The Cruise of the Corwin
by John Muir
Villages of the Dead
East Cape, Siberia, July 1, 1881.
our search party on board at Tapkan, we found it impossible, under the
conditions of ice and water that prevailed, to land our Chukchi dog-driver,
who lives there, and who had come off with the party to get his pay. He
was in excellent spirits, however, and told the Captain that since he had
received a gun and a liberal supply of ammunition he did not care where
he was put ashore--Cape Serdzekamen, East Cape, or any point along the shore
or edge of the ice-pack would answer, as he could kill plenty of birds
and seals, and get home any time. The dogs and sledges were left in his
care at Tapkan, to be in readiness in case they should be required next
Speeding southward under steam and sail we reached East Cape yesterday
at seven in the morning. By this time the wind was blowing what seamen
call a "living gale," whitening the sea, and filling up the air with blinding
scud. We found good anchorage, however, back of the high portion of the
Cape, opposite a large settlement of Chukchis. East Cape is a very bold
bluff of granite about two thousand feet high, which evidently has been
overswept from the northwest. I eagerly waited to get off and to climb
high enough to make sure of the trends of the ridges and grooves, and to
seek scratches, bossed surfaces, etc. But the howling, shrieking norther
blew all day, and had not abated at eleven o'clock last night.
This morning Mr. Nelson and I went ashore to see what we could learn.
The village here, through which we passed on our way up the mountain-side,
consists of about fifty huts, built on a small, rocky, terminal moraine,
and so deeply sunk in the face of the hill that the entire village makes
scarcely more show at a distance of a few hundred yards than a group of
marmot burrows. The lower portion of the walls is built of moraine boulders,
the upper portion and the curving beehive roof of driftwood and the ribs
of whales, framed together and covered with walrus hide or dirt.
During the winter the huts are entered by a low tunnel, so as to exclude
the cold air as much as possible. The floor is simply the natural dirt
mixed into a dark hairy paste, with much that is not at all natural. Fires
are made occasionally in the middle of the floor to cook the small portion
of their food that is not eaten raw. Ivory-headed spears, arrows, seal nets,
bags of oil, rags of seal or walrus meat, and strips of whale blubber and
skin, lie on shelves or hang confusedly from the roof, while puppies and
nursing mother-dogs and children may be seen scattered here and there,
or curled snugly in the pots and eating-troughs, after they have licked
them clean, making a kind of squalor that is picturesque and daring beyond
In all of the huts, however, there are from one to three or four luxurious
bedrooms. The walls, ceiling, and floor are of soft reindeer skins, and
[each polog has] a trough filled with oil for heat and light. After hunting
all day on the ice, making long, rough, stormy journeys, the Chukchi hunter,
muffled and hungry, comes into his burrow, eats his fill of oil and seal
or walrus meat, then strips himself naked and lies down in his closed fur
nest, his polog, in glorious ease, to smoke and sleep.
I was anxious to reach the top of the cape peninsula to learn surely
whether it had been overswept by an ice-sheet, and if so from what direction,
and to study its glacial conditions in general and the character of the
rocks. I therefore hastened to make the most of my opportunity, and pushed
on through the village towards the lowest part of the divide between the
north and south sides, followed by a crowd of curious boys, who good-naturedly
assisted me whenever I stopped to gather the flowers that I found in bloom.
The banks of a stream coming from a high basin filled with snow was quite
richly flowered with anemones, buttercups, potentillas, drabas, primulas,
and many species of dwarf willows, up to a height of about a thousand feet
above the level of the sea; beyond this, spring had hardly made any impression,
while nearly a thousand feet of the highest summits were still covered
with deep snow.
Mr. Nelson soon left me in pursuit of a bird, and in crossing a rocky
ridge to come up with me again, he came upon a lot of other game, which
seemed to interest him still more, namely, dead natives scattered about
on the rough stones at one of the cemeteries belonging to the village.
The bodies of the dead, together with whatever articles belonged to them,
are simply laid on the surface of the ground, so that a cemetery is a good
field for collectors. A lot of ivory spears, arrows, dishes of various
kinds, and a stone hammer, formed the least ghastly of his spoils. Leaving
Mr. Nelson alone in his glory, I pushed on to the top of the divide, then
followed it westward to the highest summit on the peninsula, whence I obtained
the views I was in search of.
The dividing ridge all along the high eastern portion of the peninsula
is rounded from nearly north to south. The curves on the north begin almost
at the waters' edge, while the south side is quite precipitous along the
shore. There is also a telling series of parallel grooves and ridges trending
north and south across the peninsula. The highest point is about twenty-five
hundred feet above the sea, and the mountainous portion has been nearly
eroded from the continent and made an island like the two Diomedes, the
wide gap of low ground connecting it with the high mainland being only
a few feet above tide-water. In this low portion there is here and there
a rounded upswelling of more resisting rock, with trends, all telling the
same story of a vast oversweeping iceflood from the north.
I also had a clear view of the coast mountains for a hundred miles or
thereabouts, all of which are tellingly glaciated in harmony with the above
generalization, Most of the rock is granite with cleavage planes that cause
it to weather rapidly into flat blocks. One conical black hill, fifteen
hundred feet high, is volcanic rock, close-grained and dense like some
kinds of iron ore. I saw an Arctic owl, a big snowy fellow, fitting his
place; also, snow-buntings and linnets. When the natives saw Mr. Nelson
returning without me they said that he had killed me, not being aware of
the fact that he understood their language.
On my way down to the shore I crossed another of the village cemeteries
on a very rough and steep slope of weathered granite, several hundred feet
above the village and to the westward of it. Whole skeletons or single
bones and skulls lay here and there, wedged into chance positions among
the stones, weathering and falling to pieces like the ivory-pointed spears,
arrows, etc., mixed with them. The mountain that they were lying on is
crumbling also--dust to dust, Some of the corpses have had stones piled
on them, and their goods on top of all; others were laid on the rough rocks
with a row of big stones on the lower side to keep them from rolling down.
The damp, lower portion of the wild north wind, as it was deflected
up and over the slopes and frosty summit of the peninsula, has given birth
to a remarkably beautiful covering of white ice crystals on the windward
sides of exposed boulders, and in some places on the snow. The crystals
resemble white feathers in their aggregate forms, but are firm and icy
in structure, and as evenly and gracefully imbricated on each other over
the rough faces of the rocks as are the feathers on the breast of a bird.
The effect is marvelously beautiful and interesting as seen on those castellated
rock-piles, so frequently found on bleak summits. The points of the feathers
grow to windward, and indicate by their curves all the varying directions
pursued by the interrupted wind as it glints and reverberates about the
innumerable angles of the rock fronts. Thus the rocks, where the exposure
to storms is greatest, and where only ruin seems to be the object, are
all the more lavishly clothed upon with beauty--beauty that grows with and
depends upon the violence of the gale. In like manner do men find themselves
enriched by storms that seem only big with ruin, both in the physical and
the moral worlds.
We weighed anchor and got away at two o'clock in the afternoon and reached
the West Diomede Island village at half-past four. Here we took aboard
the boatswain and Mr. Nelson's man, whom we had left to make observations
on the currents, tides, etc. He was to have been assisted by the natives,
but the rough weather prevented work. About half-past five we left the
Diomede for Marcus Bay in order to land Joe, the Chukchi. The sea is smooth
now, at a quarter of an hour before midnight, and there is a lovely
orange-and-gold sunset. The gulls are still on the wing.
Clear, calm, sunful; the coast of Asia is seen to excellent
advantage; crowds of glacial peaks, ice-fountains, and fiords far inreaching.
The snow on them is melting fast. About noon [Opposite Cape
Chaplin.] twelve canoes from a large village twenty miles north
of Marcus Bay came off to trade. The schooners that came to this region
to trade were perhaps afraid to touch here. Consequently the Corwin was
the first vessel with trade goods that they have seen this year, and the
business in bone and ivory went on with hearty vigor. A hundred or more
Chukchis were aboard at once, making a stir equal to that of a country
fair. One of them spoke a little whaler English, three quarters of which
was profanity and nearly one quarter slang. He asked the Captain why he
did not like him, [and intimated that] if he should come ashore to his
house he, the Indian, would show him by his treatment that he liked him
Chukchis At Indian Point, Siberia (Cape Chaplin)
From a photograph by E. W. Nelson
We are now, at five in the afternoon, approaching Marcus Bay, where
Joe lives, for the purpose of taking him home. For his month's work and
his team of five dogs he has been paid a box of hard bread, ten sacks of
flour, some calico, a rifle, and a considerable quantity of ammunition.
Although this is doubtless five times more than he expected, he does not
show any excitement or rise of spirits, but only a stoical composure, which
seems so Arctic and immovable that I doubt whether he would move a muscle
of his face if he were presented with the whole ship's cargo and the ship
itself thrown in.
St. Lawrence Island,
Alaska, July 3, 1881.
St. Lawrence Island, the largest in Bering Sea, is situated at a distance of
about one hundred and twenty miles off the mouths of the Yukon, and forty-five
miles from the nearest point on the coast of Siberia. It is about a
hundred miles in length from east to west and fifteen miles in average
width; a dreary, cheerless-looking mass of black lava, dotted with volcanoes,
covered with snow, without a single tree, and rigidly bound in ocean ice
for more than half the year.
Inasmuch as it lies broadsidewise to the way pursued by the great ice-sheet
that once filled Bering Sea, it is traversed by numerous valleys and ridges
and low gaps, some of which have been worn down nearly to the sea-level.
Had the glaciation to which it has been subjected been carried on much
longer, then, instead of this one large island, we should have had several
smaller ones. Nearly all of the volcanic cones with which the central portion
of the island is in great part covered are post-glacial in age and present
wellformed craters but little weathered as yet.
All the surface of the low grounds, in the glacial gaps, as well as
the flat table-lands is covered with wet, spongy tundra of mosses and lichens,
with patches of blooming heathworts and dwarf willows, and grasses and
sedges, diversified here and there by drier spots, planted with larkspurs,
saxifrages, daisies, primulas, anemones, ferns, etc. These form gardens
with a luxuriance and brightness of color little to be hoped for in so
cold and dreary-looking a region.
Three years ago there were about fifteen hundred inhabitants on the
island, chiefly Eskimos, living in ten villages located around the shores,
and subsisting on the seals, walruses, whales, and water birds that abound
here. Now there are only about five hundred people, most of them in one
village on the northwest end of the island, nearly two thirds of the population
having died of starvation during the winter of 1878-79. In seven of the
villages not a single soul was left alive. In the largest village at the
northwest end of the island, which suffered least, two hundred out of six
hundred died. In the one at the southwest end only fifteen out of about
two hundred survived. There are a few survivors also at one of the villages
on the east end of the island.
After landing our interpreter at Marcus Bay we steered for St. Michael,
and in passing along the north side of this island we stopped an hour or
so this morning at one of the smallest of the dead villages. Mr. Nelson
went ashore and obtained a lot of skulls and specimens of one sort and
another for the Smithsonian Institution, Twenty-five skeletons were seen.
A few miles farther on we anchored before a larger village, situated
about halfway between the east and west ends of the island, which I visited
in company with Mr. Nelson, the Captain, and the Surgeon. We found twelve
desolate huts close to the beach with about two hundred skeletons in them
or strewn about on the rocks and rubbish heaps within a few yards of the
doors, The scene was indescribably ghastly and desolate, though laid in
a country purified by frost as by fire. Gulls, plovers, and ducks were
swimming and flying about in happy life, the pure salt sea was dashing
white against the shore, the blooming tundra swept back to the snow-clad
volcanoes, and the wide azure sky bent kindly over all--nature intensely
fresh and sweet, the village lying in the foulest and most glaring death.
The shrunken bodies, with rotting furs on them, or white, bleaching skeletons,
picked bare by the crows, were lying mixed with kitchen-midden rubbish
where they had been cast out by surviving relatives while they yet had
strength to carry them.
In the huts those who had been the last to perish were found in bed,
lying evenly side by side, beneath their rotting deerskins. A grinning
skull might be seen looking out here and there, and a pile of skeletons
in a corner, laid there no doubt when no one was left strong enough to
carry them through the narrow underground passage to the door. Thirty were
found in one house, about half of them piled like fire-wood in a corner,
the other half in bed, seeming as if they had met their fate with tranquil
apathy. Evidently these people did not suffer from cold, however rigorous
the winter may have been, as some of the huts had in them piles of deerskins
that had not been in use. Nor, although their survivors and neighbors all
say that hunger was the sole cause of their death, could they have battled
with famine to the bitter end, because a considerable amount of walrus
rawhide and skins of other animals was found in the huts. These would have
sustained life at least a week or two longer.
The facts all tend to show that the winter of 1878-79 was, from whatever
cause, one of great scarcity, and as these people never lay up any considerable
supply of food from one season to another, they began to perish. The first
to succumb were carried out of the huts to the ordinary ground for the
dead, about half a mile from the village. Then, as the survivors became
weaker, they carried the dead a shorter distance, and made no effort to
mark their positions or to lay their effects beside them, as they customarily
do. At length the bodies were only dragged to the doors of the huts, or
laid in a corner, and the last survivors lay down in despair without making
any struggle to prolong their wretched lives by eating the last scraps
Mr. Nelson went into this Golgotha with hearty enthusiasm, gathering
the fine white harvest of skulls spread before him, and throwing them in
heaps like a boy gathering pumpkins. He brought nearly a hundred on board,
which will be shipped with specimens of bone armor, weapons, utensils,
etc., on the Alaska Commercial Company's steamer St. Paul.
We also landed at the village on the southwest corner of the island
and interviewed the fifteen survivors. When we inquired where the other
people of the village were, one of the group, who speaks a few words of
English, answered with a happy, heedless smile, "All mucky." "All gone!"
"Dead?" "Yes, dead, all dead!" Then he led us a few yards back of his hut
and pointed to twelve or fourteen skeletons lying on the brown grass, repeating
in almost a merry tone of voice, "Dead, yes, all dead, all mucky, all gone!"
About two hundred perished here, and unless some aid be extended by
our government which claims these people, in a few years at most every
soul of them will have vanished from the face of the earth; for, even where
alcohol is left out of the count, the few articles of food, clothing, guns,
etc., furnished by the traders, exert a degrading influence, making them
less self-reliant, and less skillful as hunters. They seem easily susceptible
of civilization, and well deserve the attention of our government.
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