Reading #15

Theme 2: Industry

Period: American (1867 - present)

In the 1870s, Henry Elliott, naturalist and Special Treasury Agent with a commission from the Smithsonian Institution to study wildlife, traveled to the Pribilof Islands. The following is excerpted from his government report entitled The Seal-Islands of Alaska (1881, pp. 70-74):

Two-thirds of all the males which are born are never permitted by the remaining third, strongest by natural selection, to land upon the same breeding ground with the females, which always herd thereupon en masse. Hence, this great band of "bachelor" seals, when it visits the island, is obliged to live apart entirely –– sometimes, and some places, miles away from the rookeries; and, in this admirably perfect method of nature are those seals which can be properly killed without injury to the rookeries, selected and held aside by their own volition, so that the natives can visit and take them without disturbing, in the least degree, the entire quiet of the breeding grounds, where the stock is perpetuated.

The manner in which the natives capture and drive the bachelors up to the slaughter fields near the two villages of St. Paul and St. George cannot be improved upon. It is in this way: at the beginning of every sealing season, that is, during May and June, large bodies of the young "bachelor" seals do not haul up on land very far from the water and, when these first arrivals are sought after, the natives, in capturing them, are obliged to approach slyly and run quickly between the dozing seals and the surf, before they can take alarm and bolt into the sea; in this manner a dozen Aleuts, running down the sand beach of English bay, in the early morning of some June day, will turn back from the water thousands of seals. When the sleeping seals are first startled, they arise, and, seeing men between them and the water, immediately turn, lope, and scramble rapidly back up and over the land; the natives then leisurely walk on the flanks and in the rear of the drove thus secured, directing and driving it over to the killing grounds, close by the village.

The "bachelors" are urged along with very little trouble, and require only three or four men to guide and secure as many thousand at a time. They are permitted frequently to halt and cool off, as heating them injures their fur. . . . A change in pelage of the fur-seal takes place in the fifth year of their age; it is thickest and finest in texture during the third and fourth year of life; hence, in driving the seals on St. Paul and St. George up from the hauling grounds the natives make, as far as practicable, a selection from males of that age. . . .

The seals, when finally driven up on those flats, are herded there until cool and rested. The drives are usually made very early in the morning, at the first breaking of day, which is half past one to two o’clock of June and July in these latitudes. They arrive, and cool off on the slaughtering grounds, so that by six or seven o’clock, after breakfast, the able-bodied male population turn out from the village and go down to engage in the work of slaughter. The men are dressed in their ordinary working garb of thick flannel shirts, stout canvas pants, over which boots are drawn; if it rains they wear their kamleikas. Thus dressed, they are each armed with a club, a stout oaken or hickory bludgeon, which have been made particularly for the purpose at New London, Connecticut, and imported here for this especial service. Each native also has his stabbing knife, his skinning knife, and his whetstone. . . .

At the signal of the foreman or chief the work of the day begins by the men stepping into the drove, and driving out from it 100 or 150 seals at a time, which they surround in a circle, until they are directly within reach and under their clubs. Then the chief gives the word "strike," and instantly the heavy clubs come down all around, and every one that is eligible is stretched out stunned and motionless in less time, really, than I take to tell it. Those seals spared by order of the chief now struggle from under and over the bodies of their insensible companions and pass, hustled off by the natives, back to the sea.

The clubs are dropped, the men seize the prostrate seals by the hind flippers and drag them out, [then every sealer takes his knife kills the seals with a swift stab.] . . .

The labor of skinning is exceedingly severe, and is trying even to an expert, demanding long practice ere the muscles of the back and thighs are so developed as to permit a man to bend down to, and finish well, a fair day’s work.

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