Chinchilla history is vague up to the time when the Spaniards traveled to South America in 1524. In South America the Spaniards encountered a tribe of Indians called “Chinchas” who introduced them to the little furry animals. The Chinchas wore the pelts of the little guys and at the same time kept them as pets. The Spaniards named the little furry guys after the Indian tribe as “Chinchillas” – literally “Little Chinchas”. They took pelts back with them to Europe and started the Chin fur business.
Unfortunately, all through recent history, the chinchilla's history has been tied to the fur business. In fact, around the turn of this century (1910 actually) the chinchillas were virtually trapped into extinction. Luckily, the governments of the countries involved banned the trapping of the animals and the sale of the pelts. Although, eventually raising chinchillas on ranches replaced trapping as a source of pelts for the fur market.
The first known chinchilla ranch was founded in Chile in 1874 in Vallenar by John Murry, an English member of the famous scientific expedition “Challenger.” He raised the species known as Brevicaudata. Next was a ranch founded in Santiago, Chile in 1895 by Francisco Irarrazabal. He won a gold medal in 1896 at the Santiago Agricultural Fair (the first chinchilla show). The largest ranch known was the Attahualpa Ranch of Fritz Ferger in the 1930's. At one time the ranch had 1300 Brevicaudatas.
In February 1923 an American mining engineer, Mathias F. Chapman, brought the chins to North America. He was in charge of several mines in the Andes for Anaconda Mines near the town of Potrerillos in northern Chile when, like the Spaniards before him, he was introduced to the chinchilla. He took an immediate liking to the little guys and hoped that he could take a few of them home to California as pets.
The export of chins was illegal, however, he eventually persuaded the authorities to permit him to take eleven chins with him back to the States. Eight male and three female Chinchilla Lanigeras. He brought them down from the mountains and arranged passage on a Japanese freighter. And the story goes, (although this is almost certainly apocryphal) that all the chins in North America are descended from Chapman's.