1837 - Edward Belcher
Visit to Sitka, Alaska
About three the breeze enabled us to lay up for the centre channel, the houses, citadel, and flags of Sitka showing very distinctly. About half-past three we were visited by the Governor's secretary, Mr. Alexander, in a caiack, with the customary string of boarding questions answered by merchant vessels; but finding, as they had imagined, a ship-of-war, these were laid aside, and a note containing the principal points of interest forwarded by the caiack.
The pilot having arrived, we beat into the channel, where, the breeze failing, we resorted to towing, aided by the Governor's barge and other boats sent to our assistance; a practice quite indispensable here, where nine vessels out of ten are forced to tow in or out. The Governor had also despatched his lieutenant-aide, who directed in person the exertions of the Russians, and did not quit us until dark, when, unable to stem the tide, we dropped anchor about two miles from the Fort.
The aide-de-camp then accompanied me in my gig to call on the Governor, Captain Koupreanoff, formerly commanding the Azof, seventy-four, in the Black Sea, who received me in the warmest manner, and tendered all the facilities which the port or arsenal could afford ; at the same time to put me quite at ease in following up the objects of the expedition, he requested I would consider myself quite at home, and make my own arrangements as to the selection of a site for my observatory or any other pursuits. He speaks English well, and with true English feeling acted up to all he professed; indeed, his civilities were overpowering. The Sulphur is the first foreign vessel of war that has visited this colony.
Having warped the ship to within a cable's length of the arsenal, the observatory was landed on an island opposite, and we had the good fortune to obtain complete sights, and secure our meridian before midnight. The natives visited us, bringing salmon, &c., and some few skins, but the Governor having most kindly supplied us with more of the former than we could consume, and any traffic in the latter being expressly against the laws of the colony in which we were guests, I considered it prudent, and what courtesy demanded, that traffic on board or at the observatory should be tabooed. This soon shortened the numbers of hangers on, whose principal object is generally to note the nakedness of the land, and aid in depredations at night.
Independent of this, as the Governor informed me, that even in his time, two years, their fortress had been threatened, and that, although seven hundred only were now in our neighbourhood, seven thousand might arrive in a few hours, I deemed it prudent to keep them as much aloof as our sentinels, without resorting to strong measures, could effect. At the same time, as our boats would be engaged in the examination of the sound during our stay, it became necessary to preserve an amicable feeling so long as they conducted themselves quietly.
The establishment at Sitka is situated on a broad flat delta, on the outer rocky peninsula of which the fortress, which is now rebuilding, stands. It is about sixty feet above the sea-level, and completely commands all the anchorages in the immediate neighbourhood, as well as the peninsula. The inner line, which traverses the longest base of this delta, is protected by a heavy line of picketted logs, twenty-five feet in height, surmounted en cheveux de frise, and flanked at the angles, within musket-shot of each other, by small block-house redoubts, loopholed and furnished with small guns and swivels. It extends from the sea in three fathoms, about one mile through to the river. This cuts oft' all connexion with the natives, but through a portcullis door, admitting into a railed yard those bringing goods to market. This door is closely watched by two or three guards, who, upon the least noise or dispute in the market, drop the portcullis, and proceed summarily with the delinquents.
As the traffic is generally conducted by women and children, and the Russians moreover employ female spies in the camp, they are always well warned, and fully prepared for any act of treachery. They have also a party of their allies (slaves?), the Kodiacks, on the opposite side of the stream, who conduct the greater part of the traffic with the natives, and catch and cure fish for the general consumption.
The present very substantial house erecting for the Governor and his establishment, is about one hundred and forty feet in length, by seventy feet wide, of two good stories, with lofts, capped by a lighthouse in the centre of the roof. The summit of the light is one hundred and ten feet above the sea-level, and commands a most extensive prospect. The building is of wood, solid; some of the logs measuring seventy-six and eighty feet in length, and squaring one foot. They half dovetail over each other at the angles, and are treenailed together vertically. The roof is pitched, and covered with sheet iron.
When complete, the fortifications (one side only of which at present remains) will comprise five sides, upon which forty pieces of cannon will be mounted, principally old ship guns, varying from twelve to twenty-four pounders. The bulwarks are of wood, and fitted similarly to the ports on the maindeck of a frigate.
The arsenal, which is immediately under, on the low ground, is well-stored with cordage of every description, and of very superior quality. The cables and large rope come by sea, but the yarn, in packages of fifty-six pounds, is transported on mules through Siberia. The range of artificers is very complete, and specimens of their workmanship in every department (more than an arsenal generally boasts) attest very superior ability.
The saw-mills, which are worked by water, are about twenty miles distant, half way down the south side of the sound, at Les Sources, or warm springs, which serves as a sort of Harrowgate to the colony.
Their most valuable wood is a very fine-grained bright-yellow cypress, of which they build boats, and export the plank in payment of debts contracted for supplies from the Sandwich Islands, (principally China and other goods.) They have a building slip, protected by a house, similar to those in our dock-yards, and have, I am informed, built one very fine vessel.
The establishment comprises that of a ship of the line, one captain, the governor; one commander, (lieutenant-governor ;) and lieutenants, masters, &c., according to the number of vessels employed. The total number is about eight hundred, but of these many, if not the greater part, are invalids; but few able-bodied men were visible. Many, of course their picked men, were absent in their vessels, visiting the ports and collecting the furs, which were daily expected to arrive, when the vessels are laid up, and they remain quiet until the spring.
I visited every part of the establishment with the Governor, and although a man-of-war's man's ideas of cleanliness are perhaps occasionally acute (and these people are yet a shade lower in civilization by their intermarriage with the natives) yet I
still witnessed comparative cleanliness and comfort, and much to admire, particularly in the school and hospital. In the latter, the name of the man, date of admission, and nature of disease, is placed over the bed of each patient, which in any contagious disease gives timely warning to any one fearing infection.
Not long since, the small-pox committed dreadful ravages amongst the Indians, and threatened to prove a still greater pestilence, by their neglect of their dead, and not unfrequently of the living, whom they quitted the moment they found them infected.
The colony having arrived from the westward, brought their own Sunday; consequently we were generally working on our opposite holidays, a measure I could only obviate by respecting their day of worship, and giving our men a holiday. To our artificers, who could not work at the dockyard on their Sabbath, this was a serious drawback, when we considered the short period of our stay.
I visited their church, and witnessed the ceremony. The interior of the edifice is splendid, quite beyond conception in such a place as this. The padre, who officiated in his splendid robes, was a very powerful athletic man, about forty-five years of age, and standing in his boots (which appear to be part of his costume) about six feet three inches, quite Herculean, and very clever. I took a very great liking to him, and was permitted to examine his workshop, in which I noticed a good barrel-organ, a barometer, and several other articles of his own manufacture. He was kind enough to volunteer his services on one or two of our sick barometers, and succeeded effectually. Notwithstanding he only spoke Russian, of which I knew nothing, we managed to become great allies. He has since been promoted and gone home.
On their Sunday, all the officers of the establishment, civil as well as military, dine at the Governor's. During the week the military meet at the mess daily at one. The dinner is soon discussed. They reassemble at five, take tea, and remain until supper, at ten or eleven, during which interval cards or billiards occupy their time. The attentions of the Governor and his establishment were kind in the extreme.
The vessels in port were one ship, corvette-built, of four hundred and fifty tons, commanded by the Lieutenant-Governor, and two brigs commanded by a lieutenant and a master. They belong to the "Imperial Russo-American Fur Company, who are paid similarly to our troops employed in the service of the East India Company, retaining their rank, and their service time going on.
We visited several stations in the sound, in order to determine the position of Mount Edgecumbe, the Cape, Pouce, and some of the mountains in the sound, in prosecution of a projected survey; a party was also employed cutting wood (cypress) intended for the construction of a new whale-boat.
The chiefs having pestered the Governor to ask permission to visit the Sulphur, and glad on my part of an occasion to show that no unfriendly feeling kept them away, I immediately consented to a nomination of the best characters, amounting to thirty-seven, which, with the addition of the Russian officers and ourselves, would form a pretty large party.
They observed great ceremony in their approach, and were dressed in the most fantastic garb imaginable, being generally painted with scores of vermillion, in some instances not devoid of taste. Some had helmets of wood, carved in imitation of frogs, seals, fish, or birds' heads. Others wore the very sensible plain conical hat (used by Mandarins in China) without rim, which serves effectually to ward off sun or rain; and the generality wore, or carried with them, their native shawl, which is very laboriously worked into carpet figures, from the wool of some animal which I could not ascertain. One or two had cloaks of American sables, which were very handsome, but far inferior to those of Siberia.
Most of the helmet party wore ermine skins, tied loosely about them, which I found were purchased at the factory, and are imported from Siberia (via Ochotsk) for traffic with the natives.
I had an opportunity here, as well as at Port Etches, of viewing some of the skins, particularly the sea-otter, which they purchase from the natives, and was not a little surprised to find how completely they have arrived at their standard value, which is a very high price. A moderately good sea-otter skin will fetch from six to seven blankets, increasing to thirteen for the best; no bargain being conclusive without sundry nicknacks, similar to the Chinese cumshaw. These generally may be estimated at one blanket, which should be worth twelve Shillings here. In money they frequently ask forty dollars; on the coast of California, at San Francisco, and Monterey, as much as eighty to a hundred.
When offering objects for sale, they are very sulky if their tender is not responded to; which in some measure accounts for the ill-humour experienced at Port Mulgrave, and which I am inclined to think would have terminated in hostility had I commenced purchases which could not have been followed up. Upon very mature consideration of what I have heard and seen respecting this subject, I think many of the unprovoked attacks we have heard of have originated in some transaction of this nature - refusal to trade being deemed almost a declaration of war. Facts, however, which have been acknowledged, prove that wanton malice has visited upon the next tribe the sins of their offending neighbours. This accounts for the two extremes we notice - extraordinary timidity when they are the weaker, and overbearing impertinence when they fancy themselves the more powerful party.
But to return to our party. The canoes were as fantastic as their occupants. They were carved in grotesque figures, and remarkably well handled. After encircling the ship, singing, and gesticulating, as if she was to become a good prize, they at length came on board, and were severally presented by the Governor, - not omitting their virtues or vice versa, when they possessed sufficient notoriety. I observed that those who had become (nominally) Christians were entitled to precedence, but no particular virtues were enumerated as their especial property.
A feast, as it is termed here, of rice and molasses, had been provided, on tables ranged on the maindeck. Instead of the proposed thirty-seven, I think one hundred might be nearer their number. After one good feed they were served with previously diluted grog (mixed to Sitka proof, about four to one); then a second dose of rice and molasses, followed by the grog, and then a third, finished that part of the meal; the ladies quietly bagging the remains in order, I presume, to prevent their soiling our maindeck. One or two ludicrous dances followed, to their own music, - a species of tambourine, clapping, yelling, &c., and a new musical Instrument, composed of three hoops with a cross in the centre, the circumferences being closely strung with the beaks of the Alca arctica. This being held by the centre of the cross from below, and given a short vibratory motion, similar to the escapement of a watch, produced not a bad accompaniment.
I was heartily glad when they decamped, as they began to be noisy, wanted more lumme (rum,) and thought they had not been treated well, - being as yet only half-seas over, it was too apparent what a pest they might have turned out had I indulged them further!
Slavery exists throughout the tribes on this part of the American coast, and some facts related by the Governor evince the extent to which they are subservient to the caprices of their masters. If a chief wishes to insult another, he sacrifices to him a certain number of slaves. It would be loss of stamp if the opponent failed in despatching an equal number, but generally a larger number answers the insult. This may continue until they have expended their stock, when they possibly come to personal attack, assisted by their allies of the tribe.
On the 26th of September, having completed our observations, we embarked the observatory, and moved down to the outer roads, in order to proceed to sea by a more direct channel. Before parting, the Governor gave an evening party and dance, to show us the female society of Sitka. The evening passed most delightfully; and although the ladies were almost self-taught, they acquitted themselves with all the ease, and I may add elegance, communicated by European instruction. Although few could converse with their partners, they still contrived to get through the dance without the slightest difficulty. Quadrilles and waltzing were kept up with great spirit, and I was not a little surprised to learn from our good friend and host, that many of the ladies then moving before us with easy and graceful air, had not an idea of dancing twelve months previous. I believe that the society is indebted principally to the Governor's elegant and accomplished lady for much of this polish.
This lady is of one of the first Russian families, and resembles the pictures of the empress. She accompanied her husband, enduring great hardships, through Siberia to Ochotsk on horseback or mules, in a most critical moment, in order to share with him the privations of this barbarous region. The lady of Baron Wrangel, I think, was the first Russian lady who ventured so far.
The whole establishment appears to be rapidly on the advance, and at no distant period we may hear of a trip to Norfolk Sound (through America) as little more than a summer excursion.
On the 27th of September we parted from our friends with much regret.
Narrative of a Voyage around the World, Performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur, During the Years 1836 – 1842
Vol. 1, London 1843; Reprint 1970