PRIBILOF ISLANDS (Historic Alaska Information)
St. Paul, St. George, Walrus, and Otter Islands, with some other rock points, constitute the group of seal islands in Bering Sea, isolated by about two hundred miles of water from any other land, free from the Arctic ice pack and icebergs, and consequently free from the native hunter and polar bear.
About 1700 A. D. a Russian by the name of Altasov made use of the fur seal taken on the location of the present seal rookeries on the Asiatic coast, and later on an extensive fur seal trade was developed in the Antarctic seas.
Some seal were taken by Steller and Bering expedition while wrecked on Bering Island, 1741-2.
Pacov discovered Fox Island, 1759; Glottov explored Kodiak, 1763; Krenitain is credited with Alaska Peninsula, 1768, and numerous Russian traders frequented all parts of these waters then, and the sea otter was already becoming scarce. The fur seal was seen going spring and fall (like the birds) through the passes of the Aleutian Islands and, although the ships attempted to follow, they were never able to locate their destiny any more than they could find the home of the winds.
The Aleuts, however, knew of the seal islands, which they called "Ateek," and, with this information, Subov and Pribylov, after several years' search, located them in July, 1786. Pribylov gave them the name of Subov, but for some reason they later took his own he died in Sitka,1796.
The islands were uninhabited by men, although the remains of a recent fire, a pipe and brass handle of a knife were found on the shore.
In 1787-8 the Russians located some Aleuts on the islands, and from that time to this they have possessed a population averaging 200, now 263, and gaining at the rate of three per annum, bearing Russian names, belonging to the Greek Church, but mostly of Aleut blood.
The seal were almost depleted in 1796, and the hunting rights were leased to the Russian-American Fur Company in 1799, and steps taken to increase them. An unusually cold winter nearly destroyed them in 1834. but they were increased again. In 1867 they became the property of the United States, and in 1870 were leased to the Alaska Commercial Company, the highest bidder (headed by H. M. Hutchinson), for twenty years.
In 1868, Hutchinson, Ebenezer Morgan and others took a large number, as the herd was open to all. The following year no hunting was allowed except for food. When Professor Elliott took charge of the islands for the Government and on behalf of the Smithsonian Institute, there were five million seal, 1872-6.
The lease to the Alaska Commercial Company, pursuant to the Act of July 1, 1870, limited the kill to 100,000 per year, provided for a rental not less than $50,000 per year, secured by United States bonds, and for a bond of a half million from the lessee guaranteeing the terms of the lease. At that time and since all kinds of laws have been made, regulating the weapons used, boats, territory, season, sex and age of seals taken, agents, etc., etc., etc.. and the administration of the laws has been booted from one department or commission to another like a football.
The result has been that our own citizens (excepting the lessee) have been prohibited from sealing; a treaty with England has limited the Canadian poachers, but all others may take any kind of seal any time and manner or place outside of the three-mile limit. The Japanese have availed themselves of this privilege, and, in addition, have violated every law, of God and man. They raid the rookeries, murder the mothers and pups, regardless of age or sex, and will soon exterminate the herd, while their government makes no effort to check them, nor join in the treaty existing humanely between the United States and England, which could be done any day.
The report to the Sixtieth Congress, 1908, shows only 172,512 seal of all ages and sex. The limit of the lessee's annual slaughter has been cut down to 15,000 bachelor seals, and even that number may not be obtained. A fleet of about thirty Japanese sealing vessels hovers about the islands, and any mother seal venturing beyond the three-mile limit for food is promptly shot, while her pup, which no other seal will suckle, starves to death on the shore. At night time, during fogs, and any other time possible, they come within the three-mile limit, and even on shore, to kill illegally. They also follow the herd up and down the coast, and at this time. May 1st, are near Sitka killing seal. The seal are due at the breeding ground about two weeks later, and will produce their young immediately after arriving, so that the slaughter of every mother now is the death of two. The Japanese and Canadian catch amounts to about 10,000 skins annually each, and the Alaska Commercial Company (or its successor, the North American Commercial Company,). 15,000 in round numbers, according to the number of skins for sale in the London market. The Jap uses a gun, and three out of ten seal killed are lost, and numerous others wounded escape to die later. The time is coming when the seal business must be brought to a close. If foreign countries will not be humane enough to join in a protecting treaty, and their subjects to abide by it, then there is no use of our Government employing four revenue cutters annually, paying $20,000 for support of the natives, and numerous other sums, ana run the risks of international complications, for the purpose of raising and protecting seals for other people to kill. Numerous Jap pelagic illegal sealers have been taken in the very act, some have been released, a few were shot in resisting capture, and the last bunch of I 1 8 we were obliged to haul around to Valdez, and keep them a long time. They were recently fined by Judge Reid $800 each or 300 days in jail - the latter will be accepted, and they will be hospitably entertained at our expense.
I understand that a treaty was made last year between Russia and Japan, with reference to sealing on Bering and Copper Islands, across the line. I hope this is the forerunner to one by all nations, covering all seal islands, and if it is not forthcoming, it seems just as humane, and the only protection to our own property, and the most economical from every standpoint, to take the skins from the remnant of the herd at once.
The natives now get 75 cents for each skin. At one time they made more money at 40 cents per skin. The company takes good care of them; they are advancing intellectually, have some school privileges, coal to burn, a doctor, and the climate is agreeable- -rarely exceeds ten degrees below zero.
The natives take annually approximately 500 fox skins, from the blue fox, including one white fox to each hundred blue ones, the profits of which are about the same as from the seal herd. The fox industry is nicely cared for, no trouble and little expense, and can be protected. A sea lion is sometime": captured, but they are shy and not plentiful.
Birds, in season, come in countless numbers, some garden vegetables can be raised, crab and shellfish are found, and the hair seal could be relied upon if necessary. The seal herd has eaten or scared the fish away, and the walrus is practically extinct in the Bering Sea, likewise the sea cow. St. George has an elevation of 900, and St. Paul 600 feet, with sandy coves convenient for seal. Walrus and Otter Islands are but rocks, and all are of recent volcanic construction.
The seal and sea lion are perhaps the most intelligent of animal kind, as well as the most beautiful. They most resemble a dog. and will obey in the same manner; they bark somewhat the same, cool themselves by opening their mouths as dogs do, and have a somewhat similar head, with more intelligent expression. The expense of the fur is largely due to the work in pulling out the long hairs, clipping and coloring the fur, and tanning the hide. No skin is of much value without this extensive preparation.
The male seal does not fully mature until it is about seven years old. when it may weigh 600 pounds and measure as much as seven feet. It then fights for its harem on the breeding grounds, and. Mormon or Turk-like, maintains as many wives as it can keep. It arrives on the islands covered with fat, and for three months during the breeding season rules over its harem, with little sleep and no food, except the fat of its own body.
The cow seal, meek and obedient to her lord; the ostracised, haremless bachelor seal doomed to slaughter; the lordly fighting harem bull, as he fights for his own or steals from another; the innocent, soft-eyed, blatting lamblike pup, and numerous other interesting features of this almost extinct animal, are so interesting as to make it almost impossible to omit them from this brief comment. When the first lease expired, it was extended for twenty years more to the North American Commercial Company. In all the lessees have taken almost $40,000,000 from the islands, and the Government has received enough to pay a good profit on the amount invested in purchasing Alaska.