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The Writings of John Muir
Volume 7 - Chapter XVI. Tragedies of the Whaling Fleet


Steamer Corwin,
Off Point Barrow, August 18, 1881.

FINDING it impossible to get northward through the ice anywhere near the east side of Wrangell Land, it was decided that we should cross to the American coast to make another effort to reach Point Barrow in order to learn the fate of the whale-ship Daniel Webster, which, as I have stated in a former letter, was beset in the ice there, and to offer assistance in case it should be required.

On the fifteenth, near Icy Cape, we spoke one of the whalers from whom we learned that the Daniel Webster was crushed and sunk, that about half the crew had made their way down the coast to near Icy Cape, where they found the Coral and were taken on board, and that the others were still at Point Barrow or scattered along the shore, unless picked up by some of the fleet that were going north in search of them as fast as the state of the ice would allow.

Captain Owen of the bark Belvedere had sent a letter to them by one of the natives, directing them to build large driftwood fires on the beach to indicate their positions, and assuring them that relief was near. We had hoped that, though beset in the heavy, drifting pack and carried northward helpless and rigid as a fly in amber, some change in the wind and current might set them free. But in discussing the question with an experienced whaler who had lost the first ship that he was master of at the same place and in the same way, he said that he had given her up for lost as soon as she was known to be embayed.

On receiving this news we started for Point Barrow and found the way clear, the pack having been blown offshore a few miles, and a heavy current was sweeping to the northward. Tuesday, the sixteenth, was calm and foggy at times; large masses of beautiful ice, blue and green and white, of every conceivable form, like the bergs derived from glaciers, were drifting with the riverlike current or lying aground - the remnants of the grand pack that so lately held possession of all the sea hereabouts.

When we were passing Point Belcher and Sunarnara [Sinaru?] we learned from the natives that the ice was offshore as far as Point Barrow and beyond, that several whale-ships were already there, and that all the men from the broken ship had been taken on board. For some time the fog was so dense and the huge bergs so abundant we were compelled to lie to and drift with the current; but shortly after noon the sun came out, making a dazzling show among the ice and silvery water. Then the conical huts of the Eskimo village on Point Barrow came in sight, and rounding the Point we found ourselves in the midst of quite a fleet of whalers, from whom we received the good news that, as we had been told by the natives, all the missing members of the wrecked crew had at length been picked up and were now distributed among the different vessels. A few of them have been permanently added to the crews of the rescuing ships lying here, and nine have been received on board of the Corwin.

The strip of water sometimes found between Icy Cape and Point Barrow is perhaps the most dangerous whaling ground yet discovered. The ice is of tremendous thickness, a hundred feet or more, and its movements are extremely variable from season to season, and almost from day to day. It seldom leaves this part of the coast very far, some years not at all, and it is always liable to be driven close inshore by a few hours or days of strong wind blowing from any point of the compass around from north to southwest. When, as frequently happens, there is a margin of fixed ice along the shore the position of ships is most dangerous, for when the pack comes in and catches vessels in this ice-. bound lane while trying to beat southward against wind and current, it closes upon them and crushes them as between huge crunching jaws. Should there be no fixed ice, then vessels may simply be shoved ashore.

It is not long since the first whale-ship passed Bering Strait, and yet no less than forty-seven have been crushed hereabouts, or pushed ashore, or embayed and swept away northward to nobody knows where, while many others have had narrow escapes.

Thirty-three were caught and lost in this way here at one time, thirteen the following season, and one last July, while two others barely made their escape the same day just as the fatal ice-jaws closed behind them. This last victim, the Daniel Webster, left New Bedford in November, 1880, passed through Bering Strait on the tenth of June, and was caught in the pack July 3. It seems from the account furnished us by the first mate that she was following up a lead of open water about five miles wide, between the main ocean pack and a strip of shore-ice, fancying that two other ships that she had been following the day previous were still ahead, and on whose movements the Captain, who had no experience here, this being his first voyage, was to some extent depending. These two leaders, however, had turned and fled during the night without being observed, while the Daniel Webster kept on northward, until within sight of the end of the water-lane, when she turned and attempted to beat her way back. But wind and current were against her, the huge ice-walls came steadily nearer, and at length closed on the doomed vessel, carrying her away as if she were a mere bit of drift timber. About an hour later she was crushed, and sank to her upper deck in about twenty minutes. Then she fell over on her beam-ends against the ice and soon vanished in the icy wilderness.

The Point Barrow Eskimos, keenly familiar with the actions of the winds and currents on the movements of the ice, watched the struggling ship, and came aboard before the ice had yet closed upon her, like wolves scenting their prey from afar. Many a wreck had they enjoyed here, and now, sure of yet another, they ran about the ship examining every movable article, and narrowly scanning the rigging and sails with reference to carrying away as much as possible of the best of everything, such as the sails, lead pipe for bullets, hard bread, sugar, tobacco, etc., in case they should have but a short time to work.

She filled so quickly after being crushed that the crew saved but little more than the clothes they were wearing. Some hard bread, beef and other stores were hastily thrown over upon the ice, and one boat was secured. As soon as she was given up, the Eskimos climbed into the rigging, and dexterously cut away and secured all the sails, which they value highly for making sails for their large traveling canoes and for covers for their summer huts. Then they secured as much lead as possible and anything they could lay hands on, acting promptly and showing the completeness of the apprenticeship they had served.

The ship was then about five miles from the Eskimo village, and the natives were allowed to assist in carrying everything that had been saved. Under the circumstances, in getting over the five miles of ice with such riches, they, like white men, reasoned themselves into the belief that everything belonged to them, even the chronometers and sextants. Accordingly, at the village a general division was made in so masterly a manner that by the time the officers and crew reached the place their goods had vanished into a hundred-odd dens and holes; and when, hungry, they asked for some of their own biscuits, the natives complacently offered to sell them at the rate of so much tobacco apiece. Even the chronometers had been divided, it is said, after being taken apart, the wheels and bits of shining metal being regarded as fine jewelry for the young women and children to wear. A keg of rum, that the officers feared might fall into the Eskimos' hands and cause trouble by making them drunk, was thrown heavily over on the ice with the intention of smashing it, but it was not broken by the fall. One of the Eskimos picked up the prize, to him more precious than its weight in gold, and sped away over the slippery crags and hollows of the ice with admirable speed, vainly pursued by the first mate, and at the village it disappeared as far beyond recovery as if it had been poured into a hot sand bank. As wreckers, traders, and drinkers these sturdy Eskimos are making rapid progress, notwithstanding the fortunate disadvantages they labor under, as compared with their white brethren, dwelling in so severe a climate on the confines of the frozen sea.

The entire crew numbered twenty-eight men. All except the second mate and two of the sailors started down the coast afoot, after waiting some time for the ice to drift offshore far enough to allow some of the other ships to come to their relief, or at least far enough to leave a passage for their boat. At the river Cogrua [Kugrua, a river tributary to the Arctic Ocean at the Sea-horse Islands, a little east of Pt. Belcher. According to John Murdoch, Kug'ru is the Eskimo name of the Whistling Swan.] ten of the party turned back, weary and hungry and discouraged, to Cape Smyth, to pick up a living of oil and seal meat until relieved, rather than face the danger of fo1rding the river and enduring yet greater hardships. The others pushed forward. Directed by one of the natives, they went up the bank of the river about twenty miles from its mouth, to where it is much narrower. Here they forded without danger, carrying their clothes on their heads to keep them dry.

Both parties seem to have suffered considerably from hunger as well as from cold and fatigue. The seal and oil meals, which the natives of the different villages they passed good-naturedly allowed them to share, but ill- supplied the place of their old-fashioned, rough and regular rations. They speak of having been reduced to the strait of eating roots and leaves of the few dwarf plants found along their way. At Point Belcher they were so fortunate as to find a traveling party of natives, who, after their shaman had duly consulted the spirits, supposed to be influential and wise concerning the affairs of this rough region, and reported favorably, agreed to take the party in their canoe southward to seek the whaling fleet, the pack having by this time commenced to leave the shore. By this means the wanderers reached the bark Coral in four days, at a cost of two rifles and some tobacco.

The others were kindly received by the Cape Smyth people and entertained until the ice left the shore. One of the three left at Point Barrow, it seems, wandered southward alone and lost himself with fright and hanger. He was without food for five days, save what he could pick up from the sparse sedgy vegetation, and was nearly dead when discovered by a relief party from one of the ships. The natives, he said, refused to allow him to enter their huts, because his eyes were wild and he would soon be crazy. Fortunately, all are now cared for.

Newly discovered whaling grounds, like gold mines, are soon overcrowded and worked out, the whales being either killed or driven away. But whales worth four or five thousand dollars apiece are so intensely attractive and interesting that the grand game has been hunted in the face of a thousand dangers over nearly all the seas and oceans on the face of the globe. According to Alexander Starbuck, in his history of the American whale fishery, there belonged, in the year 1846, to the various ports of the United States six hundred and seventy-eight ships and barks, thirty-five brigs, and twenty- two schooners that were hunting whales. In 1843 the first bowhead whales taken in the North Pacific were captured on the coast of Kamchatka, and in 1848 the first whale-ship passed Bering Strait. This was the bark Superior, Captain Royce. A full cargo was easily obtained, because of the abundance and tameness of the whales.

The news, like a gold discovery, spread rapidly, and within the next three years two hundred and fifty ships had obtained cargoes of oil and bone here. This is, therefore, a comparatively new hunting ground. Nevertheless it is being rapidly exhausted. The precious bowheads are no longer seen in "long winrows," as described by an old whaleman familiar with the region. This year only twenty vessels are engaged in the business.

In 1871 thirty-three vessels were caught in one flock off Point Belcher and crushed or shoved ashore. One of them is said to have been "crushed to atoms," the officers and crews escaping over the ice, saving scarcely anything but their lives. In a few days after the sixth of August most of the fleet was north of Blossom Shoals, and worked to the northeast as far as Wainwright Inlet. Here the ships either anchored or made fast to the ice, which was very heavy and densely packed. On the eleventh of August a sudden change of wind drove the ice inshore, catching a large number of boats that were out in pursuit of whales, and forcing the ships to work inshore in the lee of the ground ice.

On the thirteenth of August the incoming pack grounded, leaving only a narrow strip of water, in which the fleet was imprisoned more and more narrowly until the twenty-fifth, when a strong northeast gale drove the ice a few miles offshore, and whale-catching went on briskly without fear of another imprisonment. But on the twenty-ninth a southwest wind again drove the ice inshore, and once more shut-in the doomed fleet. The thirty- three vessels were scattered along the coast for twenty miles, more and more rigidly beset until the fourteenth of September, when they were abandoned - that is, those not already crushed.

The following protest, throwing a vivid light upon the subject, was written on the twelfth of September, and signed by all the captains before abandoning their vessels: -

Point Belcher, Arctic Ocean.
September 1, 1871.

Know all men by these presents, that we, the undersigned, masters of whale-ships now lying at Point Belcher, after holding a meeting concerning our dreadful situation, have all come to the conclusion that our ships cannot be got out this year, and there being no harbors that we can get our vessels into, and not having provisions enough to feed our crews to exceed three months, and being in a barren country, where there is neither food nor fuel to be obtained, we feel ourselves under the painful necessity of abandoning our vessels, and trying to work our way south with our boats, and, if possible, get on board of ships that are south of the ice. We do not think it would be prudent to leave a single soul to look after our vessels, as the first westerly gale will crowd the ice ashore, and either crush the ships or drive them high upon the beach. Three of the fleet have already been crushed, and two are now lying hove out, which have been crushed by the ice and are leaking badly. We have now five wrecked crews distributed among us, we have barely room to swing at anchor between the ice- pack and the beach, and we are lying in three fathoms of water. Should we be cast on the beach it would be at least eleven months before we could look for assistance, and in all probability nine out of ten would die of starvation or scurvy before the opening of spring.

All the officers and crews - twelve hundred and nineteen souls - reached the seven relief vessels that lay waiting their arrival outside the ice, and were distributed among them, these seven being the remnant of the fleet that passed through Bering Strait in the spring. The next summer only five of the thirty-three were seen, one of them comparatively uninjured. All the rest had been smashed, sunk, burned, or carried away in the pack.

Five years later, in 1876, the fleet consisted of twenty ships and barks, and of this number thirteen were embayed in the pack, twenty or thirty miles off Point Barrow. After waiting and hoping for the coming of a liberating gale as long as they dared, the masters decided that it was necessary to abandon their vessels. Out of three hundred and fifty-three persons, fifty- three remained with the ships, hoping to get them free in the spring; but not one of the ships or of those who stayed on them, was ever seen again. The three hundred who left their vessels after enduring great hardships, succeeded in making good their escape to the rest of the fleet waiting outside the pack - all save three or four who perished by the way.

There are now twelve whale-ships about Point Barrow in sight from the Corwin, and all that would be necessary to shut them in is a gale from the southwest. Still the great love of action, and the great love of money, compel the risk here and elsewhere over and over again. The Corwin is now about to go southward to coal, at the mine twenty miles east of Cape Lisburne; or, in case the weather should be too rough to land at the mine, which is on a bare, exposed portion of the coast, to Plover Bay. Then we will return to the Arctic prepared to make other efforts to get on the south and east shores of Wrangell Land.


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