The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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Twenty miles south of Sitka, on the same island, there are a number of hot springs, strongly impregnated with iron and sulphur, the sanitary nature of which has been known to the Indians for centuries, and hither they have been in the habit of resorting for the cure of certain physical ills, especially rheumatism, to which they are so liable. Vegetation in the neighborhood of these springs is tropical. The temperature of the water is said to be 155° Fah. At the time of the Russian possession the whites built bath-houses on the spot, and much was made of this sanitarium. But all is now neglected, except that the natives still occasionally resort to the place to enjoy the tonic and recuperating effect of the waters. Anything which will promote cleanliness among the Alaskan tribes must be unquestionably of benefit to them. There are plenty of hot mineral springs all over the various island groups of the Territory, and especially that portion which makes out from the Alaska Peninsula westward towards Asia. The most fatal diseases prevailing among the aborigines after consumption are scrofulous affections; the latter is thought to be aggravated, if not induced, by their almost exclusive fish diet, supplemented by their gross uncleanliness. The Aleuts of the south, the Eskimos of the north, and the natives generally of the coast and the interior sleep and live in such dark, dirty, unventilated quarters, reeking with vile odors, that they cannot fail to poison their blood and thus induce a myriad of ills. As we have said, none of these natives seem to have any intelligent idea of medicine, and they do not possess any herbs, so far as we could learn, which are used for medicinal purposes. If a native is furnished with a prescription after the manner of the whites, he requires at least twice the amount of medicine which it is customary to give to a white man, otherwise the dose will have no apparent effect upon his system. This is a never varying experience which medical men have found repeated among all savage races.
As far as one is able to comprehend the religious convictions of the native Sitkans, other than the few who have gone through the form of professing Christianity, they seem to entertain a sort of animal worship, a reverence for special birds and beasts. Like the Japanese they hold certain animals sacred and will not injure them. It is thus that they have some mystical idea about the bear, which prevents them from willingly hunting that animal. Ravens are nearly as numerous in Sitka as they are in Ceylon, and no one will injure then. They believe that the spirits of the departed occupy the bodies of ravens, hawks, and the like. One is reminded that in the temples of Canton the Chinese keep sacred hogs; the Parsees of Bombay worship fire; the Japanese bow before snakes and foxes, as divine symbols; the pious Hindoo deifies cows and monkeys; so there is abundant precedent to countenance these simple natives of Alaska in their crude worship and superstitions.
Their aboriginal belief is called Shamanism, or the propitiating of evil spirits by acceptable offerings.It is significant that the same faith is participated in by the Siberians, on the other side of Behring Strait. This is no new or original form of religion; it was the faith of the Tartar race before they became disciples of Buddhism.
These aborigines seem to anticipate a state of future happiness, but not one of rewards and punishments. All blessedness in this anticipated eternity is for man; woman, it seems, has no real inheritance in this world or the next! Slavery, vice, and misery would thus appear to be her portion in life, and she expects nothing beyond. This picture is not overdrawn. These natives are now as much a part of our population as are the people who live in Massachusetts or Rhode Island, and our manifest duty is to educate them. The light of reason will soon follow, and like the rising sun will burn away this mist of ignorance and superstition. Schools are the most potent missionaries that can be established among any savage race; reasonable religious convictions will follow as a natural result.
“When the missionary,” says W. H. Dall, “will leave the trading-post, strike out into the wilderness, live in the wilderness, live with the Indians, teach them cleanliness first, morality next, and by slow and simple teaching raise their minds above the hunt and the camp, – then, and not until then, they will be able to comprehend the simplest principles of right and wrong.” Though these Indians at the populous centres often pretend to yield to the religious teachings of the professional missionaries, still, like the Chinese religious converts, they are pretty sure to return to their idols and superstitions. When the Roman Catholic Bishop from San Francisco came among the natives of Alaska, and offered to baptize their children, the Indians told him that he might baptize them if he would pay them for it!
H. H. Bancroft, in his work upon the native races of the North Pacific, says: “Thick, black clouds, portentous of evil, hang threateningly over the savage during his entire life. Genii murmur in the flowing river, in the rustling branches of the trees are heard the breathings of the gods, goblins dance in the vapory twilight, and demons howl in the darkness. All these things are hostile to man, and must be propitiated by gifts, prayers, and sacrifices; while the religious worship of some of the tribes includes practices frightful in their atrocity.”
The Sitkans, like many other tribes, used to burn their dead before the missionaries partially dissuaded them from doing so, but some still adopt cremation as a final and most desirable resort. To one who has seen its universal application in India, there are many strong reasons in its favor. The Alaskan native idea of a hell in another world constituted of ice, it is said, causes them to reason that those buried in the earth may be cold forever after, while those whose bodies are burned will be forever warm and comfortable in the next sphere. After the funeral these aborigines, as we have shown, engage in a genuine “wake,” recklessly feasting and drinking to emphasize the importance of the occasion, and to demonstrate their unbounded grief.
The native women occasionally show some taste for music and ability in playing upon the accordion, almost the only instrument found in their possession. A young Indian girl was seen quite alone among the wild flowers just outside the town (Sitka) who had been taught a few pleasing airs, and who surprised us with a well-played strain from a familiar opera. She was a pretty, gypsy-like child of nature, evidently having white blood in her veins, and was not over sixteen years of age. The coarse, scanty clothing could not disguise her handsome form, bright, intelligent face, or hide the depth and splendor of her jet-black luminous eyes. When she discovered us the accordion was quickly thrust behind her, while her downcast eyes expressed mortification at being found alone by the white strangers, playing to the flowers beside the Indian River. She understood English and spoke it fairly well, but hesitated to receive the bright bit of silver offered to her. When we told her that in the East it was the custom to pay those who played to us upon musical instruments out-of-doors, and described the itinerant hand-organist with his monkey, and the brass bands which perambulate city streets, she laughed heartily, thrust the shining silver in her bosom, and held out her hand to greet us cordially. As we turned our steps back towards the town the innocent, winning face of the young girl haunted us with thoughts of hidden possibilities never to be fulfilled.
On the evening before we left Sitka a brass band consisting of twenty-one performers marched down to the wharf from the mission school, in good military order, headed by their teacher as band-master, and serenaded the passengers. The band was composed entirely of native boys, the oldest not over eighteen, not one of whom had ever seen a brass musical instrument two years ago. They performed eight or ten elaborate pieces of composition, not passably well, but admirably, in perfect time, and with real feeling for the music they expressed. It was a surprise to every one on board the Corona to hear such a performance by natives in this isolated spot in the far north. A liberal purse was handed to the teacher to be divided among them.
“Do you know what they will do with this money?” he asked, gratefully.
“Purchase some trifle, each one after his own fancy,” we replied.
“No, sir,” said the teacher, “they will tell me, every one of them, to purchase some new music with the money, which they can practice and learn to play together.”
Their means are of course quite circumscribed, and they have had but little variety afforded them, either in school-books or music. They look upon their musical tuition as a reward for good behavior, and the severest punishment to them is to be deprived of any favorite branch of instruction.
At our final view of Sitka, the quaint capital of Alaska was lying quiet and peacefully at the feet of Vestova, while enshrouded in a voluptuous sheen of afternoon sunlight. A rose-glow rested on everything, beautifying the simplest objects. Lofty, thickly-wooded hills formed the background, while the Greek church and the old castle dominated all the humbler buildings. The waters of the island-dotted bay were as still as an inland lake, and flooded with golden reflections. Now and again an eagle sailed gracefully from one wooded height to another, and the hoarse croak of many ravens, held sacred by the Indians, greeted the ear. A few United States soldiers lounged about their barracks, and a few cannon were arranged upon the broad common. These were light fieldpieces, more for show than for use. Groups of natives clad in bright-colored blankets were seen here and there before their simple dwellings which line the beach. A broad, intensely green plateau forms the centre of the settlement, about which the better houses of the whites are situated. A little to the left, nearer to the hills, is the curiously arranged burial-ground of the aborigines, with a few totem-poles, and many boxes reared above ground in which are deposited the remains of former chiefs. On a slight rise of ground stands the ancient blockhouse, built of logs, from which the Russians once made a desperate fight with the natives. Behind us Mount Edgecombe loomed far up among the clouds, where its apex was half hidden, and in the same direction, not far away, was the open Pacific. It was nearly ten o’clock P. M. before the sun set behind the distant western hills in a blaze of scarlet, yellow, and purple, reflected by soft, butterfly clouds and mountain tops in the east. After that came the luminous moonlight, making a regal glory of the darkness, and flashing in opal gleams from the sea.
While watching the rippling lustre of the water, tremulous with starlight and the languid breath of the night air, one was fain to ask if it was all quite real, if this was not a fancy picture from the land of dreams. Could these be the far-away shores of Alaska? The pathos and tenderness of the scene, the glow, and fire, and throbbing loveliness, were indescribable. Even the few fleecy clouds which sailed between us and the planets seemed as if they came to waft our hymn of praise to Heaven. Is not such surpassing beauty of nature an image of the Infinite One?
The return voyage from Sitka by the inland course takes us first through Peril Straits, so named on account of its many submerged rocks and reefs. It is, however, a wonderfully picturesque passage between the two lofty islands of Chichagoff and Baranoff, strewn as it is with impediments to navigation. We pass the Indian village of Kootznahoo, occupied by a tribe of the same name, people who have always proved to be restless and aggressive, requiring a strong hand to control them. They are peaceable enough now, having been taught some severe lessons by way of discipline. This tribe as a body still adheres to many of the revolting practices of their ancestors, which other Alaskans, who are brought into more intimate relations with the whites, have discarded. They are also said to be more under the influence of their medicine-men, who foster all sorts of vile rites and superstitions, without the prevalence of which their occupation and importance would vanish.
We make our way through the winding channels of the Alexander Archipelago, of which the Prince of Wales Island is one of the largest and most mountainous. It is about a hundred and seventy-five miles long by fifty miles in width; that is to say, it is as large as the State of New Jersey, and in fact contains more square miles. It is mostly covered with dense forests of Alaska cedar, the best of ship-timber. The shores are indented on all sides by fjords extending a considerable distance into the land. Salmon abound in and about this island, which has led to the establishment of several large fish-canning factories, two new ones being added during the past season. The principal native tribe upon the island is known as the Haidas, whose villages are scattered along the coast. The interior of the island is not only uninhabited, but it is unexplored. The shore hamlets are called “rancheries.” Each sub-tribe has a special one representing its capital, where the head chiefs live. Their laws seem to be simply a series of conventionalities. The houses of these Haidas are better structures than those of most natives of the Territory, and they surround themselves, as a rule, with more domestic comforts. Woolen blankets appear to be the investment in which all the spare means of the members of this, as well as most other tribes, are placed, and by the number they possess they estimate their wealth. Woolen blankets, in fact, averaging in value from two dollars and a half to three and a half, are the native currency or circulating medium, being received as such when in good condition; and also given out at the trading stations as payment to natives for furs or for any service, unless specie is preferred.
The meandering course of the steamer brings us now before one Indian hamlet and island, and now another; but these villages are very few in number, hours, and even a whole day, being sometimes passed, while on our course, without meeting a solitary canoe or seeing a human being outside the vessel’s bulwarks. These islands, as a rule, have no gravelly or sandy beach, but spring abruptly from out the almost bottomless sea, in their proportions ranging from an acre to the size of a European principality.
Now and again we come upon a reach of the shore where it is shelving, and for a mile or more it is bastioned by a course of stones, of such uniform height and even surface as to seem like the work of clever stone-masons. Skilled workers with plummet and line could produce nothing more regular.
In some places, as we quietly glide close in to the shadow of the land, shut in by the morning fog and mist wreaths, the effects are very curious and even startling. It not being possible to see very far up the shrouded cliffs, down whose sides there rush narrow, silvery cascades, with a merry, laughing sound, they often have the appearance of coming directly out of the sky. It seems as though some peak had punctured one of the over-charged clouds, and it was pouring out its liquid contents through the big aperture.
The contrast between a voyage across the open ocean and a sail of two weeks in this inland sea is notable. In the former instance the voyagers find fruitful themes in the vast expanse and fabulous depth of the ocean, the huge monsters and tiny creatures occupying it, the record of the ship’s progress, her exact tonnage, and the trade in which she has been engaged since she was launched. Few persons have in themselves sufficient intellectual resources not to become oppressed with ennui under the circumstances. Between Puget Sound and Glacier Bay how different is the experience! There is no monotony here; every moment is replete with curious sights, every succeeding hour full of fresh discoveries. The panoramic view is crowded all day long with sky-reaching mountains, scarred by wild convulsions; verdant islands embowered in giant trees; rocky peaks rising from the bottom of the sea to a thousand feet and more above our topmast head; cascades tumbling down precipitous cliffs; Indian hamlets dotted by totem-poles; canoes gliding over the silent surface of the deep channels; inlets crowded with schools of salmon; mammoth glaciers emptying themselves into the sea and forming opaline icebergs sharply reflecting the sun’s dazzling rays. There is no time for ennui among such scenes as these; the eyes are captivated by the beauty and the variety, while the imagination is constantly stimulated to its utmost capacity.
The flora of this far northern country does not exhibit the wonderful luxuriance and productiveness which captivates us in the tropics, though one gathers some extremely attractive specimens. Neither the flowers, the insects, nor the birds are marked with the brilliancy of color which distinguish those bathed continually in waves of equatorial sunlight. Here, grandeur prevails over beauty; the trees, if not so verdant, excel in size and majesty; the mountains, in height; the rivers, in volume and length; while the glaciers are without comparison in magnitude and power. Here, is simplicity, vastness, magnificence; there, fertility, fragrance, loveliness. Neither in the north nor in the south is there the least infringement upon the great harmonies of Nature; admirable consistency and order exist everywhere, typifying a great, overruling, supreme Intelligence.
We pause for a moment amid the silent tranquillity to sum up our experience while gliding along this beautiful and peaceful inland sea on the return voyage. The author does not hesitate to pronounce Alaska to be one of the most attractive regions in the world for summer tourists. From early June to September the temperature prevailing upon the entire route is equable, the thermometer ranging all the while between sixty and seventy degrees Fah. The progress of the steamer always creates a gentle and agreeable breeze, which renders warm clothing desirable, especially at early morning and in the evening, though these are periods not so distinctly defined as with us in New England. An overcoat is rarely rendered necessary or desirable. If the mosquitoes are troublesome at certain places on shore, in marshy regions, they are never so on the water, as the breeze inevitably drives such insects away. Let us say especially there is no other such inviting resort for pleasure yachts as this inland, island-dotted sea of Alaska. If the fogs put in an appearance sometimes in the morning, they are after a while burned away by the warmth of the sun. Local rains on shore are to be occasionally endured, but they are no great drawback to observation and brief excursions. At Sitka, Wrangel, and Juneau several showers may occur during the day, with intervals of bright and cloudless skies between. We have witnessed seven copious, well-sustained showers of rain on a May forenoon in Chicago, the intervals sandwiched with sunshine of gorgeous clearness and warmth. Why pretend that Alaska is exceptional in this respect? The weather is not perfect, according to our estimate, anywhere. Finally the extended trip upon the boat was found to cover a little over two thousand miles in all, and was with us one of continuous pleasure, enlivened by as bright and cheerful weather as one experiences on an average elsewhere, winding among an immense archipelago of mountains, emerald islands, and land-locked bays, through narrow channels dominated by precipitous cliffs, and crossing broad, lake-like expanses as placid as the serene blue overhanging all.
No other government on the globe, in this nineteenth century, would permit so large and important a portion of its territory to remain unexplored. Congress should send at once a thoroughly equipped scientific expedition, competent to report minutely upon the geology, fauna, flora, and geography of this immense division of the country. It is more than an oversight, it is a gross blunder, not to do this without further delay. If our own pen-pictures of this neglected Territory shall incite to the fulfillment of such an act of official duty, these pages will have served at least one important purpose.
“With a comparatively mild climate,” says C. E. S. Wood, in an account of a visit to Alaska, printed in the “Century Magazine,” “with most valuable shipbuilding timber covering the islands, with splendid harbors, with inexhaustible fisheries, with an abundance of coal, with copper, lead, silver, and gold awaiting the prospector, it is surprising that an industrious, shipbuilding, fishing colony from New England or other States has not established itself in Alaska.”
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