Travels in Alaska
by John Muir
The Country of the Chilcats
On October 30 we visited a camp of Hoonas at the mouth of a salmon-chuck.
We had seen some of them before, and they received us kindly.
Here we learned that peace reigned in Chilcat. The reports that
we had previously heard were, as usual in such cases, wildly exaggerated.
The little camp hut of these Indians was crowded with the food-supplies
they had gathered--chiefly salmon, dried and tied in bunches of
convenient size for handling and transporting to their villages,
bags of salmon-roe, boxes of fish-oil, a lot of mountain-goat
mutton, and a few porcupines. They presented us with some dried
salmon and potatoes, for which we gave them tobacco and rice.
About 3 P.M.
we reached their village, and in
the best house, that of a chief, we found the family busily engaged
in making whiskey. The still and mash were speedily removed and
hidden away with apparent shame as soon as we came in sight. When
we entered and passed the regular greetings, the usual apologies
as to being unable to furnish Boston food for us and inquiries
whether we could eat Indian food were gravely made. Toward six
or seven o'clock Mr. Young explained the object of his visit and
held a short service. The chief replied with grave deliberation,
saying that he would be heartily glad to have a teacher sent to
his poor ignorant people, upon whom
he now hoped the light
of a better day was beginning to break. Hereafter he would gladly
do whatever the white teachers told him to do and would have no
will of his own. This under the whiskey circumstances seemed too
good to be quite true. He thanked us over and over again for coming
so far to see him, and complained that Port Simpson Indians, sent
out on a missionary tour by Mr. Crosby, after making a good-luck
board for him and nailing it over his door, now wanted to take
it away. Mr. Young promised to make him a new one, should this
threat be executed, and remarked that since he had offered to
do his bidding he hoped he would make no more whiskey. To this
the chief replied with fresh complaints concerning the threatened
loss of his precious board, saying that he thought the Port Simpson
Indians were very mean in seeking to take it away, but that now
he would tell them to take it as soon as they liked for he was
going to get a better one at Wrangell. But no effort of the missionary
could bring him to notice or discuss the whiskey business. The
luck board nailed over the door was about two feet long and had
the following inscription: "The Lord will bless those who
do his will. When you rise in the morning, and when you retire
at night, give him thanks. Heccla Hockla Popla."
This chief promised to pray like a white man every morning, and
to bury the dead as the whites do. "I often wondered,"
he said, "where the dead went to. Now I am glad to know";
and at last acknowledged the whiskey, saying he was sorry to have
been caught making the bad stuff. The behavior of all, even the
little ones circled around the fire, was very good. There
was no laughter when the strange singing commenced. They only
gazed like curious, intelligent animals. A little daughter of
the chief with the glow of the firelight on her eyes made an interesting
picture, head held aslant. Another in the group, with upturned
eyes, seeming to half understand the strange words about God,
might have passed for one of Raphael's angels.
The chief's house was about forty feet square, of the ordinary
fort kind, but better built and cleaner than usual. The side-room
doors were neatly paneled, though all the lumber had been nibbled
into shape with a small narrow Indian adze. We had our tent pitched
on a grassy spot near the beach, being afraid of wee beasties;
which greatly offended Kadachan and old Toyatte, who said,"
If this is the way you are to do up at Chilcat, we will be ashamed
of you." We promised them to eat Indian food and in every
way behave like good Chilcats.
We set out direct for Chilcat in the morning against a brisk head
wind. By keeping close inshore and working hard, we made
about ten miles by two or three o'clock, when, the tide having
turned against us, we could make scarce any headway, and therefore
landed in a sheltered cove a few miles up the west side of Lynn
Canal. Here I discovered a fine growth of yellow cedar, but none
of the trees were very large, the tallest only seventy-five
to one hundred feet high. The flat, drooping, plume-like
branchlets hang edgewise, giving the trees a thin, open, airy
look. Nearly every
tree that I saw in a long walk was more
or less marked by the knives and axes of the Indians, who use
the bark for matting, for covering house-roofs, and making
temporary portable huts. For this last purpose sections five or
six feet long and two or three wide are pressed flat and secured
from warping or splitting by binding them with thin strips of
wood at the end. These they carry about with them in their canoes,
and in a few minutes they can be put together against slim poles
and made into a rainproof hut. Every paddle that I have seen along
the coast is made of the light, tough, handsome yellow wood of
this tree. It is a tree of moderately rapid growth and usually
chooses ground that is rather boggy and mossy. Whether its network
of roots makes the bog or not, I am unable as yet to say.
Three glaciers on the opposite side of the canal were in sight,
descending nearly to sea-level, and many smaller ones that
melt a little below timber-line. While I was sketching these,
a canoe hove in sight, coming on at a flying rate of speed before
the wind. The owners, eager for news, paid us a visit. They proved
to be Hoonas, a man, his wife, and four children, on their way
home from Chilcat. The man was sitting in the stern steering and
holding a sleeping child in his arms. Another lay asleep at his
feet. He told us that Sitka Jack had gone up to the main Chilcat
village the day before he left, intending to hold a grand feast
and potlatch, and that whiskey up there was flowing like water.
The news was rather depressing to Mr. Young and myself, for we
effect of the poison on Toyatte's old enemies.
At 8.30 P.M.
we set out again on the turn of the tide, though
the crew did not relish this night work. Naturally enough, they
liked to stay in camp when wind and Ode were against us, but did
n't care to make up lost time after dark however wooingly wind
and tide might flow and blow. Kadachan, John, and Charley rowed,
and Toyatte steered and paddled, assisted now and then by me.
The wind moderated and almost died away, so that we made about
fifteen miles in six hours, when the tide turned and snow began
to fall. We ran into a bay nearly opposite Berner's Bay, where
three or four families of Chilcats were camped who shouted when
they heard us landing and demanded our names. Our men ran to the
huts for news before making camp. The Indians proved to be hunters,
who said there were plenty of wild sheep on the mountains back
a few miles from the head of the bay. This interview was held
at three o'clock in the morning, a rather early hour. But Indians
never resent any such disturbance provided there is anything worth
while to be said or done. By four o'clock we had our tents set,
a fire made and some coffee, while the snow as falling fast. Toyatte
was out of humor with this night business. He wanted to land an
hour or two before we did, and then, when the snow began to fall
and we all wanted to find a camping-ground as soon as possible,
he steered out into the middle of the canal saying grimly that
the tide was good. He turned, however, at our orders, but read
us a lecture at the first opportunity, telling us to start early
were in a hurry, but not to travel in the night like
After a few hours' sleep, we set off again, with the wind still
against us and the sea rough. We were all tired after making only
about twelve miles, and camped in a rocky nook where we found
a family of Hoonas in their bark hut beside their canoe. They
presented us with potatoes and salmon and a big bucketful of berries,
salmon-roe, and grease of some sort, probably fish-oil,
which the crew consumed with wonderful relish.
A fine breeze was blowing next morning from the south, which would
take us to Chilcat in a few hours, but unluckily the day was Sunday
and the good wind was refused. Sunday, it seemed to me, could
be kept as well by sitting in the canoe and letting the Lord's
wind waft us quietly on our way. The day was rainy and the clouds
hung low. The trees here are remarkably well developed, tall and
straight. I observed three or four hemlocks which had been struck
by lightning,--the first I noticed in Alaska. Some of the species
on windy outjutting rocks become very picturesque, almost as much
so as old oaks, the foliage becoming dense and the branchlets
tufted in heavy plume-shaped horizontal masses.
Monday was a fine clear day, but the wind was dead ahead, making
hard, dull work with paddles and oars. We passed a long stretch
of beautiful marble cliffs enlivened with small merry waterfalls,
and toward noon came in sight of the front of the famous Chilcat
or Davidson Glacier, a broad white flood
reaching out two
or three miles into the canal with wonderful effect. I wanted
to camp beside it but the head wind tired us out before we got
within six or eight miles of it. We camped on the west side of
a small rocky island in a narrow cove. When I was looking among
the rocks and bushes for a smooth spot for a bed, I found a human
skeleton. My Indians seemed not in the least shocked or surprised,
explaining that it was only the remains of a Chilcat slave. Indians
never bury or burn the bodies of slaves, but just cast them away
anywhere. Kind Nature was covering the poor bones with moss and
leaves, and I helped in the pitiful work.
The wind was fair and joyful in the morning, and away we glided
to the famous glacier. In an hour or so we were directly in front
of it and beheld it in all its crystal glory descending from its
white mountain fountains and spreading out in an immense fan three
or four miles wide against its tree-fringed terminal moraine.
But, large as it is, it long ago ceased to discharge bergs.
The Chilcats are the most influential of all the Thlinkit tribes.
Whenever on our journey I spoke of the interesting characteristics
of other tribes we had visited, my crew would invariably say,
"Oh, yes, these are pretty good Indians, but wait till you
have seen the Chilcats." We were now only five or six miles
distant from their lower village, and my crew requested time to
prepare themselves to meet their great rivals. Going ashore on
the moraine with their boxes that had not been opened since we
Wrangell, they sat on boulders and cut each other's
hair, carefully washed and perfumed themselves and made a complete
change in their clothing, even to white shirts, new boots, new
hats, and bright neckties. Meanwhile, I scrambled across the broad,
brushy, forested moraine, and on my return scarcely recognized
my crew in their dress suits. Mr. Young also made some changes
in his clothing, while I, having nothing dressy in my bag, adorned
my cap with an eagle's feather I found on the moraine, and thus
arrayed we set forth to meet the noble Thlinkits.
We were discovered while we were several miles from the village,
and as we entered the mouth of the river we were hailed by a messenger
from the chief, sent to find out who we were and the objects of
our extraordinary visit.
"Who are you?" he shouted in a heavy, far-reaching
voice. "What are your names? What do you want? What have
you come for?"
On receiving replies, he shouted the information to another messenger,
who was posted on the river-bank at a distance of a quarter
of a mile or so, and he to another and another in succession,
and by this living telephone the news was delivered to the chief
as he sat by his fireside. A salute was then fired to welcome
us, and a swarm of musket-bullets, flying scarce high enough
for comfort, pinged over our heads. As soon as we reached the
landing at the village, a dignified young man stepped forward
and thus addressed us:--
"My chief sent me to meet you, and to ask if you
do him the honor to lodge in his house during your stay in our
We replied, of course, that we would consider it a great honor
to be entertained by so distinguished a chief.
The messenger then ordered a number of slaves, who stood behind
him, to draw our canoe out of the water, carry our provisions
and bedding into the chief's house, and then carry the canoe back
from the river where it would be beyond the reach of floating
ice. While we waited, a lot of boys and girls were playing on
a meadow near the landing--running races, shooting arrows, and
wading in the icy river without showing any knowledge of our presence
beyond quick stolen glances. After all was made secure, he conducted
us to the house, where we found seats of honor prepared for us.
The old chief sat barefooted by the fireside, clad in a calico
shirt and blanket, looking down, and though we shook hands as
we passed him he did not look up. After we were seated, he still
gazed into the fire without taking the slightest notice of us
for about ten or fifteen minutes. The various members of the chief's
family, also,--men, women, and children,--went about their usual
employment and play as if entirely unconscious that strangers
were in the house, it being considered impolite to look at visitors
or speak to them before time had been allowed them to collect
their thoughts and prepare any message they might have to deliver.
At length, after the politeness period had passed,
slowly raised his head and glanced at his visitors, looked down
again, and at last said, through our interpreter:--
"I am troubled. It is customary when strangers visit us to
offer them food in case they might be hungry, and I was about
to do so, when I remembered that the food of you honorable white
chiefs is so much better than mine that I am ashamed to offer
We, of course, replied that we would consider it a great honor
to enjoy the hospitality of so distinguished a chief as he was.
Hearing this, he looked up, saying, "I feel relieved";
or, in John the interpreter's words, "He feels good now,
he says he feels good."
He then ordered one of his family to see that the visitors were
fed. The young man who was to act as steward took up his position
in a corner of the house commanding a view of all that was going
on, and ordered the slaves to make haste to prepare a good meal;
one to bring a lot of the best potatoes from the cellar and wash
them well; another to go out and pick a basketful of fresh berries;
another to broil a salmon; while others made a suitable fire,
pouring oil on the wet wood to make it blaze. Speedily the feast
was prepared and passed around. The first course was potatoes,
the second fish-oil and salmon, next berries and rose-hips;
then the steward shouted the important news, in a loud voice like
a herald addressing an army, "That's all!" and left
Then followed all sorts of questions from the old
He wanted to know what Professor Davidson had been trying to do
a year or two ago on a mounain-top back of the village, with
many strange things looking at the sun when it grew dark in the
daytime; and we had to try to explain eclipses. He asked us if
we could tell him what made the water rise and fall twice a day,
and we tried to explain that the sun and moon attracted the sea
by showing how a magnet attracted iron.
Mr. Young, as usual, explained the object of his visit and requested
that the people might be called together in the evening to hear
his message. Accordingly all were told to wash, put on their best
clothing, and come at a certain hour. There was an audience of
about two hundred and fifty, to whom Mr. Young I preached. Toyatte
led in prayer, while Kadachan and John joined in the singing of
several hymns. At the conclusion of the religious exercises the
chief made a short address of thanks, and finished with a request
for the message of the other chief. I again tried in vain to avoid
a speech by telling the interpreter to explain that I was only
traveling to see the country, the glaciers, and mountains and
forests, etc., but these subjects, strange to say, seemed to be
about as interesting as the gospel, and I had to delivery sort
of lecture on the fine foodful country God had given them and
the brotherhood of man, along the same general lines I had followed
at other villages. Some five similar meetings were held here,
two of them in the daytime, and we began to feel quite at home
in the big block-house with our hospitable and warlike friends.
At the last meeting an old white-haired shaman of grave and
venerable aspect, with a high wrinkled forehead, big, strong Roman
nose and light-colored skin, slowly and with great dignity
arose and spoke for the first time.
"I am an old man," he said, "but I am glad to listen
to those strange things you tell, and they may well be true, for
what is more wonderful than the flight of birds in the air? I
remember the first white man I ever saw. Since that long, long-ago
time I have seen many, but never until now have I ever truly known
and felt a white man's heart. All the white men I have heretofore
met wanted to get something from us. They wanted furs and they
wished to pay for them as small a price as possible. They all
seemed to be seeking their own good-not our good. I might say
that through all my long life I have never until now heard a white
man speak. It has always seemed to me while trying to speak to
traders and those seeking gold-mines that it was like speaking
to a person across a broad stream that was running fast over stones
and making so loud a noise that scarce a single word could be
heard. But now, for the first time, the Indian and the white man
are on the same side of the river, eye to eye, heart to heart.
I have always loved my people. I have taught them and ministered
to them as well as I could. Hereafter, I will keep silent and
listen to the good words of the missionaries, who know God and
the places we go to when we die so much better than I do."
At the close of the exercises, after the last sermon
been preached and the last speech of the Indian chief and headmen
had been made, a number of the sub-chiefs were talking informally
together. Mr. Young, anxious to know what impression he had made
on the tribe with reference to mission work, requested John to
listen and tell him what was being said.
"They are talking about Mr. Muir's speech," he reported.
"They say he knows how to talk and beats the preacher far."
Toyatte also, with a teasing smile, said: "Mr. Young, mika
tillicum hi yu tola wawa" (your friend leads you far in speaking).
Later, when the sending of a missionary and teacher was being
considered, the chief said they wanted me, and, as an inducement,
promised that if I would come to them they would always do as
I directed, follow my councils, give me as many wives as I liked,
build a church and school, and pick all the stones out of the
paths and make them smooth for my feet.
They were about to set out on an expedition to the Hootsenoos
to collect blankets as indemnity or blood-money for the death
of a Chilcat woman from drinking whiskey furnished by one of the
Hootsenoo tribe. In case of their refusal to pay, there would
be fighting, and one of the chiefs begged that we would pray them
good luck, so that no one would be killed. This he asked as a
favor, after begging that we would grant permission to go on this
expedition, promising that they would avoid bloodshed if possible.
He spoke in a very natural and easy tone and manner always serene
and so much of a polished diplomat that
all polish was hidden.
The younger chief stood while speaking, the elder sat on the floor.
None of the congregation had a word to say, though they gave approving
nods and shrugs.
The house was packed at every meeting, two a day. Some climbed
on the roof to listen around the smoke opening. I tried in vain
to avoid speechmaking, but, as usual, I had to say something at
every meeting. I made five speeches here, all of which seemed
to be gladly heard, particularly what I said on the different
kinds of white men and their motives, and their own kindness and
good manners in making strangers feel at home in their houses.
The chief had a slave, a young and good-looking girl, who
waited on him, cooked his food, lighted his pipe for him, etc.
Her servitude seemed by no means galling. In the morning, just
before we left on the return trip, interpreter John overheard
him telling her that after the teacher came from Wrangell, he
was going to dress her well and send her to school and use her
in every way as if she were his own daughter. Slaves are still
owned by the richest of the Thlinkits. Formerly, many of them
were sacrificed on great occasions, such as the opening of a new
house or the erection of a totem pole. Kadachan ordered John to
take a pair of white blankets out of his trunk and wrap them about
the chief's shoulders, as he sat by the fire. This gift was presented
without ceremony or saying a single word. The chief scarcely noticed
the blankets, only taking a corner in his hand, as if testing
the quality of the wool. Toyatte had been an
enemy and fighter of the Chilcats, but now, having joined the
church, he wished to forget the past and bury all the hard feuds
and be universally friendly and peaceful. It was evident, however,
that he mistrusted the proud and warlike Chilcats and doubted
the acceptance of his friendly advances, and as we approached
their village became more and more thoughtful.
"My wife said that my old enemies would be sure to kill me.
Well, never mind. I am an old man and may as well die as not."
He was troubled with palpitation, and oftentimes, while he suffered,
he put his hand over his heart and said, "I hope the Chilcats
will shoot me here."
Before venturing up the river to the principal village, located
some ten miles up the river, we sent Sitka Charley and one of
the young Chilcats as messengers to announce our arrival and inquire
whether we would be welcome to visit them, informing the chief
that both Kadachan and Toyatte were Mr. Young's friends and mine,
that we were "all one meat" and any harm done them would
also be done to us.
While our messengers were away, I climbed a pure-white, dome-crowned
mountain about fifty-five hundred feet high and gained noble
telling views to the northward of the main Chilcat glaciers and
the multitude of mighty peaks from which they draw their sources.
At a height of three thousand feet I found a mountain hemlock,
considerably dwarfed, in company with Sitka spruce and the common
the tallest about twenty feet high, sixteen inches
in diameter. A few stragglers grew considerably higher, say at
about four thousand feet. Birch and two-leaf pine were common.
The messengers returned next day, bringing back word that we would
all be heartily welcomed excepting Toyatte; that the guns were
loaded and ready to be fired to welcome us, but that Toyatte,
having insulted a Chilcat chief not long ago in Wrangell, must
not come. They also informed us in their message that they were
very busy merrymaking with other visitors, Sitka Jack and his
friends, but that if we could get up to the village through the
running ice on the river, they would all be glad to see us; they
had been drinking and Kadachan's father, one of the principal
chiefs, said plainly that he had just waked up out of a ten days'
sleep. We were anxious to make this visit, but, taking the difficulties
and untoward circumstances into account, the danger of being frozen
in at so late a time, while Kadachan would not be able to walk
back on account of a shot in his foot, the danger also from whiskey,
the awakening of old feuds on account of Toyatte's presence, etc.,
we reluctantly concluded to start back on the home journey at
once. This was on Friday and a fair wind was blowing, but our
crew, who loved dearly to rest and eat in these big hospitable
houses, all said that Monday would be hyas klosh for the
starting-day. I insisted, however, on starting Saturday morning,
and succeeded in getting away from our friends at ten o'clock.
Just as we were leaving, the chief who had
so handsomely requested a written document to show that he had
not killed us, so in case we were lost on the way home he could
not be held accountable in any way for our death.
Back to Chapter 10
Forward to Chapter 12
Table of Contents