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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter II. Among the Islands of Bering Sea

St. Paul, Alaska, May 23, 1881.

ABOUT four o'clock yesterday morning the Corwin left Unalaska, and arrived at St. Paul shortly after noon to-day, the distance being about one hundred and ninety miles. This is the metropolis of the Fur Seal Islands, situated on the island of St. Paul - a handsome village of sixty-four neat frame cottages, with a large church, schoolhouse, and priest's residence, and a population of nearly three hundred Aleuts, and from twelve to twenty whites.

It is interesting to find here an isolated group of Alaskan natives wholly under white influence and control, and who have in great part abandoned their own pursuits, clothing, and mode of life in general, and adopted that of the whites. They are all employed by the Alaska Commercial Company as butchers, to kill and flay the hundred thousand seals that they take annually here and at the neighboring island of St. George. Their bloody work lasts about two months, and they earn in this time from three hundred to six hundred dollars apiece, being paid forty cents per skin.

The Company supplies them with a school, medical attendance, and comfortable dwellings, and looks after their welfare in general, its own interest being involved. They even have a bank, and are encouraged to save their money, which many of them do, having accounts of from two hundred to three thousand dollars. Fortunately, the Aleuts of St. Paul and St. George are pretty effectively guarded against whiskey, and to some extent against kvass also. Only limited quantities of sugar and other kvass material are sold to them. Nevertheless one of their number told one of our officers to-day that he had a bank account of eight hundred dollars and would give it all for five bottles of whiskey; and an agent of the Company gave it as his opinion that there were not six perfectly sober Aleuts on the whole island to-day.

The number of fur seals that resort to these two islands, St. Paul and St. George, during the breeding season, is estimated at from three to four million, and there seems to be no falling off in numbers since the Alaska Commercial Company began operations here. Only young males are killed by the Company, but many of both sexes are taken far from here among the Aleutian Islands and around the shores of Vancouver Island and the outermost of the Alexander Archipelago.

No one knows certainly whence they come or whither they go. But inasmuch as they make their appearance every year about the shores of the Aleutian Islands shortly after their disappearance from St. Paul and St. George, and then later to the southward, toward the coast of British Columbia, it is supposed that they are the same animals, and that they thus make journeys every year of a thousand miles or more, and return to their birthplaces like shoals of salmon. They begin to appear on the breeding-grounds about the first of June. These are old males, who at once take up their stations on high ground a short distance from the shore, and keep possession of their places while they await the coming of the pregnant females who arrive about a month later, accompanied by the younger members of the community. At the height of the season the ground is closely covered with them, and they seldom go back into the water or take any food until the young are well grown and all are ready to leave the islands in the fall.

In addition to the one hundred thousand taken here, the Company obtains about forty thousand by purchase from the Russians at Bering and Copper Islands, and from Indians and traders at different points south as far as Oregon. These skins are said to be worth fifteen dollars apiece in the London market, to which they are all sent. The government revenue derived from the one hundred thousand killed each year is $317,000. Next in importance among the fur animals of Alaska, is the sea-otter, of which about six thousand a year are taken, worth from eighty dollars to one hundred dollars apiece.

The Aleuts obtain from thirty to fifty dollars in goods or money, an alternative not due to the fact that the goods are sold for their money value, but to the fact that the traders sooner or later receive back whatever money they pay out instead of goods. Unlimited competition would, of course, run the price much higher, as, for example, it has done in southeastern Alaska. Here the only competition lies between the Western Fur and Trading Company and the Alaska Commercial Company. The latter gets most of them. Each company seeks the good-will of the best hunters by every means in its power, by taking them to and from the hunting grounds in schooners, by advancing provisions and all sorts of supplies, by building cottages for them, and supplying them with the services of a physician and medicine free. Only Indians are allowed by law to take furs, and whites married to Indian women. This law has induced some fifteen white men to marry Indians for the privilege of taking sea-otter. They have settled at IJnga Island, one of the Shumagin group, where there is a village of some hundred and eighty-five Indians.

Seen from the sea, all the Pribilof Islands - St. Paul, St. George, and Otter Island - appear as mere rocks, naked and desolate fragments of lava, wasted into bluffs where they touch the sea, and shorn off on top by the ice- sheet. The gray surfaces are roughened here and there by what, at a distance, seem to be degraded volcanic cones. Nevertheless, they are exceedingly interesting, not only because of the marvelous abundance of life about them - seals, water birds, and fishes - but because they tell so grand a story concerning the ice- sheet that swept over them all from the north.

Steamer Corwin, Taplcan, Siberia, May 31, 1881.

On the twenty-fourth of this month, a bleak, snowy day, we enjoyed our first view of the northern ocean ice at a distance of only a few hours from the Pribilof Islands in latitude 58. This is not far from its southern limit, though strong north winds no doubt carry wasting fragments somewhat farther. It always reaches lower on the American side. Norton Sound is seldom clear before the middle or end of June. Here the ice occurs in ragged, berglike masses from a foot to a hundred feet in breadth, and with the highest point not more than ten or twelve feet above the water. Its color is bluish-white, looking much like coarse, granular snow, with pale blue stratified bases under water.

We ran past one flat cake on which lay a small white seal which kept its place, though we were within fifteen or twenty feet of it. Guns were then brought into the pilot-house and loaded. In a few minutes another seal was discovered riding leisurely on its ice raft and shot. The engine was stopped, the boat lowered, and a sailor stepped on the ice and threw the heedless fellow into the boat. It seemed to pay scarce any attention to the steamer, and, when wounded by the first ball that was fired, it did not even then seek to escape, which surprised me since those among the fords north of Wrangell and Sitka are so shy that my Indians, as we glided toward them in a canoe, seldom were successful in getting a shot. The seal was nearly white - a smooth oval bullet without an angle anywhere, large, prominent, humanlike eyes, and long whiskers. It seemed cruel to kill it, and most wonderful to us, as we shivered in our overcoats, that it could live happily enough to grow fat and keep full of warm red blood with water at 32 F. for its pasture field, and wet sludge for its bed.

In half an hour we descried another, a large one, which we also shot as it lay at ease on a large cake against which the waves were beating. Like the other two, it waited until we were within easy range, and allowed itself to be shot without the slightest effort to escape. This one proved to be a fine specimen of the saddle-back species, Histriophoca fasciata, still somewhat rare in collections, and eagerly sought for. It derives its name from the saddle-like bands of brown across the back. This specimen weighed about two hundred pounds. The skins of both were saved, and the next morning we had some of the flesh of the small one for breakfast. The meat proved to be excellent, dark-red, and very tender, with a taste like that of good venison.

We were steering direct for St. Matthew Island, noted for the great numbers of polar bears that haunt its shores. But as we proceeded, the ice became more and more abundant, and at length it was seen ahead in a solid pack. Then we had to abandon our plan of landing on the island, and steered eastward around the curving edge of the pack across the mouth of Anadir Gulf.

On the twenty-seventh we sighted the Siberian coast to the north of the Gulf, snow-clad mountains appearing in clear outline at a distance of about seventy miles. Even thus far the traces of glacial action were easily recognized in the peculiar sculpture of the peaks, which here is as unmistakably marked as it is on the summits of the Sierra. Strange that this has not before attracted the attention of observers. The highest of the peaks seems to be perhaps four thousand feet above the sea. I hope I may yet have the chance to ascend them.

On the morning of the twenty-eighth we came to anchor near an Eskimo village at the northwest end of St. Lawrence Island. It was blowing and snowing at the time, and the poor storm-beaten row of huts seemed inexpressibly dreary through the drift. Nevertheless, out of them came a crowd of jolly, well-fed people, dragging their skin canoes, which they shoved over the rim of stranded ice that extended along the shore, and soon they were alongside the steamer, offering ivory, furs, sealskin boots, etc., for tobacco and ammunition.

There was much inquiry for beads, molasses, and most of all for rum and rifles, though they willingly parted with anything they had for tobacco and calico. After they had procured a certain quantity of these articles, however, nothing but rifles, cartridges, and rum would induce them to trade. But according to American law, these are not permitted to be sold. There seems to be no good reason why common rifles [By a "common rifle" Muir probably meant a single-shot or muzzle-loading rifle. He changed his mind on this subject when he became aware of the excessive slaughter of caribou, or wild reindeer, committed by the natives with repeating rifles. (See p. 140.)] should be prohibited, inasmuch as they would more surely and easily gain a living by their use, while they are peaceable and can hardly be induced to fight without very great provocation.

As to the alcohol, no restriction can possibly be too stringent. To the Eskimo it is misery and oftentimes quick death. Two years ago the inhabitants of several villages on this island died of starvation caused by abundance of rum, which rendered them careless about the laying up of ordinary supplies of food for the winter. Then an unusually severe season followed, bringing famine, and, after eating their dogs, they lay down and died in their huts. Last year Captain Hooper found them where they had died, hardly changed. Probably they are still lying in their rags. They numbered several hundreds.

When the people from this village came aboard to-day they said ours was the first ship of the season, and they were greatly delighted, running over the ship like children. We gave them lead, powder and caps, tobacco, et cetera, for ivory, Arctic shoes, and reindeer parkas, in case we should need them for a winter in the ice, ordinary boots and woolen clothing being wholly inadequate. These are the first Eskimos that I have seen. They impress me as being taller and less distinct as a race than I had been led to suppose. They do not greatly differ from the Tlingits of southeastern Alaska; have Mongolian features well marked, seem to have less brain than the Tlingits, longer faces, and are more simple and childlike in behavior and disposition. They never quarrel much among themselves or with their neighbors, contrasting greatly in this respect with the Tlingits or Koluschans.

It was interesting to see how keenly and quickly they felt a joke, and winced when exposed to ridicule. Some of the women are nearly white. They show much taste in the manufacture of their clothing, and make everything durable. With their reindeer trousers, sack, shirt, and sealskin shoes they bid defiance to the most extreme cold. Their sack, made from the intestine of the sea-lion, while exceedingly light, is waterproof. Some of their parkas are made of the breast skins of ducks, but in no case do they wear blankets. When they can procure calico or drilling they wear overshirts of this material, which gives them a very shabby and dirty look. Why they should want such flimsy and useless material I cannot guess. Dressed in their roomy furs, tied at the waist, they seem better-dressed than any other Indians I have seen. The trousers of the men are made of sealskin, with the fur outside. Those of the women are of deerskin and are extremely baggy. The legs, where gathered and tied below the knee, measure about two feet in diameter.

The chief of this village is a large man, five feet ten inches or six feet tall, with a very long flat face and abruptly tapering forehead, small, bright, cunning eyes, and childishly good-natured and wide-awake to everything curious. Always searching for something to laugh at, they are ready to stop short in the middle of most important bargainings to get hold of some bit of fun. Then their big faces would fall calm with ludicrous suddenness, either from being empty or from some business requiring attention. There was less apparent squalor and misery among them than among any other Indians I have seen.

It is a curious fact that they cut off their hair close to the scalp, all save a narrow rim around the base, much like the Chinese without the queue. The hair in color and coarseness is exactly like that of the Chinese; in a general way they resemble them also in their clothes. Their heads seem insensible to cold, for they bare them to the storms, and seem to enjoy it when the snow falls on their skulls. There is a hood, however, attached to most parkas, which is drawn up over the head in very severe weather.

Their mode of smoking is peculiar. The pipe is made of brass or copper, often curiously inlaid with lead, and the bowl is very small, not over a quarter of an inch in diameter inside, and with a flaring cuplike rim to prevent loss when it is being filled. Only a small pinch of finely pulverized tobacco is required to fill it. Then the Eskimo smoker lights it with a match, or flint and steel, and without removing the pipe from his mouth, sucks in the smoke and inhales it, inflating his lungs to the utmost and holding it a second or two, expels it, coughs, and puts his pipe and little bag of tobacco away, the whole smoke not lasting one minute. From the time he commences he holds his breath until it is finished. The more acrid and pungent the tobacco the better. If it does not compel them to cough and gasp it is not considered good. In buying any considerable quantity they try it before completing the bargain. This method of smoking is said to be practiced among all the Eskimos and also the Chukchis of Siberia.

In buying whiskey or rum from the traders it is said that they select one of their number to test its strength. The trader gives nearly pure alcohol, so that the lucky tester becomes drunk at once, which satisfies them. Then the keg that is purchased is found to be well watered and intoxication goes on slowly and feebly, much to their disgust and surprise.

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