Welsh Woman Travels 12,000 Miles to Establish if Bones Belong to the First Welsh Settler to Die in Patagonia 150 Years Ago - and Her Ancestor

Share Article

A female firefighter from North Wales helps solve a 10-year-old mystery in Argentina by providing a vital DNA sample to see if bones found during construction works prove to be one of her ancestors - the first Welsh migrant to die in Patagonia. She is also now featuring in The Patagonian Bones, a documentary of this fascinating story, produced by leading Argentinian filmmaker, Ricardo Preve.

Nia Olwen Ritchie, 48, a firefighter from Cerrigydrudion in North Wales, hit the headlines in Argentina this week when she helped bring a 10-year mystery to a close. Her DNA was matched with some bones found in Puerto Madryn in Patagonia, proving once and for all that they belonged to Catherine Roberts, her ancestor and a passenger of the ship “Mimosa”, which arrived in this region of Argentina on 28th July 1865 with 153 Welsh people looking for a new life. Nia is also now featuring in The Patagonian Bones, a documentary of this fascinating story, produced by leading Argentinian filmmaker, Ricardo Preve.

The modern story of the bones begins in Argentina in 1995 when buried human remains were found by a construction company working in the city of Puerto Madryn. The bones were sent to the nearby CENPAT (National Patagonic Center) for analysis by Dr. Silvia Dahinten, a distinguished anthropologist and a specialist in the study of patagonic skeletons, in cooperation with Dr. Fernando Coronato (a historian) and Dr. Julieta Gomez Otero (an archaeologist).

Dr. Dahinten was able to establish rather quickly, from the shape of the bones, that the remains were those of a woman of European origin and of about 40 years of age at the time of death (Catherine Roberts was 36 in 1865). The wood of the coffin was of the species Pinus sylvestris (Scotch pine). A wrecked ship nearby has wood of the same species in its structure, and the early Welsh chronicles record the use of wood from a beached ship for use by the settlers. With the bones, the researchers also found a ring and a button. The grave was oriented along an East / West axis, like those of other 19th century Welsh graves. And there was one more tantalizing clue: according to Dr. Dahinten, the mandibular (jaw) bone of the skeleton had a slight deformation which is matched by the only known photograph of Catherine Roberts, taken in 1865 just prior to her trip.

The anthropological and archaeological evidence was highly suggestive, but more information was needed to conclusively establish the identity of the bones. That is when Dr. Vullo, a world-renowned forensic anthropologist, was brought into the project. Dr. Vullo was able to sequence the mitochondrial DNA of the remains, which is transmitted through female descendants.

It was already known that Catherine had no descendants in Argentina, as her only surviving son had left for Canada around 1900 - so the search turned to Wales. It was vital to find a descendant through Catherine Roberts' female ancestors, and one who would be willing to travel to Argentina to get tested. Dr. Fernando Coronato travelled to Wales on numerous occasions to study the documentation and public records available there, and was finally able to locate two women, both coincidentally born in 1942, who were descendants of Catherine through different female lines.

However, the project remained dormant for quite some time as no funding was available to proceed with the DNA testing and the study of the results. Until a chance encounter in Puerto Madryn between Dr. Dahinten and Ricardo Preve, a documentary film maker with extensive experience in anthropology and archeology, led to an interest on the part of Mr. Preve about the story, and prompted him to fund part of the research and logistics of the study as a documentary film project.

At first, it seemed as if the research would again be blocked due to personal constraints from both original descendants, who were unable to travel to Argentina. But one of them had a daughter, Nia Olwen Ritchie, who was willing to make the trip and participate in the film.

Nia Olwen Ritchie comments: “I was amazed to be contacted in this way but fascinated by the story of my ancestor and really wanted to help where I could. Before I flew to Argentina in April for the DNA testing I welcomed Ricardo Preve to north Wales and during March I showed him various locations for his documentary, including the ruins of Catherine’s home in Llandrillo and the chapel where her mother is buried. At that stage we did not know if the bones belonged to Catherine but all the early signs looked positive. I was absolutely thrilled when they were confirmed. It is a fitting end to her story and wonderful to know that she can be properly laid to rest now and not end her days in a research lab.”

Ricardo Preve, producer/director of The Patagonian Bones comments: “The mystery of Catherine Roberts’ bones was a detective story that needed solving and it has captivated me for some time now. Finding Nia Olwen Ritchie was essential to confirming the DNA connection but we did not bank on the help she was able to give us on the ground in Wales and her wonderful enthusiasm in helping to tell this intriguing story.”

The future of Catherine Roberts’ bones has yet to be formally decided but Mr Claudio Dalco, the Secretary of Culture in the Province of Chubut, has stated that her remains will receive a proper burial in the region, with details confirmed after consultation with her family and associations of Welsh descendants in Argentina.

The Patagonian Bones features the work of the scientists, Nia Olwen Ritchie’s trip from Wales to Argentina and a historical recreation of the life of Welsh settlers in Patagonia in the 19th century. The latter was filmed with Argentine actors of Welsh descent Paula Odell Humphries (as Catherine Roberts), Tomás Orejón, Henry Jones, Danilo Hughes, and Ricardo Williams. Director Ricardo Preve and his production crew filmed in March of this year in Bala, Landrillo, and Cerrigydrudion in northern Wales, with shooting about to wrap in Patagonia. The film will be released in July to tie in with 150th anniversary of the arrival of the Welsh settlers, and of Catherine Roberts, to Patagonia.

As plans are underway in both Argentina and Wales to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Welsh arriving and settling in Patagonia on 28th July 1865, the story of Catherine Roberts serves to remind us that life was not easy for these early settlers and that their gallant spirit and legacy – a thriving Welsh culture in the Chubut region today – should be celebrated.

Note to Editors:
Ricardo Preve is an established, international film and television director and producer. He was the co-producer of "Mondovino", an Official Selection at the 2004 Cannes Film Festival, and of the Emmy-nominated "Child Mummy Sacrifice", an episode of the ‘Explorer” series on the National Geographic Channel (2010). He produced and directed "Chagas / A Silent Killer" for "Witness" on Al Jazeera English, and "The Ghosts of Machu Picchu", an episode of NOVA on the Public Broadcasting Service of the United States. More information on http://www.prevefilms.com

Share article on social media or email:

View article via:

Pdf Print

Contact Author

Michelle Waldron
Beyond the Box
+44 7768568970
Email >

Ricardo Preve
Preve Films LLC
+ 54 911 4915 9911
Email >
Visit website