Books

Fascinating, haunting photos of Alaska from the 1880s shared in new book

Steaming to the North

By Katherine C. Donahue and David C. Switzer; University of Alaska Press; 2014; 144 pages; $50.00

Charles McGoldrick was a New Hampshire professor who in the 1970s discovered a box of photographs under his porch. These weren't family photos of prior owners stashed away and forgotten. What McGoldrick found was a collection of photos taken during the 1886 voyage of the Revenue Marine Cutter Bear, which departed San Francisco in the spring, bound for Alaska and the Russian coast.

McGoldrick donated the collection to David Switzer, a historian and nautical archaeologist at Plymouth State University. With recent advances in digital restoration, and the assistance of anthropologist Katherine Donahue, they've now been published in "Steaming to the North," a handsome volume from University of Alaska Press that Switzer sadly didn't live long enough to witness.

The mission of the Bear is famous for a couple of reasons. For one it brought the presence of the U.S. government to the shores of the country's recent acquisition. At that point Alaska had yet to attain territorial status and Americans -- mostly whalers -- were only beginning to push into the region to discover what was there. What wasn't there was any semblance of legal authority, so the arrival of the Bear marked the initial effort of the government at asserting itself. It remains an important waypoint of Alaska history.

Also of note was the Bear's commander. Captain Michael Healy was the mixed-race son of a slave and a plantation owner who rose through the ranks of the U.S. Revenue Marine Division -- precursor to today's Coast Guard -- at a time when placing a man with African-American ancestry in charge of a white crew was all but unheard of. Healy was a highly skilled captain comfortable with the challenging conditions of the Arctic. He was also mercurial and a heavy drinker, traits that would cost him his command shortly after the Bear returned to California. In the far north, however, he's known as Alaska's first lawman.

Dominated by onshore photos

The images in "Steaming to the North" are believed to be the work of 3rd Lt. Charles D. Kennedy and are some of the earliest-known photographic documentation of Alaska's western and Arctic coasts and the Native peoples living there. Some of these pictures exist in various collections, but this is the first time they have been drawn together for a book.

The pictures were taken both at sea and on land. The nautical shots capture a time in Arctic history when whaling vessels crowded waters and ice lingered into the summer. The varied designs of these ships show impressive craftsmanship and their rigging is impossibly complex.

The book is dominated, however, by photos taken onshore at a time when contact between Europeans and Natives was still an emerging phenomenon and Western conveniences and ideas were only beginning to have an impact.

This last point is driven home by a photograph of a barabara at Unalaska. This Native-style residence is long and half tubular -- almost the shape of an airplane hangar -- and scrapped together from local materials including a sod roof. Yet it is surrounded by a fence constructed of lumber and there is what appears to be a wooden door in the front, perhaps a castoff from an earlier Russian structure. Western ideas and materials were being employed by Natives, hybridized with their own traditional designs to create something new.

The crew of the Bear encountered many Natives as they pushed north toward Point Barrow, their turnaround. The authors have included numerous photographs from these meetings. Donahue's anthropological skills were undoubtedly critical to the detailed descriptions that accompany each image. Readers will find contextual information that explains what they are looking at, and that also directs their eyes to subtle aspects of many of the photos that might otherwise have been missed.

Seal gut parkas

For instance, in a picture of four men in kayaks at St, Michael, the authors point to a gut parka on one of the men. Most casual readers wouldn't know to look for such a thing, much less guess its function from its appearance. The authors go on to explain that:

"These watertight parkas fashioned from seal intestines were commonly worn by kayakers. According to Betty Kobayashi Issenman, humidity from the wearer's body could pass to the outside, but no water came inside. Once the hood strings were pulled and the bottom secured and lashed over the rim of the cockpit, a wearer remained dry when paddling through waves or even after a capsize."

This is followed by a photograph of an umiaq with seven passengers and discussion of the differences in boat construction, operation and use. A few pages later, several umiaqs filled with passengers are shown pulling up to the Bear, while sailors stand on the steam-powered vessel waiting to greet them. It's the meeting of two distinctive and vastly different civilizations.

The pictures of people, in keeping with that early era of photography, tend to be posed, although a photo of a man identified as the oldest known inhabitant of the Arctic has a spontaneity more familiar to modern readers.

Perhaps the most dramatic picture is of a Point Hope graveyard. At the time, bodies were placed on elevated platforms to decay and be consumed, an idea scandalous to 19th century Western Christians but reminiscent of similar methods used by Parsis in India. A lone body rots on the scaffold while skulls litter the ground.

The history in this book is limited, but anthropological information is deep. The photographs themselves are fascinating, sometimes haunting. These are people of a not-so-distant time looking at us through the lens and saying, "This is how it was."

How they ended up under a porch in New Hampshire is anybody's guess.

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based writer and critic.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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