Chapter 4: Voyage to South America, 1905-1906

Roland Thaxter (1858-1932) left Boston on August 17, 1905 for Liverpool, England where he he gained passage on the Pacific St. Navigation Company's S.S. Orissa bound for Brazil.

Early in the trip Thaxter's plans for collecting were thrown into disarray when he was informed by the first officer that a smallpox epidemic was raging in Chile, especially in Valparaiso, where the bodies were being piled in the streets.  Thaxter spent the next few days in "considerable mental disturbance" trying to decide how to reorder his visit so that he could still reach the areas he wishes to collect in.

On September 25th Thaxter arrived in Buenos Aires. He spent his time there collecting bugs and fungus, making contacts, visiting museums, and meeting with Carlos Spegazzini, the eminent Argentine mycologist. Unfortunately, during this time his health had begun to suffer.  Because of digestive issues Thaxter had lost fourteen pounds since he left Liverpool on August 31st. This weak stomach was a problem that would plague him throughout most of this journey.  

On October 21st Thaxter left Buenas Aires onboard the Venus heading to Montevido.  His collecting there was much more successful "I have been able to gather in a good many Laboulbenias and I would think among them not less than 30 new species and half a dozen new genera as far as I can see".  His luck changed when, less than a week later he left for Coronel, Chile.  There were many hot and dry weeks and it was impossible to collect.   "The impression of a first landing in Chile are not pleasing, the general dirt, dilapidation, and squalor, a great contrast to ones first impression of the Argentine as gained from Buenes Aires and looking at the people one feels as if he were landed in a paradise of cutthroats and does not wonder that the traveler is almost universally advised to carry a revolver."

Thaxter became very ill early in January, 1906. He debated returning home but felt he was too sick to undertake such a journey.  That same month he left for Puenta Arenas on the steamer Eedfu. During much of his time on board he continued to feel very sick.   He woke often with his arms and legs asleep.  He was seen by the ships doctor who gave a diagnosis of "vasomotor neurasthenia" (chronic fatigue) and told him not to strain his heart.

Thaxter arrived in Puenta Arenas on January 22nd.He found lots of algae loose on shore among the "dead cats which stretch for a couple of miles".  On February 1st while out collecting "... I saw a gruesome object lying in the sun, the hair dark and bristly, the arms extended.   A new pair of shoes and clothes but little worne [sic]. After all the varied assortment of dumpage I had traversed among which dead dogs, cats, sheep, hens, and calves were copiously distributed, I seemed to take this last item almost as a matter of course, and after a cursory examination I continued my way to the turn of the point and then struck across inland over the flat rather sterile region which characterizes this spit of land".

On April 29th Thaxter received a cable "Eliot ill come home".   His eldest son Eliot had become sick. Thaxter hurridly changed his plans but was able to leave that day. The next day he received a second cable that read "physicians given up all hope" and quickly Thaxter booked passage on a ship home. On May 18th he reached Lisbon.   “I received a cable which told me that all was over and that Eliot had died the day after I left Rio... Determined not to go overland as it appeared I could not take a steamer sooner by doing so. Begged the pursar to let me have a room to myself as several were vacant...  It seemed queer to me that neither he nor either of the two others to whom I had spoken of my trouble were human enough to speak to me about it or ask as to my news. The Dr. to whom I had brought my first cable never mentioned the matter again and kept speaking of his own son -about Eliot's age- at school."

Thaxter presented a talk at a Botanical Society of America meeting about this trip and the materials he collected but besides this only a short paper was printed in the Botanical Gazette in 1910 titled Notes on Chilean Fungi.  Unfortunately, a full treatment of this material was never completed.