Tag Archives: Patagonia

In search of live plesiosaurs in Patagonia

Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.

Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer
Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer

At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.

Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries.
Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries. Source: Patagonian Monsters.

An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”

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Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.)  And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.

The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
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Establishing camp at Killik Aike

This formal portait shows Carlos Felton (right) as a young man in the early 20th century.
This formal portait shows Carlos Felton (right) as a young man in the early 20th century.

After he landed at Rio Gallegos on New Year’s Eve, 1922, Elmer S. Riggs was eager to get to work collecting fossils. In his journal, he recorded the preparations he and his party made, and the help they received from local residents, before finally getting into the field:

The first days at Rio Gallogos [were] marked by the cordiality of the English-speaking residents and their eagerness to lend a helping hand. Scarcely had our party become settled at the Hotel Argentina when Mr. Smith of the Frigorifico (Compania Swift) came in to call and to advise us of police regulations and requirements. Next day we had lunch with him and acting Supt. Whitney who had in the meantime called at the hotel. In the afternoon (Jan. 1) we went with Mr. W. for a drive on the Punta Arenas road to [see] volcanoes…. On this ride we saw our first Guanaco and first rhea. …Two days later Mr. Whitney provided us with an interpreter … to present us to the Governor…. So well was the matter handled that our party had a most cordial reception[.] [We] spent a pleasant half hour and stayed to tea.

Provided with sedulas and a special letter from the Governor, Mr. Whitney again came forward with his car and driver to take us to Killick Aike, the Felton ranch. There we had a cordial reception from Mr. Carlos Felton present owner, and were shown the really wonderful garden of the estate which is known throughout the territory. We visited also the barranca near the house and saw the first fossil in situ, part of a foot of Nesodon. This on Jan. 4. …Abbott and Sternberg remained at the ranch and began active collecting the following day. When I returned on Saturday evening Mr. S. showed [me] a fine skull of Protypotherium which he had found.

A cliff, teeming with fossils, near Killik Aike.
A cliff, teeming with fossils, near Killik Aike.

Riggs went back to Rio Gallegos with the driver the following day to buy supplies and overhaul their field equipment and arranged to have it all taken by truck to Killik Aike. When Riggs returned, the Feltons

…insisted upon my remaining at the ranch home over Sunday and made me quite comfortable. On … Sunday the men established camp at a spring just over a ridge from the house and I spent part of the day there while the family [was] away on other engagements. Monday morning Jan. 8, I moved over to camp and began work on the barranca. A standing invitation was extended for us to dine at the ranch on Saturday evenings. Had birthday dinner there.

This was the expedition's first camp near Killik Aike.
This was the expedition’s first camp near Killik Aike.

The birthday Riggs mentions, his 54th, was 90 years ago today, 23 January 1923. The party remained at Killik Aike for the next three weeks. During that time, the Feltons supplied fresh meat,vegetables, saddle horses when needed and a team of mules to move them away when their work in that locality was finished. In gratitude, Riggs wrote: “We shall not soon forget the courtesy and hospitality of Mr. Felton and the charming hostess, his sister, Mrs. Henstock.”

This ruined wagon was probably left at Killik Aike by a North American fossil hunter.
This ruined wagon was probably left at Killik Aike by a North American fossil hunter.

Auld Lang Syne: Riggs arrives at Rio Gallegos

Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.
Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.

Ninety years ago today, Elmer S. Riggs and his small party, including George F. Sternberg and John B. Abbott, arrived at Rio Gallegos, Argentina to begin a long fossil hunting expedition in southern Patagonia. On that day, Riggs wrote one of his longest and most memorable journal entries, most of which is excerpted below:

Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.
Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.

Rio Gallegos.
Sunday Dec 31. 1922.

Called by the steward at 6:40 to find that the ship had anchored in the mouth of the river. Great scurrying about and the steward called for our baggage before I was dressed. Gave him the trunks then the hurry was all over and we were told that there was time for breakfast. Packed suit case and bag and then went down for coffee 7 o’clock.

At 8:30 a ships lighter was anchored alongside and hand baggage passed down. Then men were admitted to the gangway. Passengers all lined up along the rail watching the lighter bobbing upon the waves and bumping ship and ladder. Two longshoremen stood at bottom in the lighter and when close enough, pulled and lifted passengers from the ladder to it. As I entered the smaller boat was unable to stand up because of the motion. Some passengers were lying close under the forward decking already seasick while the spray from every wave broke over us. Men, women, and children were pulled and lifted aboard, infants were carried by the sailors. Passengers dropped down on luggage and boxes anywhere.

Then the ships steam launch which had been lying off during the disembarking, came alongside and picked up the lighters hawser and took us in tow not alongside as had been done in quiet waters but with a long tow-line. After twenty minutes of buffeting and liberal of sprinkling from salt water, we ran on the beach a mile from the ship. A miscellaneous crowd lined the shore. As I approached a stack of trunks, boxes, chests, and furniture a tall young man approached and asked, “Is this Mr. Riggs[?]” Receiving my answer in the affirmative he offered a hearty handshake and replied that he was Mr. Coleman of Chicago. Then in quite as genuine a manner he asked “What can I do for you?”

This hearty and friendly greeting did much toward relieving a feeling of strangeness at being dumped ashore in a strange country amid the babble of strange tongues.

Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.
Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.

Riggs and his party stayed for several days the Hotel Argentino. Here they acclimated to their new surroundings, which – though strange at first – became more and more familiar with each passing day. In town they shopped, packed and readied their outfit for fieldwork. By the end of the first week of January they were camped on the other side of the river, searching for Santa Cruz fossil mammals along the riverbank and in the sea cliffs north of town.

The cover of Riggs' personal journal.
The cover of Riggs’ personal journal.

What does the “random journal entry” read?

A number of curious readers have asked the obvious question: what does the “random journal entry” shown in my previous post read?

There are actually four entries on the two pages depicted, including 8-9 April 1923 and 5-6 April 1924. The entries for 8-9 April 1923 are the longest and most interesting. The entry for 8 April reads: “A very bad gale last night and today till evening and quite cold[.] went out on tide flat to get a Nesodon skull and lower jaws but tide did not go out far enough to uncover it[.] wind was so strong could not walk against it[.] in Afternoon wrapped specimens.” The next entry reads: “Very rainy until noon and cloudy till about 3 P.M. Prospected tide flat and did some wrapping specimens.”

John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.
John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.

This is no tall tale. Abbott was then encamped near the Rio Coyle, on the southeastern coast of Patagonia, and working in the mid-Miocene Santa Cruz beds. Anyone who has worked in this windy place will recognize the difficulties Abbott regales! Elmer S. Riggs, leader of the expedition, describes this weather vividly in an entry in his own journal with no date. He writes: “So strong…was wind pressure that men could not stand against it on the beach. Repeatedly we were dashed against rocks, caps and glasses blown away. Rocks were loosened from the cliffs and endangered our heads in the fall.”

Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.
Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.

Nesodon, now extinct, was a large-bodied notoungulate mammal endemic to South America. It was one of the more common Santa Cruz animals.