While Joshua Slocum is famous as the first person to sail alone around the world, he also led the first American commercial salmon fishing venture in Cook Inlet, in 1871. Fishing off the Kasilof River with double-ended sailing dories, which later evolved into the famed Bristol Bay double ender, Slocum and his crew gillnetted salmon, survived shipwreck, and stopped in Kodiak on the way home to California.
Slocum was born in 1844 in Nova Scotia and ran away to sea when he was 14. Ambitious and intelligent, he sailed twice around Cape Horn and was chief mate on vessels delivering coal from Australia to San Francisco before he was 21.
In 1865 he became an American citizen and arrived on the Columbia River to gillnet salmon. Soon he was master of a schooner carrying freight and lumber between San Francisco and Puget Sound and in 1870, at the age of 26, was given command of the 332-ton barque Washington at San Francisco. His orders were to deliver general cargo to Sydney, Australia, and return home via the Alaskan salmon grounds.
Sailing from Australia to California by way of Alaska might at first seem bizarre, given that the Washington’s owners were not in the business of pioneering new fisheries. But Slocum’s salmon fishing experience on the Columbia, and the recent 1867 purchase of Alaska by the U.S. apparently made him believe there was money to be made delivering newly American Alaskan salmon to San Francisco.
Slocum’s plan was for the Washington to deliver a load of general cargo to Sydney, take on lumber and hemp there, and then sail for Alaska. On the way north the crew would use the wood and hemp to build a small fleet of Columbia River dories and hang gillnets. He convinced the ship’s owners to back the venture.
The Washington arrived in Sydney Harbor in late December 1870. While the cargo was unloaded and the materials for the Alaskan venture procured, Slocum strode confidently into Sydney society. At a Christmas party he met Virginia Walker, the 21-year-old daughter of an American businessman who had immigrated with his family to Australia. Slocum courted Virginia for a month and married her on Jan. 31. The Washington set sail for Alaska soon after, with Virginia and her 12-year-old brother on board. What her parents thought about this turn of events is unrecorded, but Virginia would sail with Joshua for the next 13 years, delivering seven children at sea and in various exotic ports.
The Washington made the 9,000-mile passage from Sydney to Cook Inlet in 49 days, anchoring off the Kasilof River in the late spring of 1871. Slocum and his crew constructed a fishing camp onshore and were soon catching and salting salmon.
The fishing was good but the Washington dragged anchor in a westerly storm in July and wrecked on Kasilof Reef. No lives were lost and the crew continued to fish while Slocum directed the construction of a smaller vessel from the timbers of the Washington. In August, with the salmon run diminishing, Slocum, his wife, her young brother, and most the crew sailed the newly built vessel to Kodiak. On arrival there, Slocum hired a vessel to sail back to Kasilof to pick up the salted fish and the caretaking crewmembers. A few weeks later the entire party and their salted salmon sailed from Kodiak to San Francisco on board the Czarevitch, a Russian American Commercial company ship.
Despite the loss of the Washington, and apparently impressed with Slocum’s initiative and ingenuity on the Alaskan venture, the ship’s owners gave him a new command, the Constitution. Slocum spent the next 20 years as a ship’s master on various ships on every ocean, accompanied by Virginia and their growing family, until Virginia died of fever on board the Aquidneck in Brazil in 1884.
Two years later Slocum married his cousin Henrietta, who like Virginia, accompanied her husband at sea. Over the next two years, Henrietta endured a hurricane, a cholera epidemic, an attack by pirates, an outbreak of smallpox among the crew, shipwreck on the coast of Brazil and a 5,500 mile voyage back to the United States in the 35-foot boat Slocum built on a riverbank with materials salvaged from the shipwreck. They arrived safely in South Carolina, but Henrietta was done with the sea.
Slocum continued commanding sailing ships until 1892, when, with steam power having mostly replaced sails, he found himself ashore and unemployed at the age of forty eight. A friend offered him a derelict 40-foot Chesapeake Bay oyster boat in Fairhaven, Massachusetts, which he rebuilt and sailed away from Halifax, Nova Scotia in July 1895. Enduring storms, loneliness, food poisoning, and attacks by Tierra Fuegian savages, he arrived in Rhode Island in June 1898, the first person to sail alone around the world.
Slocum’s account of the voyage, “Sailing Alone Around the World”, was an immediate success. Noting the high dose of adventure in the book, one reviewer wrote that “boys who do not like this book ought to be drowned at once.” The book also made him an instant celebrity, and gained him dinner invitations from Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain, among others. Land was not for him however, and in November 1909 he set sail alone from Massachusetts on a voyage of discovery to the Amazon. Slocum and the Spray was never seen again however. Believed by his friends to have been run over by a steamship or sunk by a whale, the mystery of Slocum’s disappearance has never been solved.
Well into the 20th century, the ribs of the Washington remained visible on the beach at Kasilof. Virginia Slocum often talked about the beauty of Cook Inlet and Kodiak and vowed to return someday, but as far as is known, neither she nor her husband ever saw Alaska again. Next time you stand on the lawn of the Kodiak History Museum however, consider that Joshua and Virginia, pregnant with her first child, likely stood there once too, looking down the channel at the horizon on a late summer day a century and half ago.
AlaskaShipwrecks.com, Captain Joshua Slocum: The Life and Voyages of America’s Best Known Sailor, by Victor Slocum