The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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They are firm believers in signs and omens. When Rev. Mr. Willard and wife first came to the Chilcat country the winter was one of deep snows and stormy weather. The natives said that the weather-gods were angry at the new ways of the missionaries. A child had been buried instead of burned on the funeral pyre in accordance with their customs. The mother of the child became alarmed and felt that her life was in jeopardy for permitting her child to be buried, so she kindled a fire over the grave in order to appease the gods and bring fair weather. At school the children had played new games and mocked wild geese. So the girls of the Sitka Training School brought on a very cold spell of weather by playing a game called “cat’s-back,” and which caused a commotion at the native village. A white man out with some natives picked up some large clam-shells on the beach to bring home with him; the natives remonstrated with him, saying that “a big storm may overtake us, our canoe might capsize, and all be drowned the next time we go on the water.”
In tempestuous weather the native propitiates the spirit of the storm by leaving a portion of tobacco in the rock-caves alongshore, but in calm weather he smokes the weed himself. It was noticed, however, that the aboriginal Alaskans were little given to the use of tobacco, less, indeed, than any semi-civilized race whom the writer has ever visited.
Governor Swineford, in his annual report to the department at Washington, dated 1886, says: “I have no reason to change or modify the estimate I had formed on very short acquaintance of the character of the native Alaskans. They are a very superior race intellectually as compared with the people generally known as North American Indians, and are as a rule industrious and provident, being wholly self-sustaining. They are shrewd and natural-born traders. Some are good carpenters, others are skillful workers in wood and metals. Not a few among them speak the English language, and some of the young men and women have learned to read and write, and nearly all are anxious for the education of their children.”
Our government should act upon this hint and freely establish the means of education among the Alaskans. True, it is systematically engaged in promoting the cause in various ways, though not very energetically, Congress having voted forty-five thousand dollars to be expended for the purpose during the year 1889. “School-houses are the republican line of fortifications,” said Horace Mann. “Among those best known,” says Dr. Sheldon Jackson, speaking of the native tribes, “the highest ambition is to build American homes, possess American furniture, dress in American clothes, adopt the American style of living, and be American citizens. They ask no special favors from the American government, no annuities or help, but simply to be treated as other citizens, protected by the laws and courts, and in common with all others furnished with schools for their children.” It was made the duty of the Secretary of the Interior, by the act providing a civil government for Alaska, to make needful and proper provision for the education of all children of school age without reference to race or color, and all true friends of progress and humanity will urge the matter until a common school is established in every native tribe and settlement having a sufficient number of children.
We were told that there is good hunting inland a short distance from Fort Wrangel; winter, however, is the only season when this can be successfully pursued near to the coast in the wild districts.The marshy “tundra” is then frozen and covered with snow, making it possible to cross. This is the period of the year also when the natives of the interior prosecute their most successful trapping and hunting, coming down to the coast by the river in the summer to sell their pelts and to purchase stores of the white traders. The Russians have long since taught the aborigines to depend much upon tea, but they care very little for coffee. Rifles are greatly prized by them, and though they are contraband nearly every Indian manages to possess one and knows how to use it most effectually. They are very economical of ammunition, and never throw away a shot by carelessness.
The pestiferous and ubiquitous mosquito is not absent from these high latitudes. They are very troublesome during the short summer season in northern Alaska as well as among the islands of the Alexander Archipelago. Strange that so frail an insect should have reached as far north as man has penetrated. Even while climbing the frosty glaciers the excursionist will find both hands required to prevent their biting his face from forehead to chin. If they are a persistent pest in equatorial latitudes, they are ten times more venomous and voracious in these regions during certain seasons. The author has experienced this fact also in Norway at even a much higher latitude than he visited in the western hemisphere. The bites of these mosquitoes fortunately, like all flesh wounds in this northern region, heal quickly, venomous as they are, owing to the liberally ozonized condition of the atmosphere as well as the absence of disease germs and organic dust.
It is said that when the otter hunters or others among the aborigines get wounded in any way, their treatment is simple and efficacious, and however severe the wound may be, it is nearly always quickly healed. The victim of the accident puts himself uncomplainingly on starvation diet, living upon an astonishingly small amount of food for a couple of weeks, and the cure follows rapidly.
Frederick Schwatka, in his excellent book entitled “Along Alaska’s Great River,” tells how the mosquitoes conquer and absolutely destroy the bears, and it seems that the native dogs are sometimes overcome by them in some exposed districts of the Yukon valley. The great brown bear, having exhausted the roots and berries on one mountain side, cross the valley to another range, or rather makes the attempt to do so, but is not always successful. Covered by a heavy coat of hair on his body, his eyes, nose, and ears are the only vulnerable points of attack for the mosquitoes, and hereon they congregate, surrounding the bear’s head in clouds. As he reaches a swampy spot they increase in vigor and numbers, until the animal’s forepaws become so occupied in striving to keep them off that he cannot walk. Then Bruin becomes enraged, and, bear-like, rises on his hind legs to fight. It is a mere question of time after this stage is reached until the bear’s eyes become so swollen from the innumerable bites that he cannot see, and in a blind condition he wanders helplessly about until he gets mired and starves to death. The cinnamon and black bears are most common, the grizzly being less frequently met with. The great white polar bears are not found south of Behring Strait, though they are numerous on the borders of the Arctic Ocean.
At every landing made by the steamer on our meandering course among the islands Indians come to the wharves to offer their curios or home-made articles, only valuable as souvenirs of the visit. As they mass themselves here and there, either on the shore or the ship’s deck, they form picturesque groups, made up of bucks, squaws, and papooses, presenting charming bits of color, while they amuse the stranger by their peculiar physiognomy and manners. During the excursion season they must reap quite a harvest by the sale of baskets and various domestic trinkets.
After leaving Fort Wrangel we are soon in the wild, picturesque, and sinuous narrows which bear the same name. The water is shallow; here and there are many dangerous rocks in the channels. Inlets or fjords are often passed, so quiet and inviting in their appearance as to tempt the traveler to diverge from the usual route. Some of these marine nooks are deep enough to float the largest ship, yet far down through the clear water one can see gardens of zo?phytes invaded by myriads of curiously shaped fish, large and small. The bottom of these waters, like the land and sea of Alaska, teems with animal life. A few hours’ dredging would supply the most enthusiastic naturalist with ample material for a year’s study. In the many stops of the steamer to take or deliver freight, brief boat excursions can be enjoyed. On one of these occasions we saw the first live octopus, or devil-fish, with two of its fatal arms encircling a small fish, which, after squeezing out its life, the octopus would devour. The one which was seen on this occasion was not very large, the rounded body being, perhaps, eighteen or twenty inches across, but its vicious looking tentacles, six in number, two of which securely clasped its victim, were each three times that length. The large eyes seemed out of proportion to the animal’s size, and were placed on one side like those of the flounder.
The Patterson glacier is the first of the many which come into view on this part of the voyage, but they multiply rapidly as we steam northward. It is vast in proportions, though partly hidden behind the moraine which it has raised. Three or four miles back from its front rises a wall of solid ice nearly a thousand feet in height. The whole was rendered marvelously beautiful, lighted up as we saw it by bright noonday sunshine, which brought out its frosty and opaline colors of white, scarlet, and blue, in brilliant array. Little has been written about the Patterson glacier, but it is one of the most remarkable in size and other characteristics in all Alaska. Vessels from San Francisco have taken whole cargoes of ice from these Alaskan glaciers and transported the same for use in California. There seems to be no reason why the gathering of such a supply should not be both possible and profitable, though ice can now be so easily manufactured by artificial means.
The fact that these glaciers are slowly decreasing in size leads to the conclusion that the extreme Arctic temperature in the north is slowly growing to be less intense. Intelligent captains of whaleships have made careful observations to a like effect. It was once tropical in the Yukon valley, – of that there is evidence enough; who can say that it may not again be so a few thousand years hence?
Before reaching Juneau we explored Takou Inlet, where there are two large glaciers, one with a moraine before its foot, the other reaching the deep water with its face, so as to discharge icebergs constantly. The bay was well filled with these, some of which were larger than our steamer (the Corona), and all were of such intense blue, mingled with dazzling white, as to recall the effect realized in the Blue Grotto of Capri. This berg-producing glacier was corrugated upon its surface in a remarkable manner, being utterly impassable to human feet. It was nearly a mile in width and its length indefinite; we doubt if it has ever been explored. A thousand ice and snow fed streams poured into the bay from the surrounding mountains, which completely walled in the broad sheet of water, so sprinkled with ice-sculpture in all manner of shapes. The ceaseless music of falling water was the only noise which broke the silence of the scene. A cavalcade of fleecy clouds, kindly forgetting to precipitate themselves in form of rain, floated over our heads, producing delicate lights and shades, with creeping shadows upon the surrounding mountains. The steamer’s abrupt whistle was echoed with mocking hoarseness from the surrounding cliffs, causing the myriads of white-winged wild fowl to rise from the icebergs until the air was filled with them like snowflakes. How wonderful it was! A broad clear flood of sunshine enveloped the whole; everything seemed so serene, so grand, the sky so blue, and the angels so near. It was all as magnificent as a gorgeous dream, to the thoughtful observer a living poem. Close in to the precipitous cliffs of the myrtle-green hills were inky shadows, which formed the requisite contrast to the crystal clearness of the surroundings. For thousands of years this glacial action has been going on, the story of the earth is so old; but its beauty is ever young, its loveliness eternal.
On our way up Gastineau Channel – the tide-waters of which have a rise and fall of sixteen feet – we have presented to us veritable Norwegian scenery, under a pale amethyst sky fringed at the horizon with orange and crimson; now gliding close to precipitous cliffs enlivened by silvery streams leaping down their sides, and now passing the mouths of inlets winding among abrupt mountains leading no one knows whither, for there are no maps or charts of these lateral channels. The Indian canoes may have occasionally penetrated them, but never the keel of the white man. On the left stand the tall peaks of Douglas Island, and on the right the jagged Alps of the mainland, both rising to a height of a thousand feet or more, on the continent side backed by elevations still more lofty. The Takou River flows into the sea and gives its name to the neighborhood. Here the Hudson Bay Fur Company established and maintained a trading-post for several years. All this region is famous for its game, such as deer, bears, caribou, wolves, foxes, martens, and minks, together with the abounding big-horn sheep. In place of wool these latter have a coat somewhat like the red deer, and except in the size of their horns they resemble our domestic sheep. We are told that this district is also rich in gold placer mines, and according to Professor Muir it must eventually yield extremely profitable results to intelligent mining enterprise. In many localities the placers have paid for years, though worked by the most simple means. The experience of California will undoubtedly be repeated in Alaska; the great aggregate of gold which was realized there will be duplicated here. After due thought and personal observation relative to the subject, we are willing to stand or fall upon the correctness of this prediction. The result may not come in the next year, or that following, but it will come in the near future. Mining north of 54° 40? is only in its infancy; its growth has been far more rapid, however, than it was at the south, both because of the richness of the mines, and because the business of mining is, and will continue to be, done more intelligently.
Just before reaching Juneau a singular phenomenon attracted our attention; it was a furious snowstorm among the mountain peaks, while all about us was quite calm and pleasant. The thick clouds of snow were driven hither and thither, from one pinnacle to another, writhing and twisting like a cyclone or water-spout at sea. It was a curious contrast, the storm raging in those far upper currents, while we enjoyed a gracious wealth of sunshine in a temperature of 65° Fah.
Juneau, located one hundred and fifty miles southeast of Sitka, and about three hundred north of Fort Wrangel, is already a considerable mining centre, with a population of about four thousand, situated not far from Takou district, and is the depot for the rich quartz and placer mines which are located in the region back of it. The site of the town is picturesque, being at the base of an abrupt mountain cliff which is decked with sparkling cascades. We were told that there is a rise and fall of twenty-four feet in the tide at the wharf of Juneau, but think perhaps eighteen feet would be nearer correct. The winter population is swelled by the influx of miners when the placers are not worked owing to snow and ice. Truth compels us to say that the residents here, of both sexes, are far from being of a desirable class. The Indians of this vicinity are of the Auk and Takou tribes; good traders and good hunters, but enemies of each other, though not given to open hostility. The native women, as if not content with the natural ugliness which has been liberally bestowed upon them by Providence, besmear their faces with a compound of seal-oil and lampblack, but for what possible reason, except that it is aboriginal Alaska fashion, one cannot divine. It is said that this is a sort of mourning for departed relations or friends; but the hilarity of those thus marked was anything but an indication of sorrow. We can well remember Yokohama wives, with blackened teeth and shaved eyebrows, who looked, if possible, a degree worse than these Alaskan women. In the latter case, however, the wives confessedly sought to make themselves hideous to prevent jealousy on the part of their husbands; but the native women here do not assign any plausible reason for smooching themselves in this offensive manner. When their faces are washed, a circumstance of rare occurrence, they are as white as the average of white people who are exposed to an out-of-door life. It is not the practice of the aborigines of either sex to wash themselves with water. They are sometimes seen to besmear their faces and hands with oil, which they carefully wipe off with a wisp of dry grass, or other substitute for the towel of civilization. The effect is to make the features shine like varnished mahogany; but as to cleanliness obtained by such a process, that does not follow.
If it were possible to discover a soap mine here there might be some hopes of introducing among the natives that condition which common acceptation places next to godliness. A traveling companion remarked that although milk and honey could not be said to flow in this neighborhood, oil does.
Many of the women, like those of the South Sea and the Malacca Straits, wear nose rings and glittering bracelets, while they go about with bare legs and feet. The author has seen all sorts of rude decorations employed by savage races, but never one which seemed quite so ridiculous or so deforming as the plug which many of these women of Alaska wear thrust through their under lips. The plug causes them to drool incessantly through the artificial aperture, though it is partially stopped by a piece of bone, ivory, or wood, formed like a large cuff-button, with a flat-spread portion inside to keep it in position. This practice is commenced in youth, the plug being increased in size as the wearer advances in age, so that when she becomes aged her lower lip is shockingly deformed. It is gratifying to be able to say that this custom is becoming less and less in use among the rising generation, and the same may be said as to tattooing the chin and cheeks. The hands and feet of the women are so small as to be noticeable in that respect.
The girls and boys endure great physical neglect in their youth, so that only the strongest are able to survive their childhood. It was surprising to see children of tender age of both sexes clothed only in a single cotton shirt, reaching to their knees, bare-legged, bare-footed, and bare-headed, yet apparently quite comfortable, while our woolen clothes and waterproofs were to us indispensable. We were told that in infancy these children are dipped every morning into the sea, without regard to the temperature, or season of the year, commencing the operation when they are four weeks old. This heroic, Spartan treatment of the bath will probably harden, if it does not kill, but undoubtedly the latter result is the more likely of the two. The adults of some of the tribes break holes in the ice in midwinter, and bathe with marvelous fortitude, not for purposes of cleanliness, but declaring that it makes them “brave and strong, able to resist the cold, and to live long.” The next hour, however, they may be found sitting on their hams as close to the fire in the middle of their unventilated cabins as they can get, closely wrapped in blankets, head and all. The prevalence among them of rheumatism and consumption shows that Nature cannot be outraged with impunity even by half-civilized Alaskans.
The natives do not seem to know anything about medicine, but when seriously ill they call in their shaman or medicine-man, and submit to his wild and senseless incantations, a process which would drive a civilized patient distracted. Fifty years ago an epidemic of small-pox swept away one third of the population of this part of the North Pacific coast, besides which, from various causes, the number in the several tribes is steadily decreasing. Vaccination having been introduced, a second visit of the dreaded disease just mentioned was accompanied with a very much smaller fatality. A scourge known as black measles is a frequent visitor among the youthful Alaskans, and is quite as fatal as small-pox.
Strong efforts are made by our government officials to keep intoxicating liquors out of the Territory, and the law makes them strictly contraband, but it is no more difficult or impossible to smuggle in Alaska than it is in New York or Boston. There are plenty of irresponsible whites ready to make money out of the aborigines. Rum is the native’s bane, its effect upon him being singularly fatal; it maddens him, even slight intoxication means to him delirium and all its consequences, wild brutality and utter demoralization. Molasses is sold freely to them, and the Indians have learned how to distill rum from it, so that they secretly produce a vile and potent intoxicant, in spite of all prohibition.
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