The Pampas Indians of South America

Their Horsemanship

Their Mode Of Life. Sir Francis Head’s Descriptions Of The Race. Female Captives Among The Indians. Trading Visits To European Settlements. Classification Of Tribes. Change In Their Condition By The Introduction Of European Domestic Animals.

The vast plains or pampas of Buenos Ayres are inhabited where European settlements have not yet extended by a wild and singular race of Indians. To them the horse is all that the reindeer is to the Laplanders, constituting their chief support, and almost their only enjoyment. Nearly destitute of clothing, and careless of the ordinary conveniences and comforts of life, they are trained from infancy to scour the plains, often without saddles, upon the wild horses who roam at will over the boundless expanse of meadow. The world has never produced such magnificent horsemen: “The Gauchos,” says Sir Francis Head, ” who themselves ride so beautifully, all declare that it is impossible to ride with an Indian; for that the Indian s horses are better than theirs, and also that they have such a way of urging on their horses by their cries, and by a peculiar motion of their bodies, that even if they were to change horses, the Indians would beat them. The Gauchos all seemed to dread very much the Indians spears. They said that some of the Indians charged without either saddle or bridle, and that in some instances they were hanging almost under the bellies of their horses, and shrieking so that the horses were afraid to face them.”

Sir Francis Head’s Descriptions Of The Race

The whole lives of these singular people are spent upon horseback, a natural result of which is an incapacity for other species of exertion. Walking is intolerable to them: the fatigue and tediousness of such a mode of traveling over an unlimited level, would be disheartening to any, more particularly to those who have continually availed themselves of the services of the horse.

Something of the ordinary system of Indian government exists among the numerous tribes, but they are all of unsettled and roving habits, shifting their quarters continually in search of better pasturage, and subsisting chiefly upon mares flesh. Wherever they betake themselves, they drive before them great herds of horses, and the skill with which they will catch, mount, and manage a fresh animal, when the one they have been riding is wearied, is unequaled.

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The author above quoted, whose characteristically graphic description of a gallop across the pampas has won so extensive a reputation, observes of the Indians: “The occupation of their lives is war, which they consider is their noble and most natural employment; and they declare that the proudest attitude of the human figure is when, bending over his horse, man is riding at his enemy. The principal weapon which they use is a spear eighteen feet long; they manage it with great dexterity, and are able to give it a tremulous motion which has often shaken the sword from the hand of their European adversaries.” In addition to the spear, they make use, both in war and hunting, of a most effective instrument called the ballos. This is a species of slung-shot, consisting of a stout leathern thong with a ball of lead attached to either end. A terrible blow can be struck with this weapon, and, as a missile, the Indians use it with great dexterity and effect within a moderate range. The lasso or long noose attached to the saddle, is also an effective implement.

Between them and the Gauchos, a scarcely less wild race of cavaliers, principally of Spanish descent, the most deadly hostility constantly prevails. In the exposed districts, rude fortifications are erected for the protection of the white inhabitants against Indian incursions. The principal defense of these fortresses is said to be a narrow ditch, over which the Indian horses, accustomed to the unobstructed level of the prairie, refuse to leap, and nothing could induce their rider to attempt any thing upon foot. Upon occasion of a successful assault, the savages show little mercy. All the unfortunate whites are murdered, except such of the young women as appear sufficiently attractive to make desirable wives. “Whether the poor girls can ride or not,” says Head, “they are instantly placed upon horses, and when the hasty plunder of the hut is concluded, they are driven away from its smoking ruins and from the horrid scene which surrounds it.”

“At a pace which in Europe is unknown, they gallop over the trackless regions before them, fed upon mares flesh, sleeping on the ground, until they arrive in the Indian’s territory, when they have instantly to adopt the wild life of their captors.

Female Captives Among The Indians

“I was informed by a very intelligent French officer, who was of high rank in the Peruvian army, that on friendly terms, he had once passed through part of the territory of these Pampas Indians, in order to attack a tribe who were at war with them, and that he had met several of the young women who had been thus carried off by the Indians.

“He told me that he had offered to obtain permission for them to return to their country, and that he had, in addition, offered them large sums of money if they would, in the mean while, act as interpreters; but they all replied that no inducement in the world should ever make them leave their husbands, or their children, and that they were quite delighted with the life they led.”

There is certainly something strangely fascinating in the idea of a wild life, unfettered by the artificial restraints of society, and the constant call for exertion and care incident to civilized existence. We see that in a majority of cases the inhabitants of even the most desolate and inhospitable regions of the earth, after experiencing the com forts of civilization, are still glad to return to the scenes and habits to which they were early inured. It is easier for the educated and enlightened European to discard the advantages, which he has inherited, and to adopt the habits and life of the savage, especially in a genial and spontaneously productive clime, than for the latter to give up his wild freedom for the responsibilities and cares of civilization.

Among The Indians. Trading Visits To European Settlements

In times of peace the free rovers of the South American pampas make occasional visits to the European towns and settlements for the purpose of trade. They bring in such few articles of peltry, &c., as they deal in, to barter for sugar, “knives, spurs, and liquor.” Delivering up all their dangerous weapons to their chief, they devote them selves, at first, to a regular drinking-bout, after recovering from which, they offer their goods to the trades-people. They will have nothing to do with money, or the ordinary rules of weight and measure, but designate, by some mark of their own, the quantity of the commodity they require in exchange for their own stock.

Classification Of Tribes

The Pampas Indians are classified as belonging to the great Patagonian or Pampean group, which is divided into the following nations: the Tehuelche, Puelche, Charrua, Mbocobi or Toba, Mataguayo, Abipones, and Lengua. That portion of which we have been speaking in this chapter, consists principally of the Puelche: their ancestors were found further north, bordering upon the tribes of Paraguay and upon the first arrival and settlement of Europeans upon the La Plata, proved most formidable enemies.

They also inhabited the eastern mountainous regions of Chili, where they were allied to and classed with the noble and warlike Araucanians. Molina, in his account of that race, says of the Puelches: “These, although they con form to the general customs of the nation, always discover a greater rudeness and savageness of manners. Their name signifies Eastern-men. The Araucanians hold these mountaineers in high estimation for the important services which they occasionally render them, and for the fidelity which they have always observed in their alliance with them.”

The first tows built upon the site of the present city of Buenos Ayres, in 1534, was destroyed by the Indians; and there bold attack repelled the Spanish adventurers in this quarter until 1580. Even then they renewed their hostilities, but the fall of their chief cacique in battle, and the more efficient fortification of the new town, baffled them and caused their entire defeat.

Change In Their Condition By The Introduction Of European Domestic Animals

In these early times their habits were of course different from what we may now notice, as horses and cattle were not introduced until the arrival of Europeans. The emu or American ostrich, still an inhabitant of the Pampas, the deer, sloth, and small game, supplied them with food. The unprecedented natural increase of cattle and horses, turned free to roam over the rich grassy savannahs, supplied them with entirely new resources.

Those Indians of Buenos Ayres, Paraguay, and other southern provinces, who live in the midst of the white settlements, are mostly Christian converts, at least in name and the observance of religious formulae.”

The extent to which the different nations of Europe, Africa, and America have become mixed in most of the South American provinces, renders any thing like accurate enumeration of the amount of the present Indian population difficult, if not impossible.


Brownell, Charles De Wolf. Indian Races of North and South America: Comprising an account of the principal aboriginal races; a description of their national customs, mythology, and religious ceremonies, the history of their most powerful tribes, and of their most celebrated chiefs and warriors; their intercourse and wars with the European settlers; and a great variety of anecdote and description, illustrative of personal and national character. Hartford, Conn., Chicago,E. B. & R.C. Treat; [etc., etc.]: Hurlbut, Scranton & Co. 1864.

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