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Regional History
Northwest and Arctic

In this section you will learn about:

  • European maritime exploration
  • Arctic whaling at sea
  • The first Americans in Northwest and Arctic Alaska

European explorers map Alaska's northern coast

During the 1700s and 1800s Russian and British explorers approached the coast of Northwest and Arctic Alaska. The first Russian explorers sailed near King Island, St. Lawrence Island, and Little Diomede Island in 1732. Apparently the party encountered Alaskan Eskimos at Cape Prince of Wales. British captain James Cook, who reached Icy Cape on Alaska's Arctic coast above 70° north latitude in the summer of 1778, prepared the first accurate maps of the northwest coast. Cook named Cape Prince of Wales and visited the village of Elim on Norton Sound. More extensive mapping of the Seward Peninsula and the arctic coast took place in early decades of the nineteenth century.

Russian expeditions visited Alaska's western waters every summer between 1803 and 1845. Although the Russians wanted to extend their influence in the New World, they were also interested in scientific investigations. On their voyages they collected information about tides, currents, meteorology, and the customs and lifestyles of the Natives they encountered. These explorations enabled the Russian Hydrographic Department to publish detailed charts of western Alaska's coastal waters.

The early explorers had little effect on the lives of the Eskimos, but two things later changed the pattern of life in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. First, Europeans desired to find a water passage around or through North America that would provide a faster route to the trade centers of Asia. The other, an increasing need for lamp oil and baleen, both products of the great bowhead whales that migrated along the Alaska coast, brought whaling ships and their crews.

Sir John Franklin seeks the Northwest Passage

British explorers searched most actively for the Northwest Passage for the British Crown had-offered a prize of 20,000 pounds sterling to the discoverer. In 1826, Sir John Franklin drew up an ambitious plan to send a fleet of ships north of Alaska and Canada through unexplored waters. One group would search from the east; the other from the west. Sir John himself led the eastern approach from the Atlantic-Ocean. Captain Frederick W. Beechey of the British Royal Navy sailed H. M. S. Blossom on the westward leg through the Bering Sea. He hoped to join Franklin somewhere on the arctic coast.

The arctic ice pack stopped Beechey near Icy Cape. His crew worked a boat from the Blossom through leads in the ice pack to Point Barrow. Ice forced Franklin to turn back to the Atlantic Ocean several hundred miles to the east of the waiting Blossom . Franklin had reached and named Prudhoe Bay.

Eleven years later, Hudson's Bay Company traders Peter W. Dease and Thomas Simpson descended the Mackenzie River in Canada in an effort to complete Franklin's route. They, too, were stopped by arctic ice. Simpson did not give up. Walking whenever he could not make use of Eskimo boats and open leads, he reached Point Barrow on August 4, 1837.

Franklin renewed his efforts to sail the Northwest Passage. Leaving England with 134 men on two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, in 1845 he sailed into arctic waters and was never seen again. When it was apparent that the expedition was lost, Europe and America began a massive search. Many rescue vessels sailed into the Bering Sea looking for the missing expedition. Finally, Eskimo reports and discovered bodies proved that all members of the Franklin venture had died of starvation or exposure. Although unsuccessful, the rescue voyages did add to knowledge of Northwest and Arctic Alaska and the people there.

Whalers enter the Bering Sea

Beechey brought back reports of whales in arctic waters from his 1826 voyage. In 1848 Captain Thomas Roys, acting on Beechey's report, sailed his whaling ship Superior into arctic waters. The Superior, from Sag Harbor, New York, had such a successful whaling season that in 1852 more than 200 whaling ships hunted bowhead whales in Northwest and Arctic Alaska waters. The catch that year was valued at a record $14 million. Early whaling voyages usually lasted at least two years. Ships set out from Atlantic Ocean ports in the fall, rounded the tip of South America, and hunted whales in the southern Pacific Ocean until early spring. The ships off-loaded the winter's oil and baleen in the Hawaiian Islands and took on provisions for the summer season in Alaska waters. They hunted whales in the Bering Sea and the Arctic Ocean until fall storms and ice forced them south.

Whalers change Eskimos trade and traditions

Most whaling crews traded with Eskimos. They exchanged tobacco, liquor, and other items for ivory and furs. This disrupted the traditional trade network between Siberian Chukchi Eskimos, Northwest and Arctic Eskimos, and Interior Alaska Athapaskan Indians. Because coastal Eskimos could trade with whalers for more valued items, they traded less with other Native groups. As a result, inland Eskimos were often unable to acquire trade goods they depended upon. Some moved to coastal villages.

Whalers changed the Eskimos traditional life in another way by hiring them to work aboard ship. Men worked as dockhands and hunters, and women made clothing. This employment altered the annual hunting cycle. The Eskimo hunted less for themselves while they worked for the whalers. Instead of bartering one trade item for another they now exchanged their labor for trade goods. The shortness of the whaling season, however, lessened the impact upon the Eskimo somewhat from what it would become in later years.

The American Civil War In Northern Waters

A Confederate fired the last gun of the American Civil War in the Bering Sea, near St. Lawrence Island, on June 22, 1865, nearly two months after the war ended. The shot was fired from the Shenandoah, a raider sent out by the Confederate government to prey on Union commerce.

The Confederacy bought the Shenandoah, as it had several other raiders, in England. After receiving guns, supplies, and a Confederate Navy crew at sea from a supply ship, the new raider began its first and only wartime voyage in late 1864. After cruising in Pacific waters, the raider entered the Bering Sea on June 16, 1865. This was nearly two months to the day after Confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Virginia to Union general Ulysses S. Grant, but both the Shenandoah and the ships it would encounter had been at sea for months. Radio had not yet been invented. Word of the war's end could not reach either the raider or its victims unless they were passed by a vessel that had recently been in a part served by telegraph.

Believing the war to still be in progress, the Shenandoah attacked and destroyed most of the American whaling ships it encountered in the Bering Sea. A few were captured but released to take crews of captured ships to port. Some of the whaling fleet had already moved into the Arctic Ocean. The Shenandoah tried to follow them there but was turned back by ice.

Leaving Alaskan waters on July 5, the Confederate raider headed for the California coast. Off the coast of Mexico on August 2, it encountered a British ship and learned that the war was over. Although the Union Navy had several warships searching for the Shenandoah, it successfully evaded them and sailed to England. Its commanding officer, Confederate Navy lieutenant James I. Waddell, surrendered his ship to British authorities. The crew disbanded. Ultimately Britain turned the ship over to the United States government.

The Shenandoah cruised for 13 months and covered 58,000 miles. Although it neither took a life no lost one, it captured 38 Yankee ships, 25 of them after the war was over. Twenty-one of the ships it burned were Arctic whalers. This destruction of the whaling fleet combined with dramatic losses of ships to ice and declining markets to change the size and nature of the commercial whaling industry in the United States.

Telegraph brings Americans to the Arctic

A proposed telegraph line brought about further contact between Eskimos and Americans. A party of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition's Scientific Corps established a base camp, called Libbysville, at Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula in 1866 . The community, although short-lived, is noted for having published Alaska's first newspaper, The Esguimaux, a handwritten sheet circulated in a few copies. Libbysville is also remembered for being the site where Americans, although prematurely, first raised their country's flag in Alaska.

Revenue cutters patrol liquor traffic

Liquor traffic increased as more whalers arrived. It was evidently the indirect cause of death of two-thirds of the population of St. Lawrence Island in the winter of 1878-1879. Ships had carried liquor, which it was illegal to sell to Alaska Natives, to the island the preceding summer. Drinking bouts deterred island residents from hunting as ardently as usual for their winter food supply. When ships arrived the following summer crews found entire village populations dead, victims of starvation.

Revenue cutters represented the United States government in Northwest and Arctic Alaska waters. The first was the Reliance, which sailed through Bering Strait for a brief summer visit in 1870. A decade later, the Corwin was assigned to western Alaska for an annual summer patrol of the Aleutian Islands and the Bering Sea. The patrols could not stop liquor traffic. Illegal traders simply threw contraband liquor overboard when a cutter approached. Liquor remained, as one scientist noted, the worst evil the white man has brought."

Whalers turn to walrus

Whales were becoming scarce along the western coast by the mid-nineteenth century because of over-hunting. Commercial whalers began to have difficulty filling their holds with oil and baleen. Eskimo whaling crews, too, found it harder to kill the bowhead whales that villagers depended upon for food.

The commercial whalers began to hunt walrus, which were another source of oil. Hunting walrus was easier than hunting whales. A single rifleman could kill a herd of 100 animals stretched out on an ice floe. The noise of rifles did not disturb the walrus.

Between 1868 and 1880, more than 100,000 walrus were taken by whalers. The slaughter severely decreased the Eskimo food supply. Some of the ship captains recognized that starvation threatened the Eskimos. They warned that continued walrus hunting could end in the extermination not only of the great beasts, but of the Eskimos, too.

The arctic ice takes its toll

Hardly a season passed that one or two whaling ships were not trapped or wrecked by the arctic ice pack. The most disastrous year was 1871. Of 41 ships whaling that season, 32 were trapped between Point Belcher and Icy Cape when the ice pack unexpectedly shifted early in the fall. The ice blocked their passage south. In the storm, 1,200 persons set out in small whale boats to make their way across 60 miles of water to safety. Amazingly, all reached ships which had escaped the ice pack. The abandoned ships were never recovered.

Five years later, another 12 whaling ships were trapped by the arctic ice near Point Barrow. Some crews remained with their ships and were never seen again. The 53 persons who abandoned their ships reached shore and spent the winter with the Eskimos.

Summary questions

  1. What were some of the results of Russian exploration in Northwest and Arctic Alaska waters?
  2. What resulted from the search for Franklin's lost expedition?
  3. In what ways did arctic whalers change Native culture?
  4. What national events affected arctic whaling?

Inquiry question

  1. Describe some aspect of a whaling voyage.

1897-1920 GOLD
1920-1945 THE AIR AGE
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