Patuca: Frontier Region in Eastern Honduras

By Bass, Jerry O. | Focus, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Patuca: Frontier Region in Eastern Honduras


Bass, Jerry O., Focus


FRIAR PEDRO'S ACCOUNT

Just before Christmas of 1699, Friar Pedro de la Concepcion left Nuestra Senora de Dolores and headed downstream on the Patuca River in what is now Olancho in eastern Honduras. Guided by four "Gentiles" (or Heathens) and two Christian interpreters, he traveled by boat down the Patuca in search of a group of Indians who had run away from the mission at Dolores. In a field journal Friar Pedro told of who and what the group encountered along the way. Descriptions of the landscape and its names, such as the overpowering Quicungun (meaning Howler Monkey Mountain in the language of the Tawahka-Sumu Indians) make the route easy to reconstruct.

Honduras' Patuca River is the second longest in Central America, behind its near neighbor, the Rio Coco or Segovia. Draining the mountainous interior of eastern Honduras, the river flows swiftly through steep slopes, its whitewater pulsing northward towards the Caribbean Sea. Where Olancho becomes La Mosquitia, the mountains begin to level out and the river widens and slows. In the muddy coastal plain of La Mosquitia, the Patuca becomes a fat, meandering stream, leaving ox-bow lakes and old river beds scattered across the coastal lowland of its drainage as it finds and re-finds its way to the sea. The map on page 15 shows the general geographic setting of this region.

On their fourth day on the river, Friar Pedro noted, the group saw one boat carrying four native men. In the six days that they traveled between Dolores and the mouth of the Wampu River far downstream, this was the only boat and the only people that Friar Pedro noted seeing. On their sixth day, arriving at the place where the Wampu River empties into the Patuca in the watchful shadow of Quicungun the group came across eight houses and thirty people. (Some maps still show this as a populated place called Wampu, but today only tropical vegetation lives here.) The next day thirty-three boats carrying 165 people came to this place, presumably to get a look at their visitors. That such a mass of people would paddle in to see the travelers makes sense, in that a European visitor in the Mosquitia in 1699 might have seemed somewhat like a visit by Martians.

Soon after and a few miles downstream, the Franciscans left the river and took to traveling overland. Crossing a trail at a break in the mountains very likely the same pass through which the Tawahka Indians entered Honduras from Nicaragua long ago the Franciscans headed south and eventually arrived at the Rio Coco, the present-day boundary between Honduras and Nicaragua in the east. They then turned and traveled west up the Coco as quickly as possible Friar Pedro wrote, because his guides were terrified of the Guayanes or Miskitos who lived downstream near the river mouth. Farther upstream at Teotecasintte, the group left the river and completed their circuitous route back to their starting point at Dolores.

RETRACING THE ROUTE

Just before Christmas of 1999, a group of geographers left the banks of the upper Patuca in a 40-foot mahogany dugout to retrace Friar Pedro's 1699 route. Under the guidance and planning of Professor William V. Davidson of Louisiana State University, a geographer with some 30 years of field experience in Latin America, the group sought to retrace the 1699 journey. Keeping Friar Pedro's account in mind, part of our purpose was to observe how the area may or may not have changed over the 300 years that separated our journeys. In addition, we wanted to see what impact 1998's infamous Hurricane Mitch might have had on the area, both physically and culturally.

The Upper Patuca Region

The headwaters of the Patuca are in the department of Olancho in Honduras. Many refer to Olancho as Honduras' "wild west." Far removed from the rest of the country, particularly in myth, Olancho is a place where men in straw hats carry revolvers stuck in the tops of their jeans. …

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