Posted by: Rob Viens | August 14, 2012

Darwin & the Gauchos: First Contact

During his time in Uruguay and Argentina Darwin had several opportunities to meet, interact with, and even ride with gauchos. Today he records what seems to be his first encounter with these nomadic riders of the pampas. And although his entry is short, it is clear that he is already intrigued:

“Signor Frutez entered the Town in full parade & was saluted by the forts.— He was accompanied by 1800 wild Gaucho cavalry; many of them were Indians.— I believe it was a magnificent spectacle; the beauty of the horses, & the wildness of their dresses & arms were very curious.” (Aug 14)

The term gaucho was first used in the early 1800’s (or at least first recorded) to refer to the nomadic people of the grasslands of South America (primarily the pampas, which includes Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Southern Brazil).

Map of the pampas (from Wikipedia Commons):


In many ways the gauchos of the 19th century where much like the “cowboys” who inhabited the western United States during the same time period. They were horseback riders, who moved around the pampas with the bare essentials, often herding cattle. They wore ponchos rather than vests, and wielded bolas instead of lassoes, but the lifestyle was very similar.

Gaucho image from the 1840’s – notice the falcón (a large knife almost every gaucho carried) in his belt (author unknown, from Wikipedia Commons)


It is unlikely that this particular force of gauchos contained many “Indians” as Darwin suggests, seeing as almost all the native people of Uruguay were eradicated in the Slaughter of Salsipuedes (see post from a few days ago).  Since Fructuoso Rivera was involved with that particular massacre, it is equally unlikely that any survivors would be riding in his cavalry.

But it was very common, during the Uruguayan and Argentinean civil wars of the 19th century, that gauchos would make up the majority of riders in the cavalries of the warring factions. So it is not surprising that during the unrest in Montevideo, that Darwin would encounter gauchos.

Darwin would have many more gaucho encounters, even riding with them on the pampas and learning to hunt with bolas (or at least trying).  So you can be sure that you will hear a lot more about them in the coming months. (RJV)


  1. […] PS – For more on gauchos see Darwin & the Gauchos: First Contact. […]

  2. […] science; Darwin catalogued the workings of nature in all her forms firsthand.  He rode with gauchos on the Pampas, witnessed the 1835 Mount Osorno volanic eruption and a devastating earthquake in […]

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