Patagonia is a synonym for mystery, loneliness and immensity. Every corner of this region has a mythical aura that is fed by many stories that talk about that vastness, loneliness and, also, about mysteries that still remain hidden, waiting for someone to expose them to the sunlight. Many of these stories can be found on the shores, in the places where forgotten shipwrecks lie that still hold secrets to be unveiled by the scientist. Sometimes one of them reveals a secret and tells us an amazing story. That is the case of an almost unknown bark, the Mary E. Packer, whose last voyage ended accidentally in a remote corner of the Valdés Peninsula, in Patagonia, giving origin to an incredible personal diary.
A typical bark
The Mary E. Packer was one of the first barks built by the company Hill & Grinnell of Mystic, a small village in the state of Connecticut, halfway between the cities of Stonington and Groton. It was launched in 1866, was about 47 meters long and had a tonnage of 800 tons, which was the second largest bark manufactured by Hill & Grinnell (this company would close eight years later, in 1874). It was a vessel propelled exclusively by sail, without any kind of engine. During the first years it travelled different routes in the American continent, as can be seen in the American newspapers of the time (New York, Newcastle, San Francisco, etc.). In the 1870s there is evidence of voyages to Oceania, as mentioned in the Daily Alta California (№8274, 21/November/1872). It was precisely in 1872 when a record appeared in the California Wreck Register (1877), which gives a report of an accident while travelling from San Francisco to European ports, via Cape Horn. The register records that it had to stop in Rio, in June and July, with various problems (something about a mast and a water inlet) and a loss of about $6280. Beyond this, nothing extraordinary stands out in its history until 1874. It was an ordinary bark among hundreds of similar vessels that sailed the oceans trading from one place to another.
A personal testimony for the last trip
The last trip of the Mary E. Packer boat has been carefully documented thanks to the testimony of one of the passengers. Flora A. Foster, wife of the first officer, Mr. Foster, recorded the voyage, the accident and the subsequent events in a book entitled “Wrecked off Patagonia — A Personal Experience.” The Mary E. Packer left New York and sailed to Callao, Peru, on August 17, 1874, at about noon, with 21 people on board, including a baby only six months old. Flora’s story begins by telling the small details of life on the open sea, of her first trip with her husband, after months and years of absences, precisely because of his overseas travels. She tells, astonished, how the sea seems phosphorescent on some nights, and the first time she saw the Southern Cross and the Magellan Clouds, “for ages way-marks of the mariner in Southern seas” (sic).
Shipwreck in Patagonia
The trip ended prematurely on October 28th, a cold day with severe weather. Two months and eleven days after leaving New York, the Mary E. Packer ran aground at night, around 10:10 p.m., against a rock and stone bank at coordinates 42º20′ south and 63º38′ west. Without considering the minor errors in the calculation of the position, those coordinates correspond to the northern area of the Valdés Inlet (Caleta Valdés in spanish). This is the easternmost part of the Valdés Peninsula, in the province of Chubut, Argentina (the area is known as Punta Bajos). According to Flora’s description, “When a heavy roller struck the vessel, it seemed as if she must break in pieces.” But nothing like that happened. Although the crew arranged all the boats and the women were ready to abandon the ship with minimal luggage (a handbag with a change of clothes and some valuables), it was not necessary. The dawn revealed what was a fortunate accident. The bark had run aground on the inlet, so that half of the ship was out of the water at low tide. The landscape around was not auspicious: a large area of rolling stones that spread out as far as the eye was able to see. The passengers unloaded their things from the ship, as they could and had their first meal on shore: raw ham and hard bread. In the words of Flora, “hunger is the best sauce”, so everybody enjoyed the first, and unexpected, meal on Patagonian soil. They improvised a tent with sails and spare sticks, and got water and provisions out of the wrecked vessel. They spent a first night quite uncomfortable, with rain and a certain stress, or anxiety, about the possible presence of Indians.
The Mary E. Packer is lost forever
On Monday, according to Flora, after a heavy gale from the southwest, the boat finally broke in two, from bow to stern, and all its cargo and supplies were irretrievably lost. They were at this point in a precarious situation. They had been lucky enough to escape safely from the wreck, but now they were at risk of dying of hunger and thirst for lack of supplies. Captain Holloway and his wife were devastated, having lost what had almost been their home for eight years. The unique option left to them was to try to reach the nearest populated point, the fort of Carmen, at the mouth of the Negro River (Rio Negro in spanish), about 180 km northeast of wreck site. It is worth wondering if they were not closer to the port of the Welsh colony, the place that would later be known as Puerto Madryn. If they wanted to go by sea, they would have to travel almost 200 km around the peninsula and enter the Nuevo Gulf. If they wanted to go by land, it would be shorter, but anyway, they were against the lack of knowledge of the land and the fear of the presence of the Indians. The problem was the difficulty of navigating in the open sea to the mouth of the Rio Negro. They had only been able to rescue a few small boats, so the carpenter set to work, and adding some wooden boards to the sides of the larger boat, he improvised a precarious craft with which to set sail and find help. On Saturday, November 7, at 10 a.m., ten days after the wreck, Captain Holloway, his wife and nine other passengers, including the little baby, set sail. The trip was short, however, and by 4 p.m. the group was back at the site of the shipwreck. The improvised boat was leaking and overloaded to the point that they had to throw a barrel of hard bread overboard before decided to return.
Another effort to find aid and the tense expectation of the castaways
On Sunday, November 8, the provisional boat finally departed and went out to sea. The steward, his wife and the baby stayed on land, and two sailors went up in their place. The rest of the castaways remained at the site of the wreck, living in the tent built with the sails and remains of the Mary E. Packer. Flora’s story reveals the fears, the anxiety of rescue, the fear of those who had set sail for aid. The fear of the Indians, “the Patagonians, their fierce aspect, gigantic size, mode of fighting…” kept Flora (and probably several of those waiting there) awake at night. The days passed with boredom, there was not much to do but wait and watch. On November 18th they saw a sailboat pass by in the distance. They tried to signal it, improvising a mast with a flag, but everything was in vain. The ship passed without seeing the group of castaways forgotten in the Valdés peninsula.
Time affected the relationships between the castaways, and order was threatened by drink. Although Flora and the other women had taken it upon themselves to empty the liquor bottles, to prevent any inconvenience, and the captain’s whisky barrels had been lost, it did not take long for the sailors to come up with desperate solutions, using medicinal drinks, such as “Cherry Pectoral” (an opium-based remedy… for children) and “Florida Water”, a eau de cologne. The first officer, Flora’s husband Mr. Foster, was able to maintain order not without problems, but he certainly knew how to handle the situation to the point that there were no serious incidents.
Rescue and happy ending
The rescue finally arrived on Saturday, December 6, when at 9 a.m. a vessel arrived to pick them up, with Captain Holloway in charge. It is possible to imagine the joy of that group of castaways who had been in the loneliness of the Patagonian coast for almost 40 days, but quoting Flora Foster, “there are times when words are inadequate to express the heart’s emotion.” According to Captain Holloway, after three days of sailing in the boat, with bad weather and dealing with the water entries, they met near the mouth of the Rio Negro with the brig Rosales, of the Argentine Navy. The meeting of the group led by Captain Holloway with the Rosales brig was recorded by a passenger of the Argentinean ship, the explorer and academic Francisco P. Moreno, also known as “el Perito” (the expert), for his significant contribution to the boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. In his memories he left the following remembrance:
The place where we were was the Punta Norte, where those terrible whirlpools are most dangerous. Piedrabuena, in previous times, had lost the main mast of his ship that was dragged by one of them, and at that same point, near Valdés Creek that we had in sight, in a tempestuous night that made those currents faster, was lost, in 1874, the American bark “Mary E. Packer”, beautiful ship of 700 tons, part of whose crew we picked up on November 11 of that year on board the “Rosales”, when my first trip to Santa Cruz.
Journey to Southern Patagonia (October 20, 1876 to May 8, 1877)
During his stay in the city that today is Carmen de Patagones, Holloway had to wait, with a bit of desperation, until he got a boat to travel south. The brig Rosales was in no condition to set sail again, and there were hardly any boats available. Buenos Aires was still experiencing the final echoes of the so-called Revolution of 1874, and the national government had requisitioned most of the ships for support and military action. Finally a small cutter, the White, which also was part of the Argentine Navy and accompanied the brig Rosales, appeared. The White had a capacity for some tens of tons of cargo, enough for Captain Holloway to carry out the rescue of the rest of the castaways. Finally, and after a few days, on Wednesday, December 9, at 5:00 am, they all arrived at Carmen de Patagones.
More than a century of oblivion
Once the odyssey of the Mary E. Packer crew was over, the incident was quickly forgotten. Time and, above all, distance, contributed to forgetting what had happened. The wreck site, far from the cities and settlements of the area, is a protected area and is closed to tourism and the general public. Besides, this place is completely exposed to the winds and the fury of the Atlantic Ocean, which is the reason why the remains of the bark were quickly disseminated and destroyed, helping in the process of historical oblivion. It was only a few years ago that the history of the Mary E. Packer came to light again, thanks to the testimonies of the forest rangers of the Península Valdés Natural Protected Area. Here is where the research team of the Underwater Archaeology Program (PROAS) of the National Institute of Latin American Anthropology and Thought (INAPL) appears. In 2013, they conducted a survey of that sector of the coast as part of a larger research project. The researchers studied on foot, during three days, the inter- and supra-tidal strips along 10 km of coasts between Punta Bajos and Punta Norte, according to the information provided by the rangers about the location of the findings. A total of 79 pieces of presumed nautical origin were located, mainly fragments of copper alloy sheet (probably corresponding to the coating of a wooden hull) and wood fragments with nail holes and/or remains of nails, bolts and rods. Some segments of braided steel cable, chain sections and iron nails were also found. Each of these elements was georeferenced by GPS, photographed and recorded in written form. No structures corresponding to vessels were found, and the elements discovered are, for the most part, of small dimensions (20 cm maximum length on average). Their distribution along the prospected sector of the coast is quite uniform, although some areas present a higher density than others. The materials have similar characteristics (dimensions, shape and raw material), and could correspond to a medium or large wooden boat built between the end of the 18th and end of the 19th centuries. All of this fits, to a large extent, with the shipwreck of the Mary E. Packer.
The end of the story
Maybe it is not the most appropriate to talk about an end to history, but rather a new beginning. From here, with the detailed narration of Flora A. Foster and the research currently being carried out by PROAS-INAPL researchers, it is to be expected that the lines will be drawn and that the history will be enriched, not only of this particular shipwreck, but of the region itself. Once again, as usual, Patagonia reveals some more secrets, but not all of them, but only part of them, to stimulate our imagination and encourage us to continue searching for the answers.
I would like thanking the architect Cristian Murray and the archaeologist Monica Grosso, from PROAS-INAPL, for bringing me up to date with this fascinating and little-known history and for providing me with material on this topic. I also want to thank the Mystic Seaport Museum and the Connecticut Digital Archive, who kindly answered all my emails and provided me with additional material.
[An spanish version of this article can be found in the blog Bahía Sin Fondo]