Outside the rain-drenched fishing hamlet of Caleta Tortel, across the bay where the Baker meets the Pacific Ocean, lies an oblong island of Patagonian jungle. There, at the edge of the mosses, ferns, and cypress, dozens of wooden crosses emerge from the forest— silent emissaries from the past, simple and stark, arms outstretched. These crosses, whose origins were for decades shrouded in mystery, gave the island its name: La Isla de Los Muertos.
Ask around in Aysén and you can still hear the stories — stories of murder, of mass poisoning, of cover-ups and conspiracies. Rumor and myth have always found fertile ground in remote regions like this one, and a powerful oral tradition — tales told over maté or during long cattle drives — has kept alive many versions of the past. But the true story of the crosses is as tragic as any fiction, and offers a glimpse into the birth of modern Aysén.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Chilean officials in Santiago knew little about the inland territory between Puerto Montt and Punta Arenas, save for limited information collected by Chilean and Argentine boundary commissions over the preceding decade. Chilean maps labelled huge swaths of Aysén as, simply, inexplorado.
Yet it was viewed as a matter of national urgency that the area be peopled, that Chileans hacer patria — that is, establish “facts on the ground” and exercise Chilean claims to the land. For 19th century statesmen, filling land with people in and of itself constituted progress. Gobernar es poblar, the Argentine political theorist Juan Batista Alberdi declared. Governing is peopling. That maxim became gospel for Argentine and Chilean leaders alike.
Chileans also feared losing Aysén to Argentina. This was not an idle concern: South American national boundaries were contentious at the turn of the 20th century. And Chileans in particular knew something about the pliability of borders, having just seized huge tracts of land (today’s Arica, Tarapacá and Antofagasta) from Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, which ended in the mid-1890s. Chile’s success in that conflict hinged, in part, on the widespread presence of Chilean businesses and laborers in territory claimed by its neighbors. If Argentina were allowed similar influence in Aysén, the outcome could be disastrous.
And so a hasty and slipshod effort to establish a Chilean presence in Aysén began. In the United States, the government lured settlers westward by offering small plots of land to families and individuals. Chile relied on a different tactic: corporate “societies,” not families, would drive the process of building a Chilean Aysén.
In Santiago around 1900, the offices of the Ministerio de Colonización hummed with activity as government officials and well-connected bidders sliced the Aysén territory into ten enormous parcels, each of which was then rented (or “concessioned”) to a company. The Compañia Explotadora Baker, backed by dozens of investors from the upper-crust of Santiago and Valparaíso, acquired the rights to a sweeping area between the southern shore of Lago General Carrera (then known solely as Lago Buenos Aires) and the outlet of the Baker into the ocean. In exchange for a twenty year lease to the land, the CEB agreed to several conditions: they would build roads and infrastructure, install permanent settlers, and export their products through Chilean ports, rather than over the pampas to Argentina.
The CEB’s business plan was, on paper, fairly straightforward — and must have seemed quite reasonable to bureaucrats and investors in Santiago who had never fought through a thicket of ñirre, rowed the gelid waters of the Baker, or herded animals over a high pass in a Patagonian deluge. The company intended to graze thousands of cattle and sheep in the Chacabuco Valley and the upper Baker (in the general vicinity of today’s Cochrane) while also harvesting cypress from the rain-soaked southern part of the concession, near modern day Caleta Tortel. All the products would be shipped to market by steamship from a small port — a hovel, really — at the Baker’s outlet.