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[woodcut of John Muir] John Muir Writings

The Cruise of the Corwin

by John Muir

Chapter IX
Villages of the Dead

Steamer Corwin,
East Cape, Siberia, July 1, 1881.

After getting 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 winter.

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 conception.

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.

July 2. 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 very much.

[Chukchis At Indian Point, Siberia (Cape Chaplin)]
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.

Steamer Corwin,
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 of skin.

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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