The New Eldorado. A Summer Journey to Alaska
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There are residents living upon Attoo to-day who have in their time witnessed two wrecks of Japanese vessels upon their shores; and who can say that Attoo was not originally peopled in this manner by Asiatics thousands of years ago? It was so late as 1861 that the last Japanese junk was stranded upon the island; three of the Japanese sailors surviving were ultimately sent home by way of Siberia overland.
The sea-otter has been driven from this immediate neighborhood by too vigorous and indiscriminate pursuit, but the sea-lion, various water-fowls, and plenty of cod, halibut, and salmon still abound among these lonely islands of the North Pacific. Occasionally a dead whale is stranded on the shore, which is considered a cause for great rejoicing, every part of the animal being utilized by the natives. No matter how putrid the flesh may be, it is eagerly eaten by these people, both raw and cooked. When a school of whales appears in sight of these shores, the natives go out in their frail boats, and with lances so prepared as to work into the vitals of the big creatures, they pierce them in the most vulnerable places, leaving the animal to die where it will, and trusting to the currents to carry the body where they can reach it. To their lances there are securely attached inflated sealskin buoys, which render diving a very laborious exertion to the whales, and which aid finally in securing the carcass. In this way, it is said, the natives get one whale out of fifteen or twenty which they succeed in harpooning. Whales, singular to say, are more esteemed as food by all the Alaskan shore tribes than any other product of the sea, or, in fact, any other sort of food. The securing of one is an event celebrated with limitless feasting and rejoicing. A New England whale-ship captain told the writer that he had seen these natives cut long strips of blubber from the body of a stranded whale, which had been so long dead that it was with difficulty he could breathe the atmosphere to leeward of the carcass, and chew upon the same with the greatest relish until it had entirely disappeared down their throats, the oil dripping all the while in small streams from the corners of their mouths. This is not a practice confined to the Aleuts, but extends throughout the several groups of islands, and is also a marked habit of the Eskimos proper, living both north and south of Behring Strait, and on the coast of the Polar Sea.
“The natives would rather have a dead whale drift ashore,” says Mr. George Wardman, United States Treasury agent in Alaska, “than to own the best crop of the biggest farm in the United States. Dead whale is a great blessing in the Aleutian part of our Alaska possessions, and agricultural products are but little sought after or valued. The dead whale may be so putrid that the effluvia arising from it will blacken the white paint of a vessel lying one hundred yards distant, but, all the same, the whale is a blessing.”
There is a variety store kept on Attoo by an agent of the Alaska Commercial Company, where the natives exchange their furs for tea, sugar, and hard biscuit, besides tobacco and a few fancy articles.
The mountains which surround the settlement are two or three thousand feet in height, “rock-ribbed and ancient as the sun,” and are white with snow for a considerable portion of the year.These Aleutian Islands, bounded by wave-battered rocks, stretching far out in the Pacific towards Asia, have no trees, the soil not having sufficient depth to support them, but they are thickly covered with a low-growing, luxuriant vegetation in great variety. Between the mountains and the sea are many natural prairies, with a rich soil of vegetable mould suitable for domestic gardening. The wood consumed by the inhabitants as fuel is the product of drift-logs or trees reclaimed from the sea. On the breaking up of winter in the large islands at the northeast and on the mainland, the unsealing of the ice-bound rivers sends down from the great forests through which they flow thousands of fallen trees, many of which are very large. This is especially the case with the Yukon River, which empties its immense accumulation of debris into Norton Sound, and the Kuskoquin, emptying into a bay of the same name one hundred and fifty miles farther south. When these tree trunks find their way to the open sea, the prevailing currents bear them southward to the Aleutian Islands, where a large number become stranded at Attoo, and are promptly secured and stored for use as fuel. It would seem to be rather a precarious source of supply to depend upon for this purpose, but we were told that, as a rule, it was ample to meet the demand. There is also a stocky vine growing in great abundance upon the islands, which the native women gather and dry, and this makes a quick, strong fire. At certain seasons the women may be seen in long lines coming from the hills, each one bearing upon her back a monster bundle of this product, which they store for use when the other source of fuel fails them or proves insufficient. The people of Attoo have tamed the wild goose, of which they rear considerable flocks for domestic use, similar to our New England custom with the tame bird, and it is said they are the only tribe in Alaska who do so. Long since the blue fox was by some means introduced upon the island, and being at first properly protected, the place has become fairly stocked with them, a certain number only being killed annually by the natives, and from their valuable fur these Aleuts realize quite a large sum. Were it necessary, lumber could be brought in small quantities from the island of Kodiak, or even from the mainland far away; but there is very little use for it in Attoo, the houses being built of drift-logs and not of boards. Besides the low, thrifty species of shrubbery growing on these islands, there are also wild berries in great abundance, the original seeds having probably been brought by the birds from the mainland. Grasses grow luxuriantly, being cut and cured to feed a few small Siberian cattle through the winter months, though it is hardly necessary to house them at all. They are kept on only one or two of the larger islands of the group. Domestic animals might do well here with a little care, but the attention of the natives is given almost exclusively to the products of the sea, whose very bounty demoralizes them. At Unalaska, of this same group, the natural grass grows to six feet in height, and with such body that one must part it by exerting considerable force in order to get through. The natives braid it into useful and ornamental articles, hats, baskets, mats, and the like. This prolific growth is represented to be remarkably nutritious, and cattle are very fond of it. W. H. Dall predicted that this Aleutian district will yet furnish California with its best butter and cheese; while Dr. Kellogg, botanist of the United States Exploring Expedition, wrote: “Unalaska abounds in grasses, with a climate better adapted for haying than the coast of Oregon. The cattle are remarkably fat, and the milk abundant.” This is the refitting station for all vessels passing between the Pacific Ocean and Behring Strait, and here also is the principal trading post of the Alaska Commercial Company.
Mr. George Wardman, United States Treasury Agent, that stated on his late visit to this island he saw in one warehouse sea-otter skins ready for shipment which were worth quarter of a million dollars in the London market. This will represent, perhaps, two thirds of all this class of pelts furnished to the world annually, as comparatively few go from any other quarter. Other land furs are brought here for shipment to San Francisco, two fur companies having headquarters at Unalaska. The place has some sixty native houses, and perhaps five hundred inhabitants. Unalaska is known to be rich in both gold and silver mines, one of which is owned by a San Francisco company, and which it is proposed to fully develop and work during the coming year, careful tests having proven its prospective value.
The same fertility seen at Unalaska exists also at Kodiak and Atagnak, where the small breed of cattle that live upon the grass are as fat as seals, and require no shelter all the year round. There is a small ship-yard near the first named island, where vessels of twenty-five and thirty tons are built for fishing in the neighboring sea. These two islands, situated just off the eastern shore of the Alaska Peninsula, are called the garden spots of this region, enjoying more sunshine and fair weather than any other part of the Territory. They contain rich pastures, beautiful woodlands, and broad open fields, which during the summer are carpeted with constant verdure and wild flowers. Kodiak was for a long time the capital of the Russian American possessions, but the government headquarters were removed for some reason to Sitka. On Wood Island, opposite Kodiak, is the clear and spacious lake which so long furnished ice to the dwellers on the Pacific coast, but particularly to the people of San Francisco. The whole range of Aleutian Islands from Attoo to Kodiak contains between four and five thousand inhabitants, nearly all of whom are called Christians, being members of the Greek Church. They are very generally half-breeds, that is, born of intermarriage between emigrant Russians and native women. Professor Davidson was struck by the strong resemblance of the aboriginal tribes inhabiting these islands to the Chinese and Japanese, and was satisfied that they came originally from Asia. There are many very intelligent persons among them. “They are docile, honest, industrious, and very ingenious,” says Professor Davidson. The women of Unalaska have always been noted for the beauty and variety of their woven grass mats and various other ornamental work, particularly in the combinations of colors and unique designs.
This cunning of the hand and artistic ingenuity is not confined to the women; the men are also skillful carvers and engravers. Whenever they have been afforded a fair degree of instruction, and the opportunity to exercise their ability, they have proved themselves to be adepts especially in this last mentioned branch of skilled labor. We have seen artistic work produced by a native Unalaskan which it was difficult to believe was not the performance of some experienced and thoroughly educated European.
The thirty-eight charts in the Hydrographic Atlas of Tebenkoff were all drawn and engraved on copper by a native Aleut.
On the island of Unga, one of the Shumagin group, situated half way between Unalaska and Kodiak, is a small settlement of a score of white men and about a hundred and fifty natives. By a regulation of our Treasury Department, only natives are allowed to hunt the sea-otter, and therefore these white men have married native wives, thereby becoming natives in the eyes of the law. The revenue derived from the sea-otter trade on this island is said to average from six to seven hundred dollars a year to every family. Off the southern shore of the Shumagin group is the best cod fishing bank that is known. It is estimated that a million good-sized cod were taken here last season and shipped to San Francisco. This metropolis of California once depended upon the product of our Newfoundland fisheries for its salted cod, but has drawn its supply for the last few years almost entirely from the coast of Alaska, and the consumption has increased every year.
Cook’s Inlet, which lies to the north of the island of Kodiak, was esteemed by the Russians to be the pleasantest portion of Alaska in the summer season, with its bright skies and well wooded shores. It stretches far inland in a northeasterly direction, and is quite out of the region of the fogs which prevail on the coast. Gold has been profitably mined for some years on the Kakny River, which empties into the eastern side of this extensive inlet, and good coal abounds in the neighborhood.
When the Russians first came to this region they taught the natives to make what they called quass, a cooling and comparatively harmless acid drink. To produce this article rye meal is mixed with water, in certain proportions, and allowed to remain in a cask until fermentation takes place and it is sour and lively enough to draw. Latterly the natives have learned to add sugar, and thus to produce a fermented liquor of an intoxicating nature. Progress in this direction has been made until now they mix a certain portion each of sugar, flour, dried apples, and a few hops, when they can be obtained, putting the whole into a close barrel or cask. When fermentation has taken place and the mixture has worked itself clear, it forms a strong intoxicant. This article proves the cause of a thousand ills among the aborigines. In each of the scattered villages among the islands there is sure to be seen a few broken-down victims of this active poison, who have impoverished their families and wrecked their own constitutions.
In each of these Aleutian islands there is found a Russian-Greek chapel and a regularly appointed priest, this religion being preferred by the natives to that of all other sects, captivating their simple minds by its gorgeous show and its mystery. Their honest devotion, however, to a religion which they cannot comprehend may be reasonably questioned. There can be no doubt that their idolatrous customs and original pantheism have been almost entirely abandoned, – ceremonies which were elaborately described by the early voyagers, and which involved strange incantations and even human sacrifices. Intercourse with the whites has at least had the effect of abolishing the most objectionable features of their early superstitions. The bishop of the organization is a Russian and resides in San Francisco, whence he controls these parishes, which he occasionally visits, being amply supplied with pecuniary means by the home government at St. Petersburg. The piety of these Aleuts is very pronounced, so far as all outward observances go, and we were told that they never sit down to their meals without briefly asking a blessing upon their rude repast. Golovin, a Russian who lived many years among the Aleuts, says: “Their attention during religious services is unflinching, though they do not understand a word of the whole rite.” The same author goes on to say, “During my ten years’ stay in Unalaska not a single case of murder happened among the Aleutians. Not an attempt to kill, nor fight, nor even a considerable dispute, although I often saw them drunk.” Hunting is the principal source of their support, and to get the sea-otter they often make long, exposed trips in their undecked boats, and experience many trying hardships. When they return to their homes at the close of the season, having been nearly always reasonably successful, the quass barrel is brought into requisition, and its contents partaken of to excess, drunken orgies following with all their attendant evils.
The Aleuts are a very honest people, quite unlike the Eskimos of the north, who are natural pilferers. They are also possessed of a certain stoicism which compels admiration. When they are sick or suffering great pain they utter no complaint, and outwardly are always content, no matter what the future may send as their lot. An Aleut is never known to sigh, groan, or shed a tear. If he feels it, he never evinces immoderate joy, but is always quiet, moderate, and grave. They are in a great degree fatalists, and believe that which is decreed by the power in the sky will come to pass, whatever they may do to prevent it. It is Kismet.
It is an interesting fact that before these islands were discovered by the Russians, the natives were in the practice of preserving their dead in the form of mummies, and this had probably been their habit for centuries. Satisfactory evidence is afforded by what is found upon the islands to show that they have been the residence of populous tribes for over two thousand years. Mr. Dall, in his indefatigable researches, was able to secure several examples of the mummified dead on these outlying islands, eleven of which came from one cave on the south end of Unalaska, but none were ever found or known to have existed upon the mainland. This fact is looked upon by ethnologists as an important addition to our knowledge of the prehistoric condition of these peculiar people of the far Northwest, now part and parcel of our widespread population. The mummies of Peru and those of Alaska are now arranged side by side in the cases of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington, and what is very singular is that they seem, in their general appearance, to be almost identical.
The interior of Alaska and its more Arctic regions north of the valley of the Yukon remain still only partially explored. No more is actually known of it than of Central Africa. It would be anything but a pleasure excursion, at present, to penetrate the extreme northern harbors of the extended coast line, which are mostly uninhabited, and which are tempest-swept for a large portion of the year. Northwestern Alaska shares with northeastern Siberia the possession of the coldest winter climate in the world, but we must remember it is not always winter, and thousands of Eskimos here find life quite tolerable. Beyond 70° of north latitude no trees are to be found; even shrubs have disappeared, giving place to a scanty growth of lichens and creeping wood-plants. Even here, however, Nature asserts her prerogative and brings forth a few bright flowers and blooming grasses in the brief midsummer days. Point Barrow is what might be termed, in common parlance, “the jumping-off place;” the beginning of that mysterious ocean where the compass needle, which lies horizontal at the equator, attracted by an unexplained influence dips and points straight downward. There is no lack of animal life in this frozen region, the sea is as full as in the tropics; the whale here finds its birthplace, and herring issue forth in countless columns to seek more southern seas, while the air is darkened by innumerable flocks of sea-fowl. The wolves, the polar bear, and other fur-bearing animals afford meat and clothing to the Eskimo to an extent far exceeding his requirements. Only thoroughly organized expeditions and a few adventurous whalers attempt to pass Point Barrow, a long reach of low barren land, and the most northerly portion of the Territory, which projects itself into the great Arctic Ocean very much after the fashion of the North Cape of Norway, in the eastern hemisphere, at latitude 71° 10?.
There is a village at Point Barrow containing about a hundred and fifty people, living in houses partly under ground as a protection against the cold. The roofs are supported by rafters of whale jaws and ribs. This people we call the Eskimo proper. They have a severe climate to contend with, but are abundantly supplied with food and oil from the sea. They have a strange aversion to salt, and any food thus cooked or preserved they will not eat unless driven to it by dire necessity. Our government is just about to erect a comfortable structure here as a sort of refuge to shipwrecked navigators of the Polar Sea, this being the verge of those unknown waters which guard the secret of the Pole.
A peninsula makes out from near the centre of the western coast of Alaska, the terminus of which is the nearest point between this continent and Asia, the two being separated by Behring Strait, where the East and the West confront each other, and where the extreme western boundary of our country is the line which separates Asia from America. This is called. Cape Prince of Wales, a rocky point rising in its highest peak to twenty-five hundred feet above the sea. Here is a village of Eskimos numbering between three and four hundred souls, who do not bear a good reputation. They are skilled as fishermen on the sea and hunters on the land, to which it may be added that they are professional smugglers. Here it is quite possible in clear weather to see the Asiatic coast – Eastern Siberia – from United States soil, the distance across the strait being about forty miles. There are two islands in the strait, known as the Diomedes, almost in a direct line between Cape Prince of Wales on one side and East Cape on the other; stepping-stones, as it were, between the two continents. Occasional intercourse between the natives of the two opposite shores is maintained to-day by means of sailing craft, and doubtless has been going on for hundreds, if not for thousands, of years. So moderate are the seas, and so calm the weather hereabouts at some portions of the year, that the passage is made in open or undecked boats.
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