Past & Present: How A Kansas Governor Helped Shape South America

Jan 21, 2020

Credit Kansas Historical Society

A map of South America shows an island at the bottom of the continent. The La Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego faces the rough passage around the horn and is divided in half. The east half belongs to Argentina and the west is part of Chile. This island’s division between the two countries is due, in part, to the efforts of a Kansas governor.

Thomas Osborn became governor of Kansas in 1873, taking office at a time of prosperity. But by the following year, the economy had tanked, clouds of locusts ravaged the state, and Kansas was looking to newly arrived Mennonites to rebuild agriculture based on red wheat. By the middle of the decade, Osborn seemed destined to be a has-been in politics.

Credit NordNordWest, Wikipedia

Then, in the late 1870s, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed the now ex-governor Osborn as minister to Chile. Although Americans know Hayes for the end of Reconstruction, his administration was active in arbitrating boundary disputes in South America. Chile and Argentina both claimed the island of Tierra del Fuego. Minister Osborn, therefore, played a role in the negotiations. When the issues got settled in 1881, Argentina and Chile divided the island. That same year, Thomas Osborn gained a new role as minister to Brazil before ending his days back in Kansas.

So, the next time you study a map of South America, remember that a governor from the Kansas prairies helped shape the national boundaries of a rugged, mountainous island at the bottom of the world.

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