1.2 The 'spirit of bold adventure' and rush to Chiriquí

While the dramatic accounts of Chiriquí looting varied widely in their details, by all accounts the looting was extensive. Meagher (1861, 205, Link to archived PDF recounted it in these terms in Harper's Weekly:

All the way from Davíd we had ridden through thousands of these disemboweled and ransacked graves, and in every direction, for leagues and leagues, from Terraba and Boruca to Santiago de Veraguas, we might have seen tens of thousands more.

The Chiriquí gold rush drew a number of the same individuals who flocked to California in 1849; the draw was not just monetary gain but 'spirit of bold adventure' explicitly linked to the search for 'a new El Dorado' (Anon 1859d Link to archived PDF). As one newspaper report (Anon 1859b Link to archived PDF) recounted:

Natives and foreigners continue to flock to the old Indian country in such numbers that our streets are getting to be rather bare of 'gentlemen of leisure'.

An industry of service providers sprung up to capitalise on the influx of people searching for graves, including transportation services from the more easily accessible Panamá City to the less easily reached Chiriquí city of Davíd. One example of a handbill that could be found on the streets of Panamá City at the time is as follows (Anon 1859c Link to archived PDF):

For the Chiriquí gold diggings – the fast-sailing clipper-schooner Carolina, Captain Manuel Delgado, having a large part of her freight engaged, will have immediate dispatch for Davíd, Chiriquí. Only a limited number of passengers and small quantity of freight will be taken, for which early application must be made at the office of the undersigned. Over $200,000 worth of gold images have been taken from one huaca [grave], many of which images can be seen at Don Maximo Perez, who has received a king weighing 50 pounds, and a hat weighing 25 pounds, and as there are thousands of huacas in Chiriquí, many millions of dollars will be dug out of these Indian burial places. Over three thousand persons are now digging there with great success. For full particulars, inquire at the undersigned, at their office near the Taller.

The rapidly constructed structures and services that catered to the gold rush participants, however, provided short-lived wealth for entrepreneurs. As Meagher (1861, 203 Link to archived PDF) stated:

Gold-hunting among the ancient dead of Chiriqui, in a month or so, was declared to be a lottery in which there were ninety-nine blanks to every prize, and to secure that one prize much labor and suffering had to be endured.

Widespread and large-scale looting, however, continued unabated for many decades to come and occurred throughout the 20th century whenever new sites were discovered. These later finds, however, largely escaped the attention of the gentleman adventurers and western media.


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