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‘Six Years in Alaska’

Transcibed 3/30/2021

“Six Years in Alaska.” The New York Times, April 19, 1885. Accessed March 28, 2021. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1885/04/19/106299821.html?pageNumber=4

SIX YEARS IN ALASKA

ITEMS FROM A GOVERNMENT EMPLOYE'S NOTE BOOK

HABITS OF THE INDIANS — BEAVERS DAMMING THF. STREAMS — MOSQUITOES THAT WOULD MAKE JUMBO TREMBLE.

"I haven't been in Alaska since 1876,” said a former Government employe who was stationed in that country for several years, “but from all I can hear the occupation of the land by increasing numbers of white people has not had the effect of changing the customs of the country, in some portions of it at least, to any great extent. The Indians still believe in evil spirits that inhabit the water. hold their slaves secretly, practice polygamy, and retain all their social and religious forms and ceremonies. They have their sorcerers, repudiate all relationship on the father's side, and live generally as they did under the rule of the Russian. There are mussels and species of fish in Alaskan waters which have strong and sometimes fatal toxic qualities if eaten, which they frequently are. Sickness always follows such indulgence. and it was no uncommon thing, when I lived in Alaska, to see an entire Kolosk village suffering from its effects. It is this tradition upon which the belief in evil spirits who live in the water and spread sickness and disease among the people is founded. They profess to hold communication with those spirits through their sorcerers, but they offer them no sacrifices and use no means to propitiate them.

"Marriage among those Indians is a peculiar institution; in fact, there is no marriage—simply the taking of wives. When a young Indian wants a wife he goes to his mother and tells her so. If she gives her consent he goes to where the lady of his heart is cooped up in her father's house, taking his next best friend with him. Through the latter he sends word to his inamorata that he is near and would wed. If she has a leaning toward the suitor she returns word to him by the friend that she is inclined to join her interests with his. He then takes presents to her and her parents, and having delivered them enters at once into the possession of his bride. There are no further ceremonies, except that a day later the couple must visit her relatives, and if she then has no complaint to make to them about her husband, they are given presents and the wedding is over. This may be repeated indefinitely, until an indian may become as well-to-do in wives as a Mormon elder. Polygamy was practiced even by the so-called Christian tribes when 1 lived in the Territory, and their evolution must have been rapid, from what I remember of them, if they have abandoned the practice.

"Dried salmon is the luxury of the Alaskan Indians, and the children begin to nibble it before they think of walking. The way they bring up children out there would hardly suit in this region. The mother carries her child about from the time it is born until it is able to creep, no matter where she goes. Until that time she keeps it wrapped in a sort of fur sack. The moment the young one shows a disposition to crawl she yanks the fur off of it. and then begins the building up of its constitution. This is done by giving it a souse in the sea or river every morning, and the chorus of yells that greets every village during this interesting ceremony is something terrific. The cries of the young ones are piteous. and, for fear that their maternal breasts might not be proof against these appeals for mercy, and thus fail to do their duty by their offspring, the mothers do not perform this bathing rite themselves, but delegate some brother or sister to do the dousing. These conscientious aunts and uncles vary the switch with the bath, in vain attempts to make the one overawe the noisy results of the other.

"There is one thing that is noticeable among these half-civilized tribes. and is creditable withal. Their old and disabled members are carefully attended to, and orphans become a common charge, and fare the same as the most favored children with living parents. These Indians are original cremationists. Their dead are burned as soon as death ensues: their ashes are interred on the spot and a rude monument erected over them. They have crude ideas of immortality, believing that a man has a spirit that lives forever. but they know nothing of future rewards or punishments. Their heaven is a place where the spirits of chiefs congregate in one place, the common people by themselves, and slaves, if there are any, have still another dwelling place, unless a chief's slave should die with him, and then his spirit will be in eternal attendance on his master. It was formerly the universal custom to kill the slave when the master died to insure the latter's spirit proper attendance. That custom was abolished by the Russian Government, but it was still kept up in isolated places, and cases where it has been followed were well known as late as 1876.

"Some of the Indian tribes, notably the Kenaitze. traveling from place to place hunting or fishing, have the very excellent habit of leaving behind them when they break camp a quantity of kindling material at each fireplace for the use of the next travelers who come along and who may possibly not be oversupplied with this very necessary item in their outfit. This kindling consists of some pine pitch and some dry moss and sticks all wrapped up in a curl of birch bark. The traveler who uses this and does not leave some for the next one who comes along is sadly deficient in the etiquette of Alaskan travel.

"That is a curious country, truly. In one day's trip I was treated to three of the rarest sights I ever saw. One of these was the watching from behind a rock of a family of beavers at work felling timber and building dams. I say a family, but there must have been 200 of them, every one working away like mad. I had been making a trip to see some of the country back from the sea, and was surprised to see how heavily wooded, comparatively, it was. I was guided by a Kenaitze Indian, and long before we reached the lake where I saw the beavers I was puzzled at the crashing of timbers to the ground as if some great whirlwind were at play among the trees. l could hardly believe the Indian when he said the trees were being felled by beavers. When we came in sight of the lake and the hills about. it I no longer doubted. Scores of the busy animals were gnawing down the trees; others were trimming the branches off as neatly as it could have been done with an axe: others were chopping the timber into the proper lengths for use; others rolled the pieces into the water and floated them to the dam-workers, who were rapidly laying up a wooden structure of which the most expert of human workmen might well have been proud. I watched the beavers at work for an hour, and then left the spot reluctantly. That night. by the way, I had beaver meat for supper, went to bed on beaver skin;. and covered myself with beaver furs, and had beaver again for breakfast. I had never eaten beaver meat before, and I found it good. My guide told me that the lake where we had seen the beavers was one of a chain of seven, and that it was the great Indian trapping place. They trapped in one lake one year, in another the next, and so on, thus giving the beavers an opportunity to increase in the waters which were not disturbed.

"One of the other curious sights I saw that day was a grizzly bear fishing for salmon. That was a funny sight. They have the common brown bear and the grizzly in Alaska, and the Alaska grizzly is bigger than his brother of the Rocky Mountains and just as tough. Long before we came to the spot where we saw the grizzly fishing we saw his tracks in the soft margin of the lake. The marks of his feet measured 16 inches across and were nearly twice as long. Suddenly my guide made me a sign, and dropped down behind a rock. I did the same, and, looking ahead not more than three rods, I saw the largest wild animal I had ever seen in my life outside or a menagerie. I knew it was a grizzly. The great brute was lying on the top of a bank in which he had scooped out a chute down to the water's edge, at a sharp angle. The bear's eyes wore fixed intently on the water, and he had not heard our approach. Presently he slid down that chute with astonishing velocity and plunged head first in the water. When he arose and backed out he had in one of his great paws an enormous salmon which he took to the top or the bank and proceeded to make a meal of. He never finished it, for both my guide and myself sent two rifle balls into his gigantic carcass. He arose to his feet with a roar like a lion, turned about two or three times as if to see whence the deadly fire had come, and then fell to the ground and was soon dead. This fishing for salmon is a common method of securing choice morsels of food by both the common bear and the grizzly.

"The third strange sight I saw that day was toward evening. It was Summer, and we came to the mouth of a mountain torrent, near where we were to camp. As we stopped by the shore of the stream a herd of reindeer, at least 20 of them, came out to drink. They were not 30 feet from us, and raised their great antlers, and stood looking at us with such apparent confidence in our good intentions that I would not permit the guide to abuse it, as he was on the point of doing, although it was a bitter task for him to keep his rifle from his shoulder. The deer finally stooped and drank, and then disappeared in the woods as quietly as they had come upon us.

"You would hardly think there were mosquitoes in Alaska, I suppose, from the idea you have probably formed of the nature of the country, but of all the vivid memories I have of the Territory, those I retain of the Alaskan mosquito are the most vivid. I camped for some days one Summer on the Kenai River, near Lake Skeloka, of which it is the outlet, and of all the poisonous, persistent, insatiable pests that ever lived I found there in the form of mosquitoes and black flies. The mosquitoes resemble those we have East, but, to correspond with everything else in that land of wonders, they are built on a much grander scale. They have a proboscis that I will wager could drill, saw, and chop a hole through the hide of Jumbo in less time than the most expert and able-bodied Jersey mosquito could tap the cuticle of a 3-months-old baby. The moment the Alaska mosquito lights on you you begin to itch and swell. His bite on me was so poisonous that after my first hour's experience with him I was taken to camp ill, and for two days I was unable to get around. The Indian who was with me burned some native herb which had a pungent odor, and anointed me with some kind of oil. The smoke kept the mosquitoes away from me, and the oil removed the poison. The natives do not seem to mind these pests, and I suppose that if a white man could live in their midst long enough he might become in a measure indifferent to their sting. The black flies seem to have stingers all over them, for when they get a hold on your flesh they hang on like a wood-tick, and when you do got them off you will find a spot of blood where every one of them clung. They say there are snakes in Alaska, but if there are I never saw any.

"I was there six years, and when I first went there a great many white adventurers were trying to get on the trail of an alleged gold mine, or gold region, which legend said had been discovered by some Russians in 1850. When I left this country there were men still looking for that gold region, and there was a rumor that indications of its existence bad been found somewhere away up the bed of some mountain stream, beyond the headwaters of the Kenai River, If that was true, subsequent developments must have been indefinitely postponed, for I have never heard of any great amount of bullion coming out of the region."

A Peaceable and Happy People at Sunrise City, a Town Controlled by Miners – Some Seattle Men Who Have Made a Good Deal of Money.

Robert H. Calligan, who a few years ago was superintendent of the city water works, is home from Sunrise City, Alaska. He is a member of the United States Mercantile Company, which operates the Stella Erland and does a mercantile business at Sunrise. Calligan is looked upon as the pioneer of Sunrise. When he went there in May, 1896, there was no Sunrise City, only a cabin or two. He made it his headquarters and announced that he was there to stay. Many miners and prospectors who had located further down the river concluded that Sunrise was to be the city of that part of the Cook Inlet country, and in a very short time they had changed their quarters.

Sunrise is on Six-Mile creek, which is on Turnagain arm, and is probably the ideal mining camp of the great Alaskan country. The town has fine, good frame houses and many splendid log cabins.

"We are a peaceable and happy people up there. said Calligan to a Post-Intelligencer reporter yesterday afternoon. "The miners have supreme control of the city. Of course we follow the established code in governing mining matters, but the business of the town is in the hands of three trustees, who carry out the wishes of the miners. The latter are peaceable and honest and in all matters are strict and straight and just. You can't say that of every mining city, but you can in speaking of Sunrise, and no one will come forward to challenge the statement. We Insist on improvements. A miner Is allowed a lot but to hold it he must make certain improvements within a specified time. If he fails he loses it.

"There has been much said about the future of the Cook Inlet country. Every man has his own views. I have mine. The men who are developing the country are satisfied with it. True, it Is not as rich as the Klondike, but then we have many advantages that the Klondike does not and never will possess. With very few exceptions the miners In our country have done well. They go to work along in July and are not interfered with by the elements until October. Sometimes they have two and three weeks in October, during which time they make as much progress as in the summer time. Of course there is some chance in placer mining. Your claim may be a good one. it may be a bad one; you cannot tell anything about it until you get down to bedrock. If your bedrock Is found to be smooth, then you know better than words can tell you that your work has been fruitless. In such cases the men who have claims below you are the ones who reap the harvest. Many miners who come into the country buy claims on what is known as a bedrock price. The purchaser is allowed so much a day for developing the claim and he pays his purchase price according to the amount he takes out. A man may work for some time making only a bare living, while others near him are cleaning up good money every day.

"I recall the case of H. F. Stratton. a brother of Judge Stratton, of this city. He and several others came along there last summer and purchased a claim from several men who had worked it the previous summer. Anything but success had accompanied their efforts. They had not made a good living. Stratton and his men took hold of the claim and marvelous was the change that followed. I have been told by men who know that Stratton and his partners took out from $60 to $100 a day each. The claim is one of the best in the country.

"Just before I left Sunrise I went to make a call on A. L. Mills, of Seattle, who with Erickson and Heddy, two Seattle men, own a fine claim. Mills told me to go out on the claim and gather a little gold. In a very short time I had a small bottle filled with the precious stuff. As is well known, W. W. Price and H. C. Pierce, of the Polly Mining Company, are two Seattle men who are making money. They have probably as fine a claim as will be found in the country. Price was at one time on the Seattle police force. We all have faith in the country. I do not advise any man to go there, because If I should and he failed to win out I might come In for some criticism. But we are satisfied with our country. Andrew Williamson, an old California and Montana miner, who was In the Cook Inlet country last summer, told me that in his judgment not six claims in the entire country have been developed. He said that we did not appreciate the richness of the country. Perhaps not, but we are satisfied.