Argentina Secretary of Tourism
Argentina Secretary of Tourism

Butch Cassidy Meets the Penguin

A comic tale, right? Not in Patagonia, where legends die hard.

Argentina Secretary of Tourism

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It was no great feat of investigative journalism to find the house of Boots. The ramshackle log edifice was partially hidden behind a dozen mature trees, about a hundred yards off a gravel road a dozen miles or so outside the town of Cholila, in Chubut Province, Argentina. It was surrounded by a barbless wire fence intended to keep cows away; I had been told that no advance permission was required to examine the unmarked and abandoned complex of log buildings, so I climbed over the fence. A pasture fronting the dark structures was alive with daisies and the lazy hum of bees. The main house was pleasantly shaded by trees, and there were several out-cabins strung along the banks of the slow-flowing blue waters of the Río Blanco.

Argentina Secretary of Tourism Argentina Secretary of Tourism

The man called Boots, I had been informed, built this homestead nearly a century ago, in 1902, after he fled to South America from the United States. In Cholila, there are those who will tell you Boots was a gunslinger and a killer. One local family believes he killed one of its forefathers during a botched and cowardly robbery. The Ap Iwans, a clan of Welsh settlers, had established a trading post to do business with the Mapuche Indians. On the night of December 28, 1909, a torch was thrown through the window of the store. The proprietor, Llwyd Ap Iwan, was inside and fired several shots to drive off the robbers, but burned his hands badly putting out the fire. The next day, they say, six outlaws, including Boots and a woman, attacked the trading post. Boots burst through the door with his pistol drawn, but Llwyd grappled with the intruder, who fell when his spurs became tangled in a rug. Despite his burned hands, Llwyd managed to get the gun away from the outlaw, but it had been modified to be cocked with the heel of the hand*#151;to be fanned—and the trigger was missing. Llwyd was slow with the gun, and a man known in North America as the Sundance Kid stepped into the room carrying a Winchester .45 rifle and killed him.
The Welsh community was enraged. The Ap Iwans say that the outlaws were hunted down by Argentine territorial police and killed not far away, near the border with Chile.

There are others in Cholila who say that the Ap Iwan family is mistaken and that Llwyd was killed by another gang of North American bandits living in the area at the time. The man who called himself Butch Cassidy (“Butch” sounds like “Boots” in a Spanish-speaking mouth) was a good neighbor and a fine rancher. According to this variation on the legend, Boots was driven from his land by political circumstances beyond his control and died either in Bolivia or back in the United States.

A breeze sighed through the tall old trees around the house of Boots, and I listened for the voices of spirits. A set of crooked steps led up to a small porch, and it was no great feat of imagination to see the place as it must have been almost 100 years ago: graceful and rather elegant, a scaled-down version of the late-nineteenth-century cattle-baron style.

The doors were locked and the windows shut tight. I looked through panes of wavy glass into dusty dark rooms. My own shadow slid across the floor, but I imagined dim figures, vaguely translucent, shifting through the gloom, a table set for a long Argentine lunch: one woman, two men. A linen tablecloth, fine silver, plates of beef and salad, the contented murmur of conversation.

“Step inside,” a disembodied voice suggested, “for we wish to relieve you of your time and currency.” Not me, I thought. But it was as if the locked door was already swinging open on ghostly, creaking hinges.

El señor Raúl Cea, 77, is generally considered the historiador, the keeper of the legend. He owns a small cattle ranch set on a hillside above the Río Blanco, and I drove to visit him with an Argentine fishing buddy of mine named Eduardo, who directed me through fenced fields of fine, fat cows. Beyond the valley was the Cerro Tres Picos, an Andean wall rising stark against a cloudless sky, and the three pinnacles that gave it its name. Glaciers on the saddles between the peaks glittered in the sun.

“Raúl will talk about Boots for hours,” Eduardo told me. “His wife doesn’t like it. She believes he is obsessed. We should only stay for one hour, no more.”
We arrived at the modest old ranch house to find Raúl Cea wrestling with a used freezer that was sitting on the tailgate of a battered Ford pickup. He’s a big man, but it is my opinion that anyone who has attained 77 years shouldn’t be carrying around freezers single-handedly.

Eduardo and I shouldered the resolute Mr. Cea out of the way and lugged the bulky appliance into the house. We gathered around the kitchen table, and La Señora Cea graciously offered the thick green tea called maté and sat with us for a moment until it became clear that we were going to talk about the dreaded Boots. She excused herself and left the room, closing the door perhaps a bit more firmly than was absolutely necessary.

Mr. Cea told us that he is not an historian by trade, but a retired civil servant. He had been a builder, Eduardo said, and it was he who erected the stately municipal office building in Cholila. He’d also been a small-time rancher all his life—”a gaucho, a cowboy like Butch Cassidy”—and his father had known the North American outlaws well.

Butch and Sundance arrived in Cholila in the summer of 1901, Mr. Cea said. Butch called himself Santiago Ryan. Harry Longabaugh—the Sundance Kid—brought along his girlfriend, Etta Place. They claimed to be man and wife, and Sundance went by the name Enrique Place. The newcomers were granted land to develop under an Argentine law, similar to the U.S. Homestead Act, that had been enacted on October 16, 1884. (Mr. Cea, like any historian, amateur or professional, was a font of such dates). According to the law, each head of a household was granted 2,500 hectares, or about 6,250 acres. The Ryan Ranch covered 15,000 acres in all—12,500 belonging to Butch and Sundance, and 2,500 to Etta, the first woman in Argentina to be granted land under the act. This might have had something to do with the fact that Etta wore paired six-guns and was able to shoot bottles off fence posts while riding on horseback at full gallop.

In Cholila, the North Americans quickly earned the respect of the local people. They rode well, knew cattle, and Ryan and Mrs. Place spoke some Spanish. In the United States, Mr. Cea informed me, there is much controversy about Ryan. Some say he was a good man. Some say he was bad.

“When he came here,” Mr. Cea said, “he was a good man.”

More than ten years ago, I found myself driving through southern Argentina and stopped for a time in Río Gallegos, the last sizable outpost on the mainland before you reach the car ferry to Tierra del Fuego. It was a dreary day in late September, and the snow that lay around the small town plaza was covered with a wind-driven shroud of soot and dirt, all of it dissolving under gray, freezing rain.

My tourist map was full of interesting facts. Along this wave-battered coast of the southern Atlantic, penguins frolic on the rocks. And on February 16, 1905, the local bank was robbed by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
A guy came from Utah to the end of the Earth to rob the bank, here? Not so very far from Antarctica? I had a hard time assimilating the idea of Wild West bank robbers in close proximity to penguins.

It took me more than a decade to get back to Argentina. I brought along a 1994 book titled Digging Up Butch and Sundance, by Anne Meadows. With her husband, Dan Buck, Meadows traveled to South America half a dozen times to research the life and times of Boots. “Our obsession has nearly bankrupted us,” she wrote. The book is a fascinating labyrinth of conflicting stories that ends in a high mountain bowl in Bolivia where Sundance is almost certainly buried. Butch is probably there as well, but then again, there’s a slight possibility that he survived and returned to the United States. The speculative historical record reads like a catalog of Elvis sightings.

By the time I turned off the paved highway and onto the gravel road to Cholila, 35 miles away, I was in the labyrinth myself. There were forests and rivers and lakes. The Andes looked a lot like the mountains outside my hometown in Montana, and I had a sudden apprehension of psychic danger. It was possible I too could become lost in a maze of stories; I could bankrupt myself searching for an unattainable veracity. “Two days,” I thought, “no more”—much in the way the future crack addict believes he will take a single hit on the pipe and quit.

“Ryan was born Robert Leroy Parker, in Beaver, Utah, on April 13, 1866,” Mr. Cea continued. Despite my protests, he thought it was important that I revisit certain aspects of American history. The Civil War, he said, the war of brother against brother, had just ended. Some 816,000 men were dead, the most to die in any American war. In the West, banks and large cattle companies were buying up land from the widows of veterans. Justice was slow. Gangs of men, hardened fighters like Jesse James, robbed the hated banks and became folk heroes. All this, Mr. Cea said, happened in the first decade of Bob Parker’s life, a time when the soul is formed. The boy saw family ranchers bilked of their land by banks, railroads, and multinational cattle companies. If Butch rustled cattle, in Mr. Cea’s rendition of history it was a form of social protest.

Butch—who worked for a time as a butcher, hence the nickname—became a ranch foreman, a natural leader who knew how to command tough men. He watched his employers, the cattle barons, stealing stock and land from poor ranchers, who had no recourse. He burned, in Mr. Cea’s opinion, with a hatred of injustice, which he identified with the big and bullying corporate interests of the time.

The bad winter of 1888-1889 broke the system. Hundreds of thousands of cattle died on the range. Bosses abandoned the land and returned to their homes in Great Britain or the East. Unemployed cowboys roamed the lawless land. Butch continued robbing banks and railroads, and became famous. In 1899 he hooked up with the Sundance Kid.

Pursued by the Pinkerton Detective Agency—”actually the forerunner of your FBI,” Mr. Cea said—the partners decided to flee to South America. Modern technology, especially the telegraph, had effectively put them out of the train-robbing business.

“Why South America?” I asked.

“Europe was too socially stratified,” Mr. Cea replied. “But many people in the American West knew of Patagonia.” The Welsh, fleeing dead-end lives in the coal mines, had already settled in Chubut province. Representatives of these Welsh immigrants recruited English-speaking colonists all across North America. Central Patagonia was attractive because the land looked a great deal like the American West. But there were few banks, the frontier was still open, and the cattle business was still a matter of family ranches. It was a place where a man could make an honest living raising beef.

We had been talking for an hour. Mrs. Cea came into the kitchen, passed through smiling pleasantly, and closed the door to the next room with a great deal of authority. Mr. Cea smiled after her.

The events that followed had a horrible irony, Mr. Cea continued. “When Ryan”—Butch—”arrived in Argentina, he intended to live peacefully, but instead became a catalyst for the social and political problems of the day in this country.”

Behind the closed door to the living room, Mrs. Cea was rearranging furniture or perhaps using the floor as a trampoline. Raúl Cea began to speak more rapidly.

Ryan was granted land primarily because Argentina needed to develop the Cholila valley and frustrate Chilean claims on the land. After a plebiscite—”held on April 30, 1902″ and presided over by Queen Victoria of England—the land was declared part of Argentina. Chileans, however, owned most of the property in the valley and apparently planned to pursue their claims by buying up all the ranches they could. The Argentine authorities gave the Ryan party homesteads—the one sizable chunk of land in the valley not yet under Chilean control—primarily because they weren’t Chileans.
There are documents, Mr. Cea said, that proved they were good ranchers. As in the United States, a homesteader had to “prove up” the land, and officials were dispatched to monitor his progress.

“Remember this date,” Mr. Cea said. “February 15, 1905.” On that day, an official named Lózaro Molinas visited Ryan’s Cholila ranch under the provisions of the homestead law. He spoke with Ryan and the Places, and certified that they had 900 mother cows and 50 horses. Their books were in order. The report that Molinas filed, Mr. Cea said, can be found in the town records of Rawson, the provincial capital.

A Chilean-backed company called Cochamó offered to buy the ranch from Ryan, but he refused. According to Mr. Cea, Chilean agents framed Ryan for the Río Gallegos robbery. “Recall the document of Señor Molinas,” Mr. Cea said.

Mrs. Cea marched through the kitchen, slamming both doors.

“We should leave now,” Eduardo said.

“Yes, of course,” I said, making no effort to move.

Mr. Cea began speaking much faster. “Molinas talked with Ryan on February 15, 1905. The bank was robbed the very next day. It is over a thousand kilometers from Cholila. Who can ride a horse 1,000 kilometers in less than 24 hours? It is not possible!”

Sometime later, he said, a picture of Butch, Sundance, and Etta appeared on the front page of a Buenos Aires newspaper. They were identified as the persons responsible for the Río Gallegos robbery. The picture, Mr. Cea believes, was planted by Chileans. When Ryan saw the paper, he sold out to Cochamó and required that they pay him in Chile. “He left on the ninth of May, 1905.”

“So Butch and Sundance couldn’t have killed Llwyd Ap Iwan in 1909!” I cried, as Eduardo pulled on my arm.

“No, Argentine police identified the assailants as two other North Americans, Robert Evans and William Wilson. And they were hunted down and killed near the border of Chile after the murder.”

“Do you think Butch and Sundance died in Bolivia?” I asked.

“Good-bye, adios,” Mrs. Cea said, as Eduardo dragged me out the door.

“I don’t know,” Mr. Cea said.

“Thank you for your visit,” Mrs. Cea said. She was quite gracious, considering.

“Santiago Ryan,” Mr. Cea said as he followed us outside, “is not a man for North America or for Argentina. He is a man for the world. He is a social enigma, a mystery of a soul haunted by injustice.”

“And I saw his house.”

“Oh, no,” Mr. Cea said. “That was the house of Enrique and Etta. Ryan’s house was in front of that. It was torn down in 1943. The logs were used for another building.”

“Which one?” I asked, in the manner of the seriously obsessed.

“Good-bye, now,” Mrs. Cea said, a little less graciously, and at that point we really did have to go.

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