As word of the California gold rush reached Cape Cod in 1848, Benjamin Bourne decided he couldn’t pass up such a good opportunity. Joining with a company of 24 others, he set sail with visions of claiming a share of the fortune. Instead, he very nearly lost his life.
Or so he thought.
Benjamin Bourne Heads West
Bourne was first mate on the voyage aboard the schooner John Allyne, which left New Bedford on Feb. 13, 1849. The first part of the journey was uneventful. The captain decided to take the ship through the Strait of Magellan to avoid the hazards of rounding Cape Horn and speed up the journey.
The ship made a stop on the far eastern point in Brazil, Pernambuco, to take on additional rigging for the journey through the Strait. From there it continued south until it reached Cape Virgenes at the mouth of the Strait of Magellan, cutting across the southern tip of South America. Here, with no wind, the ship stalled on April 30.
Resting at anchor and awaiting the chance to proceed, a group of men ventured inland to gather food. The ship’s captain announced he would also go ashore to procure supplies for the ship if any were available. However, he changed his mind and asked Benjamin Bourne to make the trip in his stead.
Bourne was frightened by the idea of going ashore in Patagonia. The Patagonian Indians were legendary, made famous by sailors’ yarns that described them as a gigantic race of men who, among other things, practiced cannibalism.
Nevertheless, Bourne ventured ashore. He soon found himself accosted by Patagonians. They bartered with him, offering to allow him to return to his ship in exchange for rum, tobacco and other ransom. When Bourne’s shipmates didn’t provide a large enough ransom, the Patagonians kidnapped him and headed into the interior.
For the next 97 days he moved along with the Patagonians, quaking in fear for his life. Bourne believed he was constantly in danger of becoming their next meal.
The Patagonian chief and Bourne both spoke a bit of Spanish, but communication was limited. At one point, a fight occurred in the camp, and Bourne feared there was a dispute under way over whether to kill him. As a group of men argued with the chief, Bourne struggled to try to understand what they wanted. He described the event in his writings about the trip:
“I was wide awake, and bent on keeping so, sorely bewildered at the strange goings on, and not a little terrified, but holding fast by my sole weapon of defense, and waiting a favorable opportunity to interpose another inquiry.
”The chief turned his head and, perceiving my vigilance, repeated in an angry tone his injunction to sleep. This was a drop too much and, clasping my arms about his dirty neck, patting his breast, and looking (with as confiding an air as I could assume) into his dull eyes, I begged him to speak to me, to tell me what these men wanted. “Do they want to break my head?”
“The men don’t want to hurt you,” he said, “Indian wants a girl for his wife; poor Indian, very poor, got no horses nor anything else. I won’t give him the woman.”
Bourne, like most people of the day, drew their knowledge of the South American Indians from the legends, many dating to the German explorer Hans Staden, who described giants and cannibals.
As his stay lengthened, Bourne witnessed a rough-and-tumble, sometimes violent, society. On the question of cannibalism, Bourne concluded nothing. The closest he came to finding any evidence of cannibalism are some occasions when the Patagonians ate unusual meat whose source he could not determine.
And in another instance, he met a Patagonian who informed him the tribe had killed and eaten three men.
There are differing opinions of whether Bourne’s life was in jeopardy. His captors treated him with some kindness, feeding him and listening to his stories. They most definitely wanted to trade him for ransom, but whether they would have killed him is unknown. And whether the band that kidnapped Bourne were among the cannibals of the region is still less certain.
Bourne decided not to wait to find out for sure. One day, as the tribe journeyed to one of the Dutch settlements where they hoped to negotiate a ransom for Bourne, a ship appeared nearby. It had set out a long boat near to the shore. Suspicious of the Patagonians, the men in the long boat kept their distance.
Benjamin Bourne Escapes
In desperation, Bourne charged into the ocean and frantically swam to the boat while the occupants kept his kidnappers at bay with rifles. Dragged to safety, Bourne wrote of his adventures and left the manuscript in a small settlement. From there he began making his way onward to California.
Hitching rides on a number of vessels, Benjamin Bourne learned that his manuscript had made its way back to Boston. A number of leaders, including Sen. Daniel Webster, had convinced the U.S. Navy to dispatch a ship, the Vandalia, to rescue him.
Bourne got word to the Vandalia that he was free from his captives and was fine. He continued on his way, finally arriving in San Francisco Feb. 19, 1850 aboard the Hopewell. There he learned the story of the John Allyne. Bourne’s shipmates had given him up for dead and proceeded to change their course, travelling to California around Cape Horn.
From there, the men sold the boat and scatted into the hills seeking gold.
With dampened enthusiasm for the gold mining scheme, Bourne abandoned the gold rush. He returned to his Massachusetts home where he would eventually inherit his father’s estate and live out his life comfortably.
Bourne’s story had been published in Boston newspapers and later in a book, making him a celebrity in the 1880s.
This story was updated in 2021.