueque already inhabited the region, Moreno’s report to the Argentine government did not reserve a place for them in his projections for the future.[19]

Thirty years later

Writing some decades after his first journeys to the Patagonia, Moreno had become a critic of the process of land distribution pursued by the Argentine government after the region’s conquest. He lamented the concentration of lands and the failure to use the local indigenous population as inexpensive labor. Moreno considered the extermination of the original inhabitants to be a high price to pay for the process of colonization that did not pan out as he had hoped. For the author, the destruction of the Amerindians lead by Chief Ñancucheo, “a virile race that could have been put to use,” was a waste since, after thirty-four years, the land concessions had been “granted in bulk to the potentates of the Stock Exchange,” which led to “dozens of leagues in the hands of just one fortunate man” and “stunted progress in the region.” Moreno lamented that a huge swath of land to the east and north of the Nahuel Huapi were in the hands of so few, who had purchased such for deplorably low prices on account of their government contacts. The new latifundiarios did not use the land; rather they left it untouched, speculated on future appreciation. “What purpose do those lands serve?” was the response Moreno received when asking about their future. It was clear that Moreno’s discourse on the economic promise of region defined by Lake Nahuel Huapi had still not convinced the new landowners.[20]

The author condemned the manner in which the process of territorial occupation was playing out. The first colonists occupied the land without legal possession thereof, hoping that proprietorship would be granted on the basis of their having colonized such. Nevertheless, with the law on their side, the “powerful” had proven capable of wresting possession of the lands for themselves, leaving the colonizers with the option of remaining on the land as mere “tenants,” subject to the proprietorship of the new owners.[21] Moreno also criticized the actions of the Compañia Inglesa de Tierras del Sud, a British, government-backed company that had purchased land from the government “without any study of the lands’ economic and strategic value” having been conducted.[22]

Despite criticizing the process of land distribution, Moreno produced a positive summary of the development that had occurred in the southeastern region of the province of Buenos Aires between 1873 and 1906. Since his travels through the area in his first expedition to Nahuel Huapi, the civilization had become an arid region filled with “solitude” to one of fertile food production, releasing itself of the “superstition” and “unfounded beliefs” of the Amerindians who lived there. For Moreno, the extinction of indigenous culture was inevitable, although it still had value in terms of museum-based artifacts, and he did defend the need to create a school or research center in the region to study indigenous religion before its disappearance. [23]

Moreno believed that the Desert Campaign had been a necessary evil. Without it, it would have been impossible to extend the borders to fully incorporate the Patagonia into Argentina. For Moreno, General Roca had carried out Sarmiento’s plan for civilization, which had been based on the US example of conquering the West, since, “together with the arms of war,” the advance would bring “the arms of peace and science.” The campaign was “easier to carry out” than “to fully understand;” indeed, it had brought a part of the globe into civilization that hitherto had not been included as such. Few chroniclers described the events of the Desert Campaign. If, on the one hand, this was bad for Moreno, as it led to forgetting heroic deeds, on the other hand, it was good because it “overlooked the rather many episodes that ran contrary to Christian civilization.” He acknowledged that, in order to bring civilization to the Patagonia, it was necessary to act “a la barbárie.” Moreno justified the conquest but criticized its extremes, since there were “heroic episodes” as well as “useless massacres of those who considered themselves owners of the land.” Despite the laudatory tone when relating economic development, in the rhetoric based on the Nation-State myth that gave Argentina a “natural” right to the Patagonia, and when legitimizing the view of civilization’s victory over barbarism, Francisco Moreno considered the events that had taken place to truly be an invasion. Indeed, he affirmed that the Amerindians “[had] defended themselves from the invading civilization.” Given his familiar acquaintance and friendly relations with Amerindians, Moreno felt uncomfortable with the legacy of the military conquest of the Patagonia, although his discomfort was not sufficient enough to curb his enthusiasm with the views of progress that colonization of the region would bring.[24]

Conservation and control

In 1902, Moreno returned to the Nahuel Huapi in the company of an English specialist, Coronal Sir Thomas Holdich, appointed as an arbiter concerning border disagreements with Chile. The naturalist had been chosen by Buenos Aires as the Argentine specialist to give his opinion on the border demarcation conflict with the neighboring country. From Nahuel Huapi, the author sent a telegram to President Julio A. Roca, with whom he maintained friendly relations, stating that he wished to have a direct role in deciding upon the future of the region:

“Me permito pedirle quiera suspender cualquier resolución sobre tierras y bosques en estos parajes hasta mi regreso a principios de Junio. Recordándole lo que tuve el placer de decirle que es perfectamente fácil hacer de esta región un importantísimo centro de riqueza antes de dos años.”[25]

In July 1903, the government granted him twenty-five leagues of land around Lake Nahuel Huapi as compensation for the services he head rendered to the country in resolving the problem of the Andean borders. In a way, Moreno became one of the latifundiarios he so criticized. In November of that same year, he returned three square leagues to the government to be preserved as a “natural park:”

“(…) más de una vez enuncié la conveniencia de que la Nación conservara la propiedad de algunos para el mejor provecho de las generaciones presentes y de las venideras, siguiendo del ejemplo de los Estados Unidos y de otras naciones que poseen soberbios parques naturales.” [26]

By returning part of the lands that he had received to the State, Moreno determined that this area would remain intact for the use of future generations, giving rise to one of the first national parks in Latin America. Moreno claimed that the primary criteria for choosing the location would be aesthetics. According to the author, his idea to create a park had already been set in motion when he had traveled the region and had been influenced by the creation of national parks in the USA, taking into account the use and enjoyment of nature.[27] In his view, the landscapes’ value was entirely a function of their use by present and future generations of man.

By Moreno’s account, it would be the State’s, and not individuals’, responsibility to preserve the landscapes in a manner guided by scientific understanding as colonization had clearly demonstrated man’s capability of destroying nature. For Moreno, the Argentine government, corrupted by private interests, had failed in its ability to organize occupation of the new territory, and he did not believe that men were capable of positively promoting colonization alone. Moreno was no liberal. For him, common men, primarily those involved in land speculation, though civilized and patriotic they may have been, were not endowed with spirits enlightened by science and did not use material and spiritual wealth for the common good. Moreno wished to protect the landscape from the errors of unenlightened human activity. Argentina needed to preserve its “New Switzerland” for future generations.

“Hoy la ley citada me permite hacerme dueño de paisajes que, en días ya lejanos me hicieron entrever la grandeza futura de tierras entonces ignoradas que nos eran disputadas, pero que su conocimiento ha hecho argentinas para siempre y me es grato apresurarme a contribuir a la realización de ideales nacidos durante el desempeño de mis tareas en aquel medio y desarrollados con la enseñanza de su observación.”[28]

Moreno saw himself to be an example of an enlightened public servant whose ample view – on account of scientific knowledge – would be capable of foreseeing the great role that this unique collection of natural wealth would have in the future. The fact that he was an Argentine who, through “discovery” of the region, had ensured that this part of the world would become part of Argentina is what would give him the right – morally, for having discovered it, and legally, for having claimed it – of deciding its fate.

According to Moreno, the region contained the most interesting natural beauties of the Patagonia, which made it a kind of outdoor natural history museum. The expression “natural park” encompasses this aspect since the concept of “natural” implies the existence of a landscape that is not forged by man, while the concept of “park” demonstrates that this demarcated section of the planet now falls under the regulatory and ordered nature of civilization and the State. The latter term implies a delimited area, a manner of use (aesthetic) and a type of presence (temporary stay). The park is defined as such since nature serves to please man’s aesthetic requirements. Above all, it is the scenic aspect that defines the place to be preserved. Man exercises his dominion over nature by improving it, making it more similar to the model of his mind. If there are few trees in a given location, it falls to man, the omnipotent gardener, to plant eucalyptus trees to “reforest it.” Once defined as a park, this space remains separate from the rest of nature around it, which, thus, can be used for economic purposes.

“Cada vez que he visitado esa región me he dicho que convertida en propiedad pública inalienable llegaría a ser pronto centro de grandes actividades intelectuales y sociales y, por lo tanto, excelente instrumento de progreso humano.”[29]

Moreno believed that science and, more specifically, natural science, was an activity that in and of itself promoted human progress. An environment that gathered such interesting and diverse landscapes as mountains, lakes, forests, rivers and streams could only arouse the most noble of man’s nature; and man, enraptured by this great view, could not but pursue observation thereof. For Moreno, the park would attract the most enlightened persons not only of Argentina, but also of neighboring Chile and the rest of the world. Marveled by this display, they would commit themselves to fruitful investigations of nature. The park would be an international meeting point. In addition to this natural aspect, Moreno recommended that a building be constructed for the comfort of the population who came to rest at the park, admiring that parcel of nature separated from its environment and preserved so that it could be enjoyed without the changes that progress would likely impress upon other regions. Moreno desired that a similar park be created on the Chilean side of the border, next to Nahuel Huapi, which would help promote relations between the two nations. Moreno’s intent was to ensure the inalienability of the lands, since he knew that a failure to ensure their posterity as parks would ensure their failure to remain as such for long.

In 1912 Francisco Moreno received a visit from the former US president, Theodore Roosevelt, who accompanied Moreno to the Nahuel Huapi lake region. This would be Moreno’s last visit to the region.


With his expeditions in the summers of 1875-76 (Nahuel Huapi), 1876-77 (Santa Cruz) and 1879-80 (Nahuel Huapi), Moreno attempted to prove the value of the regions explored for Argentina’s development. His discourse portrays the image of building up the Patagonia – a homogenous and useless desert, devoid of man, animal, plant and wealth. Moreno believed his knowledge would serve to differentiate the true deserts – the regions of the Santa Cruz, Deseado and Chubut Rivers and the Patagonia coast – from the places that were suitable for settlement – the areas of Lakes Nahuel Huapi, Argentino, San Martín and Viedma and the Negro and Colorado Rivers. With the explorations, the author was able to categorically deny the image held by others of the region by separating it into different areas, each with its specific characteristics. If there were areas that were hostile and desolate, posing difficulties for civilized settlement, there were plenty of other areas replete with natural resources and ready to be settled. Civilizing promising areas would make it possible to later conquer the desert regions.

All told, thirty years after the conquest, Moreno faced a different scene that the one he had envisioned in his travel reports. Land distribution had shown itself to be a corrupt process where the private interests of the most powerful citizens had triumphed over the common good. The region had been colonized, but its potential had not been properly explored. From the scientist’s point of view, only action by the State, guided by scientific principles and free from private interests, could promote mankind’s progress in the region. Thus, the creation of the Nahuel Huapi National Park could be understood as an example of the manner that Moreno idealized for making use of the environment: scientific use of lands promoted by the State.

Finally, there is the connection between Moreno’s discourse and the nascent Nation-State. With his written works, Moreno established an agenda for territorial conquest, occupation and development that would form part of Argentina’s national identity. To be Argentine would be to carry out civil works – to civilize the Patagonia. Moreno created the idea of Argentineaness, independent of any founding myth resting on a common past. For Moreno, national identity would be defined by the future, in the process that would lead to victory over nature. It would fall to the Argentines to civilize and colonize a territory of the map previously delimited by nature itself. With his expeditions, the explorer attempted to remove the veil of ignorance that cloaked the region, allowing for science’s dominion over nature and enabling Argentina to conquer nature with the forces of civilization.


DRUMMOND, J. A. “A história ambiental: temas, fontes e linhas de pesquisa”. In: Estudos Históricos. No. 8, (1991-1992). São Paulo: FGV/CPDOC.

ELIAS, N. O processo civilizador. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar. 1994.

FASANO, H. L. Perito Francisco Pascasio Moreno: un héroe civil. 3. ed. La Plata: Fundación Museo de La Plata. 2003.

HARRIS, Nathaniel. “Patagonia”. In: Atlas of World’s Deserts. Nova Iorque: Routledge. 2003. Acessado em 21 de novembro de 2008, disponível em <;

HOSNE, R. Francisco Moreno: una herencia patagônica desperdiciada. Buenos Aires: Emecé. 2005.

HUGHES, J. D. What is environmental history? Cambridge: Polity. 2006.

IMORT, Michael. “A Sylvian People: Wilhelmine Forestry and the Forest as a Symbol of Germandon” In: LEKAN, T. & ZELLER, T. German’s Nature – Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. Rutgers University Press. 2005. Disponível em <; Acessado em 22 de novembro de 2008.

LÓPEZ, S. M. Representaciones de la Patagonia: colonos, científicos y políticos (1870 – 1914). La Plata: Al Margen. 2003.

NASH, R. Wilderness and the american mind. 4. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1982.

PASSETTI, G. Indígenas e criollos: política, guerra e traição nas lutas no sul da Argentina (1852-1885). Tese de Mestrado. São Paulo: USP. 2005.

PATAGONIA. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Acessado em 21 de novembro de 2008, disponível em < article-41673>

PRADO, M. L. C. América Latina no Século XIX: tramas, telas e textos. São Paulo/Bauru: Edusp/Edusc, 1999.

ROMERO, J. L. Breve historia de la Argentina. 4ª ed. Fondo de Cultura Económica de Argentina: Buenos Aires. 1996.

WOSTER, D. “Para fazer história ambiental”. In: Estudos Históricos. No. 8, (1991-1992). São Paulo: FGV/CPDOC.

Primary Sources

MORENO, F. P. Apuntes preliminares sobre una excursión al Neuquen, Río Negro, Chubut y Santa Cruz. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco. 1999. (original de 1897)

_______________ Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco. 1997. (original de 1942 – recompilado por Eduardo V. MORENO)

_______________ Viaje a la Patagonia austral. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco. 1997. (original de 1879)

[1] Cf. ROMERO, J. L. Breve historia de la Argentina. 4ª ed. Fondo de Cultura Económica de Argentina: Buenos Aires, 1996.

[2] Moreno’s reports from the four first expeditions were published and constitute the primary basis for this article. Cf. MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco. 1997. Viaje a la Patagônia Austral is the result of the diaries of the journey to the source of the Santa Cruz River between 1877 and 1878. The piece is full of descriptions of the natural environment and of the indigenous peoples, and it constitutes an important source of Moreno’s projections concerning colonization of the region in the period prior to military conquest of the Patagonia. MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco, 1997. In Reminiscências del Perito Moreno, Moreno narrates his two journeys to Lake Nahuel Huapi, the first between 1875 and 1876 and the second between 1879 and 1880. These reports were gathered posthumously by his son, Eduardo Moreno, who based the descriptions on manuscripts produced between 1906 and 1919 – over thirty years after the expeditions. Besides these reports, the book contains several letters both written by and addressed to Moreno at the time of the expeditions, including the letter mentioning Moreno’s three square leagues, later donated to the State, which would serve as a natural reserve for future generations; thirty years later, this reserve gave rise to the National Nahuel Huapi Park.

[3] In the 18th century, there had been a Jesuit mission in the region of the lake, which had been composed of religious people from Chile who had crossed the Andes through the famous passage. The mission lasted only a few years, though some explorers from Chile had also gone to the lake in subsequent years. Cf. MORENO, F. P. Apuntes preliminares sobre una excursión al Neuquen, Río Negro, Chubut y Santa Cruz. Buenos Aires: Elefante Blanco, 1999. p. 85-6.

[4] It is notable that Moreno baptized a lake that was so close to the Chilean border as “Argentine.” In doing so, he made it clear that no men at all were living at the region, be they Chilean or Amerindian. Having discovered it, the Argentineans were thus the owners of the lake and had the right to “civilize it.” Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 354.

[5] Moreno’s 1873 and 1880 expeditions can be defined by a few common characteristics that set them apart from his later journeys: aside from their scant resources, the context of the Conquest of the Desert was critical in categorizing these journeys separately. After 1880, Moreno’s expeditions to the Patagonia changed, becoming more institutionalized, commanding much greater resources and large crews. Moreover, these later expeditions took place in a territory fully under the provincial control of Buenos Aires.

[6] These maps are of my authorship, based on Francisco Moreno’s travel reports, but the satellite images were taken from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and can be found at <;.

[7] “I could never comprehend how a virile nation, the proprietor of expansive regions, from the tropics to the Antarctic pole, fails to apply itself in studying that which nature itself signals as pertaining to it. From our indifference, and from what we sought to inherent form Spain, we ended up losing good parts of our inheritance…” MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 22.

[8] PATAGONIA. In: Encyclopædia Britannica. 2008. Accessed on November 21, 2008, and found at <;; HARRIS, Nathaniel. “Patagonia”. In: Atlas of World’s Deserts. New York: Routledge, 2003. Accessed on November 21, 2008, and found at <;.

[9] MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 72.

[10] MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 270-275 and 289.

[11] Moreno compared the environments he found in the Patagonia to those of famous deserts from other continents: the Patagonian sands were equal to those of the Sahara, and its steppes were equal to those of the deserts of Asia. Ibidem. p. 93 and 292.

[12] “So long as man has not penetrated this county, all is solitude within it; nothing moves, the tranquil animals comply with life’s demands, then rest and then eat; but the presence of us men, enemies of nearly all that moves, now interrupts this apparent solitude.” Ibidem. p. 202

[13] Ibidem. p. 133

[14] Ibidem. p. 422-423

[15] MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 72.

[16] “I shall never forget the days I spent there, and their memory shall always be agreeable to me… There, alone, I admired the view and my spirit could not stop feeling how small is man before these gigantic works of Creation and, at the same time, the unimaginable magnitude of the effort to study nature and reveal her secrets.” MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 25

[17] MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 47 and MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 161.

[18] IMORT, Michael. “A Sylvian People: Wilhelmine Forestry and the Forest as a Symbol of Germandon” In: LEKAN, T. & ZELLER, T. German’s Nature – Cultural Landscapes and Environmental History. Rutgers University Press. 2005. This can be found at <; Accessed on November 22, 2008; MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 44-45, 177 e 260; MORENO, F. P. Viaje a la Patagonia Austral. p. 40.

[19] At the end of his report to Zorrilla, Moreno acknowledged the following in his description of the landscape to the minister: “Your Excellency will note the repetitive use of the words “good fields,” “fertile,” etc., but your Excellency can be sure that a report such as this must pale in comparison to the splendid reality…. My enthusiasm should not be dismissed as exaggerated.” MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. pp. 234 – 249.

[20] MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. pp. 39-40.

[21] Ibidem. p. 120

[22] Ibidem. p. 155

[23] Ibidem. pp. 27-28

[24] MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 117.

[25] “I hereby permit myself to request of you that you suspend any resolution on the lands and woods in these parts until my return in early June. Reminding you of that which I had the pleasure of telling you – that it shall be perfectly facile to turn this region into an extremely important center of wealth within two years time.” Ibidem. p. 272

[26] “(…) once again, I express how it behooves the Nation to preserve the property of some for the best [possible] use by these and future generations, following the example set by the United States and other nations who possess superb natural parks.” Text of the letter in which he donated the primary area of the national park, Nahuel Huapi. Buenos Aires, November 6, 1903. In: MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. pp. 281-283.

[27]Yosemite State Park was created in California in 1864. In 1872, Yellowstone National Park was inaugurated in Wyoming. Cf. NASH, Roderick. Wilderness and the American Mind. 4. ed. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1982.

[28] “Today the law has made me proprietor of these lands that in days long past allowed me to foresee the great future of lands then ignored that were under dispute; but knowledge of which has now made them Argentine forever. And I am grateful to hasten my contribution to bring about national ideals borne from my performance of my duties in these lands and developed from the teachings gleaned from their observance.” MORENO, F. P. Reminiscencias del Perito Moreno. p. 281-283.

[29] “Every time I have visited this region, I have told myself that, once converted to public, inalienable property, it would come to be the center of great intellectual and social activities and, therefore, an excellent instrument to humankind’s progress.” Ibidem.