The Welsh colony in the Chubut Valley
Background to the railway
As it was the Welsh settlers who built the Central of Chubut Railway, this first page is devoted to a study of their background and early struggles in the arid Patagonian plains. If you wish to skip this, click on one of the phrases in white on the left, to get taken to the appropriate railway page.
The first arrivals
The Welsh first arrived in Patagonia in 1865. It had been noted that Welsh emigrants to pre-existing communities, in the USA and elsewhere, quickly lost their language and their non-conformist culture. The 'Cambrian Immigration Committee' hoped that the vast Patagonian wilderness would allow for the founding of a new Wales in the southern hemisphere.
A ticket for the journey of the Mimosa in 1865 at the founding of the colony. The original is in Gaiman Museum.
In 1853, a young type-setter called Lewis Jones had made a reconnaissance of the Chubut valley and despite the semi-desert landscape he had considered colonisation to be practical. So, in 1865, the barque 'Mimosa' had left Liverpool with 153 settlers, landing at New Bay (now Golfo Nuevo) to found the town of Porth Madryn, later Puerto Madryn. The picture shows the monument erected in Trelew to commemorate the centenary of the Welsh landing in 1965. In time the Welsh community became known to those back in Wales as 'Yr Wladfa" or Gwladfa Patagonia - the Patagonian Colony.
The 1965 centenary monument in Trelew, honouring the arrival of the original Welsh settlers back in 1865, as photographed in 1975.
A tough start
The newcomers found the valley a very hard place to begin with, and only really came to terms with the aridity of it all when they began to dig irrigation channels - a far cry from life in wet Wales! At its nadir in 1868 their numbers were down to 80, but by 1880 the possibilities of irrigation had attracted further emigrants from Wales and the numbers had swelled to 800 or more. The colony had initially been left alone by their neighbours but in 1875 a police chief had arrived from Buenos Aires to bring the valley under Argentine rule.
As time went on the settlers spread further up the Chubut (or 'Camwy') Valley. Lewis Jones, the original driving force behind the 1865 arrivals, had remained the leader of the community, and as the next chapter explains, it was he who pushed forward the plans for the new railway. At the same time Welsh explorers amongst others were looking further west, to the foothills of the Andes, where towns and villages like Esquel were surrounded by more Welsh farms and centred on more Welsh chapels. (The one pictured is actually in Gaiman). An extract from an 1888 map showing the routes explored by the Welsh is displayed at the foot of this page.
The very Welsh looking Bethel chapel in Gaiman, as seen in 1975.
Inevitably, the area's Welshness has slowly lost ground to the Spanish language and the influence from further north. However, there is still a good deal of interest in all things Welsh, and an annual Eisteddfod. There is a page (in Spanish) about Lewis Jones himself in the Trelew municipal website. The Puerto Madryn website also has a good deal of historical information, some of which is in English, and a number of old photos, though only one poor one of the railway. Patagonia, both Argentinian and Chilean, has seen exploration, immigration, exploitation, and attempted revolution, in ways that equal any excitement that the Wild West could offer. Anyone wishing to get a flavour of the area's history should look at the list of references in the bibliography.
Extract from map of Welsh explorers
An enlarged extract from a map held by Gaiman Museum is shown below. Whilst it is not very clear, Welsh speakers may be able to identify some of the place-names. The extract shown covers an area south east of Esquel and down towards Tecka. The words 'llyn', 'nant' and 'cwm' appear amongst others.
The agricultural establishments at this time were relatively small, family run affairs and so it was necessary to work along with your neighbour. This extended to the ownership and operation of agricultural plant such as this traction engine which no doubt also served to power the communal threshing machine at harvest time.
The community of Tir Halen (Salt Land), now known as 28 de Julio, were the proud owners of this traction engine seen here crossing the bridge to get into Gaiman. The view came from the National Library of Wales collection.