January 1, 1697
The Kamchatka Peninsula is invaded by Russian Cossacks in 1697 and the natives are forced to turn to trapping for furs instead of living off of their highly carnivorous diets of fish and sea mammals such as seals, whales, or walrus.
The Russian subjection of Siberian natives did not begin with the work of the two Kamchatka expeditions headed by Vitus Bearing, though these expeditions accelerated the process. In 1581 the Cossack Ermak led his followers across the Urals for their first plunders in the vast easten territories. Gradually, over the next 100 years, the Cossacks pushed on to exploit the fur riches and pacify territory for the Moscovite Empire. Southeastern advances along the Amur River were checked by the powerful Manchu forces of China, but there was no concerted resistance north of the Amur. Following the great rivers, the Ob, Irtysh, Yenisei, and Lena, the Cossacks subdued the primitive natives who stood in their way. Tribute in furs was exacted mercilessly. To resist was to be decimated.
Advances to the far northeast were slowed by the lack of easy river access and the forbidding climate. The Kamchatka Peninsula was not explored until 1696. A year later, Cossack Vladimir Atlasov led a party of 100 soldiers, conveyed by reindeer, to Kamchatka's east coast, where the Russians encountered Kamchadals for the first time. Soon after this, fur traders established themselves in Kamchatka to plunder and oppress the natives until they were driven to a desperate resistance. In 1731 the natives rose against their oppressors, but their rebellion was savagely crushed within a year. It was part of the assignment of the second Kamchatka expedition, officially called the Great Northern Expedition, to compile information on the people and resources of northeastern Asia. Much of this work was done by Georg Steller prior to his 1741 voyage with Bering to America, and by a young Russian scientist, Stepan Petrovich Krasheninnikov. Krasheninnikov, only twenty-five years old in 1737 when he arrived in Kamchatka, did the major portion of the investigation and, with the help of Steller's notes, produced his study, Explorations of Kamchatka, which was published by the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1755. This book has long been the classic source on the Kamchadals of southern Kamchatka and, to a lesser extent, on the Koriak and Chukchi peoples inhabiting the regions farther north. In the Explorations of Kamchatka we Bet an invaluable picture of the recently subjugated peoples of the Bering Sea frontier and, indirectly, an insight into the attitudes of their Russian overlords toward the region and its inhabitants. Krasheninnikor was not involved in the most exciting assignment of the expedition, the attempt to discover America from the west. His task was to provide a careful assessment of Kamchatka upon which the government could base its developmental policies. His temperament was well suited to the task. He was disposed to report the sober truth as he saw it, without exaggeration or inclinations to optimistic promotion. In weighing the advantages and disadvantages of Kamchatka, his report was balanced and careful. "The country has neither grain nor livestock. It is subject to frequent earthquakes, floods and storms. The only diversions are to gaze on towering mountains whose summits are eternally covered with snow, or, if one lives along the sea, to listen to the crashing of the waves and observe the different species of sea animals." 3 Considering this, Krasheninnikov commented, "it would seem more appropriate for this country to be inhabited by wild animals than by human beings."4 On the other hand, pure air, healthy water, the absence of diseases, a climate neither excessively hot or cold, make the country "no less fit to be lived in than other countries which may have an abundance of other things, but are exposed to all these ills and dangers." 5
Although Kamchatka might be "fit to be lived in," it did not attract large numbers of European Russians. A small number of colonists from other parts of Siberia were settled there among the natives, soldiers, and government officials, and plans were laid for a self-supporting agricultural economy. But attempts to achieve such an economy were sporadic and largely unsuccessful. Economic development remained a vision of government planners. Yet the region did provide riches for a few Russians who reaped profits from its most obvious resources, its people and its fur-bearing animals. Both were exploited shamelessly by mercenary interests. In time, the Kamchadals lost their identity as a distinct people, while the relentless hunting of sables, foxes, and other fur-bearing animals drastically reduced their numbers. Only the discovery of new fur resources to the west saved the land animals of Kamchatka from a total extermination.
The Kamchadals were a free, independent people before the Russians conquered them. Like that of their Eskimo neighbors in Alaska their social organization was loose and unstratified. No rulers or chiefs were recognized, though men esteemed for their wisdom and experience were highly regarded. Russians could appreciate some of the skills exhibited by natives- hunting and dog-sled driving in particular--but generally considered them barbaric and contemptible. "They are filthy and disgusting," wrote Krasheninnikov, "they never wash their hands or faces, nor do they cut their fingernails, they eat from the same bowls as their dogs and never wash them. They all reek of fish and smell like eider ducks." 6 Different standards of personal hygiene have always formed a barrier between peoples, though many Siberian travelers observed little distinction between Cossack and native habits of cleanliness.
Kamchatka's great wealth was in the numbers of fur-bearing animals to be found there. The dense, glossy pelts of foxes were esteemed in the fur trade and the sables, because of their size and beauty, were considered superior to those hunted elsewhere in Siberia. These animals as well as hares, marmots, ermines, bears, wolverines, and weasels were caught in traps, poisoned, or shot with a bow and arrow. Kamchadals were delighted when Cossacks offered a single knife in exchange for eight sable pelts and a hatchet for eighteen skins. "It is quite true," Krasheninnikov reported, "that when Kamchatka was first conquered, there were some agents who made as much as thirty-thousand roubles in one year." 7
All the natives of Kamchatka and northeastern Siberia, except for the Koriak reindeer herdsmen of the interior, used dogs for transport during the winter. Besides hauling sleds, dogs assisted in the hunt of mountain sheep and other land animals, and their skins provided a wide variety of clothing. Food for the dogs was easily obtained, consisting, primarily, of the salmon which abounded in Kamchatka's rivers. Great quantities of fish were taken in the summer and dried for winter use as dog food. Marine mammals were also hunted. Seals were taken off the coast in winter and from the rivers and estuaries in summer. Natives clubbed sleeping seals on land and harpooned them in the water. Seal skins yielded material for boots and clothing, their oil provided lighting and heat for native dwellings; their flesh and blubber were important sources of food and were sometimes preserved for later use by smoking. Other mammals could only be taken at sea. These included the sea lion, fur seal, sea otter, whale, and, in northern waters, the walrus. All these mammals contributed to the native economy to varying degrees. The Chukchis primary food source was the whale, which they hunted in the European manner, harpooning the beasts at sea from large boats and towing the whales ashore for butchering. Kamchadals, on the other hand, did not usually venture out to sea to hunt whales, but made good use of any that washed ashore.
September 4, 1741
Arctic Passage - First Scientist of the Bering Sea
Russians aboard the St. Peter visit the Aleutian inlands and meet the native people there for the first time. A scientist named Steller records their characteristics and describes the encounter - in which brandy and tobacco were offered to the Aleuts while a piece of whale blubber was offered to the Russians.
On September 4, while the St. Peter was attempting to continue its
western course against a persistent wind, the Russians encountered their
first Americans. Two natives in kayaks paddled toward the ship, shouting
as they came. No one on board the St. Peter could understand what the
natives were saying, but the Americans gestured toward the land, pointed
to their mouths and scooped up sea water with their hands to indicate an
offering of refreshment to the Russians. The Russians tied two Chinese
tobacco pipes and some glass beads to a piece of board and launched it
toward the closest kayak. In turn, one of the Aleuts tied a dead falcon to a
stick and passed it to a Koriak aboard the St. Peter. Apparently the Aleut
wanted the Russians to place other gifts between the bird's claws and
return the falcon on the stick, but instead, the Koriak tried to pull the
Aleut closer and, in alarm, the Americans released the stick.
A boat was lowered from the St. Peter for a shore party. Steller,
Waxell, the Koriak interpreter, and several seamen rowed to the beach. A
landing on the rocky shore was impossible; so three of the boat party
undressed and waded ashore to be greeted by friendly Aleuts-
natives of the Aleutian Islands- who presented a piece of whale blubber.
One Aleut was bold enough to paddle out to the St. Peter and was given a cup of brandy. which he downed, then hurriedly spat out. Brandy not being well received, the Russians offered their second most prized delicacy, a lighted pipe. This, too, was rejected.
On the beach the Aleuts were quite taken with the Koriak
interpreter, presumably boccause his features resembled their own. As the
Russians prepared to return to the St. Peter some of the Americans held on
to the Koriak, and others tried to haul the boat ashore. This
confrontation between Americans and Russians was a classic case of
mutual distrust and misunderstanding and was resolved by the classic
method a show of superior force. Three of the boat crew fired their
muskets over the heads of the Aleuts, who swiftly released Koriak and
boat and threw themselves on the ground. The Russians dashed to the
water. The first test of strength was concluded. All the elements of the
future subjection of the Americans by their eastern neighbors had passed
in review. Tobacco and liquor had made their initial appearance. The first
echoes of the firearms soon to enslave a free people resounded from the
hills. Both peoples were disappointed and frustrated by the events: the
Russians because "we had not been able to observe what we had intended
but on the other hand had met what we had not expected"; the Aleuts
because, apparently, their intentions had been misunderstood. 25 The
Russians laughed at the Aleuts' consternation as they picked themselves
up "and waved their hands to us to be off quickly as they did not want us
any longer." 26 These laughs of derision and the futile waving of the
Aleuts were significant characterizations of the respective assertions of
the two peoples. History was to demonstrate that the Aleuts were no
match for the aggressive Russians. Yet waving the Russians away would
not banish them. This first contact was a prelude and a brief but
prophetic introduction to the subsequent bloody incidents that were to
occur in the conquest of the Bering Sea.
Steller, accustomed to moralizing on his own endeavors and those of
his companions, did not indulge in any reflections on the future of the
Aleuts, though he made a close observation of their physical appearance,
"They are of medium stature, strong and stocky, yet fairly well
proportioned, and with very fleshy arms and legs. The hair of the head is
glossy black and hangs straight down all around the head. The face is
brownish, a litle flat and concave. The nose is also flattened, though not
particularly broad or large. The eyes are as black as coals, the lips
prominent and turned up. In addition they have short necks, broad
shoulders, and their body is plump though not big-bellied." 27
The Aleuts wore what Steller guessed to be "whale-gut shirts with
sleeves, very neatly sewed together, which reach to the calf of the leg.
Some had skin boots and trousers and carried iron knives. Steller
speculated on the probability that the Americans knew the craft of
metalworking. He also described the Aleut kayak, noting its resemblance
to those of Greenland Eskimos.
"The American boats are about two
fathoms long, two feet high, and two feet wide on the deck, pointed
towards the nose but truncate and smooth in the rear." 29 The boats had a
frame construction covered with skins and a manhole which could be
made watertight. To this circular hole was attached a strip of material
which could be "tightened or loosened like a purse. When the American
has sat down in his boat and stretched his legs under the deck, he draws
this hem together around his body and fastens it with a bowknot in order
to prevent any water from getting in." 30
Steller did not believe that the Aleuts made their homes on the
islands. He had not yet observed any of their dwellings and assumed that
they only visited the wind-swept islands on hunting forays from the
mainland. He also speculated on the origins of the Americans, noting
their physical similarities to Siberian peoples, which suggested an Asiatic
July 5, 1742
"The sea cow's meat tasted like the finest beef, and its fat was equally succulent. Until harried out of existence, the beast was to provide the most favored sustenance of the Bering Sea fur traders. The largest sea cows were 35 feet long and 20 feet in girth, The sea cow which Steller dissected weighed 8,000 pounds"
DEATH AND LIFE ON BERING ISLAND The expedition members who had strength enough set about providing some shelter against the wind and snow flurries that swept the beach. Winter was fast approaching, and there was an immediate need to improvise some protection for Bering and the other seriouslv ill men who were carried ashore. The men instinctively constructed shelters which resembled the Aleut dwellings traditionally built in the same latitudes- pits hollowed out of the sand, roofed with canvas sails and other material from the St. Peter. Succor did not come soon enough for some of the seamen. Several expired soon after they were conveyed ashore- the death toll was mounting. Blue foxes, at first observed joyfully by the mariners as a potential food supply, soon proved to be a great nuisance. The animals, unawed by the presence of men, darted about the camp, thick as flies, stealing any tood left unguarded and terrorizing men too weak to drive them off. In one day, Steller and Plenisner killed sixty of the audacious beasts, felling some with axes and stabbing others with knives, using their carcasses as a temporary shelter wall. Each day the slaughter continued, until heaps of carcasses were strewn about the camp site, and still the foxes came, blind to their destruction in their mad quest for food. The bodies of the dead seamen were horribly mutilated before the surviving seamen could summon up enough energy to bury them in the sand. Even then, the The sows foxes desecrated the shallow graves, digging the bodies from the carth and farrying away bloody limbs. Foxes also marauded the rowinkat and stores which the Russians were gradually bringing ashore from the St. Peter. They scattered the provisions, carried off clothing, tools, and anything else that was not secured. Steller recalled the greed of the Russians for the furs of Kamchatka foxes during the preparated of the voyage and wondered whether they were being chastised for it by the Scourge of the Bering Island animals. Half crazed by the persistentche she thieving beasts, the Russians tortured and maimed as many rokee of They killed, gouging out eyes, slicing off ears and tails, half skinning some and half roasting others in their camp fires. Neither torture nor wholesale hutchering helped. The foxes infested the camp in increasing numbers and with unchecked audacity.
On November 14, a week after the initial landing, Steller and other hunters clubbed to death four sea otters; the first ones killed on Bering island. From their Kamchatka experiences the Russians were familiar with the sea otter and knew the value of its pelt in the Chinese trade. But the precious skins meant nothing to them now; they stewed up the best parts of the otter flesh to make a dish more palatable than that from the despised foxes and left the pelts to be devoured by the camp robbers. In the wake of the Bering expedition, better-fed Russians were to visit Bering Island and the Aleutians for the primary purpose of hunting sea otters. The discovery of the sea otters in November 1741 initiated the conquest of the Bering Sea, the exploitation of its resources and people. For the succeeding century, the quest of the sea otter was to underlie every event that took place. On December 8, Commander Bering's long suffering came to an end. For days he had lain half buried in the sand that had drifted into his wretched hut, protesting any efforts to clear it away. "The deeper in the ground I lie," he told Waxell, "the warmer I am; the part of my body that lies above ground suffers from the cold." 1 Bering's body was dug from the sand, tied to a plank, and thrust down into the ground, after which the burial service was read over his remains. Throughout December other deaths followed that of Berings; a total of thirty men expired in November and December. "Our plight was so wretched," wrote Waxell, "that the dead had to lie for a considerable time among the living, for there was none able to drag the corpses away; nor were those who still lived capable of moving away from the dead."? For days a dead man shared the hut in which Waxell and Khitrovlay: Whil the only able-bodied men left took time from hunting and other larks to undertake burial. Weak as he was, Waxell offered some direction. Neither then nor later, when he had recovered his health, did he attempt to drive the men. That was not an acceptable way of exerting one's power and authority. ' "Severity would have been quite pointless. Discussions on courses of action were participated in by all; the distinction between officers and seamen was erased by the circumstances waxell was cheered when the sick seamen felt well enough to sit up for card games; their play helped them pass the time and overcome the melancholy that was as deadly as scurvy. All did not share his lenient view. There were, though, certain members of our company who criticized my attitude on this point and told me to my face that I was nor discharging my duties in accordance with the regulations." + These illiberal complaints did not originate with severe, regulation-minded Russian officers, but with the expedition's most notable civilian, Georg Steller. "The sickness," wrote Steller, "had scarcely subsided, when a new and worse epidemic appeared, I mean the wretched gambling with cards." In lurid terms he described the men's obsession with gambling, their constant conversation over gains and losses, a general debauchery that resulted in theft, hatred, quarrels, strife, and the wasteful killing of sea otters for their pelts. On this last result, Steller did have a point, if it was true that otters became scarce because their furs were used as gaming stakes. Yet it does seem that the naturalist overstated his case--whether out of concern for a dwindling food supply, his abhorrence of a mindless animal slaughter, or because of a revulsion at a recreation with which he had no sympathy. While lacking the sunny bliss of the palm-studded islands of the South Pacific Ocean, Bering Island was not an entirely unfortunate place to wash up upon. Though unpromising in its rock-girded appearance, the island was not by any means infertile and desolate. Sea and land birds nested there in prodigious numbers. Foxes abounded all over the island, and its shores were the refuge of teeming herds of seals, sea lions, sed cows, and sea otters. With the Pribilof Islands of St. Paul and St. George far to the east on the Bering Sea, the Commander Islands constituted the world's major breeding rookeries of the fur seal. Hunters had no difficulty finding plump ptarmigans, foxes, seals, and sea otters, and Steller busied himself gathering antiscorbutic herbs. By this time Lieutenant Waxell, one of the iron men of the expedition, Was ultering from scurvy and was nursed by seller. Steller was one of a handful of men who remained in good health, a blessing for the less fortunate. He had strength enough to turn his energies to the care of the sick, forgetting, for a time at least, the actual and imagined insults suffered on the voyage. For the first time, the young naturalist's word had weight; no one interfered with his supervision of the scurvy victims. For once Seller would have the leisure to make a close investigation of a newly discovered land, and the island seemed to offer more natural curiosities than had been noted on the two previous landings of the vovage.
While on Bering Island, Steller did his most important work- dissecting and describing the sea cow- -a scientific task which would assure his fame for all time. Seller also devoted much attention to the bird life of Bering Island, much of which was familiar. One bird, however, followed the sea cow's road to extinction and was long known only through Steller's description. This was a large cormorant, unable to fly, hence a prime target for food hunters. This bird, which weighed 12 to 14 pounds, was seen by only one naturalist, Steller, and disappeared about 1850. Other birds he was the first to discover were Steller's Jay, Steller's Eider, the rare Steller's Eagle, and Steller's White Raven. Steller's botanical work was of equal distinction to his observations of marine life, birds, and land animals. He classified scores of unknown plants for the first time.
Through the winter the castaways subsisted on birds and various mammals, and in May the hunters brought in the first of the sea cows that fulfilled all the needs of the expedition. The first was a 4-ton monster with enough meat to feed the men for two weeks. Its rich, red flesh tasted like excellent beef, and its snow white, almond-flavored fat was "of such exceptionally good flavor and nourishment that we drank it by the cupful without experiencing the slightest nausea."& Steller's enthusiasm for the sea cow's potential was unbounded. "These animals are found at all seasons of the year everywhere around the island in the greatest numbers, So that the whole population of the eastern coast of Kamchatka would always be able to keep itself more than abundantly supplied from them With fat and meat." Truly, Steller's sea cow, as it came to be called, was a marvelous beast; yet the naturalist's prediction for its future was based in a false estimate of its numbers. It is probable that the sole grounds of the mammal were the coasts of the Commander Islands. In the spring it was decided to build a small ship from the remains of the St. Peter. Dismantling the stoutly built St. Peter occupied all of April, and on May 6, the keel of the new ship was laid. All three of the St. Peter's carpenters had died earlier. However, by good luck, one survivor of the voyage, a Siberian Cossack, had some shipbuilding experience and supervised the construction. Twenty men constituted the building party. The others were responsible for providing food for all. In July, the ship was completed, and provisions- -mostly sea cow meat and water were laid aboard. On August 10, the launching of the new St. Peer took place, and three days later the survivors were ready for the sea. Severe restrictions had to be imposed on individual baggage because of the limitation of space. Space had to be reserved for the valuable sea otter pelts which, as Waxell pointed out, were the spoils that repaid the men somewhat for their sufferings. Proceeds from the otters were divided, apparently according to rank. Steller received 80 skins of the 900 which were carried back, but he was outraged by his weight allotment of 360 pounds. He had to abandon what we recognize today as the single most precious trophy of the expedition-_the stuffed skin of a young sea cow, as well as a sea cow skeleton and specimens of the sea otter, fur seal, and sea lion. Plant seeds, a pair of the sea cow's horny palatal plates, field notes, and personal items accounted for the 360 pounds he was allowed. Waxell's weight allowance was twice that of Seller's, but others' allowances must have been much less, since the total weight allowed the forty-six men was only 3½ tons. Steller stormed and raged, but to no avail. Crowded aboard, the men took a last look at their abandoned camp. New occupiers had already taken over. "We watched the foxes on shore ransacking our dwellings with the greatest glee and activity and sharing among themselves what was left of fat and meat." 8 Their passage to Petropavlovsk, the port they had left fifteen months earlier, took just two weeks. At long last the first American expedition had ended. Steller survived the voyage but died in Siberia shortly after reaching the mainland. Considering the limited landfalls of the expedition, Seller had gathered a comprehensive picture of the natural life of the Bering Sea. And despite his own reservations regarding his work, Steller deserves his high rating among the world's pioneer scientists.
Georg Wilhelm Seller's hard-won fame rests on the accurate descriptions of the sea cow and other marine mammals which were published in his De Besis Marims. His dissection of a female sea cow in July 1742 can easily be considered one of the high points of Pacific Ocean scientific activity. This great northern manatee is known only through Steller's notes and the few skeletons collected years later. For 100 years, the sea cow has been extinct. A living specimen was last seen in 1768, a mere 27 years after its discovery by the Bering expedition. Steller observed these mammals along the entire shore of the island. where they fed on seaweed near the mouths of streams. The sea cow's appetite was huge. When not mating or caring for their young, they were continuously occupied in feeding along the sea edge, usually with half their body above the surface. June was the mating season and a strict ritual ensued. "The female flees slowly before the male with continual turns about, but the male pursues her without cessation. When, however, the female is finally weary of this mock coyness she turns on her back and the male completes the mating in the human manner." In mating, the males penetrated their mates with a six-foot-long penis of corresponding thickness. Sea cows were unafraid of people and allowed their approach without showing any sign of alarm. Prior to the landing of the Bering party, they had never known an enemy, but, unfortunately for their survival, their bulk and shore-feeding habits were to make them a helpless prey. The Russians found the flesh of seals strong and coarse and liked that of the sea otter even less, but the sea cow's meat tasted like the finest beef, and its fat was equally succulent. Until harried out of existence, the beast was to provide the most favored sustenance of the Bering Sea fur traders. The huge mammal had instincts that seemed almost human. Although unwary in its own defense, the manatee tried to protect its kind from the butchering hunters. When the Bering men harpooned a sea cow and towed it to the beach, other animals formed a circle about the victim as if to prevent its sacrifice. "Some attempted to upset the yawl; others laid themselves over the rope or tried to pull the harpoon out of [his] body, in which they succeeded several times." In astonishment, the Russians observed "that a male came two days in succession to its female Which was lying dead on the beach, as if it would inform himself about her condition. For all this sensitivity, the sea cows were otherwise obtuse. Regardless of the slaughtering that went on among the herd, they never shifted location to escape the bloody executions.
As a scientist, Steller's chief resources were his own intellizence and energy: While men like Johann Georg Mcclit and Louis Delisle held chorere traveled with servants, provisioned with European foods and wines, Steller traveled light eating native foods for convenience and wifetife interest. Typically, Steller tackled the problem of the dissection and description of the sea cow with dedication and energy. Handling the huge manatee was extremely difficult. In shape, the sea cow resembled a seal, though it had a large fluke like a whale. The largest sea cows were 35 feet long and 20 feet in girth, The sea cow which Steller dissected weighed 8,000 pounds. The heart alone weighed 36¼ pounds and the stomach was 6 feet long, 5 feet wide, and so stuffed with food and seaweed that four strong men using a rope could scarcely move the animal from its place and only with great effort were able to drag it out of the sea. Rain and cold impeded Steller's efforts, while Arctic foxes were tearing at the mammal's flesh and carrying off Steller's paper, books, and inkstand. This unpleasant work could not be performed without considerable manpower: Steller recruited seamen and paid them in tobacco. Fortunately Sneller was a nonsmoker. Not unexpectedly, the seamen's work did not meet Seller's standards; yet, at the time, he expressed satisfaction that they did not desert him altogether in this gigantic task. Steller complained often of a lack of assistance, but he seemed to have received a great deal of help from Plenisner, who made the six sea cow drawings that enhanced De Bests Marins, and from other members of the surgical staff, as well as the Cossack, Lepekhin.
Steller's description of the sea otters on Bering Island was the first comprehensive report on the mammals to be published. The stranded Russian mariners appreciated the value of the pelts enough to tan them carefully, but they also depended upon them for a food supply. Steller noted that the sea otter had been confused bv Russians in Kamchatka with the beaver, because its fur more closely resembled the beaver than that of the familiar, smaller, river otter. Indisputably, argued Steller, the sea otter was an American sea animal which only occasionally tound its way to the coast of Kamchatka. A full-grown prime skin is 5 feet long, and 24-30 inches wide, covered with a fine fur, the hairs of which are 3/4 inch in length. Its jet black, glossy surface revealed a silver tinge when ruffled, and the presence of scattered white hairs enhanced its beauty. Unlike other marine mammals, the sea otter does not depend upon a thick blubber layer under the skin to maintain its bodr emperature in the frigid waters of its habitat. Instead it relies upon the islation of air trapped in its hair; consequently the mammal"s constantly preening and grooming its hair. Seller was unaware of this and other findings of modern biologists that have made the uniqueness of the sea otter even more clear. Of all its singularities, none is more amazing than its use of a tool to aid feeding. As it floats on its back, the after breaks clams, crabs, and other crustaceans held in its front paws against a stone resting on its chest. Otter spend most of their existence on their backs feeding, preening, and sleeping. Females carry and suckle their offspring and copulate in this position. Despite its apparently leisurely habits the otter's appetite is ravenous. Each day it requires a quantity of crustaceans and fish equaling ¼ of its total body weight of up to 80 pounds. The Aleuts of the Aleutian Islands were skilled hunters of the sea otter long before the Russians enslaved them to that purpose. They Aleuts hunted at sea from their swift kayaks, using a spearlike weapon which was thrown from the cramped sitting position of the boatman. Hunting from such a platform was a difficult exercise even in the calmest seas. A keen eve and strong, steady throwing arm were essential to accuracy. Sea otters did not present a large target above the surface, and it required a consummate skill to strike them in the water. Once hit, the otter could offer little resistance. It could dive beneath the surface for a time, but if the spear had deeply penetrated its body, this evasion only exhausted and weakened the animal. Before long the otter had to return to the surface to breathe and die as its life's blood poured from the wound. As life ebbed away, the Aleut hunter guided his craft close and lifted his prey from the water. "The sea otter is the mildest of all marine animals. It never makes any resistance to hunters, and only saves itself by running away if it can." 12 Thus Stepan Krasheninnikov in his report on Kamchatka reported of the most important resource of the Bering Sea. Natives of Kamchatka hunted the sea otter off the island's shores by spreading nets among the kelp beds where otters fed, by harpooning the mammals at sea from their small boats, and sometimes by catching them on ice floes that grounded near the coast. Kamchadals did not prize the sea otter pelt as highly as that of foxes and sables, but the Cossacks who traded for them knew better.
When Europeans discovered them, there may have been only 2,000 individuals left. This small population was quickly wiped out by fur traders, seal hunters, and others who followed Vitus Bering's route past its habitat to Alaska. It was also hunted to collect its valuable subcutaneous fat. The animal was hunted and used by Ivan Krassilnikov in 1754 and Ivan Korovin 1762, but Dimitri Bragin, in 1772, and others later, did not see it. Brandt thus concluded that by 1768, twenty-seven years after it had been discovered by Europeans, the species was extinct. In 1887, Stejneger estimated that there had been fewer than 1,500 individuals remaining at the time of Steller's discovery, and argued there was already an immediate danger of the sea cow's extinction.
The first attempt to hunt the animal by Steller and the other crew members was unsuccessful due to its strength and thick hide. They had attempted to impale it and haul it to shore using a large hook and heavy cable, but the crew could not pierce its skin. In a second attempt a month later, a harpooner speared an animal, and men on shore hauled it in while others repeatedly stabbed it with bayonets. It was dragged into shallow waters, and the crew waited until the tide receded and it was beached to butcher it. After this, they were hunted with relative ease, the challenge being in hauling the animal back to shore. This bounty inspired maritime fur traders to detour to the Commander Islands and restock their food supplies during North Pacific expeditions.
July 22, 1770
A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772
Hearne's group of Indians hunt musk-oxen and turn it into pemmican for traveling. The pemmican is made by pounding the lean meat and then adding boiled fat. When there was plenty to hunt, they would harvest only the tongues, marrow, and fat.
On the seventeenth, we saw many musk-oxen, several of which the Indians killed; when we agreed to stay here a day or two, to dry and pound some of the carcases to take with us. The flesh of any animal, when it is thus prepared, is not only hearty food, but is always ready for use, and at the same time very portable. In most parts of Hudson's Bay it is known by the name of Thew-hagon, but amongst the Northern Indians it is called Achees.
-- July 22 1770.
To prepare meat in this manner, it requires no farther operation than cutting the lean parts of the animal into thin slices, and drying it in the sun, or by a slow fire, till, after beating it between two stones, it is reduced to a coarse powder.
Théwhagon or Yéwuhikun is the Cree name for meat dried and beaten as above, and it is generally known throughout the fur countries as "pounded meat." When fat is plentiful this shredded dry meat is often packed into a sack made of hide, and boiling fat is poured over and into it. This mixture of dried meat and grease is called pemican.
Having prepared as much dried flesh as we could transport, we proceeded to the Northward; and at our departure left a great quantity of meat behind us, which we could neither eat nor carry away. This was not the first time we had so done; and however wasteful it may appear, it is a practice so common among all the Indian tribes, as to be thought nothing of. On the twenty-second, we met several strangers, whom we joined in pursuit of the deer, &c. which were at this time so plentiful, that we got every day a sufficient number for our support, and indeed too frequently killed several merely for the tongues, marrow, and fat.
-- August 30 1770.
After we had been some time in company with those Indians, I found that my guide seemed to hesitate about proceeding any farther; and that he kept pitching his tent backward and forward, from place to place, after the deer, and the rest of the Indians. On my asking him his reason for so doing; he answered, that as the year was too far advanced to admit of our arrival at the Coppermine River that Summer, he thought it more advisable to pass the Winter with some of the Indians then in company, and alleged that there could be no fear of our arriving at that river early in the Summer of one thousand seven hundred and seventy-one. As I could not pretend to contradict him, I was entirely reconciled to his proposal; and accordingly we kept moving to the Westward with the other Indians. In a few days, many others joined us from different quarters; so that by the thirtieth of July we had in all above seventy tents, which did not contain less than six hundred persons. Indeed our encampment at night had the appearance of a small town; and in the morning, when we began to move, the whole ground (at least for a large space all round) seemed to be alive, with men, women, children, and dogs. Though the land was entirely barren, and destitute of every kind of herbage, except wish-a-capucca and moss, yet the deer were so numerous that the Indians not only killed as many as were sufficient for our large number, but often several merely for the skins, marrow, &c. and left the carcases to rot, or to be devoured by the wolves, foxes, and other beasts of prey.
July 7, 1771
A Journey from Prince of Wales's Fort in Hudson's Bay to the Northern Ocean in the Years 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772
Hearne's expedition hunts some musk-ox and he describes their habits and the taste of their flesh. They avoid eating lean animals, and one day they kill 1,770 animals demonstrating how easy it is to hunt them.
On the seventh, we had a fresh breeze at North West, with some flying showers of small rain, and at the same time a constant warm sunshine, which soon dissolved the greatest part of the new-fallen snow. Early in the morning we crawled out of our holes, which were on the North side of the Stony Mountains, and walked about eighteen or twenty miles to the North West by West. In our way we crossed part of a large lake on the ice, which was then far from being broken up. This lake I distinguished by the name of Buffalo, or Musk-Ox Lake, from the number of those animals that we found grazing on the margin of it; many of which the Indians killed, but finding them lean, only took some of the bulls' hides for shoe-soals. At night the bad weather returned, with a strong gale of wind at North East, and very cold rain and sleet.
This was the first time we had seen any of the musk-oxen since we left the Factory. It has been observed that we saw a great number of them in my first unsuccessful attempt, before I had got an hundred miles from the Factory; and indeed I once perceived the tracks of two of those animals within nine miles of Prince of Wales's Fort. Great numbers of them also were met with in my second journey to the North: several of which my companions killed, particularly on the seventeenth of July one thousand seven hundred and seventy. They are also found at times in considerable numbers near the sea-coast of Hudson's Bay, all the way from Knapp's Bay to Wager Water, but are most plentiful within the Arctic Circle. In those high latitudes I have frequently seen many herds of them in the course of a day's walk, and some of those herds did not contain less than eighty or an hundred head. The number of bulls is very few in proportion to the cows; for it is rare to see more than two or three full-grown bulls with the largest herd: and from the number of the males that are found dead, the Indians are of opinion that they kill each other in contending for the females. In the rutting season they are so jealous of the cows, that they run at either man or beast who offers to approach them; and have been observed to run and bellow even at ravens, and other large birds, which chanced to light near them. They delight in the most stony and mountainous parts of the barren ground, and are seldom found at any great distance from the woods. Though they are a beast of great magnitude, and apparently of a very unwieldy inactive structure, yet they climb the rocks with great ease and agility, and are nearly as sure-footed as a goat: like it too, they will feed on any thing; though they seem fondest of grass, yet in Winter, when that article cannot be had in sufficient quantity, they will eat moss, or any other herbage they can find, as also the tops of willows and the tender branches of the pine tree. They take the bull in August, and bring forth their young the latter end of May, or beginning of June; and they never have more than one at a time.
The musk-ox, when full grown, is as large as the generality, or at least as the middling size, of English black cattle;[AJ] but their legs, though large, are not so long; nor is their tail longer than that of a bear; and, like the tail of that animal, it always bends downward and inward, so that it is entirely hid by the long hair of the rump and hind quarters: the hunch on their shoulders is not large, being little more in proportion than that of a deer: their hair is in some parts very long, particularly on the belly, sides, and hind quarters; but the longest hair about them, particularly the bulls, is under the throat, extending from the chin to the lower part of the chest, between the fore-legs; it there hangs down like a horse's mane inverted, and is full as long, which makes the animal have a most formidable appearance. It is of the hair from this part that the Esquimaux make their musketto wigs, and not from the tail, as is asserted by Mr. Ellis; their tails, and the hair which is on them, being too short for that purpose. In Winter they are provided with a thick fine wool, or furr, that grows at the root of the long hair, and shields them from the intense cold to which they are exposed during that season; but as the Summer advances, this furr loosens from the skin, and, by frequently rolling themselves on the ground, it works out to the end of the hair, and in time drops off, leaving little for their Summer clothing except the long hair. The season is so short in those high latitudes, that the new fleece begins to appear, almost as soon as the old one drops off; so that by the time the cold becomes severe, they are again provided with a Winter-dress.
The flesh of the musk-ox noways resembles that of the Western buffalo, but is more like that of the moose or elk; and the fat is of a clear white, slightly tinged with a light azure. The calves and young heifers are good eating; but the flesh of the bulls both smells and tastes so strong of musk, as to render it very disagreeable: even the knife that cuts the flesh of an old bull will smell so strong of musk, that nothing but scouring the blade quite bright can remove it, and the handle will retain the scent for a long time. Though no part of a bull is free from this smell, yet the parts of generation, in particular the urethra, are by far the most strongly impregnated. The urine itself must contain the scent in a very great degree; for the sheaths of the bull's penis are corroded with a brown gummy substance, which is nearly as high-scented with musk as that said to be produced by the civet cat; and after having been kept for several years, seems not to lose any of its quality.