Monday, October 22, 2018

Seven Years in the Amazon

by Erin Doane, Curator

On November 18, 1894, Fritz Up De Graff of Elmira sailed from New York City on the SS Advance bound for Ecuador. The young man had recently graduated from Union College in Schenectady, New York with an engineering degree. While a student, he met Domingo Cordovez, the son of a wealthy Ecuadoran. The pair became fast friends and spoke about going into business together to bring much-needed modern improvements to the City of Quito. Fritz had always had an adventurous spirit – he was an original member of Rufus Stanley’s Rambling Club – so, with $100 in his pocket, Fritz left his home in search of adventure and profit in South America.

Fritz Up de Graff, 1923
For two years, Fritz lived as a guest and then employee of Domingo’s father. The Cordovez family occupied a position of importance in Ecuador. They owned eight hundred squire miles of forest in which they operated large cattle and horse ranches and multiple plantations. Fritz described those years as one long series of commercial disappointments. He got involved with one get-rich-quick proposition after another with the family. They were going to start a furniture factory, clear 50 acres of forest and plant coffee, build roads, bring electric lights to Quito, build a tannery, bore for oil, distill whiskey, and a whole host of other business ventures. Fritz didn’t lose any of his own money in these schemes (most of the $100 he left home with was spent on his trip south), but he did not make any money either.

In January 1897, after a falling-out with the Cordovez family regarding their treatment of workers, Fritz decided he was ready to move on. Instead of shipping back to the United States, he chose to do some exploring. He sent a letter home to his mother and sisters telling them that he and ten natives were striking out for the Napo River, one of the western tributaries of the Amazon River. They would take a dugout canoe some 3,000 miles through some of the wildest parts of South America. He expected they would arrive in Para, Brazil by March or April where he could take a steamer back to New York City.

The Star-Gazette in July 1897 called Fritz’s expedition into the Amazon “the most exciting and novel trip ever attempted by any Elmiran” and declared that “never was a similar trip with more hazardous undertakings attempted by any white man of his age.” These glowing words came in the same article that described how his family had not heard from him in nearly eight months and how they had been writing letters to the US consul in Para with the fears that he was dead. 
Elmira Star-Gazette, July 26, 1897
In some ways, it is surprising that Fritz actually survived his ordeals. The saying, “if it wasn’t for bad luck, he’d have no luck at all,” certainly applied.  His native guides abandoned him within days of heading into the jungle. Fortunately, he did not find himself entirely alone. He met up with another American named Jack Rouse and they traveled together for four years. The pair suffered terribly through that time. They were attacked by vampire bats and mosquitoes, had their canoe destroyed by a panicked tapir, lost their belongings to unscrupulous outpost managers, nearly starved to death on several occasions, were repeatedly abandoned by their hired help, and suffered various severe fevers and illnesses.

On the positive side of their adventures, they profited from the rubber trade, ate new, exotic things like monkeys and anteaters, killed at least one man without consequences, and rescued a young native woman who had been captured by a rival tribe (though she seemed to help them almost more than they helped her). The pair also successfully lived with several tribes of the Jivaro people, or Shuar as they call themselves, who were known for their practice of shrinking human heads.

Fritz and Jack parted ways in April 1900 after many adventures. Jack was ready to leave South America but Fritz was not yet prepared to return home. He got involved in a couple more money-making schemes – one in the rubber trade and one involving cattle and cedar. Finally, he had had enough travel and boarded a steamship back to the United State. On November 18, 1901, he arrived back in New York City; exactly seven years to the day that he had left.

In 1921, after years of telling his stories to family, friends, and other enthralled audiences, Fritz wrote Head Hunters of the Amazon. The book was first published in November 1922 by Duffield & Co. in the United Kingdom and then in February 1923 in the United States. Eventually it was translated into 13 languages. The book, with a forward written by Kermit Roosevelt, was wildly popular with readers and critics. A reviewer at the New York Times wrote: “The dominant note of Mr. Updegraff’s volume, and at the same time its potent charm, is its personal, straightforward manner of presentation.… His is the easy intimate style of a fluent narrator; his is the art of transforming his thoughts into written words with a sure freedom from hesitancy or affectation.” It is still available in print from several online booksellers and is truly an enthralling read.

Head Hunters of the Amazon by Fritz Up de Graff, 1923
After his time in the Amazon, Fritz continued to travel. He met his wife, Eleanor Grosvenor, on one of his many cross-country trips as an electrical and construction engineer. They married in 1904 and had three sons. They lived in many different place around the world including the U.S., England, Canada, Spain, and Cuba. They were living in Mexico in 1910 when revolution led by democratic reformer Francisco I. Madero broke out against dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz. On December 24, 1927, Fritz died of injuries he had sustained in an automobile accident in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

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