Modern history


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Through early August of 1871, the wind remained light and the weather fair along the Alaskan shore. The fleet of whaleships continued navigating their way through the channel that lay between the low, sandy coast and the ice pack five miles offshore. This was the accepted tactic, seeking the leads through the ice that would continue to open—it was believed—as the prevailing northeasterlies pushed the floes farther and farther out into the Chukchi Sea as the summer progressed, eventually leaving open water all the way to Point Barrow. As shipmasters pushed their vessels along the traceries of open water, with men aloft shouting down what they could see ahead, the mates and the boat crews routinely continued to set out in the small whale boats to chase whales. Many were sighted and caught, for the whales, too, found themselves largely confined to the waterway, and greasy smoke from the tryworks rose into the cold air over the fleet.

But on Friday, August 11, 1871, the day after the young Englishman Lewis Kennedy, of the wrecked Japan, died aboard the Henry Taber, there was a change of wind. It now rose strongly from the northwest, a direction perpendicular to the northeasterly trend of the coastline and ninety degrees off the desired, supposedly prevailing slant, and the ice pack drifted quickly toward the land. The larger, deeper floes grounded on the offshore shoals and sandbars, forcing the ships to scuttle into their lees, squeezing into a channel that was suddenly reduced from five miles wide to a mile or less, with a bottom that was unfamiliar, lumpy with unmarked shallows, often no deeper than a ship’s keel. There was no escape from this narrowing strip of water, for the wind also compacted the smaller “cakes” of ice, closing off the open leads that had threaded through the dispersed floes. The New Bedford whaler Seneca, farthest to the north, found itself stuck fast in the ice while carrying full sail. Many whaleboats and their crews suddenly found miles of ice between them and their ships. Some boats were temporarily abandoned, others were dragged by their crews across the ice back to the channel and their ships.

On August 13, the wind dropped to light airs, though still from the northwest. At eight a.m., the Seneca once more found ice closing around her. The crew sank blubber hooks on the end of long lines into the ice and tried to haul the ship into clear water, but even carrying full sail, the Senecawas soon frozen in place again.

The next day the light wind moved back into the northeast. The ice loosened around the Seneca, and by noon she sailed into clear water and anchored in six fathoms—thirty-six feet—of water. From her deck, twenty ships could be seen stretching away to the south, all anchored or moored to ice cakes. Near the Seneca was the encouraging sight of the Elizabeth Swift with two bowhead whales tied alongside her hull, ready to be cut in. These two whales had been caught the day before, but ice moving on a fast-flowing northeast tide had come between the Swift and her boats, which had then spent a long day towing the whales back to the ship against the tide.

Still the crews aboard the ships continued whaling, often dragging the whaleboats hundreds of yards across the ice. Whales were caught and pulled alongside the ice floes as they would have been fastened alongside a ship’s hull, the blubber and “bone” cut off as best as conditions would allow. With the great number of ships in the area, many whaleboats chased after the same whale, some “mating” with other ships’ boats, sharing or dividing the spoils according to the whalemen’s etiquette governing who had spotted the whale first and who had helped. Many harpooned whales escaped to seaward beneath the ice, pulling the boats behind them until they fetched up against the floes and their crews had to cut away the lines leading down under the ice.

The wind continued light, though encouragingly, from the northeast, sometimes bringing dense fog, while the ice continued to pack along the shallows just beyond the narrowing waterway. By August 17, there were thirty-three whaleships pinned inside the floes along the coast, still seventy miles or so south of Point Barrow. Men continued whaling, every one of them believing the wind must soon blow more strongly from the east or northeast and push the ice out to sea. Some ships sent men in their whaleboats miles to the north to look for whales with supplies for camping out on the shore or the ice for days. Few had any success. On Tuesday, August 22, three of the Elizabeth Swift’s boats set out for the Seahorse Islands, beyond Point Belcher. They found the waterway completely blocked by a wide swath of ice running from the offshore pack all the way to land. The men hauled their boats across the beach into the unfrozen lagoon inside Point Franklin and rowed northeast into the wind and short chop on the water, but once beyond the tip of Point Franklin, they were stopped again by ice. They returned to the Swift the next day.

Exactly one year earlier, in August 1870, the Elizabeth Swift, the Seneca, the Howlands’ Concordia, the Hibernia (with Thomas Williams and family aboard), the Japan (with Captain Barker and his crew aboard), and at least thirty other whaleships had all been sailing off this same stretch of coast, tacking north in strong northeasterly winds, often blowing at gale force. There had been “quite a quantity of ice about,” according to the Swift ’s logbook, but the strong—“vary ruged ”—winds blowing off the land had kept the sea channel open all the way to Point Barrow and beyond, and all these ships had chased and caught great numbers of whales, unimpeded by ice. Since the coastline here trended in a northeast-southwest direction, it might be supposed that the northeasterly winds of 1870 would merely have pushed the ice in a south-westerly direction, paralleling the shore. But the earth’s spin creates a deviation, the Coriolis effect, making sea ice move at an angle of thirty degrees to the right of, or clockwise to, the wind direction in the Northern Hemisphere. Thus, the northeasterlies of 1870 had actually pushed the ice west, to seaward, opening the channel between the pack ice and the land.

That August of 1870, ships had remained in the vicinity of Point Barrow, steadily catching whales until late in September. For most of that time the wind had continued blowing strongly from the northeast, what the whalers took to be the prevailing conditions that they were now, in August 1871, expecting to return at any time. These were “favorable” conditions that, a year ago, had kept all these ships, and the unlucky Japan, whaling far north of the Bering Strait until they were overtaken by the great storm of October 4-10.

AS LIGHT WINDS BLEW through the middle of August and the ships lay pinned inside the ice, Eskimos, of the Iñupiaq tribes, appeared on the low shore. They were drawn by the spectacle of so many ships held captive and the opportunity to trade.

Captain James Cook and his men had met and traded for fur with Eskimos in the Bering Strait; later, after Cook’s death in Hawaii in 1779, his crew sold the sea otter furs they obtained here to Chinese buyers in Macao for fabulous prices. In 1826, the British explorer and surveyor Captain Frederick Beechey managed to sail his ship Blossom a few miles beyond Cook’s farthest northerly point before being stopped by ice, but members of his crew reached Point Barrow in the ship’s boat, the first Europeans to do so. By the time Captain Thomas Roys pushed the Superior and her reluctant crew north of the Bering Strait in 1848, not only trade but Russian Orthodox missionary activities were well established south of the strait. But apart from the rare exploratory expeditions of Cook, Beechey, and the Hudson’s Bay Company agent Thomas Simpson, who reached Point Barrow with a small party in 1837, the Iñupiaq Eskimos of the northwestern coast of Alaska, north of the Bering Strait, remained in virtual isolation from Russians, Americans, and Europeans.

The native coastal peoples6 from the Bering Strait to Point Barrow had long been accomplished whalers. Organized whaling, as opposed to windfall beachcombing, had been practiced intermittently by the inhabitants along the northwest coast for more than three thousand years. In a landscape of treeless, permafrost tundra, the coastal Eskimos had evolved a mystically close relationship with the sea, the ice, and the sea mammals who, like themselves, inhabited essentially the same forbidding environment. Their world and spiritual views were defined by the sea and its animal realm, and the social and spiritual culture of the coastal Iñupiaq was rooted in the whale hunt. While natives inhabiting Alaska’s interior drew from a wide range of fauna to supply their needs—caribou, wolves, bear, mountain sheep, foxes, wolverines, waterfowl, and fish—the whale and the walrus provided almost everything to coastal peoples, and they concentrated their efforts on the hunting of these mammals. The arrival of the spring dawn, coming later every day, and the opening of the ice leads that soon followed, marked the start of the whaling season. Umiaks, the open fifteen-to-twenty-foot-long whaling boats fashioned from driftwood and bone, and covered with skins, were repaired and rebuilt; the long-evolved, beautifully intricate native harpoons, with wooden shafts, ivory sockets, toggle points, finger rests, gut lashings, and leather ropes were refashioned or made from scratch. Lookouts were posted along the shore. These activities were carried out by the whalers, always male, aided by their wives and children, effectively involving the entire community. The head whaler, the umialik, a man of great experience, skill, and, consequently, wealth, sought out and enlisted his crews by gift-giving and wife-exchanging. The social alliances of whaling crews—several to each community—were virtually tribes within tribes, involving tremendous prestige and importance. Tribal shamans (generally schizoid, compulsive, and/or hysteric individuals, according to social anthropologist Ernest S. Burch, Jr., an authority on the Iñupiaq Eskimos) sang songs, blessed the whaling crews and their preparations, and read auguries for success.

In March, camps, including wives and children, were set up on the ice. When a whale was sighted, a crew of seven to ten men ran their umiak into the ice “lead”—the watery opening in the ice where the whale swam—and paddled after it. As many harpoon points as possible were driven into a whale; the shafts would come free while the buried toggle points were attached to long lines tied to inflated sealskin floats, which dragged behind the whale as it fled from the initial attack, tiring it and preventing it from sounding for long. (This is exactly the same method used by Native Americans along the East Coast of the United States, as described by Captain George Weymouth in 1605.) The boat would again approach the exhausted whale, and the harpooner would lance the creature repeatedly in vital spots until it was dead. When the whale was brought ashore, or to the ice camp, it was greeted by the wife of the umialik, dressed in ceremonial clothing, who offered it a drink of fresh water and words of greeting and thanks. The whale’s meat was highly prized and dispersed among the whaleboat’s crew and their families and the whole community. Much of it was stored in ice cellars in the permafrost. Walrus was also hunted, though more easily. Walrus meat was less prized—it was given to the community’s dogs. Late in the summer, at the end of the hunting season, the whaling communities set out for established trading centers, where they met caribou hunters from the interior and bartered whale and walrus oil for caribou skins. As the winters closed in, the men hunted seal, and inside their houses the whole community repaired and built new weapons, lines, nets, and clothing.

The Eskimos’ communion with their environment was, like that of the whale and the walrus, a complete adaptation. It was mutually beneficial in the classic Darwinian mode: the hunters would more often catch the weaker, slower, older animals, leaving food sources and procreation to the fittest whales. They might have continued in this way indefinitely, as they had done for thousands of years, if the whalers in their wooden ships hadn’t appeared in 1848, and subsequently in greater and greater numbers, destroying the natural balance of their world and invading their dreams with a host of destructive foreign passions, chief among them alcohol and tobacco. The Eskimos found themselves as poorly adapted as the walrus to meet this abrupt change.

“The natives were frequent visitors, but with very few and rare exceptions, they were to me extremely repulsive in looks and habits,” recalled Willie Williams many years later. As a forty-three-year-old man, he naturally remembered most clearly what he had noticed up close as a twelve-year-old boy:

They have a disgusting fad of making a hole through the cheek near the corner of the mouth, in which they place polished pieces of ivory or stone, and sometimes, empty brass cartridge shells. Then they gradually enlarge the opening by increasing the size of the ornament, until not infrequently it tears through into the corner of the mouth. You can imagine the appearance and the results, especially when they are chewing tobacco, by such an addition to an already liberal allowance for a mouth.

Willie remained curiously ignorant of the Eskimos, of the realities of their life and culture, and of the incredible industriousness necessary to fashion a life in the Arctic. He evidently still believed in 1902, when he gave an address to the Brooks Club of New Bedford, what he had been told about the natives he had met as a boy:

They are confirmed beggars and not above taking things without your knowledge and consent. They are shiftless to the point of often failing, through no lack of opportunity, but from sheer laziness, to provide sufficient food for their winter consumption, entailing much suffering and often loss of life by starvation. They early took the first two degrees in civilization by learning to use tobacco and rum.

But he was partly correct: they had indeed acquired these vices. They came to trade furs and clothing for rum and tobacco. Some exchanges were made, mostly by boat crews meeting Eskimos on the ice or ashore. Captains were leery of allowing natives aboard. There had been a few unpleasant incidents between Eskimos and whalemen, and these were always well reported. “Attack on a Whaler by the Natives” ran the headline of an article in the Whalemen’s Shipping List and Merchants’ Transcript of March 17, 1863. In June of that year, off Cape Bering, on the western (i.e., the Siberian) side of the strait, the whaleship Reindeer was approached by three “canoes with Indians on board.” They had just visited another nearby whaleship and appeared to be “intoxicated.” They wanted to trade for tobacco, and although this was produced, the Eskimos became belligerent and drew their knives, which were “two feet long and very heavy.” The whalers grabbed their own knives, belaying pins, hand spikes, and crowbars, and a short battle took place on the Reindeer ’s deck. At the end of it, a number of men were cut, none badly, and the Eskimos were thrown into their boats and paddled away.

Through the 1860s there were growing reports of incidents between whalers and drunken or aggressive Eskimos on the Alaskan coast. More were to come throughout the 1870s and 1880s, as Americans sailed to the Alaskan coast in greater numbers, and the plight, and attitudes, of the native peoples inevitably changed, usually for the worse as the formerly holistic nature of their culture became contaminated by the influence of the whalers. Willie’s early prejudice was compounded by such reports, which were at variance with the kindness shown to Captain Barker of the Japan, and the experiences of many others, but it was an attitude shared by many whalemen, who saw only the negative aspects of the collision of their own and native cultures.

NOW, IN AUGUST OF 1871, the Eskimos again told the whalemen that conditions would not improve and urged them to turn their ships around and get away to the south the moment they were free. The whalers ignored them. Indeed, after weeks of light northeasterlies, the ice pack was beginning to loosen, and whales were visible. On Tuesday, August 28, the Elizabeth Swift was able to make sail and head to the north. Her crew saw “quite a quantity of whales. Struck 24. Saved one.” The remaining twenty-three harpooned whales managed to dive under the ice and escape, dragging hundreds of fathoms of rope.

The other whaleships followed, always pushing their blunt bows north into the ice they were sure would soon break up and float away.

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