Old Time Farm Crime: Trench Warfare

In mid-19th century Argentina, cattle raiding had reached such a roiling boil that the government came up with a solution to try to stop cattle rustlers: a 250-mile long trench, 8-and-half-feet wide and 6-feet deep.

It may have seemed like a great idea at the time. The trench should have stopped the various bands of brigands and the Indians, who would be unable to to easily cross or lead cattle back across the trench. But this project proved to be a failure and was ditched (no pun intended) well short of the planned 600 miles that would have run from the Andes to the Atlantic.

The trench system, known as the Zanja de Alsina, was named for the country’s minister of war and navy, Adolfo Alsina Maza. Alsina hired a Frenchman named Alfred Ebélot to oversee the project. Ebélot was a civil engineer and journalist who had moved to Argentina in 1869, where he started a few newspapers and wrote several books about his new homeland. Ebélot called the trench project, which began in 1875, an “unpleasant and laborious enterprise” and in dispatches to the French periodical Revue Des Deux Mondes, he discussed the obstacles confronting its construction, including (in typical 19th century European racist terms) his problems overcoming the “detestable but inveterate habits that formed part of the Argentine national character.”

The other problem was a lack of funding. According to Ebélot, the Congress vastly underfunded the project that involved “sending armies of excavators to the heart of the desert in order to accomplish the work of removing 2 million cubic meters of earth.”

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Members of the National Guard were conscripted for the job that involved backbreaking labor in a hostile, arid and wild land. There was also the constant threat of attack by those who they were building the defense line against: the Indians of Patagonia and the Pampas, a vast plains area that covers part of the country.

About those Indians: for 350 years the original inhabitants of what would become Argentina and Chile had been fighting the Spanish and then the new national governments. By 1875 they had become a somewhat organized force, especially the Mapuche, whose way of life was reorganized in order to better fight against the continually encroaching whites. The warriors adopted the use of horses, a concept stolen from the Spanish, and military organization in battle. Cattle raiding became part of their fighting strategy; they used the proceeds of selling the cattle to help to pay for European weapons. They based this practice on an ancient ethos that declared that an injured party had the right to seek justice by raiding their enemy’s home and taking their property.

While the Spanish had been the Mapuche’s bitter enemies, when the South American colonies began to claim independence and as a result the Spanish empire began to crumble, some Mapuche bands aligned themselves with outlaws on the side of the Spanish crown, such as the Pincheira Brothers, who robbed, stole cattle and generally wreaked havoc on the populace. These Indians felt that the status quo under the Spanish was better than what the new independent nations would bring. Which, in the end, turned out to be true.

By the 1870s the emerging nation of Argentina had had enough of the raiding and turned to Alsina for a plan. An 1892 travelogue of a train trip through the region, Handbook of the River Plate, gives an idea of how much cattle theft was happening on the Argentine border, with nearly every settlement described in the book including a mention of Indian raids. One passage describes how workers who were laying down the railroad tracks for a new line in the 1860s had to keep an engine running at all times in case of attack. On one occasion, the crew barely made it out alive as Mapuche warriors attempted to lasso the moving train.

One passage describes how workers who were laying down the railroad tracks for a new line in the 1860s had to keep an engine running at all times in case of attack. On one occasion, the crew barely made it out alive as Mapuche warriors attempted to lasso the moving train.

While cattle was the main prize, the Mapuche also targeted horses, sheep and, according to some accounts, young women.  The book describes one of these events in a manner that leads one to think that the Indians making off with women-folk was somewhat of a humdrum affair. “When the railway was first opened the Indians came and carried off the station-master’s wife, but the Company got a new station-master named O’Keefe, who was such a good rifle-shot that the Indians never came again,” wrote the authors.

Alsina’s plan to try and deter the constant raids involved the building of a trench to prevent erosion, with adobe parapets above and the surrounding land covered in spiny bushes. Wooden watchtowers called mangrullos, along with 80 small garrisons, stretched the length of the trench and could communicate with one another via telegraph.

Alsina’s father, Valentín Alsina, who had also served as the provincial governor, had been heavily involved in the agricultural affairs of the region and drafted the country’s first rural code in 1865 for the province of Buenos Aires. The code laid out a variety of rules on livestock, from identification and ownership to how much a rancher would be fined ($100,000) if caught with someone else’s cattle that had happened to wander onto their land and wasn’t returned to the rightful owner. A fix to the wandering cattle problem was also taken into account thanks to two men on the elder Alsina’s advisory committee who happened to be pioneers in wire fencing. It wasn’t long before a closed range system was in place, helping to demarcate private property that was once open rangeland. And what started with wire by the father ended with a giant trench by the son.

However, Alsina’s trench proved unable to stop large-scale raids in the following years. After Alsina’s untimely death in 1877 while visiting the Pampas to study the situation first hand, the new minister of war, Julio Argentino Roca, changed tack.

Believing that a strong offense is the best defense, Roca began a systematic campaign of extermination of the Mapuche in what would be known as “the Conquest of the Desert.” Roca wrote that the nation’s “self respect as a virile people obliges us to put down as soon as possible, by reason or by force, this handful of savages who destroy our wealth and prevent us from definitively occupying … the richest and most fertile lands of the Republic.” His saber-rattling later earned him the presidency.

By 1879, the native people of the region were all but a memory, and according to at least one writer, not even the memory of the Indians exists in the Argentine national conscience. “In only a year the resulting military campaign erased native people from the national memory, both literally and figuratively, in sharp contrast to other centers of the former Spanish Empire such as Mexico and Peru … Argentina’s historical discourse … asserts a solely European origin,” wrote Kalu Obuk in a 2009 piece for Brandeis University’s Country Studies Series. 

Ebélot, following his stint working on the defunct trench system, returned to journalism. He seemed to agree with Roca’s policy, writing that the new tactic “turned out well” and was “the right thing to do.” But at the same time he turned against the nation’s headlong rush into modernity and mourned the loss of the traditional culture, both native and that of the country’s cowboys, known as gauchos. “The Indian no longer exists. Within ten years heartless civilization will have smoothed out the rough coarse edges and lines of the sharply defined figure of the gaucho,” he wrote in 1890.

(Art credit: “El Malón (The Raid)” (1845) by Johann Moritz Rugendas/Wikimedia Commons)

Old Time Farm Crime: Trench Warfare