The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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At first thought it seems impossible that a substance like ice, often brittle as glass and as inelastic as granite, can move as though it were fluid. The motion of the giant mass is doubtless facilitated by subglacial streams issuing from its bottom into the bay. The water flowing from two sources of this character manifests itself at the surface on each corner of the ice-front, where it comes bubbling up with great force from the bottom, a distance of from sixty to eighty fathoms. As we lay in front of the grand fa?ade what a revelry of color was spread before us! The immense and towering wall of ice seemed to throb with the softening rays of the sun, penetrating each broad fissure and narrow rift, all luminous with blue and gold.
Scidmore Island was pointed out to us, a green hilly land, near the mouth of the bay, named after Mrs. E. R. Scidmore, who has written so admirably about Alaska. Another island was designated whereon a silver mine of great promise has lately been successfully located and tested, yielding results surpassing the most sanguine anticipations of the owners.
All through this region one is constantly impressed with a sense of vastness, everything seems so stupendous; Nature is cast in a larger mould than she is in other sections of the world. The islands strike one as continental in dimensions, the rivers are among the largest on the globe, the ocean channels are the deepest, the primeval forests are made up of giant trees and cover thousands of square miles, the mountains are colossal, and the glaciers are elsewhere unequaled. It is a land of wonders, strange, fascinating, and beautiful.
The natives of this latitude are robust and hearty in appearance, their regular food supply being such as to sustain them in a good physical condition. Seal and fish oil are cheap and abundant, and enter into all of their cooking combinations. During the ripening season the wild berries, which are remarkably abundant, are gathered by the bushel, giving employment to the youthful portion of the community. Large quantities are dried for winter use, but during the bearing season the people almost live upon them, always adding a portion of oil as a condiment. Game, such as deer, bears, mountain goats, and wild geese, is very plenty a little way inland. These are hunted and supplied to the whites by the aborigines, but they do not themselves seem to care particularly for meat of any sort so long as they can obtain plenty of fish and oil. At Sitka and Fort Wrangel fine large codfish are retailed at five cents each, a twenty pound salmon costs in the season ten to fifteen cents, and halibut sell at about the same rate according to size. These latter average from eighty to a hundred pounds in weight on this coast, and in some parts of the waters bordering western Alaska they are twice that size. Ducks are to be had at ten and fifteen cents per pair, wild geese at fifteen cents each, and so on. The natives are pre?minently fish-eaters, and are as a rule well developed about the chest and shoulders, though the lower parts of their bodies are diminutive owing to their exercise being taken almost altogether at the paddle while sitting in their boats.The physical contrast between them and our Western Indians, who are meat-eaters, is very decided. The one lives in a canoe a large portion of his time, the other upon horseback or engaged upon long foot-marches; the one is lithe and sinewy, the other is greasy and flabby. Though the physical condition of our Western Indians is unquestionably much superior to that of the native Alaskans, yet the latter are the most intelligent.
The halibut, to which reference has just been made, is found in great abundance upon the coast at nearly all seasons of the year, and forms a large portion of the food supply of the native population, both for summer and winter. They prefer to catch these fish by means of their own awkward wooden hooks, rather than to use the steel barbed instrument of the whites. They go out for the purpose in their boats, exposing themselves in nearly all sorts of weather, anchoring upon well-known fishing grounds by making use of a stone fastened to a cedar-bark rope of their own manufacture. Having filled their canoe, which they can do in a very short time, they leisurely return to the shore, where the fish are turned over to the care of the women, who soon clean them, also removing the large bones, head, fins, and tails, after which they cut the bodies into broad thin slices, and doing so much of this business they become very expert. These slices of the halibut are hung on wooden frames, where they rapidly dry in the wind and sun, no salt being used in the process; indeed, the natives seem to have no use for salt so far as their own food is concerned, and do not eat it as a seasoning. After the halibut is thus cured, the pieces are packed away in the large cedar box which forms each family’s storehouse for such food, and when wanted it is always ready, requiring but little further treatment to make it palatable to native Alaskan taste. As thus preserved the fish will now and again become putrid. This, however, is not considered by the people to detract in any degree from its excellence and usefulness, but rather to add zest to the flavor, just as a highly civilized gourmand requires his birds to be kept until they become a little “gamey” before he considers them fit to serve to himself or his guests. At certain seasons of the year the salmon are eagerly sought and eaten, both fresh and dried, but as intimated the halibut is a fish which can be caught at nearly any time, and is therefore perhaps more used than any other. There are periods when these fish also leave the coast for a short season, and against this absence the native provides as we have described. The kind of salmon which is mostly canned and prepared for export in barrels from Alaska is of a pink species, which is chosen, not because it possesses any peculiar excellence of flavor, but because the color is generally thought to be more desirable. They are not considered here, either by the whites or the natives, to be of quite so good quality as some others which abound in this region, but it is the pink salmon which the fanciful public demand, and pink salmon which they get.
All the cooking these natives seem to know anything about is to boil or stew such food as they do not consume nearly raw. Iron kettles have been in their possession for many generations, and were originally procured from the Russians. The condiment which they most affect has already been referred to, being nothing more nor less than rancid fish or seal oil, cooled and hardened into a sort of oleomargarine, the bare smell of which is sickening to the nostrils of a white person. This grease is spread liberally upon all their food and eaten with manifest relish. The inner bark of the spruce and hemlock trees is collected by the women in considerable quantities at certain seasons of the year, and is eaten by them, both in the green and dried state, after being dipped in this grease as described. The Sitka Indians make a most atrocious salad of sea-weed mixed with seal-oil, sometimes adding the roe of herring, of which peculiar mixture they partake with ravenous appetites, the roe having been purposely kept until it is nearly or quite putrid. The salmon-berry, while it is in season, is a most welcome and wholesome addition to their rather circumscribed larder. This berry is a sort of cross between a strawberry and a blackberry, though it is larger than the average of these delicious berries as they grow in the woods of New England. Hundreds of barrels of the native cranberry are gathered by the aborigines and shipped annually from here to San Francisco; they are smaller than the cultivated berry bearing the same name, which is grown in our Eastern States. The wild strawberries found among these islands and on the mainland excel in flavor the highly cultivated berry of our thickly-settled States, and may be found growing in abundance in the very shadow of the glaciers.
The natives hereabouts have no domestic animals except a multitude of dogs of a mongrel breed; wolfish-looking creatures; which are of no possible use, dozing all day and howling all night. At the north the regularly bred Eskimo dog is a very different animal, quite indispensable to his master, and invaluable in connection with sledge traveling.
The tribe occupying the region near to Glacier Bay is known as the Hooniahs, an ingenious and industrious people, who manufacture bracelets, spoons, and various ornaments out of silver and copper. Some of the men of this tribe wear a ring in their noses, like the women, but this seems to be going slowly out of fashion. We were told that the men have as many wives as they choose to take, and that they are not always careful to properly discriminate between other men’s and their own, an act of dereliction from propriety which is, however, by no means confined to savage life. A great laxity in morals is also said to prevail among most of the tribes from Behring Strait southward to the Aleutian group of islands. Let us not, however, be too censorious in judging them; if their virtues are found to be in the minority, is not this also the case with most communities which boast the elevating advantages of culture and civilization?
It has been known for a century more or less that masses of pure copper were found by the aborigines along the course of Copper River, which flows into the Pacific Ocean midway between Mount St. Elias and the peninsula of Kenai. The natives exhibited one mass of pure copper, as naturally deposited, weighing over sixty pounds. The character of this mineral closely resembles that of our Lake Superior district, and there is every indication of its abundance in this region, not alone on Copper River, but in several districts and islands. The natives have utilized the article for many generations in the manufacture of personal ornaments, and for making various useful household utensils, such as stewpans and small kettles. Any permanent rise in the market value of copper would stimulate the development of the copper mines of Alaska to compete with other portions of our country. Petroleum is also found on Copper River, forcing itself to the surface from some underground reservoir, and again near the Bay of Katmai. This product was largely used by the Russians for lubricating purposes.
Professor Davidson discovered in this vicinity an iron mountain some two thousand feet high, which was so full of magnetic ore as to seriously affect his calculations and derange his compass. Mr. Seward said of the same vicinity: “I found there not a single iron mountain, but a whole range of hills the very dust of which adhered to the magnet.” There is plenty of coal also, and with these two articles in juxtaposition a great industry may ultimately be the outgrowth. Viewed as a sure foundation of commercial and manufacturing prosperity, coal and iron will prove, in the long run, to be worth nearly as much to Alaska as her abundant and inexhaustible gold supply.
Captain J. W. White of the United States revenue marine says: “I have seen coal veins over an area of forty or fifty square miles so thick that it seemed to me to be one vast bed. It is of an excellent steam-producing quality, having a clear white ash. The quantity seemed to be unlimited. This bed lies northwest of Sitka, up Cook’s Inlet which broadens into a sea in some places.” Nature has provided fuel in limitless quantities for this great Territory, both in the form of coal and of wood, each of which is of the most available character, both as regards the quality and the convenience of location.
In speaking of the rich and varied prospects of the country, let us not forget to mention the abundance of pure white, statuary marble, which exists here in immense quarries, near the site of which there are numerous safe and commodious harbors, with great depth of water, inviting the commerce of the world. We need not send to Italy for a fine article in this line; the choicest product for statuary purposes is here upon our own soil. While these sheets are going through the press, the fact that a valuable quicksilver mine, which was discovered at Kuskoquin some years ago, now proves to be of high grade and purity, is published to the world at large. If so, this is extremely providential, as there is now a constant demand for mercury in the treatment of the gold-bearing quartz of the numerous mines hereabouts.
The studied effort of certain writers to depreciate the value of the Territory of Alaska in nearly every possible respect seems very singular to us, and is altogether too obvious to carry conviction with it. The great amount of gold now being realized every month of the year, the millions of cured salmon and cod annually exported to other sections, together with the rich furs regularly shipped from the Territory, counted by hundreds of thousands, must cause such people a degree of mortification. One of these writers put himself on record by saying not long since that gold did not exist in the Territory in paying quantities. Yet there is a standing offer of sixteen million dollars for the Treadwell gold mine on Douglas Island, while within eight or ten miles of it, at Silver Bow Basin, on the mainland, is another gold mine, as has been shown, owned and worked by a Boston company, nearly as valuable.
Referring to this auriferous deposit on Douglas Island, Governor Swineford says, in his official report to the government for the year 1887: “It is without doubt the largest body of gold-bearing quartz ever developed in this or any other country.”
At last we prepare to turn our backs upon the home of the glaciers and the locality of the most remarkable gold deposits of the Northwest, surfeited with wonders, and actually longing for the sight of something intensely common, satisfied that the tourist who makes the voyage from Tacoma to Glacier Bay through the inland sea has the opportunity of beholding some of the grandest scenery and natural phenomena on the globe.
From Glacier Bay our serpentine course lies southward through the countless sounds, gulfs, and islands of various shapes and sizes to Sitka, the New Archangel of the Russians, Sitka being the aboriginal name of the bay on which the town is situated. This is the most northerly commercial port on the Pacific coast, and lies at the base of Mount Vestova on the west side of Baranoff Island. The island is eighty-five miles long by twenty broad, situated thirteen hundred miles north of San Francisco.
On the 18th of October, in the year 1867, three United States men-of-war lay in the harbor, namely, the Ossipee, the Jamestown, and the Resaca. It was a memorable occasion, for on that day the Muscovite flag was formally hauled down and the Stars and Stripes were run up on the flagstaff of the castle amid a salvo of guns from the ships of both nations, thus completing the official transfer of the great Territory of Alaska from Russian to American possession. Up to this time the government of the country had been virtually under the control of the rich fur company chartered by the Tzar. Any policy at variance with its purposes was treason; immigration, except for its employees, was rigorously discouraged; the imperial governor was actually salaried by this great monopoly, while his public acts were subject to its approval or otherwise. With the date above given this condition of affairs ceased and a new r?gime began. Though no radical change immediately took place, still the atmosphere of our Union gradually permeated these regions, our flag freely floated everywhere, and our few officials assumed their responsibilities, administering the laws of the Republic mercifully as regarded the natives, but still with that degree of firmness which is imperative in dealing with a half-civilized race.
One cannot but conjecture what must have been the secret thoughts of the thousands of aborigines on this occasion, as they witnessed the ceremony of transferring Alaska from their former to their new masters. It was an event of immense interest, of most vital import to them, but yet one in which they were entirely ignored. They knew the significance of that change of flags, of that roar of artillery, emphasized by other naval and military movements, but they had no voice whatever in the agreement by which they were virtually bought and sold like so many head of cattle, and their native land bartered for gold. We leave the reader to moralize over this aspect of the matter, a fruitful theme for the political economist. With this change of government came a new people; the majority of the Russians promptly left the country, and their places were taken by Americans.
Sitka, the capital of the Territory, is sheltered by a snow-crowned mountain range on one side, and protected from the broad expanse of the Pacific on the other by a group of many thickly wooded islands. The waters of the harbor are as clear as a mountain stream, so that, as in sailing over the Bahama Banks, one can see the bottom many fathoms down with perfect distinctness, where the myriad curiosities of submarine life attract the eye by their novel and varied display. Among other tropical growth, sponges, coral branches, and long rope-like alg? are seen, planted here doubtless by the equatorial current which so constantly laves these shores. The town lies clustered near the shore, forming a pleasing picture as one approaches from the sea. The most prominent feature is the castle, not a battlemented, ivy-covered, medi?val structure, but a severely plain, weather-beaten, moss-grown, dilapidated affair, which crowns a rocky elevation of the town. It is a hundred and forty feet long by seventy deep, constructed of huge cedar logs which are securely riveted to the rock by numerous clamps and bolts. This was for many years the grand residence of the Russian governors, – after the capital was removed from St. Paul, on the island of Kodiak, – several of whom were of the Muscovite nobility and brought hither their wives and daughters to live with them in this isolated spot. One can hardly conceive of a greater social contrast than naturally existed between St. Petersburg and this half savage hamlet of Baranoff Island. For delicate and refined ladies, such a change from court life must have been little less of a hardship than actual banishment to dreaded Siberia.
It is not surprising that resort was had to rather desperate means whereby to beguile the weary hours. Many fell victims to gambling and strong drink. The Russians, under nearly any circumstances, fail to be good examples of temperance, and here cognac and vodhka flowed free as water. To some of their official feasts and celebrations the native chiefs were invited, and terribly demoralized by the potency of the viands to which they were totally unaccustomed. Nor can it be wondered at that, being occasionally supplied with this fire-water, the natives now and again broke out in open revolt, which ended more or less seriously both to the Russians and themselves. It will be remembered that once during the early times the natives rose in a body and massacred or drove every foreigner off the island, an act of savage patriotism which cost them dearly.
Every “castle” must have at least one haunted chamber, and we are told that this of Sitka was no exception to the general rule. The story concerning the same is variously told by different persons, but we will give only the version we heard. It seems that half a century and more since, the Russian governor’s family included a beautiful and accomplished daughter named Eruzoff, who was, at the time the event occurred which we are about to relate, but twenty years of age. There were on her father’s official staff two young noblemen of St. Petersburg, Nicholas and Michael Burdoff, about twenty-five years of age respectively. They were cousins, and had been ardent and intimate friends from childhood. Both of the cousins fell deeply in love with the governor’s daughter, who, in her delicacy, showed no preference between them. The young men grew desperate in their feelings. Never before had they disagreed about the simplest matter; it was their delight to yield to each other; but now their love for the beautiful Eruzoff made them open rivals. One day they went into the neighboring forest together, as they said, to hunt, and were absent for two days. On the evening of the second day Michael returned unaccompanied by his cousin, whom he said he had lost in the forest. He retired at once to his own room in the castle, where he was found dead in bed on the following morning, without a wound or any sign to explain the cause, though the post surgeon pronounced it to be a case of heart disease. A few days afterwards, by means of his favorite dog, the body of Nicholas was discovered in the forest with a bullet through his brain. The actual truth regarding the death of the cousins cannot be known on earth, but the chamber where Michael Burdoff breathed his last is said to be often disturbed by a ghostly visitor at midnight. Eruzoff was forced by her father to marry an official of his choice, though she was broken-hearted at the loss of Michael Burdoff, who proved to have been the one whom she loved best. She died in her bridal year.
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