Sensacional Historia de la Oro del Amazonas

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This article on Ecuador gold reprinted from Argosy Magazine (1965), in two parts, tells a sensational story of the Amazon which certainly doesn’t bear any resemblance to a modern day Ecuadorian 4 lane Amazon highway.  However, it is an interesting story, albeit a bit prejudice, weighing on the gold prospectors side…

“In the deep Rain Forest of Ecuador, eastward over the snow-capped Andean peaks, lies a vast region of nearly unexplored jungle wilderness, and the hundreds of rivers which course through the impenetrable jungle, eastward towards the Amazon, are heavy with gild.  The gold is so plentiful that a lucky prospector could make his fortune within a few months, if given the opportunity to work these rivers unmolested.

But they can’t for this is the forbidden domain of the Aucas, one of the most savage and deadly tribes in all South America.  The Aucas first became known to the white man when, in the sixteenth century, the Spanish conquistadores, in search of gold, silver and precious jewels, crossed the Andes, and by Indian canoe, set off on an exploratory mission down the main rivers of the Amazon.

Eventually, they followed still other rivers, which took then into the land of the savage Auca’s.  At first, the Indians were friendly, and offered the armored warriors gifts of gold and priceless emeralds.  But the Spanish, lusting for more riches, insisted on learning the location of the emerald mine from which the magnificent green stones had come, and demanded the primitive Indians reveal the secret of their vast gold supply.

When the Aucas refused, the Spaniards resorted to torture and burning at the stake, but to no avail.  In the months that followed, contingents of Spanish soldiers were ambushed and slain by deadly lances, and in the end, the invaders were forced to retreat and leave the area.

Few took up the gold challenge until early in the twentieth century, when British and American explorers, hearing the oft-repeated tales of gold and precious jewels, decided to invade this hostile territory. In 1935, Erskine Loch, a Scotsman who was world-renowned as an explorer, arrived in Ecuador where he obtained a commission from the government to map the Amazon region, which included many of the principal rivers running through Auca territory.  He and his group, known as the Andes-Amazon Expedition, set off on their perilous adventure on two balsa-wood rafts laden with five tones of equipment, and spent the next two years on this project. Up until this time, the Amazon area was virtually unexplored and Loch’s detailed map of the region is still considered the best ever compiled.  Jis expedition spent several months in the land of the Aucas and although they were repeatedly attacked, they were able to ward off disaster through the use of heavy fire-power.

It is interesting to note that on his return to Quito, Erskine Loch brought several bags of gold nuggets and rough metal, and succeeded in rekindling the flame of adventure in the hearts of those who had long sought to invade this sinister world in conquest of fabulous riches.  Loch intended returning to Auca territory in quest of more gold, but unfortunately developed a cancerous condition in his throat.  He finally ended his life with a bullet.  His nephew, however, Alasdair, who accompanied him on this dangerous expedition, is now living in Australia, and plans to return to Ecuador for a new expedition.

On the strength of Loch’s phenomenal success, a daring American adventurer, Sam Sauder, built a small house in the Amazon, close to Auca territory, hoping to make friendly contact with the primitives, and later to pan the rivers with their permission.  Each night, at the edge of a clearing on his hacienda, Sam left a variety of gifts; including machetes for the men and brightly colored ribbons for the women, hoping that, through his generosity, the Aucas would become amicable and co-operative. On several successive nights, his gifts disappeared and, encouraged, Sam sat on the veranda during daylight hours, momentarily expecting a friendly visit from his primitive neighbours.

One day they arrived, but not in the manner in which he had anticipated.  Out of the tall grass just a few yards away from his porch, three nude Auca warriors suddenly arose, brandishing their deadly eight-foot-long lances.  Unfortunately, the aging American had left his gun in the house and he expected to be killed instantly.  But suddenly an idea struck him, one he hoped might prolong his life until he could get through the front door to retrieve his gun.  He took his false teeth from his mouth, and holding them between his thumb and forefinger, began clacking them up and down at the startled Aucas.  The Indians stared unbelievingly for a moment then took off for the jungle.

The very next morning, however, Sam Sauder packed his gear and headed back to civilization.  He wasn’t taking any more chances, and the gold in the Auca Rivers still remained untouched by Western hands.

But even as Sauder fled to safety, another young explorer, Bancroft Butler, who had originally come to Ecuador on a herpetology expedition for the University of Detroit, set off with three Ecuadorians down the Aucas Rivers. His guide on this expedition was Severo Vargas, well-known as “King of the Rivers” and an expert on Auca habits and customs.

“We were gone about three months,” Butler recently told me,” and during that time, we never saw a single Auca, possibly because we were heavily armed and prepared for any eventuality.” Since then, Butler has been on many other expeditions along various rivers in the area, and he is still as enthusiastic as ever about the eventual possibility of reaping a rich reward in gold and other precious metals in this section. “As we passed slowly downstream,” he said, “we could see the yellow glint of gold coming from the many playas, or beaches, but we felt the appropriate time to make a killing was still in the future.”

According to Butler, within the next year or two, properly equipped expeditions will be able to work the rivers, both by panning and with heavy equipment, without any danger of attack.  “It’s just a question of time,” he remarked,” until these savages recognize that the inroads of civilization into their land cannot be stopped.”

But all expeditions were not as successful as Bancroft Butler’s.

A few years later, three young men – a professional photographer, known only by the name of “Peterson”, who emigrated to Ecuador from Europe, Kurt Bossack, Danish explorer-author, and a young American named Ralph Darlington – joined forces and set out in two rafts down an Auca river in search of gold, emeralds and adventure.  With them was a complement of Yumba Indians, hired as guides and porters.  As they worked their way deeper into the domain of the Aucas, nothing alarming occurred, and they soon came to the conclusion that perhaps the Aucas would turn out to be friendly and ignore their presence.

Then, around noon of the third day, all hell broke loose.  The first raft approached a bend in the river, and Peterson, who was, in command, noticed that a tree had been felled in the channel, which would force the raft to within ten feet of the embankment. As it slowly veered around the bend, Peterson, to his horror, saw a small group of eight nude Aucas waiting in ambush.  Almost immediately, the savages began hurling their long, saw-toothed lances.  One of the Yumbos was killed as the lance pierced his chest, and another was wounded in the heel.  As fast as the weapons were thrown, an Auca witch doctor supplied the savages with additional lances.

Peterson immediately opened fire and he and the others jumped in the river at the far side of the raft, using it as protection against still other lances, which rained down upon them.  By this time, the second raft had joined them.  Hurriedly opening a case of dynamite, Bossack and Darlington tossed sticks of explosives at the Aucas, who fled to cover.

Later, when interviewed in Quito, the three men told reporters that they had abandoned their supplies and equipment, swum across the narrow river and retreated overland toward civilization, not stopping until they were out of Auca territory.  Ralph Darlingion, the young American, declared, “All the way down this narrow river, which was more like a quiet stream, I saw evidences of gold, and at times the water reflected a yellow light which came from clusters of nuggets close to the banks.”

The Aucas have never learned the monetary value of gold, and like their ancient ancestors, the Incas, have always regarded it as nothing more than a religious symbol.

But like the old Yukon sourdough who was willing to sell his soul for a “poke of gold,” there are others who would risk their lives to retrieve the gold of the Aucas.  One is Dr. Victor S. Paulik, who has spent the past thirty years in South America in hs quest for gold and other minerals.  Although born in Vienna, he is now an American citizen, and won his Ph.D. with a major in geology from the Colorado School of Mines.  He is well qualified to speak on the subject of gold in Ecuador, because, just last year, he and a group of fourteen armed Yumbo Indians set out in four canoes to placer mine the Amazon river and beaches.

“I found the wealth of Midas,” he told me recently in his Quito home. “On one river alone, I estimate there are approximately six hundred million cubic yards of gold laced gravel.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the staggering fortune which can be made in this vast, little-explored area.” 

 "But what about the Aucas?" I asked him. "Did they give you any trouble?"

 The seventy-year-old geologist laughed. "I think they're highly overrated," he replied. "Let me give you a few true facts. In all their history, the Aucas have never attacked in large bodies-sometimes three, six, but at the very most, twelve. Of course, they know you are in their territory, but they also know that, if you are armed, they cannot fight you on equal terms, and they simply disappear into the bush. In the several months I spent in the Amazon, our group never saw a single Indian, even though we crossed many of their trails."

 Dr. Paulik went on to explain that, unlike other South American Indian tribes, the Aucas are a nomadic people, and live in small, isolated groups in bamboo huts along the banks of various rivers. These, they change frequently.

 "I would venture to state," Dr. Paulik said, "that in this vast region, there are no more than eight hundred Aucas -not very many when you consider that they occupy nearly fifty thousand square miles of land. Their only weapon of attack is their eight-foot-long, saw-toothed lance-and believe me, they are afraid of gun fire."

 After returning to Quito from his expedition, Dr. Paulik immediately went to the office of the Director of Mines and filed for a gold concession in the Amazon region. Currently, he has a large British mining corporation interested in the project, and plans are now in preparation to bring in heavy-duty dredges and various other mining equipment.

[To be continued....]