The Viceroy of the Río de la Plata was reminded in 1796 that the boundaries of his dominions, “because of a few annoying barbarians,” were the same as those which had been secured in 1590 by Juan de Garay and sixty men.1 This charge was essentially true; expansion of white settlement into the Pampa was exceedingly slow during the colonial period. The lack of maps for the plains, the absence of economic incentive to expansion, trade restrictions placed on the area by the mother country, and the meager colonial population were all factors contributing to the lethargic European expansion into lands destined to become great pastoral empires. The prime cause, however, must be attributed to the “annoying barbarians”—the Indians of the plains who stubbornly refused to share their lands and cattle with the whites.

The terrain over which these natives ruled was itself an effective barrier to expansion. No European experience prepared the Spanish colonists for the “boundless monotony of the billowing grasses which greeted them on the Parana-Plata shore.”2 In only three areas did high ground punctuate the “flatness” of the plains: the Cordoban hills, rising to approximately five thousand feet; the highlands of Ventana of about the same height; and the rocky outcroppings in the Tandil area with an elevation of about 1,600 feet.3 Several streams provided occasional variations in the landscape. The Río Negro and the Río Colorado, on the southern Pampa, flow from the Andes to the Atlantic. The abundant wood supply along the river banks, in contrast to the treeless plains, made this area the ultimate goal of all expansionistic activity to the south. These valleys are also of historical importance because they were the routes by which Chilean Indians made their way to the fertile plains of Buenos Aires. To the north, the Carcaraña, replenished by the waters of the Tercero and Cuarto rivers, flowed across the plains and emptied into the Paraná. Between these two river systems, the Salado struggled its way into the Bay of Samborombón, 150 miles southeast of Buenos Aires. The area along the banks of this stream, known as the Salado Slough, was a series of small lakes during the rainy season; at all other times, it was a line of swamps which acted as a cultural boundary between Indian and white throughout most of the colonial period. Although rainfall normally was adequate throughout the Pampa, much of the area was subject to occasional droughts which brought disaster to Indians and Spaniards and to the cattle upon which both depended. In general, water was more plentiful in the eastern plains of Buenos Aires than in the western interior provinces, a climatic factor which brought greater numbers of cattle, Indians, and settlers to the eastern sector.

The Indians who inhabited this region were from several tribes with very similar cultural traits. At the time of the conquest, the Querandí occupied an area between the mouth of the Plata and Córdoba.4 Between this area and the Río Negro lived the Puelches, while south of this river the Tehuelches wandered over the plains of northern Patagonia, occasionally spilling over into the Colorado River area.5 The Pehuenches, of historical importance because they controlled the passes through which the Araucanians of Chile entered the plains, occupied a small zone in the Andean foothills.6 All these inhabitants of the Pampa were nomadic hunters who existed on the meat of the guanaco, the rhea, the deer, and the otter. They practiced no agriculture.7 Prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the Querandí supplemented their diet with fish from the rivers, but with the gradual European occupation of the river valleys they were forced to a complete dependence on the hunt for their existence.8 Since these Indians were usually on the move, their shelters were light and portable, consisting of rude half-huts fabricated from the skins of animals.9 Their clothing was also of the scant variety, a small apron of cloth and a fur robe providing the entire wardrobe.

The natives were brown in color with apparently no unusual physical characteristics. The Querandí were described as “taller than Germans but not as tall as the Tehuelches.”10 The latter were reported by Magellan’s men as giants of seven-foot stature, but their height appears to have diminished when observed by later witnesses. Thomas Falkner, a Jesuit missionary, acknowledged that these people were tall and described one chief as “seven feet and some inches tall; because, on tiptoe, I could not reach the top of his head.” Falkner stated, however, that this height was exceptional and disclaimed any knowledge of the gigantic race of Indians allegedly inhabiting Patagonia.11 The Pehuenches were described as about “two varas tall” and were said to be more robust, more active, and stronger than any other Indians of the region.12

There are no accurate figures on Indian population. Juan Díaz de Solis, the discoverer of the Río de la Plata, disembarked and was attacked by a great number of Indians who killed every man ashore. The natives must have been numerous, because the remaining Spaniards were so impressed by the hordes of Indians that they dared not leave their vessel to support their comrades.13 The fort founded by Sebastián Cabot in 1526 on the northern rim of the Pampa was attacked and destroyed by a native army reputed to number twenty thousand. In 1535 a settlement near the newly-founded town of Buenos Aires was inhabited by two thousand Querandí who were reinforced by four thousand more natives to do battle with the Spaniards.14 Later in the same year, an army estimated at 23,000 Indians assaulted the new settlement.16 The accuracy of these figures is doubtful, but

supposing even that the first explorers exaggerated the number of Indians, there is little doubt that the Pampa along the southern shores of the Río de la Plata and the western banks of the Paraná supported a dense population according to the conditions prevailing in aboriginal America. The military resistance of these people to Spanish invasion at the time of Spain’s military vigor, not only by guerrilla warfare but promptly and directly by battle, again suggests an active and numerous people.16

The plains to the west and south, however, were uninviting to the natives, and all evidence indicates a relatively small population in these areas. The highest estimate of Puelche or Tehuelche strength in the colonial period was ten thousand. In 1745, Falkner noted that the Pehuenches “although formerly very numerous . . . are now so much diminished as not to be able to muster four thousand men amongst them all.”17 A British traveler of the early independence period estimated the total number of Indians on the Pampas at eight thousand.18 Whatever the actual numbers of Indians, it is certain that the myth of countless hordes of savages gained a firm hold on the imagination of white settlers in the region. Estimates ranged as high as 200,000. Fantastic as these concepts of Indian strength may appear in retrospect, they had a direct effect on the tactics and methods adopted by Spanish authorities to meet the native menace.

Although the sixteenth century was characterized by almost constant hostility between Spaniard and Indian, large-scale military operations were not usual. The tribes attacked convoys traveling to the interior, raided outlying estancias, and occasionally mounted an attack sufficiently large to cause the settlers substantial losses. But warfare, worthy of the name, did not generally prevail until the seventeenth century.

Once the initial settlements had been secured, the great advantage of the horse enabled the whites to maintain their precarious position on the Pampa. The changes which took place during the seventeenth century, however, provided the seeds from which generated the long struggle for control of the plains.

The horse provided the greatest single social and military transformation of the Indian character. Different tribes adopted the animal at different times. The Puelche and Tehuelche probably became equestrians in the late seventeenth century.19 In Chile, however, the Indians were using horses by the middle of the sixteenth century, and the Pehuenches must have been familiar with the animal shortly thereafter.20 From Chile the horse made its way, with or without rider, to the plains of the east. In the great grasslands, the horse found a situation ideally suited for existence and multiplication.21 Wandering Spanish cattle found the same happy grazing grounds.22

Horse and cattle became the focus of Indian life. Prior to the equine invasion, the native was fleet afoot; he now became virtually helpless without his animal. From infancy he lived on a horse, and his legs became extremely bowed and all but useless.23 Nearly all his occupations and amusements were performed on horseback. At one time the Indian considered horseflesh his greatest dietary delicacy, but the economics of the situation forced him to utilize cattle as his primary food. There were too many cogent uses—transportation, trade, and war—for the horse. The complete dependence upon the horse for transportation and on cattle for food forced the Indian to resort to thievery, raids, or open warfare whenever these animals were in short supply.

The seventeenth century also saw a change in the ethnic pattern of the Indian of the plains. The Chilean Indians from the very beginning of warfare with the Spaniards adopted the tactics of their foes, and the horse played a highly important role in these tactics. To secure horses, a brisk trade developed between the Indians of the Pampa and the Araucanians—the former gave horses, the latter textiles or other articles of a higher culture. The Pehuenches were the intermediaries. Using the Pehuenche homeland as a base, the Araucanians gradually took over the greater part of the Argentine central plains. As early as 1708, Araucanian leaders attended a council of Indian tribes on the Río Quinto.24 A year later an expedition seeking salt to the south of Buenos Aires reported a vast number of “aucás” moving large herds of cattle and horses toward Chile.25 This removal of livestock from the plains was made a matter of official record in 1710 by the Cabildo of Buenos Aires.26 By 1725 the Araucanians were definitely established on the Pampas, and in the 1740’s their language was reported to be the “most generally understood among the Indian population of the plains.”27 The new environment transformed a settled people with an Andean culture into nomads who lived on cattle and pillage.28 This migration and cultural conquest brought greater unity and more dynamic leadership to the Indians of the Pampa.

The weapons and tactics of these Indians were well adapted to the type of warfare they waged. For close-in fighting, a small wooden cudgel with a sharpened point was effectively used until the beginning of the nineteenth century. The primary weapons, however, were the lance and the bola. The lances were usually from fifteen to eighteen feet in length and were handled with great dexterity.29 The bola, small weighted balls on the end of a leather cord, was the chief hunting weapon. The natives were extremely accurate with this missile and used it extensively to hamstring cattle and horses. If it were impossible to hurl it, they used it as a club. The boleadora, a longer, heavier weapon operating on the same principle, was also a part of the Indian horseman’s equipment.30 Although the Indians of Chile first used firearms shortly after the European conquest, the natives of the Pampa did not make extensive use of them during the colonial period. In the mobile warfare against the whites, native weapons were quite as effective as those of their opponents.

The Indians rarely made a frontal assault on a fortified position; they never dismounted. Whether the operation was a large-scale attack on a town or a small raid on an outlying estancia, they utilized much the same methods. All operations were planned.31 The warriors usually assembled at a considerable distance from the objective; from this point, scouts were sent to reconnoiter the proposed line of march, the state of the frontier, the condition of enemy horses, and other items of interest. On the reports of these advanced patrols, much of the success of the undertaking depended. Closer reconnaissance of the objective was made after nightfall. The main body united at a pre-selected point, and when all contingents were ready, the leaders reviewed, briefed, and exhorted their men. In the approach to the battle positions, the Indians rode by night to prevent dust clouds from revealing their presence. The individual fighter’s chief concern during the march was the selection of a good mount for the critical period ahead. Normally, he did not utilize his best horse until the raid was about to begin.32

The Indians attacked just before dawn, approaching the objective at full gallop and uttering loud shrieks.33 The assault was rapid and furious. If the opposition proved stronger than anticipated, the raiders withdrew and seldom returned to the fight. The first wave of the assault had the mission of setting fire to buildings. If those within rushed out, they were killed or maimed by lances. If possible, the women were captured; the men, whether they resisted or not. were killed. The main purpose of all raids, however, was booty in the form of horses and cattle.34 One special group of the force was always assigned the special mission of gathering animals and driving them away from the scene of hostilities. Pillage of all installations was usually complete. In retreating from a raid, the natives divided into small groups to make pursuit more difficult.

The hatred between Indian and frontiersman on the Pampa was intense. A prevalent Indian maxim was “Spare an enemy today, and he will cut your throat tomorrow.”35 The attitude of the gaucho is well illustrated by the following incident related by a traveler on the plains:

I asked the man how many prisoners had been taken in a fight with the Indians. He replied with a look I shall never forget. He clenched his teeth, opened his lips, and then, sawing his finger across his throat for a quarter of a minute, bending toward me with his spurs striking his horse’s side, he said in a low, choking voice: “Se matan todos.”36

It was in this atmosphere of reciprocal hatred that the war on the Pampa was carried on.

Throughout the seventeenth century there was no great economic incentive motivating the Spaniards to push their estancias into the uninviting Indian country. Nor did the natives have an impelling reason to attack the small white settlements since their European neighbors had little that the Indians could not obtain themselves. The abundant cattle and horses supplied food. Through the easy passes of the Neuquén region of the cordillera, the Indians traded cattle and hides to the estancieros of Chile and received the few items they needed in return.

Early in the eighteenth century, several important developments tended to throw the Indians and the colonists into closer contact. The discovery of salt beds southwest of Buenos Aires prompted expeditions to secure this necessary commodity. The procurement of salt was considered a public service, and the authorities gave these expeditions preferential treatment. The acquisition presented certain difficulties, and armed, well-planned expeditions were necessary to make the journey commercially profitable. By 1730, annual excursions were made to the salt beds in the heart of Indian territory.37

The problems inherent in early cattle ranching were even more significant than the demand for salt. In order to obtain hides, grease, tallow, and to stock and re-stock their ranches, the cattlemen depended on the unbranded animals of the Pampas and made periodic forays into the plains. Originally these hunts were of short duration, but as the years passed it became necessary to cross the Salado and go farther into the plains to obtain animals. In 1723, the Cabildo of Buenos Aires noted that the only free bulls were to be found one hundred leagues from the city. “To obtain these,” continued the minutes, “an expedition guarded by one hundred men is necessary.”38 The entrance of the white hunting parties into these areas aroused native antagonism.

These expeditions were co-operative endeavors, the expense being shared by the ranchers of the district. The men chosen to take part were excellent horsemen who knew the frontier and were willing to face Indian hostility. By the eighteenth century, there was a nucleus of individuals who had spent a great part of their lives in the pursuit of wandering cattle; they knew the best waterholes, the most lucrative hunting areas, and the physical nature of the terrain along the Atlantic Coast and to the southwest of Buenos Aires. By 1714 the cabildo had reasonably accurate information concerning the territory near Tandil and Salinas, and one missionary-explorer mentioned that the region of the Mar Chiquita was visited prior to 1748 by these “rurales.”39 These men were later utilized as scouts in military operations against the Indians.

If the whites became more interested in the land of the Indians, the reverse was also true. The easily-obtained food supply proved exhaustible, and the natives found it increasingly difficult, to secure cattle. After 1725 the notes of the cabildo largely concern themselves with domesticated cattle or runaways. The cimarron had virtually disappeared.40 To the Indian this situation was little short of catastrophic, but he soon provided a solution. His supply of food depleted, he turned to the domesticated cattle grazing on the frontier estancias of his Spanish neighbors. His way of life continued; Spanish cattle satisfied his hunger quite as well as the wild variety, and his commercial contacts in Chile proved morally indifferent to the source of their purchases. The procuring of livestock was more difficult, but the Indian had improved his raiding capabilities by his mastery of the horse and the infusion of Araucanian leadership.

The diminution of free cattle was the fundamental cause of conflict,41 but actions by both whites and Indians tended to inflame the growing hostility. Indian raids of 1737 brought a retaliatory expedition by the colonists. Unfortunately, the retaliation vented itself upon an innocent tribe. This error brought severe Indian attacks on Areco and Arrecifes.42 To avenge these actions, Juan de San Martín, the frontier commander, led a strong force to chastise the responsible parties, but once again zeal for revenge outweighed better judgment. San Martín led his men in a vicious slaughter of the tribe of Calelían, a cacique who had formerly been highly co-operative.43 If an object lesson was intended, it failed. The tribes mobilized, and for the first time arose en masse against the whites.44 Thus were initiated the countless incursions—the dreaded malones—of the Indians. The frontier soon was a battleground covering one hundred leagues, and the lives and wealth of the estancieros were constantly in danger. The Cabildo of Buenos Aires was besieged with demands for action against the tribes.

The most usual reaction of the authorities to Indian attacks was to organize an expedition to take the field against them. There were literally hundreds of these punitive campaigns undertaken during the colonial period. They were seldom successful. Rarely did they have sufficient strength to achieve a decisive victory over the natives even when they were sufficiently fortunate to locate the guilty tribes. The Indians simply withdrew into lands they knew far better than their pursuers.45 Nevertheless, these expeditions gave the harassed estancieros a respite from raids by forcing the Indians to take refuge some distance from the frontier. The show of strength on occasion frightened some of the more docile tribes into peace overtures. A seven-hundred man expedition of 1739 achieved no distinction as a fighting force, but a year later three hundred Indians requested that they be located in a reduction.46 Under the leadership of two missionaries, Matías Strobel and Manuel Querini, the Jesuits were at this time undertaking the spiritual conquest of the Indians of Buenos Aires and had established a settlement at Concepción, near the mouth of the Salado. The Indian petitioners were located at the new mission.47

After an Indian massacre of two hundred people at Magdalena in 1741 and another fruitless pursuit, the Spaniards determined to utilize further the talents of the Jesuits in an attempt to bring peace. Strobel was appointed chaplain of an expedition into Indian country which had the primary mission of negotiating a peace treaty with Cangapol or “Cacique Bravo,” the acknowledged leader of the intransigent tribes.48 The sister of Cangapol, a neophyte in the mission, was used to effect an audience. The resulting parley found the Spaniards representing the reduced Indians as well as themselves. Considerable negotiation brought an agreement naming Cangapol the field commander (maestre de campo) of the highlands of Tandil and Volcán. In this capacity, he was to be the intermediary between Spanish authorities and the natives. He alone could give permission to any Indian to cross the Salado; he alone was responsible for return to the reduction of fugitive Indians, and he was to determine the punishment for recalcitrant natives. It was also to be Cangapol’s duty to see that the missionaries were allowed to say mass to any Pampas Indians and to require his kinsmen to treat the priests with great veneration “as persons sent by God to show them the way to heaven.”49 Although this treaty failed to bring order and peace to the plains, it was highly significant in that it established the Salado River as a recognized cultural and military frontier. Throughout the rest of the colonial period, the authorities largely expended their energies toward the defense of this line.

On September 16, 1744, the cabildo agreed to the feasibility of establishing forts along the Salado River, and an implementing committee recommended that these installations serve as headquarters from which reconnaissance parties could maintain constant surveillance of the frontier.50 In April, 1745, the cabildo authorized a daily wage for the men who would occupy the forts and named a field commander to inspect all installations.51 The financing of these projects, however, proved difficult, and it was not until 1751 that the needed revenue was obtained. The general economic level of the region was low and sources of taxation were few. Levies were finally made on salt gatherers and on farmers who brought their orchard crops into the city. In addition, a small levy was made on each head of family, and a sales tax was placed on leather goods and wine.52

Three forts were established in 1752 at Luján, Salto, and Zanjón, each of which was to have “quarters for troops, a chapel, and lodgings for a priest.”53 Apparently the planners had in mind some sort of a military colony since the establishments, in addition to being strategically placed, were to be located in “an area offering natural conditions of fertility so that the soldiers could obtain the necessities of life.”54 Personnel to man these defenses was not easily obtained. Prior to this time, unpaid militia constituted the only soldiery available. Their recruitment was at the pleasure of the local authorities who usually exempted no one over the age of sixteen unless he was the sole support of elderly parents.55 The men served for a specific period of time, but the slightest infraction of regulations doubled their time in service. Juan de San Martín had diligently attempted to forge these troops into an effective frontier force with some temporary success, but the dreary nature of the work resulted in low state of morale and a high rate of desertion. The men were not paid; there was no provision for the protection and subsistence of their families. Because of these experiences with the militia, the cabildo decided that a better military organization was essential.56

By June, 1752, three companies had been formed and were garrisoned in the three forts in December. For several years these “blandengues,” as they were called, remained under control of the cabildo, and complete records of expenditures, replacements, and other pertinent data were maintained.57 Unfortunately, the blandengues proved almost as ineffective as the militia had been. They were drawn from the same source as the unpaid troops, and the official status and uniforms given them did not alter their basic annoyance with military discipline. Their zeal varied directly with the promptness with which they were paid, and a chronic shortage of funds made this circumstance rare indeed. Desertion was still commonplace.58

Upon his arrival in 1770, Governor Francisco de Paula Bucareli found the three companies of blandengues in a state of dissolution. Innumerable requests for military aid from the outskirts of his jurisdiction gave proof of the ineffectiveness of existing defenses.59 By the payment of salaries, some of which were twenty months in arrears, Bucareli managed to restore troops to the frontier forts. He then set out with energy and determination to bring peace to the harassed frontier areas. His task was lightened somewhat by a disastrous drought in the years 1770-1771. Ranchers moved their cattle northward to more adequate pasturage, but the stock upon which the Indians depended for their subsistence was seriously depleted. Hunger accomplished what Spanish force and negotiation had generally failed to do—a number of tribes sued for peace.

The terms were harsh. Indian movement was severely limited, and their cattle could be brought to pasturage only with the express consent of the authorities. To contact the Spaniards, the natives were to approach along the Salinas-Luján road in groups of not more than six and were to be accompanied by an escort of frontier troops. Of greater importance was Bucareli’s scheme to destroy Indian unity and make the more amenable tribes serve Spanish purposes. Each chief was held accountable for the suppression of uprisings within a circumscribed zone. If another group of natives wandered into this preserve, the responsible chief had the authority to confiscate the interloper’s cattle or to take other reprisals by whatever means he deemed necessary. The governor hoped that these arrangements would keep peace within the Indian sectors or, at worst, give them the opportunity to destroy each other. Under the terms of the treaty, captive renegade Indians could be purchased for a fair price at Luján. This headquarters was also to be the depositing place for the heads of those chiefs who refused to accept the peace terms. To provide an assurance of good will, the son of one of the prominent caciques was held hostage in Buenos Aires. Nine of the eleven chiefs agreed to these terms and promised to bring the other two into the fold or to punish them for their obstinacy.60

The colonial authorities, however, soon found that there were flaws in these agreements. What action were they to take if the friendly tribes were defeated by the more intransigent groups? If the allied Indians did not dominate the plains, the entire treaty structure would collapse. As a result of successful Tehuelche attacks, several Pampas chieftains appealed to Bucareli for aid. The subsequent expedition significantly included 291 Indians and 231 whites, proportions not attained in previous campaigns. The column crossed the Salado, pushed deep into Indian territory, and soundly defeated several groups of obstreperous natives.61 It was evident that the “desert” could be penetrated by large military forces.

The success of this campaign indicates that the Indians were on the defensive and gives rise to speculation as to why Bucareli did not carry out extensive operations to sweep all hostile Indians from the plains.62 While it was relatively easy to launch a single expedition with a limited objective, it was a much more involved problem to prepare a strong striking force which could operate over an extended period of time and permanently police the conquered territory. There were no available reserves of men and supplies.63

The inability to control large areas was illustrated in 1773 with the arrival of information from Chile that an Indian invasion from that area might be expected. Manuel Pinazo, the commander of the frontier, was ordered to take charge of defensive preparations, but he could not raise sufficient troops nor gather enough supplies to take to the field. He complained that he lacked cavalry, that the weather was not propitious, that rations could not be obtained, and that, inasmuch as there was not yet an overt act, warlike preparations were premature.64

Pinazo’s general attitude illustrates clearly the prevailing attitude toward the frontier problem throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. There was no urge to occupy and develop the land immediately adjacent to the south and west of the settlements. The unknown Pampa, the warlike Araucanians, the small population, the lack of funds—all these difficulties had to be overcome. The failure to conquer the Indians is attributable, not so much to the lethargy of the colonials, but rather to the world situation which at this time prevented the Plata area’s economic development. The stifling restricttions on maritime commerce and on the trade with the interior prevented economic growth. To be sure, there was an extensive contraband trade with Brazil, with foreign powers, and with the Andean sections, but this traffic was illegal and could not be protected or encouraged by any local governmental actions. Traders traveling to the interior had to protect themselves from Indian attack; they were rarely given military escorts.65

The gradual rescinding of oppressive legislation in the eighteenth century and the great increase in contraband trade, however, brought a measure of prosperity to the Plata region. In 1778 Buenos Aires was granted the right to engage in commercial intercourse with other parts of the Spanish Empire. The region was granted administrative autonomy in 1776 through the establishment of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata. In 1777 exports to the interior provinces through the port of Buenos Aires were finally authorized; the entire country could now take advantage of direct commerce with the outside world. To make full utilization of these new economic possibilities, however, the land had to be controlled and developed. The wealth was in the land, but the land was dominated in large part by the Indians. Thus the Indian problem became an important element on the agenda of the new viceroys.

The first year saw no major decisions as to the procedures to be followed on the frontier since Pedro de Cevallos, the first viceroy, was more occupied with the immediate problems of foreign war than with domestic questions. Certain stop-gap decrees, however, were issued. All inhabitants of the plains were to place themselves at the disposal of the military officials under penalty of six years imprisonment and loss of their property. Increased military escorts were supplied for merchants who wished to travel to the salt beds. Some life was infused into the three small forts by making necessary repairs of these establishments.

Cevallos was convinced that the Indians could be brought under control by a concerted offensive launched with an army of ten to twelve thousand men.66 Royal approval for such an undertaking arrived as he was relinquishing the viceroyalty to his successor, Juan José de Vértiz de Salcedo. Vértiz was a creole and had served previously as governor of Buenos Aires. He was somewhat reluctant to carry out the project of Cevallos and created a council to study the feasibility of the plan.67 Prominent civil and military leaders, including those experienced in frontier fighting, were summoned to the conference. In the event that the junta decided in favor of an offensive, it was to draw up the necessary plans and determine the number of men, arms, horses, and provisions which would be required. The statement issued by this body clearly reveals the attitudes of the authorities toward the Indian problem at this time.68

The junta did not share the optimism of Cevallos. There were serious doubts among the conferees as to the possibilities for success of any such expedition. To raise ten thousand men for this purpose would create a scarcity of labor and leave the “trades and agriculture” exposed to neglect. The greatest army which could possibly be assembled would comprise 4,800 men from Buenos Aires, 1,500 from Córdoba and Tucumán, and 1,800 from Mendoza, San Luis, and San Juan. The junta used these figures as bases for determining the quantity of other necessary items. The members of the junta stated their wholesome respect for the Indian as an antagonist with these words:

The Indians form a nomadic body without definite habitation or location; they carry all their wealth and goods with them; they lack appreciation of comforts; their diet of mare’s meat and other animals is foreign to us; they do not need fire in order to prepare food nor other provisions for their marches; they reside in the hills and in other hidden places; they travel by sterile and arid routes; their mastery of the elements we cannot begin to approach. The Indian knows the wide uncharted lands for which we have no accurate maps nor guides to give us even a moderate knowledge before we start to form any expedition.69

The junta drew a pessimistic picture of the complicated logistical problems in launching such an expedition. If the duration of the undertaking was longer than four months, the required forty thousand horses would have to be augmented by an additional two thousand to replace those “tired, lost, dead, or runaways.” The number of cattle needed for food would probably have to be doubled because of the loss of weight the cattle would suffer after two months. The estimated quantity of rations approached astronomical figures. A guard of five hundred regular troops would have to accompany the expedition to “assure the respect and subordination of the troops to curb desertions.”

Even if these seemingly insurmountable problems could be solved, the junta doubted whether any beneficial results would be achieved by the expedition.

If we encounter a party of Indians, nothing would come of it because one or two would be able to escape and carry the news to the other tribes. These would return to their hideouts in the hills and make useless our efforts. By effective retreat, denying access to water, they could occasion the ruin of our army.70

For the foregoing reasons, the junta considered an offensive at this time highly impractical. It is apparent that the military leaders did not want to carry the fight to the Indian on his own territory; it also seems quite clear that the men making up the committee had no vision of the economic future of the southern plains. Their aim was not to expand the frontier, but to maintain it as it then existed. Their thinking continued to be defensive. They recommended that the existing forts be shifted to new locations and new ones created until such a strong belt of fortifications guarded the frontier that Indian raids would prove too costly for the tribes to undertake. The junta recommended the development of new lands and the building of new towns to create a greater frontier population which would be available to meet extensive Indian raids.

Vértiz accepted in principle the recommendation of his advisors and notified the king of his decision to abandon the proposed offensive.71 The frontier was to be secured through the medium of forts. Pinazo, the field commander, had been the principal proponent of this idea within the conference, but the practical work was entrusted to Francisco Betbezé, the artillery commander of the province of Buenos Aires. The latter undertook a thorough study of the old locations and the newly-proposed sites. His findings were presented to the viceroy with maps, illustrations, data on water points, pasturage, and other essential details, plus his conclusions as to the preferred locations for the actual forts.72 This detailed analysis recommended the maintenance of the established line with minor modifications. The present forts were to be repaired and new ones constructed.

At the energetic prompting of the viceroy, the plans were drawn, the materials secured, and the new structures completed in 1781. This Vértiz-Betbezé Line consisted of six forts located at Rojas, Salto, Luján, Monte, Ranchos, and Chascomús, and five outposts at Melincué, Mercedes, Araco, Navarra, and Lobos.73 A company of troops was permanently to occupy each fort while small detachments of from twelve to fifteen men were to garrison the intermediate fortines. Across the frontier of Santa Fe, San Luis, Córdoba, and Mendoza there was similar activity. The forts of Melincué, India Muerta, and Pavón were rebuilt to guard the approaches to Santa Fe, and reductions were established in Rosario and Coronda. In the province of San Luis, the fort of San Carlos was not providing adequate defense, and in 1779 a new establishment was constructed at Chañar, ten leagues south of the old site and thirty-six from the city of San Luis. This location had high strategic importance since it covered the general approaches to both San Luis and Córdoba. Córdoba had a frontier of seventy leagues, covered by a more extensive network of defenses than any other province. The fort at La Carlota, in the center of the provincial frontier, was the headquarters, and along the Río Cuarto were the outposts of Pilar, San Carlos, Reducción, San Fernando, and Concepción. West of La Carlota, other forts and outposts controlled the territory to the San Luis border; to the east installations were already established which tied in with the fortified line of the province of Buenos Aires.74

What were the characteristics of these frontier forts? They were designed as simple refuges for troops who maintained constant vigilance over the surrounding territory. Although a direct attack was possible, it was generally believed that the natives would infiltrate through the intermediate areas. If the forts were subjected to direct attack, they would face light cavalry not equipped with heavy weapons. No heavy palisades were required to meet such a threat.75 It was also deemed financially imprudent to expend funds on the construction of installations which would probably have to be shifted from time to time. These factors combined to make the forts rudimentary in construction. If wood was available, it was utilized. In Santa Fe the installations were often mud huts, and many of those in Córdoba were of adobe and required “continuous maintenance to prevent their falling down.”76 Although the Indians often attacked these forts, they rarely succeeded in destroying them.

The forts, although improved under the viceroys, were crude edifices. They formed a type of settlement, however, peculiar to areas under Spanish control and marked an official frontier beyond which only those who were optimistic enough to rely on friendly relations with the Indians dared to settle. Pioneering of this type was discouraged by the authorities.77

The frontier soldiers who manned these lonely outposts were known as blandengues in Buenos Aires and Santa Fe, partidarios in Córdoba, and enganchados78 in Mendoza. These men were gauchos. When they entered the military service, they made few noticeable changes in their way of life other than the achievement of respect because of their uniforms. They were nurtured on the plains and were accustomed to a nomadic form of life. They were frugal beyond all imagination, a piece of meat to eat and a poncho to cover their bodies sufficing to support their existence.79 All were excellent horsemen and preferred the bola, the lance, or the lasso to firearms. On reconnaissance, they often reached Cruz de Guerra, thirty leagues from Luján and deep within Indian territory.80 The coming of the vice-royalty, however, found them all in a disorganized state because of factors previously mentioned. None of the groups in existence at this time received any formal military training, and the service had gradually degenerated to the status of part-time employment since the men were often released from duty during the months of March, April, November, and December. Shortly after taking over his office, Viceroy Vértiz augmented the number of companies to five, each consisting of one hundred troops. More significant, however, than the mere increase of personnel was the incorporation of the blandengues into the regular military establishments. The organization, known as the “Corps of Blandengues of the Frontier of Buenos Aires,” now had its own headquarters, and the commanding general was placed in charge of the entire frontier.81 The Cabildo of Buenos Aires urged the viceroy to approve leaders experienced in the type of life led on the frontier. “The people of the plains,” said the cabildo, “are loath to submit to all the formal military rules.”82 Vértiz acceded to these requests, and the blandengues were commanded by men of their own stamp.

In addition to regular troops, militia in the frontier areas were available for service. In the preparation of an expedition in 1784, the frontier commander forwarded the following information as to the number of militia available:83

By 1792, however, it was apparent that the militia was used mainly in the smaller intermediate posts while the regulars manned the larger installations. A report of that year indicated the following distribution of troops:84

Normally, the militia were relieved every month and paid twenty reales for rations. It is difficult to estimate the actual number of soldiers at any one time on the frontier since there was never any relationship between the number who were presumed to be there by the authorities and those who were actually present. The rate of turnover was tremendous. Despite the royal decree of 1801 previously mentioned, calling for a force of 1,204 men on the Buenos Aires frontier, an actual count revealed only 483 men.88

Although the men in the fort preferred to use lances, bolas, and lassos like their Indian enemies, the government usually supplied a carbine, two pistols, and a sword.86 Additional weapons were usually stored in a central fort and issued as required. Training in the use of arms and in general military tactics was prescribed for all units. The exact nature of this training is difficult to determine, for the reports of the inspectors are replete with such generalities as ‘ ‘ The instruction is excellent,” or “The troops obey their superiors,” or the highly questionable statement, ‘ ‘ The troops are satisfied with their salaries. ’ ’87 It may be assumed, however, that some formal training was carried on within the forts.

The frontier soldiers refused to accept the discipline commonly expected of military units. When quartered in the forts, they were not divided into companies and slept in any particular location that seemed to suit them at the moment. The troops were so disorganized that orders had to be issued a day in advance to insure that every man received the necessary information. Much planning usually went into the preparations for a march. Once the movement was underway, however, the troops usually adopted any formation they desired. Each individual normally marched next to the cart in which his personal belongings were carried. When the column halted, the troops usually camped in a circular formation leaving the center free of impedimenta so that it could be used for an assembly place. Rope fences were erected to keep the cattle from straying. Duty as a sentinel was considered an insult with the result that this important mission was usually entrusted to the weakest and most poorly-trained soldiers. Reforms of any kind were derisively ignored by the troops. Even in combat the troops fought without order or cohesion and paid little or no attention to their leaders. The normal method of defense was to form a square with the infantry resisting Indian attack by fire while the cavalry attacked the flanks or rear of the enemy. Friendly Indians usually were assigned reconnaissance duties well forward of the main body.88

Judged by any standards, the salaries of the soldiers were pitifully small. The commanding general of the frontier of Buenos Aires received 115 pesos per month; his second in command was paid eighty. From these lofty heights, the pay scale ranged downward to the private’s salary of fourteen pesos in Buenos Aires and eight in Córdoba. Nor were the Córdoban authorities any more liberal with their high ranking officers since the commanders of the three main forts received but six hundred pesos annually.89 Out of these wages the men were expected to pay for their uniforms and to maintain their horses. In most instances rations were supplied by the government; the larger forts had a corral nearby to maintain a reserve of horses and to insure a future food supply.90

The deployment of the frontier troops followed a simple pattern. From each fort, small detachments were sent out in each direction, and a systematic reconnaissance of a prescribed area was made. These parties normally spent eight to ten days away from their home station. There was little co-ordination between the forts in the early stages of this defensive development, and the Indians quickly took advantage of this weakness. Many small scouting patrols were ambushed, captured, or killed, and some time elapsed before their compatriots ascertained that they were missing. In the interim, the Indians attacked through the unguarded parts of the frontier. By the time the soldiers were aroused, they usually had no other alternative than a long, wearisome, fruitless search.91 To improve the coverage of the front, two-man teams came into general usage toward the end of the colonial period. Two pairs of men left each fort, one set riding to the east and the other to the west; at midday they met the scouts from the adjacent fort, exchanged verifications, and returned to their base. If the Indians had penetrated the frontier, the troopers learned the general axis of attack; one man returned, and the other set out to alarm the adjacent areas. Forces could thus be assembled quickly either to prevent the Indian from completing his raid or to cut off his retreat. In this manner, the frontier could be reconnoitered in a few hours. Moreover, since each commander was responsible for about twenty leagues of territory, he could soon become thoroughly acquainted with the characteristics of the terrain under his jurisdiction.92

These defensive preparations, however, could have no permanent results unless they were supplemented by an advancing population. Thus the forts were made the centers of settlement, and the nucleus of the frontier population was supplied by the blandengues and their families. The plainsmen who had already settled in areas beyond the line of forts were brought back to the vicinity of the defenses, and the innumerable vagabonds of the Pampa, when apprehended, were forced to take up their abode near the new settlements. In addition to the above groups, a few colonists from Spain were distributed along the frontier.93 All were responsible for the defense of the zone in which they lived, and the death penalty was prescribed for those who failed to assemble at the fort on a given signal.94

The new towns showed continued growth during the years of the viceroyalty. Chascomús had 374 inhabitants in 1781 and one thousand at the turn of the century; Luján showed a rise in population over the same period from 464 to 2,000. There was a distinct effort on the part of the authorities to make the new settlements as self-sufficient as possible; wherever the lands were suitable for agriculture, there was a sharp increase in the production of wheat and other cereals.

This fort-building program of the viceroys contained the Indians. The last major raid of the colonial era was an attack on Luján in 1780 in which over one thousand Indians took part. This was the last time an obvious union of tribes combined for warlike purposes. On the very day of this malón, several chiefs were in the process of negotiating treaties of “peace and friendship” with the officials in Buenos Aires. The parleys were broken off with the news of attacks on the frontier. Until the defenses were again completed, the viceroy decreed severe penalties for those who treated with any Indian tribe. The new forts were constructed, and the blandengues were reorganized by 1781. Late in that year, an attempted raid was beaten back with heavy losses to the Indians. A similar situation developed in the Cordoban sector where the Ranqueles constituted the major threat. Forceful action and swift retaliation for incursions eventually discouraged native attacks, and in 1784 twenty-one chiefs came to terms with the governor.95 Mendoza, with a mountain frontier to the west, made the Pehuenches faithful allies who discouraged their more recalcitrant cousins from committing overt acts.96 It is probable that the attitude of the Pehuenehes reflected their fear of the disruption of their lucrative trade relationships between Chileans and residents of the Pampas. Whatever the reason, sufficient friendly forces were in the mountain passes to protect the flank of the entire viceroyalty.

The gradual stabilization of the frontier and the prosperity which ensued gave impetus to plans to advance the line of forts farther to the south. Several expeditions were dispatched to explore this possibility, the most noteworthy being the excursion headed by Félix de Azara. Viceroy Melo de Portugal felt that his predecessor had established the forts without accurate geographical knowledge. To gather data he assembled the most capable men in the Plata region under the leadership of Azara. After spending several months in an extensive study of the plains, Azara came to the conclusion that it was advisable to advance the frontier at once. Moreover, the explorer believed that the government should accomplish this expansion at one stroke and carry it clear to the Río Negro.97

To the arguments that scarcity of water and construction materials would make such a project unfeasible, Azara answered that these same difficulties were inherent in the present frontier line. Furthermore, the islands in the Río Negro provided a potential supply of wood greater than the Salado area. What would be the results of such expansion? Azara maintained that

Control of the Río Negro would once and for all make the whites masters of the Pampa, for the Indians would dare not attack for fear of being cut off. Five thousand square leagues, capable of maintaining more cattle than the entire Banda Oriental, would be brought under control of the government. It would also make the viceroy immortal by pushing out the boundaries of his dominions which today, because of a few annoying barbarians, are approximately the same as those which Garay took with sixty men 216 years ago.98

But once the preliminary frontier line had been established, the viceroys felt reasonably secure from attack. They were now willing to develop a peaceful and friendly relationship with the Indians. On a single occasion eighteen chiefs signed pledges not to violate the territory of the whites. There followed a long period of quiet in the province of Buenos Aires, and trade in skins, hides, and minor items developed between Indians and the settlers.99 The greatest single factor in the development of friendship was the use of gifts to the natives. Undoubtedly, the Indians used the whites for their own advantages, and the viceroy almost despaired of establishing a genuine peace because the natives only came to “pass an amusing time receiving gifts.”100 Nevertheless, the system of rewards brought satisfactory results. The Indians who received meat, bread, tobacco, wine, clothing, and mares became the special friends of the authorities and were utilized as spies to obtain knowledge of the plans and movements of less amenable tribes.

In 1802 a military commander was able to report that the Indians “are very peaceful and there has been no incident for five years in which they have committed the least excess.”101 A brisk trade grew with the Indians in the market place of Buenos Aires and other cities. In these towns certain locations were known as “corrals,” where the Indians could come to trade and where they were certain to find buyers.102 This type of trade was advocated by at least one individual as a means of keeping the peace. Feliciano Chiclana pointed out that it was essentially the desire of the natives for trade which was responsible for the peaceful relations; the Indians wished to do nothing to break the flow of these products to their tolderías.103 Chiclana advanced the suggestion that the Indians be given a monopoly of the salt trade and provided with sufficient carts to carry out the project. By this means they would be provided with money to purchase articles they desired.104

During the British invasions of 1806, the Indians did not take advantage of the weakened defenses to attack the frontier but did utilize the embarrassment of the government to seek new favors. Ten prominent caciques appeared before the cabildo and offered to raise twenty thousand men for the defense of the “Patria.”105 Two others promised seven thousand troops, and still another, more conservative and seemingly more accurate in his statistics, stated that he had 2,872 warriors ready to take the field.106 All were wined, dined, and given the coat-of-arms of the city, but their offers were declined. The local leaders had no desire to see any such number of armed Indians within the environs of Buenos Aires.107

The fighting qualities exhibited by the blandengues during this critical period did nothing to enhance their reputation. One hundred of the frontier soldiers were estimated to have engaged the British at Quilmes, the initial landing, but at the sight of the disciplined enemy they beat such a hasty retreat that they trampled neighboring troops and created a panic.108 The day following this debacle, Viceroy Sobremonte sent an emissary to the forts to urge all troops to come to the aid of the city, but the viceregal messenger found only cattle and horses dead from exhaustion—mute evidence of the speed with which the blandengues had fled.109

Despite the occasional unheroic performances of the blandengues, they had made the frontier secure. Although raids along interprovincial roads by small bands of Indians were still prevalent, no great Indian combinations threatened the existence of the new settlements. This general peace, lasting until 1815, transformed the frontier area. Rural settlements developed on the edge of Indian country; the forts gave way to thriving towns. There was peace on the frontier, but it was the same frontier which, in the words of Azara, “Garay took with sixty men.” It remained to be seen how the Indian would react when the frontier was pushed forward into his hunting grounds to meet the demands of an expanding European economy; it remained to be seen how the whites would face the Indian problem when they lacked a unified government. With these problems the viceroys were not to be concerned, for they were preoccupied with the waning Spanish power in the Plata.


Félix de Azara, “Diario de un reconocimiento de las guardias y fortines que guarnecen la linea de frontera de Buenos Aires para ensancharla,” Colección de obras del Río de la Plata, ed. Pedro de Angelis, Buenos Aires, 1936, V, 84.


Preston E. James, Latin America (New York, 1942), p. 324.


These highland areas are significant in that they provided the Indians with major concentration points for military operations against the whites. Similarly, the control of these areas was a constant objective of the Spaniards.


S. K. Lothrop, “Indians of the Paraná delta and La Plata littoral,” Bureau of American Ethnology, Handbook of South American Indians (Washington, 1946-1950), I, 180.


There is little exact anthropological knowledge of these tribes, and the terminology is highly confusing. John M. Cooper (“The Patagonian and Pampean Hunters,” Handbook of South American Indians, I, 133-134, offers the best available explanation. The term ‘Puelche’ is from the Araucanian and was used by early Chilean chroniclers to denote the various groups living in or near the high cordillera or on the plains to the east. Later the term was used to denote the Araucanians who spread into the eastern plains. In these senses, the name usually excluded the people known to modern anthropologists as the Puelche or included other peoples as well. It was from the beginning a geographical rather than a tribal name. In the middle of the eighteenth century Jesuit missionaries used the term ‘Puelche’ to denote one of the main ethnic groups of the Pampa south and southwest of Buenos Aires, particularly those Indians living near the Sierra del Tandil, the Sierra de la Ventana, the Colorado Biver, and beyond the Río Negro westward to the Andes. These same natives were also known to the Spaniards of Buenos Aires as ‘Serranos’ or ‘Montañeses’ because of their mountain habitat. The name ‘Tehuelche of the North’ has also been assigned to the Puelche. Jesuit missionaries also separated the Tehuelches into those de a cavallo, meaning the northerners who occupied the region of the Colorado and Neuquén rivers, and the Tehuelche de a pie, or southern division, who lacked horses and occupied the area from the Straits of Magellan to the Río Negro. These two branches of the same tribe spoke different dialects. For the purposes of this study, the terminology is of little importance because all the tribes had common traits and attitudes. The term, “Pampas Indians,” used in the text is intended to be a geographic rather than an ethnic term.


The Pehuenches also present terminological problems. One chronicler gave the name “Moluches” to all the Araucanians of the cordillera. He then divided these into three groups: the Picunches, Pehuenches, and Huilliehes. The cultural traits of all are strikingly similar, and all are considered as Pehuenches.


The guanaco is a member of the camel family very similar to the llama; the rhea is the name given to the ostrich. The heavy soils of the Pampa made agriculture with primitive tools very difficult.


Oscar Schmieder, “Alteration of the Argentine Pampa in the Colonial Period,” University of California Publications in Geography (1919-1927), II, 311-312.


Lothrop, p. 182.


Ibid., p. 181.


Thomas Falkner, A description of Patagonia and the adjoining parts of South America (Hereford, 1774), p. 26. “I do not recollect ever to have seen an Indian that was above an inch or two taller than Cangapol. His brother, Sausimia, was but six feet high. The Patagonians, or Puelches, are a large-bodied people; but I have never heard of that gigantic race, which others have mentioned, though I have seen persons of all the different tribes of southern Indians.”


Luis de la Cruz, “Descripción de la naturaleza de los terrenos; y costumbres de los Pehuenches,” Angelis, Colección, I, 284.


Gonzalo Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés, Historia jeneral y natural de las Indias, islas y tierra-firme del mar océano (4 vols., Madrid, 1851-1855), II, 468.


Ulrich Schmidt, “Voyage of Ulrich Schmidt to the rivers of La Plata and Paraguai,” trans. Luis L. Domínguez (1567), Hakluyt Society, The Conquest of the River Plate, 1535-1555 (London, 1891), p. 29. The original edition has not been available.


Ibid., p. 32.


Oscar Schmieder, “The pampa—a natural or culturally induced grassland?” University of California Publications in Geography, II, 266.


Falkner, p. 97. See also James, p. 288, for further discussion of variations in Indian population.


J. A. B. Beaumont, Travels in Buenos Aires (London, 1828), p. 55.


John M. Cooper, “Southern Hunters,” Handbook of South American Indians, I, 14-15. For an excellent account of the origin of these wild horses see Madaline Wallis Nichols, “The Spanish Horse of the Pampas,” The American Anthropologist, XLI (January-March, 1939), 119-129.


John M. Cooper, “The Araucanians,” Handbook of South American Indians, II, 704. “Some horses were stolen from Pedro de Valdivia; ten others were obtained as spoils of war at the defeat of Alvarado in 1555. Lautaro was seen on horseback in 1556, and by 1562 the horse was in general use.”


Falkner, p. 39. Falkner noted: “There is likewise a great plenty of tame horses and a prodigious number of wild ones.. . . The wild horses have no owners, but wander in great troops about those vast plains.. . . Being in these plains for the space of three weeks, they were in such vast numbers, that during a fortnight, they continually surrounded me. Sometimes they passed by me in thick troops, on full speed, for two or three hours together.. . .”


As early as 1581, Juan de Garay informed the king of the existence of wild cattle and horses on the Pampa and asked the monarch to have this stock conceded as a grant to the inhabitants of Buenos Aires and Santa Fe. See Juan de Garay to the King, Anales de la biblioteca pública, X (Buenos Aires, 1915), 158-159.


F. B. Head, Rough notes taken during some rapid journeys across the Pampas and the Andes (Boston, 1827), p. 105. Beaumont (p. 54) also noted that the Indians “scarcely knew how to use their legs for walking.”


Salvador Canals Frau, “Araucanian Expansion,” Handbook of South American Indians, II, 764.


“Aucá,” derived from the Araucanian word for “traitor,” was the name given by Argentinians to the Indian invaders from Chile.


Argentine Republic. Archivo General. Acuerdos del extinguido cabildo de Buenos Aires (42 vols. in 45 in 4 series, Buenos Aires, 1886-1926), Series II, II, 274-282.


Falkner, p. 135.


Canals Frau, II, 765.


Cooper, “Patagonian and Pampean Hunters,” Handbook, I, 148. Schmidt (p. 8) reported that the Indians used flaming arrows in an attempt to set fire to Spanish ships.


Dionisio Schoo Lastra, El indio del desierto, 1535-1879 (Buenos Aires, 1938), pp. 31-32.


The Indians made most of their incursions in the fall of the year to prevent exposure of man and horse to the spines of thistles which covered much of the Pampa during other seasons.


The Pehuenches, before attacking, loosened their scant clothing and greased their faces with horse blood.


Santiago Luis Copello, Gestiones del Arzobispo Aneiros en favor de los indios hasta la conquista del desierto (Buenos Aires, 1944), p. 224.


In some tribes, the prestige of an Indian was measured by the number of captives, particularly female, which he possessed. These women seem to have been treated reasonably well.


Yates, “A brief relation of facts and circumstances connected with . . . the Carreras of Chile.. . .” in Maria Graham Callcott, Journal of a residence in Chile during the year 1823 and a voyage from Chile to Brazil in 1823 (London 1824), p. 429.


Head, p. 107.


Rómulo Muñiz, Los indios pampas (Buenos Aires, 1929), p. 100. Some idea of the magnitude of these salt-gathering expeditions may be gathered from the composition of an expedition of 1778. There were 65 dragoons, 400 soldiers, 600 horsebreakers, 300 cartwrights, 2,600 horses, 1,200 laborers, and 580 cargo carts. The viceroys later endeavored to locate other sources of salt to avoid the expensive journey to Salinas Grandes. No closer salt beds were found and, until late in the nineteenth century the city of Buenos Aires was constantly faced with a shortage of this commodity. When the shortage was acute, all ships going to the Río Negro were required to bring back salt from the beds in this region. See items in Documentos para la historia argentina (21 vols. in 20, Buenos Aires, 1913-1926), IV, 393, 396, 398-399. With the opening of unrestricted trade, salt was imported from the Cape Verde Islands and sold more cheaply in Buenos Aires than its native counterpart. See also Woodbine Parish, Buenos Ayres and the Provinces of the Río de la Plata (Buenos Aires, 1839), p. 126.


Acuerdos, Series II, IV, 140-141.


Pedro Lozano, “Diario de un viage a la Costa Magellánica desde Buenos Aires hasta el Estrecho, formado sobre las observaciones de los Padres Cardiel y Quiroga,” Angelis, Colección, I, 420.


Control of the slaughtering of cattle was begun in 1748 by a decree prohibiting the killing of young bulls which from this time could be sacrificed only in certain authorized establishments of Buenos Aires.


Émile Daireaux, “Las razas indias en la América del sur,” Anales de la Sociedad Científica Argentina (146 vols. in 81, Buenos Aires, 1876-1948), IV, 220. “There developed a considerable commerce with the Indian tribes of Chile, who traded this booty to the Europeans established on the Pacific Coast. This commerce rapidly developed into a necessity. The destruction of the herds was so rapid in the eighteenth century that the Indians soon had difficulty in obtaining cattle for consumption and for their trade. This was the sole reason motivating their raids into the populated areas.” Another writer points out another significant result of the Indian raids. The scarcity of cattle caused by Indian attacks prompted porteño authorities to scrutinize the well-stocked plains of the Banda Oriental. The movement into the Banda in search of cattle led to conflict with Portuguese settlers from southern Brazil who were seeking the same cattle. The struggle for control of the Banda Oriental by Spain may have had a positive motivation—the desire for more cattle—as well as a negative, or defensive, basis of thwarting the Portuguese. See Enrique de Gandía, Problemas indígenas americanas (Buenos Aires, 1943), p. 28.


Gregorio Funes, Ensayo de la historia civil de Buenos Aires (2 vols. in 1, Buenos Aires, 1856), II, 71.


Vicente G. Quesada, “Las fronteras y los indios (Buenos Aires—apuntes históricos),” Revista de Buenos Aires (24 vols., Buenos Aires, 1863-1871), V, 33.


Schoo Lastra, pp. 47-48.


The Pampa, particularly the southern parts, was not adequately mapped until the nineteenth century.


Funes, II, 72.


Guillermo Furlong Cardiff, Entre los pampas de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, 1938), p. 10.


Funes, II, 74.


Roberto H. Marfany, El indio en la colonización de Buenos Aires (Buenos Aires, 1940), pp. 78-80.


Roberto H. Marfany, “El cuerpo de blandengues de la frontera de Buenos Aires (1752-1810), Humanidades (28 vols., Buenos Aires, 1921-1940), XXIII (1933), 321. There had been attempts to establish forts prior to this time. As early as 1717, the Cabildo of Santa Fe petitioned the governor to establish a fort in the “narrowest section between the Salado and the Paraná to cover possible attacks on the city.” See Cabildo of Santa Fe to the Governor and Captain-General, October 8, 1717, Revista del archivo general de Buenos Aires (5 vols., Buenos Aires, 1869-1873), I, 427-438.


Marfany, “Blandengues,” p. 351.


Acuerdos, Series III, I, 57, 160-163, 211. It took seven years for these taxes to become operative. Necessary royal approval was not forthcoming, and the continued Indian attacks eventually forced the cabildo to act independently.


Acuerdos, Series III, I, 212.




Juan Beverina, El virreinato del Río de la Plata, su organización militar (Buenos Aires, 1930), p. 16.


Marfany, “Blandengues,” p. 326.


Acuerdos, Series III, I, 364. The blandengues are said to have derived their name from the flourishing manner in which they brandished their swords (blandearon) at reviews.


The militiaman or blandengue who deserted placed himself on the margin of the law. He could not return to his former habitat. If he returned to civilized society, he would have to settle in a strange location and forego contacts with family and friends. These deserters became wanderers of the plains and formed another element in the development of the gaucho class. See Muñiz, El Gaucho, pp. 94-95.


“Informe de Bucareli,” Revista de la biblioteca pública de Buenos Aires (4 vols., Buenos Aires, 1879-1888), II, 292.


“Informe de Bucareli,” II, 293-295.


“Diario del capitán Juan Antonio Hernández de su espedición contra los indios Tehuelches,” Angelis, Colección, IV, 547.


The same speculation could be made for every government until well into the nineteenth century.


The number of non-urban settlers in the province of Buenos Aires was exceedingly small. A census of 1773 disclosed 4,958 men, 4,481 women, 1,620 Indians (living within the Spanish sector), 495 Negroes, and 1,028 mulattoes. Officially, in 1770, the muster rolls of the units engaged in defense of the plains, including militia, totalled 2,021 men scattered along a wide frontier. An actual count, however, in 1771 showed only 1,221 soldiers including one regiment of militia. See Angel Coni, El gaucho (Madrid, 1932), p. 67.


Acuerdos, Series II, IV, 581.


Roberto Levillier, Antecedentes de política económica en el Río de la Plata (2 vols., Madrid, 1915), II, 378-408.


Cevallos a José de Gálvez, 27 de noviembre de 1777, Archivo General de Indias (hereinafter abbreviated as AGI), Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 57.


Vértiz a José de Gálvez (carta no. 367), 24 de octubre de 1780, y anexo titulado “Testimonio del expediente obrado en el superior gobierno de Buenos Aires . . . de indios Aucás,” AGI, Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 60.


The junta’s statement reveals the tremendous logistical problems faced by the military planners as well as the tendency, previously stated, to overestimate the military strength of the native tribes.


Anexo a carta no. 367, Vértiz a Gálvez, 24 de octubre de 1780, AGI, Buenos Aires, 60. At the end of his term in office, Vértiz used this exact phraseology to describe the Indian problem to his successor.


The junta estimated that the expedition would require 19,200 head of cattle with the possibility that this number would have to be doubled because of the loss of weight the cattle would undergo after a few months. Rations would necessitate 4,000 quintales of hardtack (a quintal equals approximately 220 pounds) and 14,000 arrobas of grain (an arroba is about 25 pounds). The men would consume about 7,200 arrobas of tobacco. These astronomical figures seem extremely high, and one cannot escape the suspicion that the junta purposely overestimated the needs to prevent approval of the expedition.


Memoria de Vértiz, AGI, Buenos Aires, 21. Vértiz explained that the proposed location of the cordon of forts gave sufficient maneuver room and assured a potable and permanent water supply. The viceroy also noted that a longer frontier would be more difficult to defend and that the viceroyalty was finding it difficult to man the existing forts. Vértiz pointed out that the Salado was impassable at flood time and the movement of troops and supplies to installations beyond the river would be virtually impossible.


In essence, this plan was the same one that had been proposed many years before, but up to this time there had been no detailed study.


Roberto H. Marfany, “Fronteras con los indios en el sud y fundación de pueblos,” Historia de la nación argentina . . . ed. Ricardo Levene, IV, part 1, 458.


See Alfred C. Vítulo, “Fundación de la villa de Río Cuarto,” Buenos Aires, Universidad, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, Boletín del instituto de ivestigaciones históricas (Buenos Aires, 1926-1945), XVII, 151-159.


To construct more complex installations would have involved the transportation of heavy construction materials not easily obtained on the Pampas.


“Memoria del marqués de Sobremonte escrita para su sucesor el coronel de ingenieros D. José Gonzales, 1788,” Ignacio Garzón, Crónica de Córdoba (3 vols., Córdoba, 1898), I, 377. The fort at Zanjón in 1777 consisted of an enclosure fifty-seven varas square surrounded by thousands of sticks of ñandubay, a small vine native to the area. The interior consisted of a chapel, barracks, officers’ quarters, and special quarters for the chaplain. Separate buildings housed the kitchen and guard house. The quarters were adobe with roofs of straw while the ammunition storehouse and the chapel were roofed with tile. Every structure was surrounded by a ditch which could be crossed in one leap by an ordinary man, but the Indians never trained their horses to jump. To prevent the erection of improvised bridges, the ditches were lined with prickly vines. See also Head, p. 94 and Rómulo Carbia, Los origenes de Chascomús (La Plata, 1930), p. 51.


“Bando del virrey Vértiz, ordenando al comandante de la frontera que recoja baja la protección de cañones de las fuertes a las familias establecidas en parajes arriesgados en vista de los continuos ataques de los indios,” 3 de octubre de 1780, Documentos para la historia del virreinato del Río de la Plata (4 vols., Buenos Aires, 1911-1914), I, 304-305.


Enganchado literally signifies one who has been snared or decoyed into the service.


Muñiz, pp. 55-56.


Pablo Zizur, “Diario de un viaje a las Salinas,” Angelis, Colección, V, 237.


Carta No. 151, Virrey Loreto a José de Galvez, 7 de diciembre de 1784, AGI, Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 68. In this letter, Loreto acknowledges receipt of a royal order of July 3, 1784, which established the Blandengues as an integral part of the regular military organization.


Cabildo de Buenos Aires al virrey, 12 de agosto de 1779, Documentos del virreinato, I, 209.


Juan Carlos Walther, La conquista del desierto (2 vols., Buenos Aires, 1948), I, 136. These figures probably indicated the number of males available in the areas for service rather than those who had actually been called to service.


Quesada, V, 48.




Although all other troops received a clothing allowance, the blandengues were denied this financial assistance until 1805 when they were allotted ten pesos annually. Carta no. 259, Virrey Sobremonte a Miguel Cayetano Soler, 10 de oetubre de 1805, AGI, Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 532.


Marfany, "Blandengues,” pp. 371-372.


Walther, I, 83.


Marfany, “Blandengues,” pp. 371-372. See also “Memoria de Sobremonte,” p. 373. An unusual pension system was in vogue in Córdoba at this time. The commander of the fort at Santa Catalina was required to pay two hundred pesos from his annual salary (six hundred pesos) to the previous commander who was retired for reasons of advanced age and uncertain health.


“Memoria de Sobremonte,” p. 374. Those in charge of the forts often had difficulty in obtaining food. At Chascomús the commandant contracted for cattle on the assumption payment would be made from the royal treasury. The government, however, refused to pay, and the parties who had provided the cattle instituted legal action against the officer. There were also many complaints from the troops about the high prices they had to pay for their uniforms. See also Carbia, pp. 51-54.


Azara, p. 80.


Ibid, pp. 80-81.


These were colonists brought from Spain for settlement in Patagonia. The original plan was abandoned, and the immigrants were sent to the frontier of Buenos Aires.


Bando del Virrey Vértiz, 3 de oetubre de 1780, Documentos del virreinato, I, 305-307.


“Memoria de Sobremonte,” p. 376.


“Memoria del marqués de Loreto,” Memorias de los virreyes del Río de la Plata, ed. Sigfrido A. Radaelli (Buenos Aires, 1945), p. 277. The plans for this attack were discovered by a Pehuenche leader, Pinchitur, who came to Mendoza and gave the information to the governor. The Pehuenches were joined by fifty men from the fort of San Carlos, and the combined force attacked and destroyed encampments of the prospective invaders. Over one hundred of the enemy were killed and twenty thousand head of cattle seized.


Azara, p. 79.


Ibid., p. 84. Azara’s suggestions for the settlement of the frontier are interesting in the light of later developments. The land was to be divided into small sections and given to those who would actually work on the property. The ownership of property insured the continued presence of a large population on the plains. Poor people seeking their fortunes would provide a better nucleus for the future than large landholdings. It is interesting to speculate as to how Argentina’s later history might have been altered if Azara’s recommendations had been accepted.


Memoria de Vértiz, AGI, Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 21.


José Torrel Revello, “Agasajos a los indios (1797),” Boletín del instituto de investigaciones históricas, XVII, 151-159.


Walther, I, 140.


Carta no. 344, Virrey Arredondo a Diego de Gardoqui, 14 de agosto de 1794, AGI, Audiencia de Buenos Aires, Legajo 120. The viceroy wished to establish a “Plaza de Intérprete” where linguists with a knowledge of the Indian languages would be located. The payment of three hundred pesos annually for this purpose met with opposition from the king who suggested that there must always be a “peón, arriero, o soldado” present who understood the native tongue. Arredondo pointed out that these “rústicas” did not have the intelligence to conduct negotiations properly and, through ignorance, could undermine the friendly relations with the tribes.


Feliciano Antonio Chiclana al Rey, 29 de diciembre de 1804, Revista de la biblioteca nacional, XIII (1945), 33-34.


The Indians did not use carts but loaded mules and horses. Chiclana believed that the viceroy should encourage the tribes located near Salinas to take over the salt trade, thus providing them with a source of income by peaceful and productive methods.


Acuerdos, Series IV, II, 362-363.


Acuerdos, Series IV, II, 373.


How much of this Indian generosity was tinged with the desire for gifts is a moot point. It is clear, however, that the Indians failed to attack the frontier when all the personnel were removed from the forts. The natives could have obtained much more booty through military action than from gifts.


Beverina, Virreinato, p. 255.


Alexander Gillespie, Gleanings and remarks: collected during many months of residence at Buenos Aires and within the upper country (London, 1818), pp. 156-157.

Author notes


The author is instructor of history at the City College of San Francisco.