The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
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, school-house,
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 Unga Island,
one of the Shumagin group, where there is a village of some hundred and
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.
Tapkan, 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, berg-like 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
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
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 saddleback species, Histriophoca fasciata,
still somewhat rare in collections, and eagerly sought for. It derives
its name from the saddlelike 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
Cliffs at St. Matthew Island
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
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.
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
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 cup-like 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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