I recently spent a week at Chicago’s Field Museum looking through historic photographs and fossils from the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition to Argentina and Bolivia, 1922-1927. Together with Sergio Vizcaino, an Argentine paleontologist who specializes in fossil mammals, and Bill Simpson, Collection Manager, I looked at every fossil collected by Elmer S. Riggs & his colleagues in the Santa Cruz beds of southern Patagonia. We found many gems, including field number 1001, the first fossil collected by Riggs and recorded in his field notes.
Sergio also took a picture of me with Elmer’s first fossil.
My attention was directed to this ruined wagon when I visited Killik Aike last February while doing fieldwork in the Santa Cruz beds with a very accommodating group of Argentine paleontologists and geologists, including Sergio Vizcaino, Susana Bargo and others. My trip to Argentina was funded in part by a generous Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society.
My Argentine colleagues were there to collect Santa Cruz fossils. My purpose was to revisit historic fossil localities of the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition. One morning Sergio decided to visit Killik Aike to search for fossils there, and I jumped at the chance to see this historic place and talk to the present owners about old family records. While the rest of the party was fossil-hunting, I visited the estancia and had a long interview with John Locke Blake, sheep breeder, author and master of Killik Aike. Later we were all treated to a wonderful asado of wood-fired lamb and an abundance of carrots and potatoes plucked from the estancia’s famous garden.
Locke told me that when he bought the place from the Feltons in 1980, he found two North American wagons abandoned near the shore. When he tried to move them to higher ground, they fell to pieces. He believes they were owned and used by John Bell Hatcher and the Princeton Patagonia Expedition (1896-1899). Hatcher did, in fact, bring his own outfit from the US when he came here to collect fossils, and he left this outfit in the care of Barnum Brown, of the American Museum of Natural History. Brown then abandoned the wagon in Patagonia when he returned home in 1900. Brown had collected fossils at Felton’s estancia, also, and at least one report claims that Hatcher sold his wagon to Felton. Could one of the North American buckboards found at Killik Aike be Hatcher’s wagon? Very likely.
The other wagon might have belonged to Handel T. Martin, another North American who collected in the Santa Cruz beds in 1904. Martin also brought his own outfit from North America. It is not known what Martin did with his wagon when he abandoned the field and returned home.
I took many pictures of these two wagons. I paid particular attention to marks or manufacturer names that I thought would be helpful in untangling these remains. If there are any buckboard experts out there who can identify the make and model of the wagon depicted here, and tell me something about its history, I’m all ears. Help me put the cart before the horse.
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.
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.
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.”
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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
Nesodon, now extinct, was a large-bodied notoungulate mammal endemic to South America. It was one of the more common Santa Cruz animals.