A paralell between the March to the West in United States and the conquest of the Pampas in the plains West of Argentina.
AMERICAN WEST and PAMPAS OF ARGENTINA
By Alberto E. Azcona
Several American writers, as Seymour Martin Lipset (1) and James R. Scobie (2) remarked the similarity of the United States prairies and the Argentinean pampas, on the influence that colonization of those inmense territories could have in the social, economical and political structures, of the respective countries.
That similarity is enhanced when notice is taken that colonization in both “deserts” was practiced in a field dominated by the Indians, so that “internal frontiers” delimitated the “real country” inside the “political country”.
By that reason, the reality of the Argentinean experience in the Desert Conquest, keep many points of contact with the one that writer Frederick Jackson Turner describes for the United States in his work, published in 1893, about the frontier in American history (3)
And taking as a fact –as Turner says- that around 1880 there is no more an “internal frontier” in the United States, the same can be said of Argentina, where in that year culminated the colonization campaign of three centuries. In this way closed the parallel historical movements, called in the United States the “March to the West” and “Conquest of the Desert” in Argentina.
Turner was by then a young professor in the University of Wisconsin and his message –comments Billington in 1962- is equally pertinent this days, because no book did more to remake the american literature or recreate the image popularly perceived of the American past, like this essays that calls for meditation.
In his chapter about significance of the frontier in American history, Turner says that expansion to the West, with their new opportunities and continuously renewed contact with the simplicity of primitive society, provides the dominant strength in the forging of American character, because the frontier is the line of faster and effective Americanization.
New waves of immigrants –adds Turner- insert themselves in the changing stratums of the frontier, all in search of new opportunities of access to land and better conditions of life. These are the effects of the advance to the West:
1) The frontier promotes the formation of a nationality composed by the American people.
2) Decreases the dependence from Europe.
3) Growing of a nationalism and the evolution o political american
institutions depended on the advance of the frontier.
4) At the pace of new States integrating the Union, national power grew stronger.
5) This nationalizing trend of the West, transformed Jefferson’s democracy in Monroe’s national republicanism and Andrew Jackson democracy.
6) Nothing works better for nationalism like mobility inside the Nation.
7) But the most important effect of the frontier was to promote democracy in the United States, because it reinforce individualism, as the complex society is precipitated by the desert, in a sort of primitive organization, based on the family with a proclivity to individual freedom, unfriendly of state controls.
The problem of the West –continues Turner- is nothing less than the American development, because the West, more than a reality, is a form of society. In contact with the desert, emerged a new society, at the closing of the conquest period, that keeps certain principles: leaderships depended in qualities of serving for the young society. Clay, Jackson. Harrison, Lincoln show this tendency (3).
Turner’s conception was receipted and followed in the Unites States and results evident in the “western” genre in literature that values and episodes of frontier life conform a powerful cultural policy for national identity since the end of XIX Century to this days
In the parallel March to the West of United States and the Conquest of the Pampas in Argentina, also chronologically, plays a similar role in both hemispheres the influence of the Basques, as a peculiar and no less important
aspect of the great movement of masses flowing to the West, as a component
of the integration of the new society.
The American historian William A. Douglass, in “Los Vascos del Oeste Americano: Perspectiva Histórica Preliminar”, says that in the United States the basques had an important place as sheepherders, because: 1) had a basis of experience as pastoral workers; 2) aptitude to forbear the psychological difficulties of almost total isolation, and 3) their “indarra”, or physical and moral fortitude.
And the same Douglass with recognized knowledge in the subject points, in “The Basque Experience North and South” (4), that this sheepherders, as shown in many basque California sheepmen biographies,, brought their experiences from the extreme South of the Americas, where they passed some time of their lives.
In this context we intend now to show, through some episodes of live experiences in the vast spaces of the West, at the same periods of their history, how conditions were similar and vicissitudes equally painful North and South of the Americas.
Undabarrena’s Last Stand
In the year 1876, some 5.000 Sioux warriors, under Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, massacred 225 american soldiers and their Chief, Colonel George Armstrong Custer, in the valley of the Little Big Horn. The last moments of the gallant Colonel of Cavalry are a legend in the United States. Similar moments, in the same period, passed in Argentina another Cavalry Officer, Colonel Saturnino Undabarrena:
With the aim of taking herds of cattle in the frontier with the “huincas” (5), the Chief Indian warrior Pincén , ran along the line, and was intercepted by Colonel Saturnino Undabarrena, that was in command of the frontier south of Santa Fe.
A veteran of war in the pampas, well known as a brave Officer of Cavalry in the West Frontier, and a deadly shooter , till destiny put him in the way of the terrible Pincén, fertile in tricks, fearsome “cacique” of the pampas.
In the same way that in the Northwest of the United States Sitting Bull was the great Sioux Chief, and “Crazy Horse” represented the valour and war drive of the young warriors; thus operated in the pampas of Argentina, under the conduction the great araucanian cacique Calfucurá, with autonomy and implacable hate of the “huinca”, this younger cacique Pincén.
Master of great movility, Pincén filtered through the frontier, and was enfrented for Undabarrena, with a minor contingent of troops. Pincén feigned retreat, with a big heard of robbed cattle, that slowed his march toward his encampment deep West. Tenaciously Undabarrena pursued him all day, till he was upon the Indians, with tired horses, in June 16th 1877.
Pincén moved his best lancers to meet him, which from the high of the sand dunes, formed in a half moon, menaced the “huincas” with heir lances, giving time for the herders to get away with the cattle. The Indians knew that Unadabarrena’s troop had tired horses, while themselves, as ever, were better mounted, at four horses for lance, so could change to fresh horses for battle.
Undabarrena ordered a charge, that was vigorous, and the Indians dispersed in attitude of retreat, leaving unprotected the cattle, that soon was reached. The frontier Chief ordered his soldiers to gather the cattle for restitutions to the owners. Then he had to divide the troop.
That was Pincén was waiting for.
Occult behind a dune, the Indian chief observed that a group of his pursuers had separated from the others, busily gathering cattle dispersed at some distance. In this group of ten men he identified Undabarrena. Pincén always aimed for the chiefs “huincas”.
With the velocity of lightness he fell upon them with 100 lancers, in the classic “pampa deal”, surprise attack and a superiority in number of ten for one. In open field and encircled by the Indians, only was left to the veteran soldiers, to unmount, tie the horses feet, and resist upstanding.
Undabarrena fell six Indians with the six bullets of his revolver, till he also fell fighting to the end with his soldiers. The troop that arrived later to the scene, found mutilated and naked Undabarrena and his men. And between them, the corpses of 11 indians. In Undabarrena’s breasts there were ten lance mortal wounds; in his hands the knife he used to eat in campaign, with which he defended himself to the last extremes…
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(1) “The Turner Thesis in Comparative Perspective: An Introduction”, pags. 9 and up, from compilation “Turner and the Sociology of the Frontier, ed. for Richard Hofstater (Bibl. Lincoln, Bs.As., N 978 HOF).
(2) “Argentina: A City and a Nation”, James R. Scobie, New York, Oxford University Press, 1964.
(3) “The Frontier in American History”, for Frederick Jackson Turner, USA, 1920 and 1947, Bibl. Lincoln, N 978 TUR)
(4) Boletin del Instituto Americano de Estudios Vascos, Nº 100, Buenos Aires 1975, pags. 167/176, ed. Vasca Ekin).
(5) The indians called them christians or “huincas”: depraved men, capable of robbing them their women and property.
(6) “Biografías Argentinas y Sudamericanas”, Jacinto R. Yaben, ed. Metrópolis Buenos Aires, 1992, II, pags. 903/907
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