Northwest and Arctic
1871-1897 ARCTIC EXPLORATIONS
Alaska's Past - Regional Perspectives
In this section you will learn about:
Jeannette expedition ends in failure
In 1879 a New York newspaper financed an expedition that hoped to reach the North Pole by way of the Bering Sea. The United States Navy provided the ship and officers. Lieutenant George DeLong, who had taken part in an earlier search for scientists marooned on an ice floe northwest of Labrador, wasappointed commander of the Jeannette.
DeLong's plan to reach the pole was based on theories that the warm Japanese current looped through the Bering Sea and could provide open water to the pole, and that Wrangel Island, north of Siberia, extended over the pole. Both theories were wrong. The result was disaster for the Jeannette. Trapped in the arctic ice pack, the ship drifted for almost two years before it sank far to the north and east of Wrangel Island.
The 31 crew members set out across the ice for the Lena River delta in Siberia. They dragged eight sleds loaded with three boats and more than 15,000 pounds of supplies. Only a few survived the three-month journey. Reaching the mainland they met Natives who helped them get to civilization with news of the tragedy late in 1881.
Other ships had sailed north to search for the Jeannette and for several lost whaling ships. The revenue cutter Corwin, one of the search vessels, cruised to arctic waters in 1880. While the crew unsuccessfully looked for clues to the Jeannette's fate, scientists aboard the Corwin gathered information about the Alaskan and Siberian coastlines and their residents. The ship's surgeon reported on the health of the Natives. John Muir, who had studied the glaciers of Southeast Alaska in preceding summers, observed the geology and botany of the region. Other scientists collected new information about birds, fish, and wildlife.
Point Barrow station observes the Arctic
The same year the tragic Jeannette expedition was launched, the Austrian government proposed an International Polar Year to feature a winter of observations in the Arctic. The United States government agreed to take part. Army Lieutenant Patrick H. Ray was selected to establish a meteorological station at Point Barrow. In addition to studying weather and tides, Ray and his men collected information from Eskimos on species of mammals in the Arctic, gathered botanical and other biological specimens, and recorded Eskimo legends, beliefs, and habits.
Sailors explore the Kobuk River
In 1883 the Corwin steamed north again. This time her mission was to deliver gifts to Siberian Eskimos who had clothed and fed survivors of the navy ship Rodgers, that had burned off the coast of Siberia while searching for the missing Jeannette. U.S. Navy Lieutenant George M. Stoney was to present the gifts.
After delivering the gifts, the Corwin began a cruise in arctic waters. When the revenue cutter reached Kotzebue Sound, Stoney took a small boat and one crew member to explore Hotham Inlet. During this week-long investigation a Native told Stoney about a river that flowed north into an ocean filled with ice. Stoney thought this might be the Colville or Mackenzie river that possibly could be reached by a short portage from the headwaters of the Kobuk River that flowed into Hotham Inlet. Such a route could be very important to future efforts to rescue people stranded on Alaska's arctic coast.
Stoney was a navy lieutenant. Healy, the Corwin's captain, was an officer of the Revenue Marine Cutter Service. Both proposed future explorations of the Kobuk River by their respective services. As a result, in 1884 both the navy and the revenue cutter service launched expeditions up the Kobuk River.
Healy dispatched Revenue Marine Service Lieutenant John C. Cantwell upriver. He was to bring back a report on resources of the region and to search for a mountain thought to be the source of jade that area Natives traded. Cantwell's party took a steam launch and then an umiak 300 miles upstream before turning back. Although he did not reach the Kobuk River's headwaters, Cantwell learned of portages to the Koyukuk River and perhaps also to the Colville River. In his report he pointed out the importance of such routes for rescue purposes. Stoney, who had arrived at the mouth of the river on the naval schooner Ounalaska and started upriver later, passed Cantwell coming downriver. As had Cantwell, the navy party took a small steam launch part way and then transferred to skin boats. Stoney and his men also did not reach the headwaters of Kobuk River in 1884.
The following summer Cantwell and Stoney continued their rival explorations. Cantwell reached Walker Lake, where the Kobuk River begins. While he was ascending the Kobuk River, S.B. McLenegan, a companion officer on the Corwin, took one crewman in a kayak up the Noatak River to that river's headwaters. The revenue cutter service expeditions brought back important natural history information about the regions they had investigated and McLenegan's map of the Noatak River remained in use until the end of the century.
This year, too, Cantwell passed Stoney coming upriver as he went downstream. The navy party was equipped for a major expedition. A steam launch, 60-foot steamboat, and steam sawmill were included in the outfit. The navy men established a base camp, which they called Fort Cosmos, well up the Kobuk River. From this base, for over two years, Stoney investigated the headwaters of the Kobuk, Noatak, and Alatna rivers. A party led by Ensign William L. Howard went north by dog team across the Noatak River to the Colville River, down the Chipp River to Dease Inlet on the Beaufort Sea, and on to Point Barrow. Engineer Officer Abraham V. Zane traveled down the Koyukuk River to the Yukon River and St. Michael.
The explorations by competing services made the Kobuk River region one of the better known areas of Northwest and Arctic Alaska. Competition had produced good results and Stoney's well-planned and systematic investigations from Fort Cosmos served as a model for later Arctic and Antarctic explorations.
Shore stations change Eskimo life
Although the price of whale oil dropped by half in the 1870s, the price of baleen increased dramatically. By this time, too, the number of bowhead whales had declined significantly.
In 1884 the Pacific Steam Whaling Company of San Francisco established a whaling station at Point Barrow to harvest whales in spring as they moved near the shore to their summer feeding grounds. Whaling ships could not enter arctic waters until the ice broke in late June. Shore stations copied Eskimo methods of catching whales at narrow leads in the ice. The first shore station was so successful that within a few years, 15 stations were operating along the coast. They stretched from Cape Thompson to Point Barrow.
Each station outfitted as many as 20 crews, composed mostly of Eskimos. Eskimo whaling techniques were similar to those used by New England crews, with one exception. Eskimos attached their harpoons to sealskin floats. New Englanders attached their harpoons to their boats. A harpooned whale could take a boat on a wild Nantucket sleigh-ride."
Shore whaling stations influenced Eskimo life. They competed for Eskimo crews, offering trade goods in exchange for employment. Thus Eskimos began to take whales for pay rather than for their own use. Many inland Eskimos moved near shore stations where work was available.
Steam whalers change whaling pattern
About the same time that whaling stations were established, whaling ships powered by steam rather than sail arrived off the Alaska coast. The first steam whaler in the Alaskan arctic was the Mary and Helen. The ship had a very successful maiden voyage. She arrived in San Francisco in the fall of 1880 with 2, 350 barrels of whale oil and 45 000 pounds of baleen valued at more than $100,000. The captain credited the trip's success to the steam vessel that he said was more maneuverable and could stay with the whales.
With the use of steam, another new whaling pattern developed. Steam whalers were not dependent on the wind. They could stay longer in the whaling grounds than sailing ships before returning south in the fall. The steam ships left San Francisco in March, refueled about the Fourth of July at Port Clarence where large deposits of high-grade bituminous coal were located, and whaled in late summer off Point Barrow. The whalers then followed the bowheads to their autumn feeding grounds north of Siberia.
Another change in the whaling pattern was linked to the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. Whale products could be shipped to the eastern United States faster and less expensively than by sea around Cape Horn or across the isthmus of Panama. The old pattern of wintering and resupplying in the Hawaiian Islands was broken and in its place the port of San Francisco bustled with whalers during the winter season.
Within a few years bowhead whales were scarce in the usual hunting areas. In 1888 Charles Brower, manager of a trading company at Point Barrow, sent scouts east to search for the bowheads' summer feeding grounds. They found large schools of whales in Canada's Mackenzie River delta on the Beaufort Sea.
In the summer of 1890, two Pacific Steam Whaling Company ships, the Mary D. Hume and the Grampus, reached Herschel Island near the delta and with a third whaling ship, the Nicotine, remained there for the winter. The ships were ready when the first whales arrived in early summer. The Mary D. Hume took 37 whales in the summers of 1891 and 1892 and returned to San Francisco with one of the most valuable cargoes in whaling history. The ship's success led to heavy hunting in the Mackenzie River delta. The Grampus wintered in the Arctic on four of her nine arctic voyages before being fatally damaged by ice near Point Barrow in 1901.
The price of baleen rose as high as seven dollars per pound in the late 1890s as fewer bowhead whales were caught. The high price invited substitutes and spring steel was introduced for corset stays. In 1907 the price of baleen dropped nearly 75 per cent from five dollars a pound to less than 50 cents a pound. From 1907 on the few remaining Arctic whaling ships were outfitted for fur trading voyages.
Missionaries establish schools
The revenue cutter Bear traveled north in 1890, carrying building supplies for several mission schools. The teachers followed on the merchant ship Jeannie that was delivering supplies to whaling ships that had wintered in the Beaufort Sea. The first stop was Cape Prince of Wales. Volunteers from the Jeannie and the Bear built a schoolhouse between the two villages of the cape.
Congregational missionaries and teachers William T. Lopp and Harrison R. Thornton did not speak Eskimo. The Eskimos spoke little English. When school opened on August 18 there were almost no students. Most cape families were still at their summer camps, berry-picking or fishing. Dr. John Driggs, a minister and physician, established an Episcopalian mission school at Point Hope the same year. The Presbyterians sponsored a school and mission at Barrow, directed by Leander Stevenson. The Bear could not move through the ice pack to unload the lumber for the Barrow school that season, however, and classes were held in the whaling station. Few children attended. Stevenson's efforts were either ridiculed or ignored, partly because the shamans warned the Eskimos not to attend the school.
In spite of such setbacks, the missionaries persisted in their efforts to educate Alaska Natives. School enrollments grew. Two other mission groups arrived before the end of the nineteenth century. One was the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church which built a driftwood chapel at Unalakleet. The other was the California Society of Friends which sent representatives to Kotzebue after the area Eskimos requested a missionary.
Most Eskimos accepted the missionaries. However, there were some drawbacks as well as advantages. For example, when children began attending school it was harder for hunters to move their families to follow migrating game. Villages became more permanent. This put more pressure on nearby food sources. Quakers, members of the Friends Church, strongly believed that Sunday should be a day of rest and worship. Members of that denomination could not hunt on Sundays even if whales or walrus were sighted.
Reindeer herds provide meat and hides
In his travels along the Bering Sea, Captain Healy of the revenue cutter Bear observed that Siberian Eskimos had domesticated reindeer which provided them with food and hides. Healy and a scientist aboard the Bear suggested to Sheldon Jackson that reindeer could be introduced in Alaska. The reindeer would provide a new food source for Northwest and Arctic Alaska Eskimos who had depended on not-depleted populations of seals, walrus, and whales.
In 1891 the reindeer experiment began. Jackson obtained private funds to buy goods to trade for 16 Siberian reindeer and obtained the use of the revenue cutter Bear. These reindeer were taken to the Aleutian Islands where they did not survive. In 1892 he chose a site for a reindeer station on the north shore of Port Clarence at Teller. That year 171 reindeer were located there.
Miner Bruce directed the station assisted by four Siberian Chukchi Eskimo herders and several Alaska Eskimo apprentices. Bruce was soon fired on charges, which he denied, that he was trading guns and liquor to the Natives. After Bruce left, William Lopp and his wife transferred from their mission school at Cape Prince of Wales to spend a year managing the reindeer station and operating a school for the herders. When they returned to Wales, the Lopps took 118 reindeer with them as the nucleus for a new herd. Other missions were loaned starter herds. Each was provided with an experienced herder to teach Native apprentices how to manage the reindeer.
The first reindeer herders were Siberian Eskimos. Although they had long-established trade relationships with the Alaskan Eskimos, the two groups were ancient enemies. The Alaskan Eskimos resented the Siberian herders. In 1894 Laplanders replaced the Siberian herders. The Lapps were just as good herders and got along better with the Alaskans.
Apprentices were credited with several reindeer during each year of service. When their training was over they were given the reindeer to start herds of their own. Although reindeer herds flourished, few Eskimos were enthusiastic about life as herders. Despite Jackson's intentions most reindeer herds were owned by missions and Lapp herders.
The Great Reindeer Drive
One of the first successful reindeer owners among the Eskimo was Charlie Antisarlook, who completed the apprenticeship program, established his own herd at Cape Nome, and repaid the deer that the station had loaned him. Then, in 1897, the whaling fleet became trapped in the ice once again, this time off Point Barrow. The aftermath of this disaster nearly destroyed Antisarlook's herd.
When the marooned whalers managed to reach shore, they immediately sent Native messengers off on foot to alert the government to an impending crisis. There were not enough supplies in Barrow to see the sailors and the villagers through the winter. In mid-November, orders for a relief expedition were issued from Washington, D.C. The Bear was sent north to organize a great reindeer drive from the Seward Peninsula to Barrow to provide fresh meat for the starving whalers. The drive would take some of the Lopp herd from Wales and the entire Antisarlook herd from Cape Nome.
The expedition was directed by Lt: David Jarvis. The Bear landed, Jarvis and his men near Cape Vancouver (opposite Nunivak Island), which was as far north as the ship was able to proceed through the winter ice. Jarvis, cooked pork and beans aboard the Bear in preparation for the long overland trip. These, along with "flapjacks" made of flour and water, would be the daily rationing for the rescuers.
Men and deer arrived at Barrow on March 28 after a 1,500 mile journey along the coast. The drive was a triumph for Jarvis and the herders, but the effort proved largely unnecessary. Upon reaching Barrow, Jarvis found "no great suffering" and "no great need." The whaling crews had practiced strict economy in rationing the supplies they salvaged from the ice-bound fleet. The Natives had cut back their own use of food to share what they had with the sailors. Furthermore, caribou in "unheard of numbers" had arrived near Barrow and were harvested by Native hunters.
Few of the reindeer were needed for food. Most were used to start new herds at Barrow and Point Hope. It was two years before Antisarlook's deer and the estimated fawn crop were returned to him. His own people had come close to starvation in the meantime. Charlie Antisarlook died in a measles epidemic in 1900 before he had the chance to rebuild his herd. His wife took over the reindeer management and made a success of the venture. She became known. as "Reindeer Mary."