The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
Tragedies of the Whaling Fleet
Off Point Barrow, August 18, 1881.
impossible to get northward through the ice anywhere near the east side
of Wrangell Land, it was decided that we should cross to the American coast
to make another effort to reach Point Barrow in order to learn the fate
of the whale-ship Daniel Webster, which, as I have stated in a former letter,
was beset in the ice there, and to offer assistance in case it should be
On the fifteenth, near Icy Cape, we spoke with one of the whalers from
whom we learned that the Daniel Webster was crushed and sunk, that about
half the crew had made their way down the coast to near Icy Cape, where
they found the Coral and were taken on board, and that the others were
still at Point Barrow or scattered along the shore, unless picked up by
some of the fleet that were going north in search of them as fast as the
state of the ice would allow.
Captain Owen of the bark Belvedere had sent a letter to them by one
of the natives, directing them to build large driftwood fires on the beach
to indicate their positions, and assuring them that relief was near. We
had hoped that, though beset in the heavy, drifting pack and carried northward
helpless and rigid as a fly in amber, some change in the wind and current
might set them free. But in discussing the question with an experienced
whaler who had lost the first ship that he was master of at the same place
and in the same way, he said that he had given her up for lost as soon
as she was known to be embayed.
On receiving this news we started for Point Barrow and found the way
clear, the pack having been blown offshore a few miles, and a heavy current
was sweeping to the northward. Tuesday, the sixteenth, was calm and foggy
at times; large masses of beautiful ice, blue and green and white, of every
conceivable form, like the bergs derived from glaciers, were drifting with
the riverlike current or lying aground--the remnants of the grand pack
that so lately held possession of all the sea hereabouts.
When we were passing Point Belcher and Sunarnara [Sinaru?]
we learned from the natives that the ice was offshore as far as Point Barrow
and beyond, that several whale-ships were already there, and that all the
men from the broken ship had been taken on board. For some time the fog
was so dense and the huge bergs so abundant we were compelled to lie to
and drift with the current; but shortly after noon the sun came out, making
a dazzling show among the ice and silvery water. Then the conical huts
of the Eskimo village on Point Barrow came in sight, and rounding the Point
we found ourselves in the midst of quite a fleet of whalers, from whom
we received the good news that, as we had been told by the natives, all
the missing members of the wrecked crew had at length been picked up and
were now distributed among the different vessels. A few of them have been
permanently added to the crews of the rescuing ships lying here, and nine
have been received on board of the Corwin.
The strip of water sometimes found between Icy Cape and Point Barrow
is perhaps the most dangerous whaling ground yet discovered. The ice is
of tremendous thickness, a hundred feet or more, and its movements are
extremely variable from season to season, and almost from day to day. It
seldom leaves this part of the coast very far, some years not at all, and
it is always liable to be driven close inshore by a few hours or days of
strong wind blowing from any point of the compass around from north to
southwest. When, as frequently happens, there is a margin of fixed ice
along the shore the position of ships is most dangerous, for when the pack
comes in and catches vessels in this ice-bound lane while trying to beat
southward against wind and current, it closes upon them and crushes them
as between huge crunching jaws. Should there be no fixed ice, then vessels
may simply be shoved ashore.
It is not long since the first whale-ship passed Bering Strait, and
yet no less than forty-seven have been crushed hereabouts, or pushed ashore,
or embayed and swept away northward to nobody knows where, while many others
have had narrow escapes.
Thirty-three were caught and lost in this way here at one time, thirteen
the following season, and one last July, while two others barely made their
escape the same day just as the fatal ice-jaws closed behind them. This
last victim, the Daniel Webster, left New Bedford in November, 1880, passed
through Bering Strait on the tenth of June, and was caught in the pack
July 3. It seems from the account furnished us by the first mate that she
was following up a lead of open water about five miles wide, between the
main ocean pack and a strip of shore-ice, fancying that two other ships
that she had been following the day previous were still ahead, and on whose
movements the Captain, who had no experience here, this being his first
voyage, was to some extent depending. These two leaders, however, had turned
and fled during the night without being observed, while the Daniel Webster
kept on northward, until within sight of the end of the water-lane, when
she turned and attempted to beat her way back. But wind and current were
against her, the huge ice-walls came steadily nearer, and at length closed
on the doomed vessel, carrying her away as if she were a mere bit of drift
timber. About an hour later she was crushed, and sank to her upper deck
in about twenty minutes. Then she fell over on her beam-ends against the
ice and soon vanished in the icy wilderness.
The Point Barrow Eskimos, keenly familiar with the actions of the winds
and currents on the movements of the ice, watched the struggling ship,
and came aboard before the ice had yet closed upon her, like wolves scenting
their prey from afar. Many a wreck had they enjoyed here, and now, sure
of yet another, they ran about the ship examining every movable article,
and narrowly scanning the rigging and sails with reference to carrying
away as much as possible of the best of everything, such as the sails,
lead pipe for bullets, hard bread, sugar, tobacco, etc., in case they should
have but a short time to work.
Eskimo Village of Kokmulit, Point Barrow
She filled so quickly after being crushed that the crew saved but little
more than the clothes they were wearing. Some hard bread, beef, and other
stores were hastily thrown over upon the ice, and one boat was secured.
As soon as she was given up, the Eskimos climbed into the rigging, and
dexterously cut away and secured all the sails, which they value highly
for making sails for their large traveling canoes and for covers for their
summer huts. Then they secured as much lead as possible and anything they
could lay hands on, acting promptly and showing the completeness of the
apprenticeship they had served.
The ship was then about five miles from the Eskimo village, and the
natives were allowed to assist in carrying everything that had been saved.
Under the circumstances, in getting over the five miles of ice with such
riches, they, like white men, reasoned themselves into the belief that
everything belonged to them, even the chronometers and sextants. Accordingly,
at the village a general division was made in so masterly a manner that
by the time the officers and crew reached the place their goods had vanished
into a hundred-odd dens and holes; and when, hungry, they asked for some
of their own biscuits, the natives complacently offered to sell them at
the rate of so much tobacco apiece. Even the chronometers had been divided,
it is said, after being taken apart, the wheels and bits of shining metal
being regarded as fine jewelry for the young women and children to wear.
A keg of rum, that the officers feared might fall into the Eskimos' hands
and cause trouble by making them drunk, was thrown heavily over on the
ice with the intention of smashing it, but it was not broken by the fall.
One of the Eskimos picked up the prize, to him more precious than its weight
in gold, and sped away over the slippery crags and hollows of the ice with
admirable speed, vainly pursued by the first mate, and at the village it
disappeared as far beyond recovery as if it had been poured into a hot
sand bank. As wreckers, traders, and drinkers these sturdy Eskimos are
making rapid progress, notwithstanding the fortunate disadvantages they
labor under, as compared with their white brethren, dwelling in so severe
a climate on the confines of the frozen sea.
The entire crew numbered twenty-eight men. All except the second mate
and two of the sailors started down the coast afoot, after waiting some
time for the ice to drift offshore far enough to allow some of the other
ships to come to their relief, or at least far enough to leave a passage
for their boat. At the river Cogrua [Kugura, a river tributary
to the Arctic Ocean at the Seahorse Islands, a little east of Pt. Belcher.
According to John Murdoch, Kug'ru is the Eskimo name of the Whistling Swan.]
ten of the party turned back, weary and hungry and discouraged, to Cape
Smyth, to pick up a living of oil and seal meat until relieved, rather
than face the danger of fording the river and enduring yet greater hardships.
The others pushed forward. Directed by one of the natives, they went up
the bank of the river about twenty miles from its mouth, to where it is
much narrower. Here they forded without danger, carrying their clothes
on their heads to keep them dry.
Both parties seem to have suffered considerably from hunger as well
as from cold and fatigue. The seal and oil meals, which the natives of
the different villages they passed good-naturedly allowed them to share,
but ill-supplied the place of their old-fashioned, rough, and regular rations.
They speak of having been reduced to the strait of eating roots and leaves
of the few dwarf plants found along their way. At Point Belcher they were
so fortunate as to find a traveling party of natives, who, after their
shaman had duly consulted the spirits, supposed to be influential and wise
concerning the affairs of this rough region, and reported favorably, agreed
to take the party in their canoe southward to seek the whaling fleet, the
pack having by this time commenced to leave the shore. By this means the
wanderers reached the bark Coral in four days, at a cost of two rifles
and some tobacco.
The others were kindly received by the Cape Smyth people and entertained
until the ice left the shore. One of the three left at Point Barrow, it
seems, wandered southward alone and lost himself with fright and hunger.
He was without food for five days, save what he could pick up from the
sparse sedgy vegetation, and was nearly dead when discovered by a relief
party from one of the ships. The natives, he said, refused to allow him
to enter their huts, because his eyes were wild and he would soon be crazy.
Fortunately, all are now cared for.
Newly discovered whaling grounds, like gold mines, are soon overcrowded
and worked out, the whales being either killed or driven away. But whales
four or five thousand dollars apiece are so intensely attractive and interesting
that the grand game has been hunted in the face of a thousand dangers over
nearly all the seas and oceans on the face of the globe. According to Alexander
Starbuck, in his history of the American whale fishery, there belonged,
in the year 1846, to the various ports of the United States six hundred
and seventy-eight ships and barks, thirty-five brigs, and twenty-two schooners
that were hunting whales. In 1843 the first bowhead whales taken in the
North Pacific were captured on the coast of Kamchatka, and in 1848 the
first whale-ship passed Bering Strait. This was the bark Superior, Captain
Royce. A full cargo was easily obtained, because of the abundance and tameness
of the whales.
The news, like a gold discovery, spread rapidly, and within the next
three years two hundred and fifty ships had obtained cargoes of oil and
bone here. This is, therefore, a comparatively new hunting ground. Nevertheless
it is being rapidly exhausted, The precious bowheads are no longer seen
in "long winrows," as described by an old whaleman familiar with the region.
This year only twenty vessels are engaged in the business.
In 1871 thirty-three vessels were caught in one flock off Point Belcher
and crushed or shoved ashore. One of them is said to have been "crushed
to atoms," the officers and crew escaping over the ice, saving scarcely
anything but their lives. In a few days after the sixth of August most
of the fleet was north of Blossom Shoals, and worked to the northeast as
far as Wainwright Inlet. Here the ships either anchored or made fast to
the ice, which was very heavy and densely packed. On the eleventh of August
a sudden change of wind drove the ice inshore, catching a large number
of boats that were out in pursuit of whales, and forcing the ships to work
inshore in the lee of the ground ice.
On the thirteenth of August the incoming pack grounded, leaving only
a narrow strip of water, in which the fleet was imprisoned more and more
narrowly until the twenty-fifth, when a strong northeast gale drove the
ice a few miles offshore, and whale-catching went on briskly without fear
of another imprisonment. But on the twenty-ninth a southwest wind again
drove the ice inshore, and once more shut in the doomed fleet. The thirty-three
vessels were scattered along the coast for twenty miles, more and more
rigidly beset until the fourteenth of September, when they were abandoned--that
is, those not already crushed.
The following protest, throwing a vivid light upon the subject, was
written on the twelfth of September, and signed by all the captains before
abandoning their vessels:--
Point Belcher, Arctic Ocean.
Know all men by these presents, that we,
the undersigned, masters of whale-ships
now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful
situation, have all come to the conclusion that our ships cannot be got
out this year, and there being no harbors that we can get our vessels into,
and not having provisions enough to feed our crews to exceed three months,
and being in a barren country, where there is neither food nor fuel to
be obtained, we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning
our vessels, and trying to work our way south with our boats, and, if possible,
get on board of ships that are south of the ice. We do not think it would
be prudent to leave a single soul to look after our vessels, as the first
westerly gale will crowd the ice ashore, and either crush the ships or
drive them high upon the beach. Three of the fleet have already been crushed,
and two are now lying hove out, which have been crushed by the ice and
are leaking badly. We have now five wrecked crews distributed among us,
we have barely room to swing at anchor between the ice-pack and the beach,
and we are lying in three fathoms of water. Should we be cast on the beach
it would be at least eleven months before we could look for assistance,
and in all probability nine out of ten would die of starvation or scurvy
before the opening of spring.
September 12, 1871
All the officers and crews--twelve hundred and nineteen souls--reached
the seven relief vessels that lay waiting their arrival outside the ice,
and were distributed among them, these seven being the remnant of the fleet
that passed through Bering Strait in the spring. The next summer only five
of the thirty-three were seen, one of them comparatively uninjured. All
the rest had been smashed, sunk, burned, or carried away in the pack.
Five years later, in 1876, the fleet consisted of twenty ships and barks,
and of this number thirteen were embayed in the pack, twenty or thirty
miles off Point Barrow. After waiting and hoping for the coming of a liberating
gale as long as they dared, the masters decided that it was necessary to
abandon their vessels. Out of three hundred and fifty-three persons, fifty-three
remained with the ships, hoping to get them free in the spring; but not
one of the ships, or of those who stayed on them, was ever seen again.
The three hundred who left their vessels, after enduring great hardships,
succeeded in making good their escape to the rest of the fleet waiting
outside the pack--all save three or four who perished by the way.
There are now twelve whale-ships about Point Barrow in sight from the
Corwin, and all that would be necessary to shut them in is a gale from
the southwest. Still the great love of action, and the great love of money,
compel the risk here and elsewhere over and over again. The Corwin is now
about to go southward to coal, at the mine twenty miles east of Cape Lisburne;
or, in case the weather should be too rough to land at the mine, which
is on a bare, exposed portion of the coast, to Plover Bay. Then we will
return to the Arctic prepared to make other efforts to get on the south
and east shores of Wrangell Land.
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