Maturin Ballou.

The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska

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When a native husband dies his brother’s or sister’s son, according to their custom, must marry the widow, but if there is no male relative of the husband’s living, the widow may then choose for herself. If the individual who thus falls heir to a widow does not fancy the conditions, he must buy himself off, or fight the widow’s nearest male relative. Oftentimes, if the new alliance is particularly disagreeable, the victim escapes by paying so much cash or so many blankets. There seems to be no hurt to a native’s honor that pecuniary consideration will not promptly heal. Corporal punishment is considered by these aborigines to be a great disgrace, and is very seldom resorted to even with rebellious children. Theft is not looked upon as a crime; but if discovered, the thief must make ample restitution; and when his peculation is known he promptly does so without question or murmur. They have the duel as a decisive means of settling family feuds. When matters have come to the last resort, there is no secret about the matter. The two combatants fight publicly with knives, their friends looking on and singing songs while the combat lasts. But these duels, the same as with many other earlier savage practices, are now nearly obsolete. Like our Western Indians, their method of war was the ambush and surprise, and like them they scalped their prisoners and subjected them to savage cruelties. This also is more of the past than the present, as no open conflicts would now be permitted by the United States officials. The natives deck themselves with paint, – yellow ochre, – and look very much like the Sioux and Apache Indians in this respect. A century ago they were armed with flint-capped lances, bows, and arrows, but association with the whites has now supplied them with firearms. The old style of native weapons has consequently disappeared, except the lance with which they hunt the sea-otter. Firearms they do not use in this occupation, fearing to frighten away the valuable game altogether. They still manufacture bows and arrows for sale as curiosities to visiting strangers. They pride themselves upon their accomplishments in singing and dancing, but which to civilized ears and eyes are only the grossest caricatures. In these notes of the natives we refer to no one tribe, but to the aborigines of Alaska generally. The various tribes of course differ from each other. Those most in contact with the whites, having abolished many of their ancient habits, have adopted in a certain degree such customs as they see the white people follow. The holding of slaves is still practiced among them. Formerly, as we have said, one or two of these were sacrificed when their owner died, if he was a chief, in order that he might be well attended in the new sphere upon which he was entering; but this practice also has passed away in most communities, with many other cruelties which were once common. These slaves are generally descendants of parents who were taken in battle during civil wars, though they are also bought and sold for so many otter-skins, or so many blankets.

Such persons are always submissive, and accept the position in which they find themselves as a matter of course. This enforced servitude will soon be entirely abolished.

Female infanticide has not been uncommon with some tribes, but it does not prevail as has been represented by late writers. It is true that there have been cases where mothers, dreading to bring up their girls to such lives of hardship as they have themselves endured, have resorted to this desperate alternative, but careful inquiry did not satisfy us that such a practice now prevails if, indeed, it has not entirely ceased. In common with nearly all semi-civilized and savage races, the native Alaskans regard their women more in the light of slaves than as help-mates, and nearly all the hard work, except hunting and fishing, falls to their share. This is not a peculiarity of savage life, after all; horses and mules are not harder worked than are women in Germany and various parts of Europe. The writer has seen women carrying hods of bricks and mortar up long ladders in Munich, while their husbands drank huge “schooners” of beer and smoked tobacco in the nearest groggery.

Here and there among the several tribes, strange, unnatural, hideous customs are still extant, relative to wives about to become mothers, and as to young girls arriving at the age of puberty. We realize, however, that is not for us to look at this people through the lens of any small circumscribed moral code, but with kindly, hopeful views, guided by a due consideration of their normal condition. The conventionalities of civilization do not apply; latitude and longitude make broad differences as to what constitutes vice and virtue, reason or unreason. Modern instances are inadequate as a criterion of comparison. One who has traveled in many lands has learned to expand his horizon of judgment to accord with his geographical experience.

Notwithstanding the light in which the Alaskan regards his women, there seems to be a universal concession made to them in all matters of trade, wherein they undoubtedly hold the veto power, and in some other respects their domestic authority is promptly acknowledged. Just where the line is drawn does not seem to be clear to a stranger. After a native had sold us some trifle, his wife in more than one instance came and demanded it back again, carefully refunding the consideration which was given for the same. To this interference the husband seemed forced to submit in silence, – forced by the arbitrary custom of his tribe. We were told that even among themselves an agreement amounted to nothing at all, as they claim the right, and exercise it, of undoing any contract at will, provided the consideration which passed is promptly refunded. Even the white traders are obliged to yield to this singular idea to a certain extent, for the sake of peace.

The story so often told about polygamous wives, that is women with husbands in the plural, cannot be absolutely denied, but is an exaggeration of facts. Such relations we were told did exist, but to no great extent, among the tribes of Alaska.


Aboriginal Dwellings. – Mastodons in Alaska. – Few Old People alive. – Abundance of Rain. – The Wonderful Treadwell Gold Mine. – Largest Quartz Crushing Mill in the World. – Inexhaustible Riches. – Other Gold Mines. – The Great Davidson Glacier. – Pyramid Harbor. – Native Frauds. – The Chilcats. – Mammoth Bear. – Salmon Canneries.

In some portions of the country the aboriginal dwellings are constructed partly under ground; this is especially the case in the far north among the Eskimos proper, on the coast of the Polar Sea. Such cabins are entered by a tunnel ten feet long, so low and small as to compel the occupants to creep upon their hands and knees in passing through it. The tunnel-entrance, which always faces the most favorable point, is covered with a rude shed to protect it from the snow and the severity of the weather. The cabins are conical in form, covered with turf and mud, a hole being left at the top to permit the smoke to escape. The fire is built in the middle of the apartment on the ground. Around the space left for this purpose is a platform of a few inches in height arranged for living and sleeping upon. At night, in extreme cold weather, a flap of skins is so arranged that it can be drawn over the opening in the roof which serves as a chimney, and thus, the entrance being also closed, the occupants become hermetically sealed, as it were, thoroughly outraging all our modern ideas of ventilation. Twelve or fifteen persons are often found together in such a cabin with its one room, where the decencies of life are utterly ignored, and where the stench to civilized nostrils is really something dreadful to encounter.

This description refers to the winter homes of the people, where they hibernate like some species of wild animals, but for the milder portion of the year the Eskimos are nomadic, traveling hither and thither, seeking the most favorable locations for hunting and fishing, while living in rudely constructed camps. They use tents adapted for this itinerant life, made from prepared walrus hides supported by a light framework of wooden poles. The more thrifty supply themselves with canvas tents bought of the whites, as being handier for use and transportation.

Speaking of the interior of the country, we have the authority of Mr. C. F. Fowler, late agent of the Alaska Fur Company, and long resident in the country, and of Ex-Governor Swineford, both of whom have carefully investigated the subject, for stating that there exists a huge species of animals, believed to be representatives of the supposed extinct mammoth, found in herds not far from the headwaters of the Snake River, on the interior plateaus of Alaska. The natives call them “big-teeth” because of the size of their ivory tusks. Some of these, weighing over two hundred pounds each, were from animals so lately killed as to still have flesh upon them, and were purchased by Mr. Fowler, who brought them to the coast. These mammoths are represented to average twenty feet in height and over thirty feet in length, in many respects resembling elephants, the body being covered with long, coarse, reddish hairs. The eyes are larger, the ears smaller, and the trunk longer and more slender than those of the average elephant. The two tusks which Mr. Fowler brought away with him each measured fifteen feet in length.

The author has almost universally found among savage races at least a few very old people of both sexes, who were apparently revered and carefully provided for by their descendants and associates, but here among the aborigines aged persons are certainly not often to be seen. Whether it is that, hardy and robust as they generally appear to be, they do not, as a rule, live to advanced years, or that a summary method is adopted to get rid of them after they have outlived their usefulness, it is impossible to say. We were told that such is certainly the case with some of the tribes farthest from the influence and supervision of the whites, and that half a century ago the extremely old, being considered useless, were frequently “disposed” of. It is clear enough that there is nothing in the climate of this region in any way inimical to health and longevity.

The women of the Takou district are very expert and industrious. They occupy a large portion of their time in weaving baskets of split cedar, far exceeding any similar Indian work which we have chanced to see elsewhere, both in the coloring and the very ingenious combination of figures. Some of these baskets are so closely woven out of the dried inner bark of the willow-tree that they will hold water without leaking; the author also saw drinking-cups thus manufactured. Visitors rarely fail to bring away interesting specimens of native work in this particular line; the fine straw goods of Manila do not excel this in delicacy and beauty. In addition to this attractive basket-work from the hands of the women, the men of the tribe exhibit their natural skill by carving silver bracelets (made from dollar and half dollar coins), miniature totem-poles, horn and wooden spoons, baby rattles and canoes, in a very curious and original manner. Once a fortnight, during the summer season, on the arrival of an excursion party by steamer from the south, the natives are, as a rule, completely cleared out of their entire stock of these productions, and they do not fail to realize fair prices, enabling them to live very comfortably.

Though Sitka is the capital of the Territory, Juneau is the principal settlement and headquarters of the mining interests, containing over seven hundred white residents. We have seen no statistics of the annual rainfall here, but can well believe it to be what a certain person told us it was, namely, over nine feet. It seemed to us that the permanent residents should be web-footed. The cause of this humidity is very evident. There arises from the warm Japanese Current on the coast a constant and profuse moisture. This the winds convey bodily against the frosty sides of the neighboring mountains, and then it is precipitated as rain; at certain seasons of the year it continues for weeks together.

There is compensation even in the fact of this large annual rainfall, which at first thought seems to be such an objection to this district. The gold-bearing quartz which prevails here is treated, necessarily, by what is known as the wet process, requiring at all times an ample supply of water. One successful superintendent told the author that ore which is here so profitable would be in a dry region, like that of some portions of our Western States, worthless, or comparatively so, as it would have to be transported in bulk to a more favorable locality. It seems to require two rainy days to one pleasant one, which is about the average proportion in the year, to provide sufficient water to work these large deposits properly. The system of disintegrating, and of reclaiming the precious metal from the flint-like combination in which it is held is marvelous in detail, evincing the rapid progress which has been made in mechanical and chemical processes in our day.

It is found that June, July, and August are the favorable months for the traveler to turn his face towards the shores of Alaska, this being the season when the pleasant weather is most continuous. It is not extremes of cold, but an over-abundance of moisture in the shape of rain, which one must prepare for. An ample waterproof outside garment will be found at times very serviceable.

The Treadwell gold mine, just opposite Juneau, on Douglas Island, is undoubtedly the largest in the world, running at the present time two hundred and forty stamps, the mill and machinery having cost over half a million dollars; and though the author has visited the mines of Colorado, Montana, California, New Zealand, and Australia, he has certainly never seen its superior in capacity and golden promise. It is a true gold-bearing quartz visible at the surface, four hundred and sixty-four feet in width. The company owns three thousand running feet upon this deposit, – it can hardly be called a vein, – parts of which have been tunneled and shafted simply to test its extent, showing it to be practically inexhaustible, no bottom having been found to the gold-bearing quartz, nor any diminution in the quality of the ore. The mill is run upon this quartz the whole year, but as it is owned by a private corporation, and there is no stock for sale, the exact output of the mine is not known. The writer feels safe in saying, however, that no such body of gold-bearing quartz is known to be in existence elsewhere.

The laborers do not have to work in dark, underground channels; all is above ground, and in the season when darkness comes it is dispelled by electric lights. No timbering or shafting is required; it is simply an open quarry. Captain John Codman, after visiting the mine, writes: “We walked through the golden streets of this New Jerusalem, with golden walls on either side, and wondered what men could do with so much money.” It is not a little confusing to a stranger, when he first enters the great Treadwell Mill, to be greeted by the deafening cannonade of two hundred and forty stamps. Each stamp weighs nine hundred pounds, and the crushing capacity of the whole mill is seven hundred and twenty tons per day. The gold is shipped to the mint in San Francisco in the form of bricks worth from fifteen to eighteen thousand dollars each.

Douglas Island was named by Vancouver in honor of his friend the Bishop of Salisbury, and is eighteen miles long by about ten in width. This remarkable quartz vein is believed to run the whole length, though it is not always visible at the surface. Governor Swineford, in one of his annual reports, expresses his belief that ere long the gold produced in this section alone will exceed annually the amount which was paid to Russia for the whole of Alaska. This island, like Baranoff upon which Sitka is situated, is absolutely seamed with gold-bearing quartz, and has been carefully prospected and recorded by people interested in mining. Three hundred laborers are regularly employed at the Treadwell Mill, whose seven owners are opulent citizens of San Francisco. The work is prosecuted with great system and intelligence. The quartz of this mine is not so rich as that of many others, yielding on an average less than ten dollars to the ton, but it is so immense in quantity, and is so easily worked, that the aggregate yield of the precious metal is indeed remarkable. The mill turned out in the first twelve months after it was started seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars in bullion, and is probably producing at this writing three times that amount yearly.

The mine is admirably situated for the purpose of receiving or shipping freight, as vessels drawing twenty feet of water can lie alongside of the rocks which form the natural shore less than one hundred yards from the quartz mill. We were informed that sixteen million dollars have been offered and refused for this property. The would-be purchasers were members of a French syndicate. The agent says that the owners have but one price, namely, twenty-five million dollars, and they are in no haste to part with their property even at that sum. On the mainland, just across the channel from Douglas Island, three or four miles back of Juneau, is Silver Bow Basin, where there are gold deposits of vast extent and richness. Here quite a population is engaged in placer and quartz mining. The miners present a motley crowd with their picks, shovels, and red shirts, many with a stump tobacco pipe between their lips, and all with eager faces.

A spacious and thoroughly equipped quartz mill is being erected by a Boston company of capitalists for the purpose of developing a large property which it is thought will nearly equal the Treadwell in its output of the precious metal. This is known as the Nowell mine, and it is said that the quartz assays one hundred dollars and over to the ton. Silver Bow Basin is a small round valley lying in the lap of the mountains, accessible through a deep gulch behind the town. It is surrounded by noisy waterfalls, which supply just the needed power for manipulating the gold quartz. Across the range is another rich mineral locality, known as Dix Bow Basin.

On Admiralty Island, near the northwest end of Douglas Island, opposite Takou Inlet, there has lately been discovered several gold deposits which are owned by a Boston company. The prospectings upon some of this well-defined vein have developed a percentage of gold to the ton so large that we hesitate to specify it. “Thirty years ago,” said Mr. Thomas S. Nowell to us, “the mines of Alaska would have proved comparatively valueless; the machinery and process that are now so successfully applied to reducing the ores were then unknown. The great economy and consequent profit is derived from late discoveries which are now perfected, producing machinery which works as though it had the power of thought.”

The names of several other profitable mining enterprises in this vicinity might be given, but we have said enough to indicate the great mineral wealth of this portion of the Territory, and to justify our title of The New Eldorado. There are abundant gold indications all along the coast, as well as upon the islands. In the sands of any considerable stream between Cape Fox and Cook’s Inlet the “color” of gold can be obtained by the simple process of panning. The question is not where gold can be found in Alaska, for it seems to be wonderfully and abundantly distributed, but as to what localities will best pay to expend capital in developing. A number of abandoned claims show that the failure to realize a satisfactory profit in gold mining by eager, impatient, and unreasonable individual seekers without proper machinery is as frequent as in any other business enterprise awkwardly planned. This is as apparent in Africa, Australia, and California as it is in this region. The Treadwell mine on Douglas Island is in latitude 58° 16? north, just about on a line with Edinburgh, Scotland.

We quote once more Mr. Nowell’s own words: “The mountains of Alaska abound in gold-bearing quartz, the extent of their deposits exceeding any similar discoveries in the world. There is without doubt more gold-bearing quartz on Douglas Island alone, which can be worked at a handsome profit, than ten thousand stamps could crush in a century; a well-defined vein from two to six hundred feet wide traversing the island for at least from six to eight miles.”

There is a missionary family, supported by the Quaker persuasion, located at Douglas Island, whose earnest effort in civilizing and teaching the natives has been crowned with considerable success. The self-abnegation and conscientious labor of these people are truly worthy of all commendation.

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