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The Outlaw Hunters

Chirikoff's crew on the St Paul had long since returned in safety to Kamchatka, and the garrison of the fort on Avacha Bay had given up Bering's men as lost forever, when one August morning the sentinel on guard along the shore front of Petropavlovsk descried a strange apparition approaching across the silver surface of an unruffled sea. It was like a huge whale, racing, galloping, coming in leaps and bounds of flying fins over the water towards the fort. The soldier telescoped his eyes with his hands and looked again. This was no whale. There was a mast pole with a limp skinthing for sail. It was a big, clumsy, raft shaped flatboat. The oarsmen were rowing like pursued maniacs, rising and falling bodily as they pulled. It was this that gave the craft the appearance of galloping over the water. The soldier called down others to look. Someone ran for the commander of the fort. What puzzled the onlookers was the appearance of the rowers. They did not look like human beings; their hair was long; their beards were unkempt. They were literally naked except for breechclouts and shoulder pieces of fur. Then somebody shouted the unexpected tidings that they were the castaways of Bering's crew.

Bugles rang; the fort drum rumbled a muster; the chapel bells pealed forth; and the whole population of the fort rushed to the waterside - shouting, gesticulating, laughing, crying - and welcomed with wild embraces the returning castaways. And while men looked for this one and that among the two score coming ashore from the raft, and women wept for those they did not find, on the outskirts of the crowd stood silent observers - Chinese traders and peddlers from Manchuria, who yearly visited Kamchatka to gather pelts for the annual great fur fairs held in China. The Chinese merchants looked hard; then nodded knowingly to each other, and came furtively down amid the groups along the shore front and timidly fingered the matted pelts worn by the half naked men. It was incredible. Each penniless castaway was wearing the fur of the sea otter, or what the Russians called the sea beaver, more valuable than seal, and, even at that day, rarer than silver fox. Never suspecting their value, the castaways had brought back a great number of the pelts of these animals; and when the Chinese merchants paid over the value of these furs in gold, the Russians awakened to a realization that while Bering had not found a Gamaland, he might have stumbled on as great a source of wealth as the furs of French Canada or the gold lined temples of Peru.

The story Bering's men told was that, while searching ravenously for food on the barren island where they had been cast, they had found vast kelp beds and seaweed marshes, where pastured the great manatee known as the sea cow. Its flesh had saved their lives. While hunting the sea cow in the kelp beds and sea marshes the men had noticed that whenever a swashing sea or tide drove the shattering spray up the rocks, there would come riding in on the storm whole herds of another sea denizen - thousands upon thousands of them, so tame that they did not know the fear of man, burying their heads in the sea kelp while the storm raged, lifting them only to breathe at intervals. This creature was six feet long from the tip of its round, cat shaped nose to the end of its stumpy, beaver shaped tail, with fur the color of ebony on the surface, soft seal color and grey below, and deep as sable. Quite unconscious of the worth of the fur, the castaway sailors fell on these visitors to the kelp beds and clubbed right and left, for skins to protect their nakedness from the biting winter winds.

It was the news of the sea wealth brought to Kamchatka by Bering's men that sent traders scurrying to the Aleutian Islands and Alaskan shores. Henceforth Siberian merchants were to vie with each other in outfitting hunters - criminals, political exiles, refugees, destitute sailors - to scour the coasts of America for sea otter. Throughout the long line of the Aleutian Islands and the neighboring coasts of North America, for over a century, hunters' boats - little cockleshell skiffs made of oiled walrus skin stretched on whalebone frames, narrow as a canoe, light as cork - rode the wildest seas in the wildest storms in pursuit of the sea otter. Sea otter became to the Pacific coast what beaver was to the Atlantic - the magnet that drew traders to the northwest seas, and ultimately led to the settlement of the northwest coast.

It was, to be sure, dangerous work hunting in wild northern gales on rocks slippery with ice and through spray that wiped out every outline of precipice edge or reef; but it offered variety to exiles in Siberia; and it offered more - a chance of wealth if they survived. Iron for bolts of boats must be brought all the way from Europe; so the outlaw hunters did without iron, and fastened planks together as best they could with deer thongs in place of nails, and moss and tallow in place of tar. In the crazy vessels so constructed they ventured out from Kamchatka two thousand miles across unknown boisterous seas. Once they had reached the Aleutians, natives were engaged to do the actual hunting under their direction. Exiles and criminals could not be expected to use gentle methods to attain their ends. 'God is high in the heavens and the Czar is far away, 'they said. The object was quick profit, and plundering was the easiest way to attain it. How were the Aleutian Indians paid? At first they were not paid at all. They were drugged into service with vodka, a liquor that put them in a frenzy; and bayoneted and bludgeoned into obedience. These methods failing, wives and children were seized by the Russians and held in camp as hostages to guarantee a big hunt. The Aleuts' one object in meeting the Russian hunter at all was to get possession of firearms. From the time Bering's crew and Chirikoff's men had first fired rifles in the presence of these poor savages of the North, the Indians had realized that ' the stick that thundered ' was a weapon they must possess, or see their tribe exterminated.

The brigades of sea otter hunters far exceeded in size and wild daring the platoons of beaver hunters, who ranged by packhorse and canoe from Hudson Bay to the Rocky Mountains. The Russian ship, provisioned for two or three years, would moor and draw up ashore for the winter on one of the eleven hundred Aleutian Islands. Huts would be constructed of driftwood, roofed with sea moss; and as time went on even rude forts were erected on two or three of the islands - like Oonalaska or Kadiak - where the kelp beds were extensive and the hunting was good enough to last for several years. The Indians would then be attracted to the camp by presents of brandy and glass beads and gay trinkets and firearms. Perhaps one thousand Aleut hunters would be assembled. Two types of hunting boats were used - the big 'bidarkie,' carrying twenty or thirty men, and the little kayak, a mere cockleshell. Oiled walrus skin, stretched taut as a drumhead, served as a covering for the kayak against the seas, a manhole being left in the centre for the paddler to ensconce himself waist deep, with oilskin round his waist to keep the water out. Clothing was worn fur side in, oiled side out; and the soles of all moccasins were padded with moss to protect the feet from the sharp rocks. Armed with clubs, spears, steel gaffs and rifles, the hunters would paddle out into the storm. There were three types of hunting - long distance rifle shooting, which the Russians taught the Aleuts; still hunting in a calm sea; storm hunting on the kelp beds and rocks as the wild tide rode in with its myriad swimmers. Rifles could be used only when the wind was away from the sea otter beds and the rocks offered good hiding above the sea swamps. This method was sea otter hunting deluxe. Still hunting could only be followed when the sea was smooth as glass. The Russian schooner would launch out a brigade of cockleshell kayaks on an unruffled stretch of sea, which the sea otter traversed going to and from the kelp beds. While the sea otter is a marine denizen, it must come up to breathe; and if it does not come up frequently of its own volition, the gases forming in its body bring it to the surface. The little kayaks would circle out silent as shadows over the silver surface of the sea. A round head would bob up, or a bubble show where a swimmer was moving below the surface. The kayaks would narrow their surrounding circle. Presently a head would appear. The hunter nearest would deal the death stroke with his steel gaff, and the quarry would be drawn in. But it was in the storm hunt over the kelp beds that the wildest work went on. Through the fiercest storm scudded bidarkies and kayaks, meeting the herds of sea otter as they drove before the gale. To be sure, the bidarkies filled and foundered; the kayaks were ripped on the teeth of the rock reefs. But the sea took no account of its dead; neither did the Russians. Only the Aleut women and children wept for the loss of the hunters who never returned; and sea otter hunting decreased the population of the Aleutian Islands by thousands. It was as fatal to the Indian as to the sea otter. Two hundred thousand sea otters were taken by the Russians in half a century. Kadiak yielded as many as 6000 pelts in a single year; Oonalaska, 3000; the Pribylovs, 5000; Sitka used to yield 15,000 a year. Today there are barely 200 a year found from the Commander Islands to Sitka, It may be imagined that Russian criminals were not easy masters to the simple Aleut women and children who were held as hostages in camp to guarantee a good hunt. Brandy flowed like water, the Czar was far away, and it was a land with no law but force. The Russian hunters cast conscience and fear to the winds. Who could know? God did not seem to see; and it was two thousand miles to the home fort in Kamchatka. When the hunt was poor, children were brained with clubbed rifles, women knouted to death before the eyes of husbands and fathers. In 1745 a whole village of Aleuts had poison put in their food by the Russians. The men were to eat first, and when they perished the women and children would be left as slaves to the Russians. A Cossack, Pushkareff, brought a ship out for the merchant Betshevin in 1762, and, in punishment for the murder of several brutal members of the crew by the Aleuts, he kidnapped twenty-five of their women. Then, as storm drove him towards Kamchatka, he feared to enter the home port with such a damning human cargo. So he promptly marooned fourteen victims on a rocky coast, and binding the others hand and foot, threw them into the sea. The merchant and the Cossack were both finally punished by the Russian government for the crimes of this voyage; but this did not silence the blood of the murdered women crying to Heaven for vengeance. In September 1762 the criminal ship came back to Avacha Bay. In complete ignorance of the Cossack's diabolical conduct, four Russian ships sailed that very month for the Aleutian Islands. Since 1741, when Bering's sailors had found the kelp beds, Aleuts had hunted the sea otter and Russians had hunted the Aleuts. For three years fate reversed the wheel. It was to be a manhunt of fugitive Russians.

Just before the snow fell in the autumn of 1763 Alexis Drusenin anchored his ship on the northeast corner of Oonalaska, where the rocks sprawl out in the sea in five great spurs like the fingers of a hand. The spurs are separated by tempestuous reef-ribbed seas. The Indians were so very friendly that they voluntarily placed hostages of good conduct in the Russians' hands. Two or three thousand Aleut hunters came flocking over the sea in their kayaks to join the sea otter brigades. On the spur opposite to Drusenin 's anchorage stood an Aleut village of forty houses; on the next spur, ten miles away across the sea, was another village of seventy people. The Russian captain divided his crew, and placed from nine to twelve men in each of the villages. With ample firearms and enough brandy half a dozen Russians could control a thousand Aleuts. Swaggering and bullying and loud voiced and pot-valiant, Drusenin and two Cossacks stooped to enter a low thatched Aleut hut. The entrance step pitched down into a sort of pit; and as Drusenin stumbled in face foremost a cudgel clubbed down on his skull.

 The Cossack behind stumbled headlong over the prostrate form of his officer; and in the dark there was a flash of long knives - such knives as the hunters used in skinning their prey. Both bodies were cut to fragments. The third man seized an axe as the murderers crowded round him and beat them back; he then sought safety in flight. There was a hiss of hurtling spears thrown after him with terrible deftness. With his back pierced in a dozen places, drenched in his own blood, the Cossack almost tumbled over the prostrate body of a sentinel who had been on guard at a house down by the ship, and had been wounded by the flying spears. A sailor dashed out, a yard long bear knife in his grasp, and dragged the two men inside. Of the dozen Russians stationed here only four survived; and their hut was beset by a rabble of Aleuts drunk with vodka, drunk with blood, drunk with a frenzy of revenge.

Cooped up in the hut, the Russians kept guard by twos till nightfall, when, dragging a bidarkie down to the water, they loaded it with provisions and firearms, and pushed out in the dark to the moan and heave of an unquiet sea. Though weakened from loss of blood, the fugitives rowed with fury for the next spur of rock, ten miles away, where they hoped to find help. The tiderip came out of the north with angry threat and broke against the rocks, but no blink of light shone through the dark from the Russian huts ashore. The men were afraid to land, and afraid not to land. Wind and sea would presently crush their frail craft to kindling wood against the rocky shore.

The Russians sprang out, waded ashore, uttered a shout! Instantly lances and spears fell about them like rain. They joined hands and ran for the cove where the big schooner had been moored. Breathlessly they waited for the dawn to discover where their ship lay; but daylight revealed only the broken wreckage of the vessel along the shore, while all about were bloodstains and pieces of clothing and mutilated bodies, which told but too plainly that the crew had been hacked to pieces. There was not a moment to be lost. Before the mist could lift, the fugitives gathered up some provisions scattered on the shore and ran for their lives to the high mountains farther inland. And when daylight came they scooped a hole in the sand, drew a piece of sailcloth over this, and lay in hiding till night.

From early December to early February the Russians hid in the caves of the Oonalaska Mountains. Clams, shellfish, seabirds stayed their hunger. It is supposed that they must have found shelter in one of the caves where there are medicinal hot springs; otherwise, they would have perished of cold. In February they succeeded in making a rude boat, and in this they set out by night to seek the ships of other Russian hunters. For a week they rowed out only at night. Then they began to row by day. They were seen by Indians, and once more sought safety in the caves of the mountains, where they remained in hiding for five weeks, venturing out only at night in search of food. Here, snow water and shellfish were all they had to sustain them; and again they must build a rude raft to escape. Towards the end of March they descried a Russian vessel in the offing, and at last succeeded in reaching friends.

Almost the same story could be told of the crews of each of the ships that had sailed from Avacha Bay in September 1762. One ship foundered. The castaways were stabbed where they lay in exhausted sleep. Every member of the crew on a third ship had been slain round a bathhouse, such as Russian hunters built in that climate to enable them to ward off rheumatism by vapor plunges. One ship only escaped the general butchery and carried the refugees home.

Of course, Cossack and hunter exacted terrible vengeance for this massacre. Whole villages were burned to the ground and every inhabitant sabred. On one occasion, as many as three hundred victims were tied in line and shot. The result was that the Cossacks' outrages and the Aleuts' vengeance drew the attention of the Russian government to this lucrative fur trade in the far new land. The disorders put an end to free, unrestricted trade.

Henceforth a hunter must have a license; and a license implied the favor of the court. The court saw to it that a governor took up his residence in the region to enforce justice and to compel the hunters to make honest returns. Like the Hudson's Bay men, the Russian fur traders had to report direct to the crown. Thus was inaugurated on the west coast of America the Russian regime, which ended only in 1867, when Alaska was ceded to the United States.


Routes of Explorers on the Pacific Coast


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Pioneers of the Pacific Coast, A Chronicle Of Sea Rovers And Fur Hunters, By Agnes C. Laut, Toronto. Glasgow, Brook & Company, 1915

 

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