Editor’s note: This is one of a series of columns exploring bowhead whales and the bowhead whale exhibit now on display at the University of Alaska Museum of the North.
Last week’s column left unfinished the story of the USS Jeannette Expedition. One of the expedition’s two Indigenous Alaskans, Alexey, was credited in Lt. George W. DeLong’s last few journal entries with successfully hunting waterfowl and ptarmigan. He undoubtedly prolonged the lives of the 14 men in the ill-fated party, before Alexey himself succumbed to hypothermia and starvation in mid-October 1881.
The other Indigenous Alaskan, Aneguin, helped his 12-man party of shipwreck survivors (including its leader, George W. Melville) by hunting, and by befriending Indigenous Yakut and Evenk subsistence hunters on the delta of Russia’s Lena River. Eleven of that group of 12 made it home to the U.S. by traveling westward via St. Petersburg and crossing the Atlantic. Aneguin died of smallpox contracted while traveling eastward toward Alaska.
Hampton Sides’ 2014 book, “In the Kingdom of Ice,” restored respect for the USS Jeannette Expedition’s contributions to knowledge of Beringia and the Arctic. Mounting concern for the welfare of the Expedition had led to several searches in 1881, notably one by Treasury Department steam cutter Corwin. That search led to discovery of widespread death by starvation, disease, or both, in Indigenous communities on St. Lawrence Island. There, Pacific walrus, alternate prey for Indigenous whalers, had been reduced by Yankee commercial whalers. Several seasons of adverse conditions had caused failure of profitable oil harvests from bowheads by the dwindling fleet of Yankee whaleships.
During Corwin’s search for clues to Jeannette’s fate, naturalist John Muir recorded meeting U.S. Army Signal Corps Lt. Patrick Henry Ray, headed north to carry out his Expedition to Point Barrow as part of the first International Polar Year (IPY) of 1882-83.
Besides executing pages of explicit geological, navigational, and magnetic survey orders, Lt. Ray and his men established mutual respect with hospitable Iñupiat communities of Utqiagvik to the west, and Nuvuk to the east of the Expedition’s station, which his 10-man party erected in the autumn of 1881. Good community relations inspired Expedition members to undertake measurements and observations beyond those specified in Army orders.
One inspiration involved 15 months of scraping a vertical shaft beneath their station building. They wondered at what temperature and depth seasonal temperature fluctuations from the atmosphere stopped being detectable. This mimicry of Iñupiat ice cellar construction showed that at 36 feet below the surface, a steady temperature of 12.2 degrees was attained — for preserving meat and fish year-round.
Other examples of extra effort and consideration for their Iñupiat hosts were the extensive lexicon of terms the Expedition compiled, the censuses they made of Nuwuk (growing in size) and Utqiagvik (decreasing population), and concern over the Indigenous whaling crews’ managing to land only one adult bowhead whale in 1882 and 1883.
Upon becoming stationmaster for the Pacific Steam Whaling Company in 1885, Charles D. Brower inherited the IPY station, and nurtured the tradition of mutual respect adopted by Lt. P.H. Ray.
Dave Norton is a retired UAF research faculty member, instructor for UAF’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, and Member of Friends of the University of Alaska Museum of the North.