“The King of Patagonia” was perhaps the most appropriate moniker by which to describe Don Jose Menéndez, founder of Estancia María Behety.

This most renowned Asturian emigrant of the Argentinian Patagonia was born the second of November, 1846, in the Miranda Parish, at that time a part of the parish of San Nicolas de Avilés. He was one of seven children from the marriage of Manuel Menéndez-Cañedo Álvarez, a resident of Peñaflor, Grado, and of María Menéndez Granda, born in Miranda.

Manuel took his son, at just two years of age, to the house of a maternal uncle named Jose Menendez Granda, a distinguished teacher from Ventosa, Candamo. Manuel entrusted the elder Jose with the task of his son´s primary education, with the unwavering mandate that young Jose would return to the home of his birthplace for at least two or three days of every month.
In that same manner he also spent his summers in Ventosa, until he was eleven years old. That year his parents brought the child back to Miranda – against his uncle´s will, who could see in the child great talent for studying – to work tending the livestock. Jose´s school assistance decreased, but his parents allowed him to study as time allowed.
Two years later, his parents allowed him to set sail towards a new destination. It was the year 1860 when the sailboat “La Francisca” departed from the port of Avilés, carrying young Jose and eight hundred tons towards Cuba. Despite having to abandon his homeland, Jose embarked to Central America to start a new phase in his life.
His parents had to wait four months to receive Jose´s first letter, which arrived back on the same ship that had carried him to Cuba. In the letter, the Mirandian adventurer told them he had been happy during the 45 days that the journey had lasted.
We are not certain of the reason for moving to Buenos Aires in 1866, where he worked as a bookkeeper in the hardware stores “Corti Riva & Cía.” and “Etchart & Cía.” at the same time, both shops specializing in naval supplies. Bookkeeping was in those times a very high-paying job, so it wasn’t difficult for him to accumulate savings.
During those years he met a young Uruguayan girl, a descendant of the French Legion (who were defenders of Montevideo through the siege of Manuel Oribe in 1843). They married on March 19th of 1873, the day of Saint José, in the church of La Merced. The young wife, Mrs María Behety Chapital was twenty years old, while José Menéndez was 27.


Jose’s first ships were a sailboat named “Rayo” (Lightning), and a steamboat of low draft, the “San Gregorio”, the latter of which was the first of its kind to navigate the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego. This was the beginning of the renowned “Menendez Behety” shipping company, to which fifty steamships belonged, all of their names beginning with the letter A in memory of Asturias and Avilés, his homeland: Antártico, Amadeo, Arturo, Alfonso, etc. The first steamboat enrolled at the registration port of Punta Arenas was the “Amadeo”(with 412 tons) in 1893. In these ships’ cargo holds were the necessary materials and elements for the exploitation of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Eventually, Jose acquired the “Alfonso” (ex “Lizzie”), and “Alejandro”(ex “Casel”), “Antartic”, “Austral”, “Avilés”(ex “William Cliff”) and the “Arturo”, as well as  the boats and sailboats “Ambassador”, “Adelaida” and  “América”, and the towboats “Herminia”, “Olga”, and “San Gregorio”. Their names always contained a memory of a land or character: Amadeo and Alfonso in reference to the kings of Spain; Antártida, América to the lands he had set foot upon, etc.

The company continued to grow and the fleet of ships continued to increase and broaden their services, so they went on to acquire the steamboat “Apolo”, “Avilés”(Ex “Emilia”), “Alfonso”(specifically built in Glasgow), “Alejandro” (ex “Argentino”) and “Araucano” (ex “Americano”); the pontoon “Alejandrina”; the (ex frigate “Andrina”) and “Andalucía” (ex frigate “Ville de Mulhouse”); the towboats “María” and “Josefina”; motorboats such as “Mosquito”, “Julita” and “Violeta”; ten cargo boats; etc.


Sturdy and rather thin, with an average height, Jose had a penetrating gaze that never failed to make a lasting impression on those that he met. His eyes were always restless under the frame of his powerfully expressive eyebrows. Not even the silver-framed glasses that came with the years, nor the double crystal he used to wear to help him read were able to conceal the sparkle of his eyes.
He displayed a complete beard common to that period which, as time passed by, began to turn gray and take on a Napoleonic shape.
He always dressed neatly and with elegance, even on naval expeditions or in the countryside. While in the city, it pleased him to wear impeccable chaqué – wing collar shirts, black or white bow ties and bowler hats. A silver cane supported his white-gloved hand. A thick golden chain hung from his vest´s middle buttonhole, from which a weighty medallion also dangled. Of course, not all was ornament. The jewels covered the presence of working tools, like the sailor watch that Mr Jose drew often, as he was in the habit of overseeing everything and everyone. Whether in the southern lands where dogs separated thousands and thousands of sheep, or in the northern ports where his ships set sail, he relentlessly appeared, with watch in hand, to control their schedules. He was even seen on the docks drumming a tardy boat with the tip of his cane.
When he rode or steered he wore gaiters, and carefully wrapped his attire with a wide scarf. Both his conversation and his manners reflected an honorable, cultured, and fortunate merchant and, to use a popular saying from Popper, a man also versed in the world and in the future.
He aimed all his capacity towards very concrete purposes, and accomplished this with a great inner drive. This is precisely what distinguished him from Popper, who by comparison was always rash and directed by intuition, or from Piedra Buena, an idealist with a penchant for hunches.
Perhaps his best ally and, at the same time, worst enemy was his impatience and refusal to accept mediocrity. Incapable of calmly waiting, whenever he discovered a deceit or an error, he would turn aggressive and bitingly sarcastic. Few were safe from his reprimands when he, for example, would find a loose clove in the warehouse. It is for this very reason he never wanted to mix work with family.
He was, to sum up, a very passionate man. “Details need to be taken care of” was a constant phrase from his lips. One of those details was punctuality, which he timed with the navy watch in front of everyone, and that he even sustained with ingenious proceedings, an example being the sleepyhead farmhand who one morning found that Dr José himself had brought him breakfast in bed.
His excellent commercial and industrial instincts were linked with his great ability discerning people. Both made possible the joint success of the company, and the promotion of all of his employees. It was his great intuition for people that found many of his best administrators, managers, and operators, and put them in positions where they could succeed. He had a great eye to discover them anywhere, and he recognized even the smallest of indications of their personal morals and ethics. Finding such people, he would give them responsibility and then keep track of them, discreetly but relentlessly.
With his friends he was refined, joyful and warm, an amiable and witty talker, and full of good humor. He enjoyed cultural lectures, and theater. He even built with his own money the first Punta Arenas Salon (opera house), which he opened with the Lucía of Lamermoor opera.
At the age of seventy one, while in Valparaíso, he fell ill. A cyst in his liver was seriously endangering his health, so he sailed immediately to Buenos Aires for medical assistance. But, against the advice of his doctors, he made a stop in every harbor of Patagonia as a last goodbye to those lands that he loved so much and that, thanks to his tenacity, had reached an extraordinary level of development. He died in Buenos Aires on April 24th , 1918. His wife María Behety had passed away ten years before, in 1908.


The birth of the town, Punta Arenas, dates back to 1843, when the Chilean government of General Bulnes decided to take possession of the Strait of Magellan.

Mr José Menendez was traveling south to take charge of a cereal shipment that was delayed in the Chilean port of Valparaíso, when he passed through the harbor of Punta Arenas. He fell in love with the town, and saw great business opportunities. He became a resident of Punta Arenas in 1875, where Piedrabuena had already been living since 1869.

José immediately began to associate with merchants from the region, among them the Asturian Jose Montes, born in Mieres, who had accompanied him on his first voyage from Miranda. He simultaneously met the Portuguese Nogueira, owner of a fleet of barquentines, and the Englishmen Reynard and Felton, as well as the Braun Hamburger family, emigrants from Lithuania seeking economic prosperity in Patagonia.

Not everything was good for José Menéndez. On the night of November 10, 1877, while Jose was in the middle of a business trip in Montevideo, a tragic event known as “The Shipyard Upraising” struck the colony. As the guards were returning home in a drunken state that night, a revolt from the garrison and the prisoners took place. Stores were looted, and several buildings torched. The church was the only establishment spared.

In the midst of this chaos, his wife gathered their three children and ran to hide at the Aubry’s house, owners of a bakery…and as it turns out, a great number of the colony had also come to that refuge. The rioters took notice of this situation and began to slam the door with their weapons, screaming and calling for the governor to exit and face them. No one answered their demands, so eventually they began to leave. But one of them, disgruntled about not being able to break down the door, shot his rifle at the lock. In a terrible coincidence of  bad luck, Mrs Mariquita, the wife of José Menéndez, was at that moment coming to the door, and the rioters bullet tore through the wood and found her leg.

After the revolt, José Menéndez returned to Montevideo to find his house completely destroyed, his children frightened, and his wife needing to have her leg amputated in order to save her life. In Punta Arenas Maria had been born, but as a result of those days living in the outdoors, poorly nourished, she got sick and died, not yet a year old.

Despite being saddened at these losses, Mr José refused to be intimidated. Instead, he took all the precautions needed, returned to Valparaíso, and invested all his savings into material and merchandise. With these materials brought back and stored in a warehouse, a new phase for Punta Arenas had begun.

In 1880, Jose joined forces with José Montes, owner of a butchery, to open a new business: El Hotel del Puerto (The Harbor Hotel). They then invested the profits of the hotel into yet another new enterprise, a sawmill and a wood shed; over time this too became a thriving business, directed by an industrial partner named Arnal. By this time Jose was also conducting operations with Elias H. Braun, storekeeper and butcher, as well as with the ship-owner José Nogueira.

In 1894, one of Jose’s daughters, Josefina Menéndez Behety, married Mauricio Braun – from this union 10 children are born. Both families were merchants and competed with each other in the region, but in 1908 Mr Jose Menéndez formed a partnership with his son-in-law, creating the Society for Import and Export of Patagonia, known today as La Anónima.


The beginning of livestock farming by José Menendez was in 1878 with the acquisition of 500 sheep from Islas Malvinas, which he attempted to acclimatize in a wasteland next to San Gregorio Bay, 120 km from Punta Arenas.

In 1879, Julio Argentino Roca, Argentine Secretary of War, declared the so called “Guerra del Desierto” (Desert War). During these conflicts the government paid their soldiers with land ownership. José Menéndez, with his sharp mind for business, saw an opportunity to grow and purchased these lands from the soldiers and marines, planning to develop them at a later date.
In February of 1899, the Argentinian president Julio Argentino Roca and his Chilean counterpart Federico Erráuzuriz had a meeting to try and solve the problem of the lands of the strait, and the litigation between both nations. Mr José Menéndez accompanied the Chilean president in his visit to the canal, but declined the invitation to the gala that took place the 15th as he was in mourning for the mother of his wife, Mrs Mariquita. As the party was coming to an end Mr Menéndez noticed the weather was turning bad; waiting for the exit of the Argentine president from the event, Jose offered to shelter him in his home for the night. As it turns out, the political problem had been settled, at least for the time being, in an historic moment known as “El abrazo del Estrecho” (The Strait Hug). The occasion wasn’t wasted by Mr Menéndez – during breakfast, in the presence of his children and son-in-law, he debated at length future plans of action and laid out the lines to be followed and the new companies to launch.

The first Argentinian estancia (1894) was established on land that the state had given to the renowned “desert of Tierra del Fuego” explorer, Julio Popper. Julio died unexpectedly without being able to populate the lands as was demanded by the contract with the government…so José Menéndez decided to purchase the estancia. He began to set in motion – in an area of 80,000 hectares on the southern bank of the Rio Grande – the planning and exploitation of the “Primera Argentina” (First Argentina), the name he used to baptize this first trial colonization of Tierra del Fuego (which would later be known as José Menéndez).

Three years later, in 1897, Jose founded “Segunda Argentina” (Second Argentina), with an area of 180,000 hectares, this estancia being located north of the Rio Grande, and bordering Primera Argentina. By 1902 this estancia had established a town that could shelter 150 people. In 1912 the docks were mounted near the mouth of the Rio Grande on his initiative, and later, in 1916, he partnered with other landowners in order to establish “Compañía Frigorífica Argentina” (The Refrigerating Company of Argentina).
Jose made great investments, first in real estate, followed by various necessary improvements such as sheds, fences, mills, watering, canals and bridges. At the same time he brought to the island a good number of workers, especially Scots and some from the Malvinas, to perform as administrators, managers, foremen, herdsmen, cadets, etc. These people were able to provide their experience in working with sheep, and adapted swiftly to the Tierra del Fuego environment, which was similar to the ones in their homelands.