Harper’s New Monthly Magazine
No. 227 / April 1869
Published by Harper & Brothers, Franklin Square, New York
AN ARTIST IN ALASKA
(Travel and Adventure in the Territory of Alaska, and in Various other Parts of the North Pacific, by Frederick Whymper. with Map and numerous Illustrations. Harper and Brothers)
Not quite two years ago we were a little startled by the announcement that the United States had bought the whole of the Russian Possessions in America. Our national vanity was somewhat gratified in knowing that by means of a few quiet after-dinner talks, followed by a stroke or two of diplomatic pens, we had become possessors of a region ten times as large as New York or Virginia, and about equal to France, Germany, and Great Britain. Moreover, we got with it Mount St. Elias, by far the loftiest height of the North American continent, and one of the great mountain peaks of the globe. Upon Mount Blanc pile the loftiest summit in the British Islands, and they would not reach the altitude of Mount St. Elias. If a man could reach its summit he would be two and a half miles nearer the stars than any other American could be east of the Mississippi. Upon Mount Washington heap up, one upon the other, the two Georgia hills which have made good their claim to be a few yards higher than the New England summit, and the three would not reach as high as St. Elias. As a single peak it ranks among the half dozen loftiest on the globe. some of the Himalayan summits reach, indeed, a couple of miles nearer Orion and the Pleiades, but they rise from an elevated plateau sloping gradually upward for hundreds of miles. As an isolated peak St. Elias may look down upon Mount Blanc and Tenerife, and claim brotherhood with Chimborazo and Cotopaxi. We also acquired — though we did not then know it — one of the four great rivers of the globe. We had seen upon maps the name of the River “Kuichpack or Yukon,” but we did not dream that in length and volume of water it exceeded the Nile or the Ganges, the Volga or the Amoor, and was itself exceeded only by the Amazon, the Mississippi, and perhaps the Plata: that it had affluents to which the Rhine or Rhone were but brooks.
It can not be denied that we looked rather coldly upon our new acquisition. We knew almost nothing of the value of what we had bought; and the Russians knew little more of the worth of what they had sold. We knew that fish abounded on the shores and fur-bearing animals in the interior. It was suspected, rather than believed, that minerals, copper, iron, and perhaps coal, would be found there. In this Magazine for July, 1867, appeared a paper summing up all that was known about “Our New Northwest.” It was prepared by the Secretary of the Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs, before whom came for consideration the subject of the proposed treaty. This Secretary had official access to all the materials extant in all languages, including the private reports deposited in the Smithsonian Institute. Little has as yet been added to the information contained in that article. Traders who have pushed their enterprises into the region assure us that the Territory is really more valuable than was supposed at the time of its purchase. they tell us that the fisheries are wholly, unequaled; that the cod in Bering’s Sea outnumber those on the Newfoundland Banks; that the salmon, in their season, swarm so that a boat can hardly make its way through their “schools;” that the rocky islets are black with seals and walruses; that there are forests of trees, easily accessible, and of size sufficient for the tallest masts and largest spars; cedars of three feet in diameter, with tall, straight, branchless trunks, they tell us, are common. Indeed, it is now said that a company could be formed at a few days’ notice which would pay for the mere property $10,000,000, a quarter more than the cost of the whole purchase, they having the right to the trade in fish, furs, and mines, leaving to the Government the right of dominion — a right which, except for political reasons, is of little account, and indeed rather a burden than an advantage.
Yet, upon the whole, we looked rather coldly upon our new acquisition. Seven and a quarter millions of dollars in gold seemed a rather large sum to be expended just then for a purchase of doubtful value. it seemed uncertain whether Congress would make an appropriation for the payment, and without this the whole matter would fall to the ground. but the Russian Minister having made the bargain was anxious to see it concluded. He had sold something which, no matter how much it was worth to us, was worse than useless to his Government. Whatever was received for it was so much clear gain and in the present condition of Russian finances seven and a quarter millions, or half that sum, was worthy of consideration. so, acting upon a quiet hint from Mr. Seward, he undertook to manufacture a little public opinion in the matter. he engaged Mr. Robert J. Walker, a most persuasive man, who can prove any thing by figures, to act as “open counsel.” For $25,000 as fee Mr. Walker undertook to write up Alaska in the newspapers. He did his work deftly. it was indeed, reported that money to the amount of hundreds of thousands and even millions was expended among newspapers, their correspondents, members of Congress, and otherwise, in order to get the appropriation passed. The matter was brought before congress, by whom a Committee of Investigation was appointed. As we write the Committee find as expenditure of only this $25,000 to Mr. Walker, of which he paid $5,000 to a Mr. Stanton, and a further sum of $3,000 offered to the editor of a newspaper; which sum the editor virtuously declined for himself, but intimated that it might very properly be given to his brother. if any body else got any Alaska money it was not as yet (January, 1869) been shown. At all events, the appropriation was made; the seven millions and odd hundreds of thousands were duly paid over, making the Russian exchequer so much the richer. So all preliminaries being arranged, on the 18th of October, 11867, the Russian flag was hauled down at Sitka, the Stars and Stripes run up, and there ceased to be any Russian America.
We have said that since Alaska came into our possession very little has been added to our actual knowledge of the Territory and its people. the 60,000 or 70,000 natives who inhabit this region of 550,000 square miles may be roughly grouped into three classes: the Koloschians, who dwell mainly on the coast, and are not very pleasant neighbors. In 1804 they massacred nearly all of the Russian garrison at Sitka. Since they formed a considerable part of the inhabitants of the settlement; but their quarter was separated by a stockade from that of the Russians, and no native, unless working in some private house, was allowed in the town after dark. The Aleuts, as the natives of the Aleutian Islands are styled, seem to be of much higher intelligence than any other tribe. A merchant trading in that quarter assures us that he knows several of them who have been educated as priests, and who perform the Church service in the Greek language with perfect accuracy. Akin to these are the Malamutes, who live about Fort St. Michael and Unalachleet, the most northern Russian posts — the latter being in about latitude 64 degrees. They are represented as a race of tall, stout people, but in other respects much resembling the Esquimaux. The men shave the crown of the head, and wear ornaments of bone run through holes in the face, just below the mouth. The women are tattooed on the chin, and wear bead ornaments suspended from the hair, and bracelets of lead or iron. The Co-Yukons, who live on the banks of the great river, are probably the most numerous of the tribes (The word Yukon or Kuichpack, by which this stream is known, is said to mean “Great River” in different languages of the natives who inhabit its banks. Co-Yukons, then, means “the Men of the great River.” They are rather a pugnacious race, and are the terror of the other tribes. Mr. Whymper devotes to them a special chapter of considerable interest.)
There are indications coming to light which seem to show that there was once in this region a much higher grade of civilization than now exists there. Captain E. G. Fast has recently brought thence an immense number of relics disinterred from tombs, or bought from families who had preserved them, apparently for generations. Among them are weapons of stone, iron, copper, and wood. Most curious are carvings upon walrus teeth. The figures remind one of the images found in Mexico and Yucatan. In the opinion of men whose judgment upon this matter is of most weight, these relics, and others which may be presumed to exist, will ultimately throw light upon the origin and migration of the races who peopled the whole North American continent, from Bering’s Straits to the Isthmus of Panama, and from the Pacific to the Atlantic. (Engraved representations of some of these relics may be found in Harper’s Weekly for January 2, 1869).
The probable result will be to confirm the prevalent opinion of the learned that the present inhabitants of the extreme northern part of the American continent are of Asiatic origin, who made their way across Bering’s Straits, and paddled through the Arctic Ocean, or sledged across the continent to Greenland. Mr. Markham, in the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society for 1865, adduces strong evidence that the emigration took place at the time of Togrul Beg and Ghenghis Khan, about 1200 AD. This Asiatic race, which we may call by the general name of Samoides, present so little in common with the aborigines who were found in the United States, Mexico, Central and South America as to render it wholly improbable that a common origin is to be ascribed to them.
To Mr. Frederick Whymper, whose book is cited at the head of this paper, we are indebted for most of the matter which follows. He has told us, with pen and pencil, some things which might otherwise have remained forever unknown. Though his observations were made just before Alaska became American instead of Russian, they had not been made public. They formed no part of the grounds upon which the transfer from Russia to the United States was made; and so for all real purposes they must be considered as new material.
Mr. Whymper is a clever young English artist, and of abundant pluck. In 1862 he left the tight little island to see what he could see on the Pacific Coast of America. For a year or so we watch glimpses of him in California and British Columbia, of which regions he gives some interesting accounts. In 1865 he joined as artist the expedition fitted out by the Western Union Telegraph Company for the purpose of exploring the route proposed for an overland telegraph which, by the way of Bering’s Straits, should connect the continents of Europe and America. This enterprise, though altogether a failure, was so boldly conceived as to deserve a few paragraphs.
The enterprise owes its origin to Mr. P. M’D. Collins, who, about a dozen years ago, traveled over what was then the unknown region of Eastern Siberia and the coasts of the Asiatic continent. He described his journeyings in this Magazine for July, 1858. Subsequently it came to be an accepted fact that a telegraphic connection must be established between Europe and America. The failure of the first attempts to lay the Atlantic cable had wrought a general conviction that an ocean line could never succeed. The Russian Government had built a line from St. Petersburg to Nicolaevski at the mouth of the Amoor River, and the Americans had joined New York with San Francisco. Mr. Collins proposed to unite these two lines, and procured the requisite privilege from the Russian and British Governments, through whose possessions the line must pass. the great Western Union Telegraph Company took up the plan, and organized exploring parties to survey the proposed route, a distance of more than 6000 miles, through a country almost uninhabited. Not only were surveys made, but a considerable length of line was actually constructed in British Columbia.
A glance at the map, or better still at a globe, will give some idea of the stupendous work thus undertaken. Its essential object was to bring London and New York within telegraphic communication. The distance, in a direct line across the Atlantic, is 74 degrees of longitude, a little more than 3000 miles. Let us follow a dispatch from London to New York over the proposed line. Leaving the British capital it would travel southward and eastward through Germany, thence northward to St. Petersburg; thence a little south of east across the whole expanse of European and Asiatic Russia to Nicolaevski, at the mouth of the Amoor, on the Sea of Ochotsk, having traversed 140 degrees of longitude, and in its southward and northward bends about 20 degrees of latitude. So far the line was already built. Here began the work of the Telegraph Company. They proposed to bend northward around the head of the Ochotsk Sea, thence eastward and northward through Kamchatka, till the line struck Bering’s Straits, opposite Fort Clarence, in longitude 165 degrees west, and latitude 63 degrees north, almost under the Arctic Circle. Thence it was to run southward through Russian America, British Columbia, Washington Territory, and Oregon to San Francisco; thence across the continent to New York. A dispatch, by this route, from London to New York would thus have traversed 286 degrees of longitude, and taking into account southern and northern deflections, nearly 80 degree of latitude, in all something more than the entire circumference of the globe.
Whether a dispatch sent over so long a series of lines, passing for no small part of the way through a country almost uninhabited, where winter lasts two-thirds of the year, and where for months there is only from two to four hours of daylight, would be likely to reach its destination very speedily may be considered questionable. Should a break occur in the wire it might sometimes be weeks before it could be discovered and repaired. The Telegraph Company, however, seem to have had no doubts on this point. They equipped a numerous corps, divided into five parties, with a military organization, the whole under the general superintendence of Colonel Bulkley, of the United States army, then on leave of absence for this purpose. The Siberian party was under charge of Major Abasa, a Russian officer. The Yukon party, to which Mr. Whymper was specially attached, was commanded by Major Kennicott.
Mr. Whymper gives a brief but interesting sketch of the proceedings of the Siberian party. The difficulties in the way of building a telegraphic line in this region are enormous. During the winter the constructing parties camped out for weeks together when the temperature was often below the freezing-point of mercury. To dig a hole for a telegraph post in ground frozen as hard as a rock was no slight task. six of these, three feet deep, were thought of be a good day’s work. when, as was often the case, the line was through a forest, the trees had to be cut down for some distance on each side; otherwise the fall of one would endanger the wire. Axes and other tools became almost as brittle as glass from the intense cold, and lost their edges when brought in contact with frozen wood. Still the Company persevered for eighteen months, and had expended three millions of dollars, when in the summer of 1866 came the tidings that the Atlantic Telegraph Cable had been laid, and was in successful operation. The Western Telegraphic Company abandoned its intercontinental enterprise, and recalled its employees. One can hardly wonder that these men draped in mourning the poles which they had so laboriously set up.
But the most interesting part of Mr. Whymper’s book is the account of an expedition to and up the great River Yukon. In October, 1865, a portion of the expedition had taken up their winter-quarters at Unalachleet, on Norton Sound, in latitude 63 degrees. The Yukon, for some hundreds of miles, runs almost parallel with the coast, and an overland journey of about two hundred miles brings one to Nulato, a trading post on that river, about 700 miles from its mouth.
The party organized to explore the upper course of the river consisted of six Europeans and three Indians. They were to travel on foot over the frozen rivers and through the snow. to convey their supplies they had four sledges, each drawn by five dogs. Such a team will draw a load of about 350 pounds. The dogs of this region are not of a very good class. They are usually of a grayish color, with long hair, short legs, immense bushy tails, and wolfish heads. Indeed, Mr. Whymper thinks that they have quite as much wolf as dog in them. Their usual food is fish; a dried salmon a day being their regular winter allowance — in summer they are expected to take care of themselves. They will, however, eat almost any thing, and if they can get enough grow fat upon it. they even took kindly to beans, if only boiled soft — something which Kane could never induce his dogs to venture upon.
The party set out at 11 o’clock on the morning of October 27, that is, not long after sunrise. The thermometer stood on starting at 30 degrees below the freezing-point, and soon sunk still lower; but the travelers soon found that their heavy skin dresses were too warm, and threw them upon the sledges. It is to be noted that the thermometer is no certain indication of the degree of cold as experienced by living creatures. It seems that after a point about thirty degrees below the freezing-point of water is reached the human system takes little account of mere temperature, as indicated by the thermometer. Mr. Whymper repeatedly mentions camping out when the temperature indicated ten or twenty degrees below freezing-point, with only a screen of canvas fixed behind the trees and their snow-shoes stuck in the ground to shelter them from the wind — the only enemy that they feared. Tents even were dispensed with, because they could not well be placed close to the fire. Wrapping themselves up in blankets and furs, they fell soundly asleep, though in the morning their beards and mustaches were a tangled mass of hair and ice. finally they found it wise to shave closely during the winter. Even when the mercury froze – 72 degrees below the freezing-point of water — they do not seem to have found it very cold, provided that there was no wind; while one day, when the thermometer was 44 degrees higher, we find this note: “A north wind blew, and made us feel the cold very decidedly. It is wonderful how searching the wind is in the this Arctic climate; each little seam, slit, or tear in your fur or woolen clothing makes you aware of its existence; and one’s nose, ears, and angles generally are the special sufferers.”
The trip was begun a little too early in the season. the snow had not yet become packed hard. A bit of thaw now and then happened, which transformed the soft snow into slush. The streams to be crossed were not always frozen solid. But luckily among the “traps” was a light skin boat, for which they had paid five dollars in American silver, and an axe, worth half as much more. This boat, besides present use, afterward served for more than a thousand miles of river travel; and so, as Mr. Whymper says, “It was not an expensive craft.”
Whenever they came to a stream they were wont to make a hole through the ice to get a draught of water. The Indians always filled up the hole with loose snow, before stooping down, on hands and knees, to drink. they said that this was done to filter out some little red worms with which these rivers swarmed. It is to be noted that this region abounds in hot, or rather warm springs, which never appear to freeze over. In one, which Mr. Whymper examined, the temperature of the water was a single degree above the freezing-point, while the air was 23 degrees colder.
The travelers wore snow-shoes, for without them it would often have been impossible to make their way; but the use of them in soft or soggy snow is very fatiguing. One indeed sinks only three or four inches instead of as many feet as hoe would without them; but then the shoes get clogged, and at every step an extra weight of a dozen pounds has to be lifted. sometimes they had to break a path for the sledges. The men would walk ahead for a space, then come back, and start on again, thus going over the distances three times. Under such untoward circumstances it can not be wondered at that they sometimes accomplished no more than ten miles a day.
At noon, on the 11th of November, a fortnight after starting, they caught glimpses of a faint streak of blue, varying the white monotony. They knew that this marked the course of the great river whither they were tending. They pushed forward eagerly toward it, and at sundown, breaking out from the woods, shot down a steep bank, and stood on an immense field of snow-clad ice — the Yukon, frozen solidly over, except that here and there were a few isolated streaks of open water. From bank to bank the distance was more than a mile; and this they afterward found was the formal breadth of the river for seven hundred miles below and a thousand miles above. Not infrequently it spread out into broad lagoons of four or five miles wide.
They stopped two days at the Indian village of Coltog. The houses were built mainly underground. First a little shanty is put up, under which a hole like a well is dug. Thence a branch, like a sewer, runs some yards, along which one must crawl on hands and knees to reach the proper dwelling, which is a square hole in the earth, over which is raised a low dome-shaped roof, with a hole in the top to let out the smoke of the fire, which is built directly underneath. When the fire gets low the smoke-hole is covered with a skin, keeping in the heat, but also shutting in the manifold scents engendered by the crowded occupancy. The dogs make the low roof a sort of trysting place, and every now and then one tumbles down through the smoke-hole into the fire, adding the pleasant odor of singed hair to those arising from stale fish, old skin clothes, young puppies, and other like abominable smells.
From this Indian village they proceeded up the river, and after two days’ travel reached the Russian station of Nulato, where they were hospitality welcomed, and were assigned to comfortable quarters. Nulato was the most northern, and also the most inland, of all the Russian Fur Company’s posts. It is in about latitude 65 degrees, and longitude 158 degrees. It stands on a flat strip of land bounded on one side by the Nulato River, a considerable branch of the Yukon, and on the other by the great river. Notwithstanding the high northern latitude trees of considerable size grow there, and during the brief summer season the grass is luxuriant, and berries abound. The post is a little fortress, surrounded by a picket, which is closed at night to exclude the Indians, who camp around in large numbers. The building appropriated to our travelers was built of logs, forming one side of the square. the windows were of seal-gut instead of glass; and as there was only from two to three hours of daylight at this season, the light was none of the best. By caulking the floor with moss, and covering it with straw and skins, the room was kept moderately warm, except near the floor. If one hung damp garments from the rafters they would steam at the top, while hear the floor they would be frozen hard. Mr. Whymper notes that on one occasion the temperature of the upper part of the room was 65 degrees, while near the floor it was only 4 degrees. Water for daily use was hauled on a sledge from the river. To get it they had to break through the ice, of which five feet was the average thickness, though it sometimes piled up to twice as much. The Indians catch immense quantities of fish by constructing a kind of weir of wicker-work, for which they keep holes open in the ice.
Winter fairly set in soon after the party had taken up their abode at Nulato. On the 26th of November the thermometer indicated “the comparatively moderate temperature of 2 degrees above zero.” It suddenly fell to 18 degrees below, and kept on steadily lowering until, on the 5th of December, the spirit thermometer — for the mercurial one had frozen solid — showed -58 degrees, that is, 90 degrees below the freezing-point of water. But, says Mr. Whymper, “the weather was lovely; no wind blew or snow fell during the whole time, and we did not feel the cold as much as at many other times.” when the thermometer was at 10 degrees below zero an expedition was sent to Unalachleet to bring up stores, and one day, when it was at -32 degrees, an Indian came to the post, bringing with him his child, and some sweet fat melted into birch-bark boxes, and some grouse, for which he was duly paid, and, besides, got a present of tea and bread. He did not seem to find the weather uncomfortably cold. during the months of December and January there were eleven days when the thermometer fell below the freezing-point of mercury — that is, below -40 degrees of Fahrenheit’s thermometer. The shortest day was December 21, when the sun rose at 10.40 a.m., and set at 12:30 p.m., being one hour and fifty minutes above the horizon.
During the months of November and January Mr. Whymper made many sketches of scenery, not a few of which he gives in his book, and of which we reproduce several. An artist less enthusiastic would have shrunk from attempting to draw out of doors when the temperature was not seldom sixty degrees below freezing-point. The work, he says, “was done with difficulty, and often by installments. Between every five strokes of the pencil I ran about to exercise myself, or went into our quarters for warmth. Several times I skinned my fingers, once froze my left ear, which swelled up nearly to the top of my head, and I was always afraid that my prominent nasal organ would get bitten. The use of water-colors was, of course, impracticable — except when I could keep a pot of warm water on a small fire by my side — a thing done by me on two or three occasions, when engaged at a distance from the post. Even inside the house the spaces near the windows — as well as the floor — were often below freezing-point. Once, forgetful of the fact, I mixed some colors up with water that had just stood near the oven, and, wetting a small brush, commenced to apply it to my drawing-block. Before it reached the paper it was covered with a skin of ice, and simply scratched the surface, and I had to give up for the time being.”
Auroral displays were not infrequently exhibited, though not as often as they had expected. One of the most brilliant occurred on the 27th of December. “It was not the conventional arch, but a graceful, undulating, ever-changing snake of electric light; evanescent colors, pale as those of a lunar rainbow, ever and again flitting through it, and long streamers and scintillations moving upward to the bright stars, which distinctly shone through its hazy, ethereal form. The night was beautifully calm and clear, cold, but not intensely so, the thermometer at +16 degrees.”
Early in March a train came up from Unalachleet with twenty-two dogs, and dried salmon enough to last them for a month. Two of the party, Ketchum and LaBlache, took advantage of this to make a trip of more than a thousand miles up the river. This trip lasted two months, and from the brief notice of it given by Mr. Whymper, it seems to have been a very remarkable one. they found the Upper Yukon, commencing at 1200 miles from its mouth, and onward for 600 miles more, navigable for boats of a considerable size. They reached Fort Selkirk, on the main branch of the Yukon, here laid down on the maps as Pelly River. From this point a portage of 80 miles brings one to Fort Simpson on the Mackenzie River, emptying into the Arctic Ocean, and communicating with York Factory on Hudson Bay. Over this route, or by way of the Porcupine or Rat River, which unites at Fort Yukon with Pelly’s River, the Hudson Bay Company transport all their goods for trading with the Indians on the Yukon. Over the eighty miles of portage the goods are packed on men’s backs’ thence they are brought down in boats some forty feet long, drawing two or three feet of water. such a boat will carry, besides the crew, half a ton of freight. Mr. Whymper affirms that a flat-bottomed stern-wheel steamer, like those used upon our upper rivers, could ascent the Yukon for 1800 miles, and tap the whole fur-bearing region. But as the river is frozen solid for more than two-thirds of the year, a steamer could hardly make more than a single trip during a twelvemonth. We hardly venture to recommend the fitting out of such a boat as an enterprise likely to prove profitable.
During the long winter most of the Yukon party remained at Nulato. Early in April there came signs of approaching summer — for, strictly speaking, there is here no spring or autumn. On the 5th there came a thaw. On the 9th fliers made their appearance. Next day the willows were seen budding. For a fortnight more there were changes in the weather. On the 28th the first goose was seen.
Still the ice in the rivers remained unbroken. On the 12th of May that in the Nulato broke up, and mosquitoes appeared. Next day came swallows, and wild-geese grew so abundant that their hunter killed half a dozen, and the day following ten more. On the 19th of May the ice in the Yukon itself began to give way. For a week there was a steady stream of broken ice, bringing down with it whole trees torn up from the banks; the water rising fourteen feet above its winter level. On the 24th the river was tolerably clear of ice.
By this time the Russians had made preparations for their spring trading excursion up the Yukon. With them went Mr. Whymper and his companions. The Russian traders had a skin boat, fitted with rudder, mast, and large square sail, manned by eight men, and carrying fully two tons of goods and provisions. The Americans, five in all, had their own little boat, laden with six or seven hundred pounds of stores of all kinds. The river was still full of ice and driftwood, and the navigation was by no means free of peril. Large trees would sometimes pass right under the Russian boat, and fairly lift it out of the water. These skin boats are admirably accustomed to such navigation. They give way without harm to a blow which would break the bottom of a wooden or bark canoe. It is worth inquiry whether India rubber might be substituted for skins for these boats.
The destination of the Russians was Nuclukayette, an Indian trading place 240 miles above Nulato, this being the farthest point ever reached by them. the Americans were bound for Fort Yukon, a Hudson Bay Company’s post, 360 miles further. This post lies a little within the boundaries of our Alaska, and the Hudson Bay Company used to pay a small sum to the Russians for the privilege of occupying it and trading with the natives thereabouts.
One can hardly imagine the rapidity with which summer comes on in this region. On the 27th of May was river was full of ice. Ten days after the voyagers had to lie by during the noonday heat. The thermometer then stood at 80 degrees in the shade. On the 9th of June the Americans parted with their Russian companions. On the 23rd they reached Fort Yukon, having rowed and tracked 600 miles against a swift current. The trip had lasted twenty-nine days, out of which they had laid by only three. A few weeks later they descended the same space, having the current with them, in seven days.
They remained at Fort Yukon until the 8th of July, being most hospitably entertained. The fort had quite a civilized look. There were freshly-plastered walls, glazed windows, and open fire-places, magazines, stores, fur-room, and ice-well. Camped around the fort were quite five hundred Indians, who had come there to trade. Some wore their native costumes of skins; others were tricked out in coats and shirts of civilized peoples. One old chief, known as “Red-Leggings,” was gorgeous in a scarlet coat, with brass buttons and epaulets. The Indians were of many tribes. There were, for example, “Foolish Folks,” “Wood Folks,” “Birch-bark Folks,” “Rat Folks”, and “Hill Folks.”
The fur-room of the fort was a rare sight. From the beams hung marten skins by the thousand, while the cheaper kinds of furs were lying upon the floor in huge heaps. There was a fair supply of the skins of the silver-gray and black fox. The latter is by far the most valuable. there is a story that one unlucky employee of the Company bought a skin of a white fox, which had been cunningly dyed black, paying for it more pounds than he should have paid shillings: the overplus was deducted from his salary. “Sins” are the currency of Fort Yukon. The unit is a beaver-skin, estimated at about half a dollar. Two martens count as one beaver, and so on.
On the 8th of July the party, who had in the mean time been rejoined by their two comrades who had months before gone on their up-river excursion, bade adieu to their hospitable entertainers, and, under a parting salute, canoed down the river. They voyaged day and night, only stopping two or three times a day to boil their tea and fry their fish. It was a holiday excursion, the current sweeping them down at the rate of a hundred miles in the twenty-four hours. Nulato was reached on the 13th. Thence, two days later, they proceeded down the river, once making forty-five miles in seven hours.
Below Nulato the region is comparatively poor. it lies out of the way of traders, and as fish are plenty they are rather a drug in the market. Five needles was thought a fair price for a salmon of thirty pounds; and, says Mr. Whymper, “tobacco went further than we had ever known it to do before.” On the 25th of July the party reached St. Michael’s. The whole voyage down the river, 1300 miles, had occupied just fifteen and a half days. There they got orders to get ready for immediate departure, for the telegraph enterprise had been definitely abandoned.
So ended an expedition which really gives us something new about Alaska — or rather a portion of it, for nine-tenths of the region which we have acquired is as yet wholly unknown ground, and most likely contains nothing worth knowing. The one thing which strikes the reader at once, and which confirms what is told by Richardson, Kane, Hall, and all other Arctic explorers, is the superabundance of animal life existing in these northern regions. Strange as it may seem, tropical and semi-tropical regions are almost bare of living creatures. Strain and his party wandered for weeks through the thick forests of Central America, never seeing an animal or rarely even a bird; and, as far as one can judge, the rivers seemed almost destitute of fish. but life abounds in the Arctic regions. the rivers swarm with fish almost begging to be caught. The Kamchatdales have reindeer by the thousand. Whymper and his friends during their brief stay at Nulato bought the skins of 800 white hares, which were used to cover their blankets. The Indians had caught them and appropriated the meat to their own use. Moose meat, varied by beaver, is the standing food of those who have got tired of salmon and such like fish. The delicacies are a moose’s nose and a beaver’s tail.
So abundant are the moose on the Yukon River that the natives hardly think it worth while to waste powder and shot in killing them. when an Indian, in his canoe, comes upon a moose swimming in the water, he chases it up until the creature is fatigued, then stabs it to the heart with his knife. they have also an ingenious way of corralling deer. They build an elliptical enclosure of stakes upon a trail; between each pair of stakes is a slip-noose. A herd of deer is driven into the enclosure. They try to escape between the stakes, and run their heads into the nooses, by which they are entangled, held fast, and so fall a ready prey.
The question comes back to us — “Was the purchase of Alaska a wise one?” Viewed from a purely commercial stand-point, the answer must be “No.” That the fish and furs there existing are worth more than seven and a quarter millions of dollars is beyond question. but the Government of the United States can not go into the business of catching salmon or beaver; nor can it undertake to farm out this right to individuals or companies. The sum paid for the purchase will never be returned directly to the Treasury.
But beyond the commercial view of the matter there is a political one. The acquisition of Alaska in effect places in our hands the whole Pacific coast of America. From the Arctic circle downward to the old debated line of 54 degrees 40′ all is ours. southward from this our present possessions, commencing at 49 degrees, stretch downward to about 32 degrees. It had hardly be doubted that before long Lower California will come into our hands, bringing our line down to the Tropic of Cancer. Then the only break in our Pacific line from the tropic to the Arctic circle will be the little strip now known as British Columbia, with a frontage upon the Pacific of barely three hundred miles. this, for a thousand reasons, the British Government will be glad to abandon upon any pretext; and so we, if we are wise, shall be able to say of the broad Pacific what the Romans were wont to say of the narrow Mediterranean, that it is “our sea.”
Whether in the purchase of Alaska our Government took this broad view we can not say. If it did not, it built wiser than it knew.
To the foregoing paper we add a few notes drawn mainly from Mr. Whymper’s book, for which no proper place was found in the body of the article.
The fortunes of Sitka, the capital of Alaska, are worthy of record. when it was known that the region had passed into American hands every thing took a sudden rise. Keen Hebrew traders, knowing that furs up country bore a merely nominal price, and that Sitka was the great entrepot where these were collected — a million of dollars’ worth being frequently gathered there at a time — thought they could buy them for next to nothing. so prices of locations ran up to a fabulous sum. for a log house $10,000 was asked. Saloons, lager-bier cellars, and barbers’ shops spring up like mushrooms. but men who came to buy furs for nothing found that the price at Sitka was — freight deducted — just the same as at San Francisco; as indeed why should it not be? The Russian Fur Company could sent its “skins” to San Francisco, and thence to Canton, or London, or elsewhere, quite as cheaply as Meyer Joseph could; and so the return boats from Sitka to San Francisco were crowded with most dissatisfied personages, who went there to hear and found themselves shorn. At the latest dates every body who could get away from Sitka had gone. Russians any way went pell-mell. The whole city could in January have been bought for a song.
The British Government seems once to have had a serious idea of constructing a great railway and steamboat route from Montreal to the Pacific. Several notes engineers reported about plans and surveys. One Waddington read his paper thereupon before the Royal Geographical Society. All that was wanted was to track the Great Canadian Lakes and the Saskatchewan River for 1249 miles, and then catch Fraser River, in British Columbia, and follow it for 260 or 280 miles more, down to Bute Inlet, in British Columbia. by this route, out of the 3940 miles between Montreal and the Pacific, there would be 2400 miles by water. And, moreover, “the fertile settlement of the Red River, now detached and isolated, would be connected with civilization and the outer world.” We imagine that no one who has read the various papers on this vast region which have from time to time appeared in this Magazine will be inclined to invest much solid cash in any enterprise like those suggested by British schemers. Nobody within the lives of living men will go overland from the Atlantic to the Pacific except through American territory.
The scheme to connect London and New York by way of Kamchatka was certainly absurd enough in itself. but the objections to the scheme were ever more absurd. for instance, it was affirmed that a cable could not be safely laid across the narrowest part of Bering’s Straits, because the icebergs sweeping down would infallibly cut it. To this there was given a quite satisfactory reply: There are no icebergs in Bering’s Sea or Strait. The currents set into, not out of, the Arctic Ocean; and so quite likely the man is now living who will reach the North Pole by way, not of Greenland, but of Alaska.