Bibliographic Information

The Plough Boy Journals

The Journals and Associated Documents

The Plough Boy Anthology

19th Century American Whaling

Bonin Islands

Pitcairn's Island

Dictionaries & Glossaries

Ashley's Glossary of
Whaling Terms

Dana's Dictionary of
Sea Terms


W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. LII, No. 3 (Sep 1880)

248 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.



We had dropped our anchor within a few miles of the land on the American side, after having passed through Behring’s Straits. A boat expedition was sent to explore along the coast, with the hope of falling in with a polar whale.

      But the cetaceous giants seemed to have fled the vicinity for the time being. None were to be seen in a cruise of several miles along shore, though the water was smooth as glass, and the sky unusually clear for that part of the world. Both continents were in plain view from the ship when we left, but few vessels; most of the fleet having stood over for the bluff of Cape East on the Asiatic side of the basin.

      We extended our reconnoissance in the boats farther than we had at first intended; but, seeing nothing to reward our search, were about giving it up to return, when, on rounding a bend, we were saluted with loud cries in a barbarous jargon.

      A settlement, or village, if it deserves the name, opened suddenly to our view, and the shouts of the Indians were evidently those of welcome and invitation. Impelled by curiosity, we laid our boats’ heads on shore, and were soon quite at home, mingling freely among the strange-looking inhabitants.

      The huts forming the settlement were only four in number, and were planted near the mouth of a small creek. on perhaps the most eligible side that could be chosen where the whole face of the earth was little better than a quagmire. Anything more cheerless and desolate for the abode of human beings can hardly be imagined.

      The population of this migratory establishment amounted to about forty souls; which might be considered a large one. These people seldom form more numerous communities; and probably the whole census of the shores and islands of Behring‘s Sea, above the parallel of sixty, would foot up but a few thousands.

      Their wigwams, like their boats, were built of the skins of beasts, stretched over a framework, either of driftwood, or of the ribs of whales, planted in a circle and converging upward to form a rude kind of dome. They were, of course. only intended for summer lodgings, to be struck and removed at short notice, at the call of necessity or whim.

      Large quantities of birds, roughly plucked and apparently smoke-dried, the flesh black and tough, looking like the jerked beef of South America, were strung up, in and about their habitations, probably to form part of their winter stock. But the chief magazine of provisions we found to consist of a pit or excavation dug in the earth, and rudely housed over to keep out the rain and snow. leaving an aperture and covered way to creep in at.

      "Here’s the grub-locker!" exclaimed Joe West, our boatsteerer, who had stumbled upon the place in his wanderings and thrust his head in at the hole. "Come here, boys, and take a snuff at it! These fellows are going to fatten next winter."

      We all hastened at his call, to take a "snuff," and a peep into the subterranean storehouse. It was half filled with blubber, both of whale and walrus, which had been thrown in loosely, but was gradually settling and packing itself down into a mass; while the little pools of oil could be seen shining at all the lowest places.

      "Now, don’t that look tempting to you, Spunyarn?" said West to the other boatsteerer, a stalwart Kanaka from the Marquesaw group.

      But Spunyarn snapped his nostrils as only a South-Sea Islander can, and evinced the strongest symptoms of disgust. Yet, in proof that these things are mere matters of taste, growing out of acquired habits, the Marquesaw would, doubtless, have devoured at sight a whole package of his native mahee, or sour, fermented paste, known to seamen as "hurrah!" the odor of which is even more offensive to civilized man than that from the ancient fat in the Esquimaux pit.

      The women whom we met with here were, if possible, inferior in personal beauty to their lords. For, in the softening down of features, the nose became, as it were, a mere pimple, deep down in a valley between the mountainous cheeks. It was not easy to distinguish the sexes at a single glance. unless the hair could be seen, as the men had little or no beard; while, so far as costume was concerned, one fashion-plate would have served for both ladies and gentlemen. The little ones, unctuous and rosy, capered about in their clumsy bundles of skins. not unlike young bears or dancing dogs.

      Their oomiaks, or skin boats, of which there were four, corresponding in number to the huts, were placed upon raised platforms of driftwood, convenient to the waterside, with their "craft" in readiness for ac-

Aversion to the Sea. 249

tion. Suddenly we observed a stir and excitement pervading the camp, followed by a rush to the boats, which were seized and lugged down to the beach. Looking seaward we saw the meaning of all this; for a group or small herd of walruses had appeared off the mouth of the estuary.

      We had occasionally captured one or two of these beasts, for the sake of sport and adventure, in the absence of larger game. But we considered them hardly worth the expenditure of craft; killing them with harpoon and lance, as the whaleman attacks everything in the watery element, even to the redoubtable polar bear. And, having a great curiosity to see the Indian mode of attack, we now played the part of spectators.

      There was a general turnout of the whole population, the women and children all running down to see the sport and assist in pushing the boats afloat. I observed that they brought down vessels of whalebone, containing dried sand or dirt, which were passed into the oomiaks. They launched out, seized their paddles in silence, and in a few minutes were among the herd of savage-looking beasts, who met them bravely.

      The harpoon used by these hunters is a light but ingenious affair, made on the toggle plan. After it enters the animal, the pole is pulled out of a socket into which it is fitted, leaving the head of ivory, to which the line is fast, in the flesh or blubber. The boats were soon "fast," and the scene became very lively and exciting.

      The Esquimaux manoeuvred their boats with great dexterity, turning and winding among the enraged beasts; and, when pressed too closely, they were seen to throw handfuls of the dry sand in the eyes of their victims. Blinded and confused, the animals turned away and dived to wash it out before renewing the attack.

      "There, Joe," said the mate, "is a trick that we hadn’t learned. We should never have thought to carry a little Nantucket with us in the boat-bucket."

      "It’s never too late to learn," was the answer. "But it’s astonishing how easily they manage to kill them with their clumsy tools. Here comes a boat now with a dead one in tow."

      The first prize landed was immediately seized and dragged up through the mud with triumphant shouts, in which operations, both the dragging and the shouting, the women and children played a conspicuous part. The proud harpooner could hardly wait to cut out his weapon, ere he pushed his lips to the hole, and sucked a long draught of the blood with the keenest relish. His example was at once followed by another, and, as more game was soon landed, the whole party were gorged with blood before the meat was disposed off. The children were by no means backward in plunging their little, chubby faces into the gaping wounds, and satisfying the blood-thirsty appetite.

      But an impending fog-bank warned us that it was time to leave our simple-minded hosts, if we wished to regain our floating home before it shut down upon us. Fog is the greatest drawback to the success of the cruiser in the high northern latitude, on the Pacific side of the globe, as it occasions the loss of much valuable time from a season of operations necessarily short enough, to say nothing of the dangers incurred.

      We parted from these strange beings with much good will on both sides; and, as we passed out at the mouth of the inlet, we lost sight of them, grouped about the carcasses of the walruses, flourishing their short knives, and joining – men, women and children – in a dance of delight at the magnitude and splendor of their prizes.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: The Western Esquimaux At Home.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol 52, No. 3 (Sep 1880)
Pages: 248-249