Sunday, April 29, 2012

North To Alaska October 6, 1898


Our adventurous duo left home in January to go seek their fortune in the goldrush. Ten months later they are beating a hasty retreat from Alaska and by December had returned to the Eastern Shore. This is their final letter published in the Salisbury Advertiser.

Seattle, Washington
October 6, 1898

Dear Brother,

You can not imagine how glad we were to get on land again. We have been out on the water for forty days. We left Eagle City the 26th of August in our small boat “Mena,” and ran night and day. We would take six hours’ watches, I was on from six in the morning till twelve, and “Billy” from twelve to six and the same at night. We had to do this as we did not have any time to spare as the nights were getting pretty cold. We would average about seventy-five miles a day, often making one hundred.

We stopped at Star City the first night. On Sunday afternoon we got to Circle City; some claim this to be the largest log cabin town in the world. That may be but there is no one living in the cabins, at least not many, and things are a little dead around there since the Klondike strike. On Saturday night before we saw one of the finest exhibitions of the Aurora that it has been our pleasure to witness. It was something grand. I can only describe one scene and that was as if one had taken a fan with each fold gaily colored and open it in the sky, it being large enough to cover one half the sky. The effect was beyond description.

On Tuesday we got to Ft Yukon. There are only about a dozen log cabins there and they are nearly all occupied by the Indians. From there we proceed down the river, stopping at all the towns and villages.

The scenery was very pretty and it was an interesting trip. We had very nice weather until we passed Ft Yukon , and then it was windy and rained for four days and nights without stopping, but we pushed our little open launch along just the same, knowing that winter was coming whether it rained or not.

One day the wind was blowing so hard that we could not run at all so we stopped at an Indian Camp and spent the day, the Indians amusing us all day. As soon as we landed the old squaw came down to the boat and all she could say was to make signs and say ya kei yo hi kos ku ya kihi octi ne iska che-choc-ti, and then she left, but of course we answered her and like to tore our heads off nodding and shaking them, and say yes all the time. I suppose she was trying to sell us a fish for pretty soon she came back with a big salmon and holding it out to us saying all the time wa che-choc-ti meant we shook our heads and said no, we no che-choc-ti but would trade; we got two red handkerchiefs and offered them to her and we got the fish for two five cent handkerchiefs, instead of paying wa che-choc-ti, wa meaning one and che-choc-ti, silver money; or one dollar she wanted for the fish, but it was well worth it. Pretty soon the “old man” came down and wanted to shake hands with us and then about a dozen children and they stayed down almost all day. There was one boy that could talk English real nice, and he would translate the Indian latin to us, and he taught us a lot of Indian Language; he went to a mission school one year and learned to talk. The old squaw came out and gave us two regular Indian war dances, and they were real amusing. And the way those kids were dressed – some of them had a small piece of gingham (or something of the kind) with two arm holes cut in it and came down about three inches below the arms, and the rest was bare, nothing on at all, and it was very cold that day but they didn’t mind it.

We traded for several Indian curiosities such as tobacco pouches, a skin parka, bow and arrows, Indian knives, moccasins, etc. but I like to forget to tell you about the Indians getting after us and for a long distance our hair almost stood on end, but it was all out fault. We passed an Indian Village and just around a curve there was a Indian burial grounds and we saw some funny looking things up on high poles over the graves, knowing it was Indian carvings we were very anxious to get hold of them, so we landed down the shore and walked back to the graveyard. I suppose one saw me go up in the burying grounds and at once started and other followed. I got three of the animals and started for the boat, I didn’t think to look around to see if anyone was in sight, but pretty soon Billy met me and told me that an Indian was after me, I didn’t turn around to look, but started in a run, got to the boat and put the animals under the bed and we were not long untying the boat and getting to the oars and then we worked like good boys , had a swift current and made pretty good time, but the Indians had little bark canoes and they would go right through the water. Finally they left us, or rather we left them, and then we took a rest but did not loose much time in getting as far away as possible.

As for wild geese and ducks I don’t think there can be any place in the world to equal that country, they seem to go in flocks by the thousands , and not very wild. If we had only had a shotgun we would have lived on geese and ducks.

We saw the river was about to freeze up so we stopped at Holy Cross Mission, which is only 400 miles from St. Michaels, September 11th, and waited for a steamer, but only had to wait a few hours. After we got on the steamer we thought our trouble all over but we got stuck on a sand bar and had to wait twenty-four hours for the tide to come in, then we arrived St. Michaels September 16th. we looked around for the best steamer, and one that was able to go to sea without too much risk. We bought passage at once so we would not have to pay any board (board $8.00 a day) and left Monday night, September 19th.

The Indians at St. Michaels are not as civilized as the up-the-river Indians. They bury their dead on the ground – too much trouble to dig a hole as the ground is frozen all year around. Then they get logs and pile upon the coffin, or box, to keep the dogs and things off, and then tin cans, bottles, bow and arrows, and in fact almost everything within the power of Mr. Indian to think of is put upon the poles. When the next generation dies their boxes are put on top of their father’s and mother’s just as they were laid on their ancestors, and the result is that there is quite a large mound of boxes.

They live mostly in turf houses. Their houses are made of a frame of driftwood ( no timber for hundreds of miles) covered with the mud or grass turf they dig up there.

When two days out we found that our trouble had only begun. The sailors say you can’t find a worse place anywhere than on the Bering sea during a storm, so you see it must be pretty bad. The waves run in three different directions and when they would all three strike the boat at one time you would think she was smashed to pieces from the way the timbers would crack and she trembled like a leaf. When three days out from the Yukon one of the worst storms the captain ever encountered burst upon the staunch little craft tearing away the mainsail and foresail, besides playing havoc with the rigging, the gale raged with unabated fury for twenty-four hours nearly every sea breaking over the steamer, and it not been for the fine seamanship of the Captain and crew all would have been lost.

It makes a fellow feel a little funny to see the wind tearing away both sails and playing havoc with the rigging and the waves breaking over the ship, and just to think we just outside the harbor but it impossible to get in between the rocks. Never did I realize the meaning of the word harbor as I did when I heard the mate say, within one hour we will be in the harbor. After we got in the water was as nice and smooth as you please. We went ashore and walked over to Unalaska, about half a mile, stayed there a while then went back to the boat.

Next morning the wind was not blowing so hard so the captain started again but had not gone far out on the Pacific when it came up stormy again and for seven solid days it was nothing but squalls and storms, some days a squall every hour, but most of the wind struck the ship astern, driving her along some of the time at the rate of fourteen knots an hour. Those waves on the ocean seemed to be 100 feet high but I guess not so bad as that; just imagine a man walking down the dining room and the first thing he knows he lying across the table, then he looks to see what takes him there, and by that time he is lying across on the other side of the room he raises up to see where he is, then he is away up in the bow of the boat trying to knock the partitions out with his head, then he raises up and the boat is still for a few seconds, he thinks he had better go his room, he gets up and starts, walks a few steps and he is landed down in the other end of the room knocking the feet from under another man; and then he gets to his room, goes to bed, takes hold of the rails with a dying grip, goes to sleep, wakes up in the morning, rubs his eyes and says he had a night mare.

Well I will tell you the rest next time if I don’t forget it. We have taken out “dust” up to the government assay office to have it coined into money. We saved out a few nuggets to look at when we get old, and to remind us of our trip through the land of gold. I suppose there is about seventy-five dollars worth of them. We will express them home in a few days for safe keeping.

We have now about shed our Klondike dirt and rags and are beginning to feel like civilized beings again. Just think! Fried Chicken yesterday, buckwheat cakes and sausage this morning and all the fruit we can eat, and in fact everything. Only those who have been deprived of those things for about eight months can appreciate the pleasure of having them. Not for money would we go down to bacon and beans again. We are fully satisfied now to stay in God’s Country, but I think it will be quite a while before we go east again. We have heard of the west and are anxious to see it.

Wm T. Hearn

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