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'The Alaskan' newspaper - Sitka, Alaska Territory, 1891

SITKA, ALASKA TERRITORY,     Saturday, June 27, 1891



    The agreement entered into between the United States and the British Government, whereby the taking of fur seal in Bering Sea is to be prohibited in the future, revives once more the interest naturally attaching to the operations of sealing schooners in those waters. The annexed remarkable narrative - remarkable because every word of it is true - giving the details of the cruise of a piratical vessel in the prohibited area fifteen years ago is of exceeding interest just now and will prove "rare reading" to those who never before heard the circumstances of the affair. The narrative is copied from a manuscript written in the year 1884.


    Seal fishing in Alaskan waters is one of the most profitable industries in the United States. Considering the number of men and vessels employed, and the actual capital invested, the yield to the Company enjoying the exclusive monopoly of the trade is simply enormous. By an act of Congress, the sole privilege of killing fur bearing seals and preserving the skins is granted to the Alaska Commercial Company. San Francisco is the head quarters of this corporation. Some years ago the Company was organized by General J. F. Miller (now United States Senator from California), Mr. Kohl, and others.
    As a measure of protection, a bill was passed by Congress giving to the Alaska Commercial Company the exclusive right to carry on seal fishing in the waters in and about Alaska. This law was enacted in consideration of an annual subsidy to be paid by the corporation to the general government. For each seal killed and skin obtained, the Company is required to pay the government the sum of one dollar. One provision of this law is, that only one hundred thousand seals shall be killed every year, and under this statute the government is supposed to receive an annual subsidy of one hundred thousand dollars. It is claimed, however, on good authority, that a great many of these valuable animals are killed each year in excess of the number fixed by the law of Congress. The payment of the subsidy affords the Alaska Commercial Company a monopoly of the seal traffic in the extreme North Pacific Ocean, and prohibits, under heavy penalty, any other corporation or individual from trespassing on the designated fishing grounds. Any vessel not belonging to the corporation found in Alaskan waters engaged in capturing seals is subject to seizure and confiscation; and any person so employed is liable to arrest and punishment.
    Notwithstanding the heavy penalties, the temptation is so strong - that many persons have surreptitiously engaged in the hazardous business. Cupidity, aided by a love of romantic adventure, has induced a certain reckless class of men to embark in such an enterprise in stealthy defiance of the legal consequences.
    Seal fishing is principally carried on in and about the Islands of St. Paul and St. George, or among what are known as the Pribilof Islands. To prevent trespass on these fishing grounds, the government employs a person who lives on one of these islands, and who is instructed to guard the interests both of the United States and of the Company. He is required to prevent any vessels or persons from engaging in the illicit business of killing seals; and also to see that the Company does not destroy more seals than the law allows. Such an inspector acts under direction of the Collector of Customs of Alaska Territory, and is authorized to capture all trespassing vessels, and apprehend all persons found illegally engaged in capturing these valuable fur-producing animals.
    For a number of years past, reckless adventurers have violated the law by the introduction of arms, ammunition, and liquor into the Territory, and by the killing of seals; and United States officials have found their hands virtually tied, owing to the anomalous condition of affairs, the Territory, as a matter of fact, having neither civil nor military law. This embarassing state of things has been greatly augmented by there being no rapid method of communication between the stations, and by the government's failure to supply the officers with proper vessels or boats. Almost every season three to four rapid schooners, well manned, have entered the waters of Alaska, and passed in to Bering Sea, made a descent on the Pribilof Islands, to kill seals, trade liquor to the Indians on the mainland, and altogether reap a very profitable harvest.
    On the 27th of March, 1876, the Schooner Ocean Spray, of eighty-three tons burden, owned by George W. Kentfield, of San Francisco, sailed from that port, after being duly enrolled and licensed there "for Bering's Sea, or elsewhere," bound on a fishing cruise. Frank Howell was the charterer, and the schooner was under the command of Captain Thomas Butler. The crew consisted of the first and second mate, four men before the mast and a cook. No "log" was kept by the Ocean Spray, and she had no manifest. Among the cargo were a large number of butcher knives, guns, and a considerable quantity of liquor.
    On the 25th day out the schooner put into the port of Victoria, from which place, according to the consular certificate, she cleared on the 26th of April for Wrangel, Alaska, "on a fishing license from San Francisco." At Victoria some trifling repairs were made to the vessel, and a crew of twenty-four Indians and two interpreters were hired to "take seals in the northern waters." A whale-boat was also purchased and the vessel provided with some additional stores. Clubs for killing seals were likewise obtained. Thus equipped for her northern cruise, the Ocean Spray, on the 27th of April, proceeded to Neah Bay, Washington Territory. Three more canoes were purchased there. From that point the schooner sailed northward and made the Aleutian Islands, probably at Unimak Pass, about June 1st. Here the vessel came to anchor for a few days, and during that time the master supplied the vessel with fuel and water. Leaving that place the Ocean Spray proceeded in the direction of Pribilof Islands, and after sailing for some time dropped anchor about ten miles south-east of one of that group, called the Sea Otter Isle.
    A canoe went ashore here with six Indians and an interpreter named Wilkins, in charge of a Dr. Thatcher, who appeared to have some interest in the adventure. The object of this was to reconnoitre, and ascertain if there where any persons or seals on the island. They found neither after a short search. When they were returning to the schooner a heavy fog came up, and the canoe was lost. For five days and four nights the seven men drifted almost helplessly about in their open boat looking vainly for the vessel. Abandoning, at length, all hope of ever finding the schooner, Thatcher ordered the Indians to pull for St. Paul's Island, distant only about a league from Sea Otter Isle.
    During all this time the Ocean Spray beat on and off the island, searching for the missing canoe. Approaching within a mile of Sea Otter Isle - as near as it was safe - Captain Butler sent of two canoes, manned by Indians, telling them to make careful and diligent quest for the missing men. Each day they returned reporting that they had seen nothing of Thatcher and his party. In the hope of finding the men at St. Paul, the schooner sailed for that island. Here they found the missing crew.
    A fierce quarrel then arose between Thatcher (who was a reckless, desperate fellow), and Howell and Captain Butler. Between these parties bad blood existed. Butler and Howell accused Thatcher of exciting the Indians, on the way up, to mutiny. they declared boldly that he had endeavored to get up a conspiracy; to obtain command of the vessel, and then turn pirate; and, if they resisted, to cut their throats and throw them overboard. In retaliation, Thatcher accused the two men of abandoning him and his party in the hope that they would drift off and perish. So bitter was the quarrel that, it appeared, a further cruise was abandoned. Hatred and mutual distrust seemed to divide the men, and to proceed on the voyage of danger was considered useless.
    Up to this time only a few seals had been killed. The revenue cutter was known to be steaming about those waters, looking out for trespassers, and fear of capture kept the crew in a constant state of anxiety. Once or twice the cutter had sighted the suspicious looking craft, and had given a warm chase. But the Ocean Spray was a very rapid sailer, and, by taking advantage of the many narrow, tortuous channels and heavy fogs managed to elude pursuit. On the 30th of June the piratical schooner had reached Makouchinskoy Bay, on the northwest side of Unalaska, and about 250 miles southeast of Sea Otter. At this point the crew became fearful of falling into the clutches of the revenue cutter or the agent of the government, and the master concluded it would be a wise precaution to remain quiet for a time in one of the numerous little inlets about the islands.
    Captain Le Roy Woods, a young officer who, during the war of the Rebellion, had rendered very meritorious service in one of the Indiana regiments, had, some time prior to the date of the cruise of the Ocean Spray, been appointed government inspector, or, in reality, deputy United States collector of customs for Alaska, and was stationed at St. Paul Island. News of the appearance of the suspicious looking stranger had reached Captain woods, and he was on the alert, determined, if possible, to overhaul her and bring the crew to account. No time was lost by the inspector. As the vessel had been sighted several times, her size, class and general appearance had been described to him. He soon learned from some friendly Indians that a large schooner was lying weather-bound in the Bay of Makouchinskoy, some forty miles from where he was stationed. Captain Woods resolved at once on capturing the vessel.
    On the 29th of June he took with him four native Aleuts in two light skin boats and went to the foot of Captain's Harbor, about eight miles from Unalaska. Between Captain's Harbor and Makouchinskoy Bay is a lofty range of mountains, the highest peak being the Volcano of Makouchinskoy. Woods and his four followers reached the foot of those rugged and precipitous mountains about seven o'clock, P.M. Here the party made a detour across the snow and near the icy precipices which mark the outline of the everlasting glacier. Crossing the lofty ridge, Captain Woods could easily see both the Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea. From this high point a wearisome and dangerous descent began, over snow, ice, boulders, lava and scoriæ. Working their way painfully and with extreme caution below the cloud line, the party halted to rest, for they were well nigh exhausted. A strong wind was blowing, the fog setting in, and Captain Woods was fearful the fugitive schooner might work out from the narrow bay into the open sea; so he pressed eagerly forward. Fortified by a strong cup of fragrant tea, the weary party moved rapidly down the precipitous declivities, and, after several hours' labor, reached the base of the range.
    About seven o'clock, A.M., Captain Woods discovered a bidarka (or skin boat) which had been hastily cached. With two Indians only, Woods embarked in the frail and unsteady craft and put boldly to sea. There was an ugly chop sea, a stiff gale, and a heavy fog. They worked manfully at the paddles, and at ten A.M., had made the vessel out dimly through the mist. She was lying in a bight about three miles south of the harbor. Working silently and swiftly up to the schooner, Woods boarded her before any of the crew was aware of his presence. No resistance was offered at the time. He found it was the Ocean Spray, bound on a seal fishing cruise, and fully equipped with arms, ammunition and liquor. There were on board twenty-six Indians - Haidahs, Bella Bellas and Bella Coolas from Vancouver and Queen Charlotte's Islands. After careful inspection of the vessel and examination of the papers, Captain Woods deemed it his duty to make a formal seizure, and to run the schooner and crew to Unalaska, and thence to Sitka.
    Captain Butler was found to be an old slaver, and his first mate had followed whaling for many years. The third officer was a half-breed. These officers, reckless and desperate men backed by a crew of Indians no less blood-thirsty, combined to form as lawless and piratical a company as could be met with anywhere. Captain Woods was all alone when the capture was made, having sent his two Indians back for assistance. Finding the vessel seized, the officers and crew organized a conspiracy to murder Woods and throw his body overboard. By his coolness and personal courage, that officer frustrated their mutinous and murderous designs, and enforced obedience among those desperate men.
    When the vessel was off Kadiak, the officers incited the Indians to mutiny, and Woods, as he expressed it, thought for a time "that the game was up," expecting them to cut his throat. For two days and nights he stood at the wheel with his revolver, never daring to sleep, directing in person the course of the vessel, and watching every movement of those on board. At length the Indians came to the conclusion that the officers had got them into very serious trouble (supposing they would all be hanged when they reached Sitka), and became greatly incensed against them. So bitter was this feeling that they would not have hesitated to murder the officers had Woods only told them to do so. Fearing the vengeance of the Indians, the officers stood by Woods for protection, and thus he found himself complete master of the situation. However, great nerve and no small degree of tact were required to exercise authority and bring such desperate elements under control.
    The Ocean Spray was captured about 1,400 miles west of Sitka, and brought by Woods in person to that port. Thence she was brought to Portland by order of the United States Court, before which tribunal the vessel and crew were to be tried. The seizure was made on July 1st. Sitka was reached August 11th, and Portland August 26th. Captain Butler was turned over to the custody of the military at Sitka on the arrival of the vessel there, where he was subsequently tried. Against the schooner a libel was issued, charging her with violation of the United States laws in relation to killing fur-bearing animals in Alaska Territory; also for clearing domestic and going foreign. After considerable delay, the case came on for trial, before Judge Deady, of the United States Court. The testimony was conclusive that the Ocean Spray had been chartered and equipped for the specific purpose of engaging unlawfully in capturing seals in Alaska; but it could not be proved that the vessel had been actually engaged in the killing of seals. A few had been killed - so one of the officers admitted - but the skins were thrown overboard when the schooner was chased by the cutter.
    Want of sufficient evidence to clearly establish the charge resulted in the dismissal of the cases. Suit, however, was brought by the Indians who had been hired to accompany the expedition, for the recovery of the wages due them. These Indians claimed to belong to the vessel, having been employed as seamen, and were consequently justly entitled to receive pay from the date of shipping. Judge Deady sustained these claims, and the piratical craft was ordered to be sold by the United States Marshal, in satisfaction of these demands. The Ocean Spray, after her brief but very eventful cruise in northern waters, was sold at auction, and purchased by parties in Portland, the total amount paid scarcely liquidating the claims held by the Indian crew. Subsequently the purchasers refitted the schooner and she made voyages between Portland, Shoalwater and Yaquina Bays. A few years later the sprightly little sailer was sold again to parties who sent her with a cargo of lumber to some South American port. Whatever became of her, or her subsequent career, is unknown. Captain Butler was examined by the authorities at Sitka, but discharged. Gallagher, the first mate, Howell, and Thatcher, were all brought to Portland in charge of Woods; but as the vessel escaped forfeiture, these men all escaped punishment. They soon drifted away, and were heard of no more. After some detention, the Indians were all allowed to return to Victoria.
    This brief and imperfect recital of the deeds of duty and daring performed by Captain Woods would scarcely seem complete without recording the sad and mysterious death of that brave young officer. Shortly after the case of the Ocean Spray was decided, Woods obtained a leave of absence, and returned to his old home in Indiana. Making a brief visit there, he went to Washington, where his services in connection with the capture of the schooner were properly recognized by the department. He was re-commissioned Deputy Collector, with instructions to report at once to Sitka. On his way to his post of duty he revisited his old home, and was married to a very amiable and accomplished young lady. After a very brief honeymoon, Captain Woods and his bride bade a hasty adieu to old friends and cherished associations, and started for the wilds of Alaska. Reaching San Francisco early in 1877, they soon embarked on the new schooner General Miller, bound for Unalaska. Buoyant with hope, and anticipating a safe, speedy, and pleasant voyage, the anchor was weighed, the canvas spread, and favored by propitious winds, the handsome little vessel passed through the Golden Gate and faded from human sight. Five days later a steamer bound down the coast sighted the upturned keel of some vessel, drifting far off over the green waste of waters. The capsized craft proved to be the General Miller. With much difficulty the craft was towed into San Francisco harbor and righted. A careful examination of the vessel failed to throw any light on the cause or circumstances of the disaster, or the fate of the ill-starred passengers and crew. Not a single body was found on board. The only solution of the mysterious casualty was the theory that the schooner had been caught in a storm, suddenly struck by a heavy squall, and capsized. All had gone down to a watery death, and not one survivor was left to recount the quick and awful catastrophe.
    To this day the number and names of all who perished are unknown; and their sudden and miserable fate will remain forever one of the thousands of unlocked mysteries of the remorseless sea.

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