(top) Kerek villagers of Siberia, 1887. © National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (#2000-4452)
IT BEGAN AS A MISSION OF RESCUE. Two years after the American whaling bark Napoleon sank in frigid Arctic waters in 1885, unconfirmed reports surfaced of a man who had survived the tragedy; a man who was living with Siberian “deermen” in one of the least known regions of the world. As newspapers and popular weeklies quickly picked up the tale, a narrative of human suffering, physical hardship, and courage emerged. But were it not for the acknowledged actions and generosity of a little-known people we call the Kerek, who numbered 4 people in the 2010 Russian census, the stranded whaleman’s story would never have been told. Drawing on long-forgotten journals, periodicals, and unpublished correspondence and photographs, this paper vividly evokes the historical events surrounding the incredible true story of the nearly forgotten whaler J.B. Vincent, his life among indigenous Siberian peoples and his unlikely rescue, and perhaps the only description of Kerek tattooing to date, among other new research findings.
The Bark Napoleon
In October 1887, newsflashes erupted around the world of a remarkable tale of grotesque suffering, starvation, and death in the Polar Seas. As the San Francisco Chronicle of October 2, 1887, reported: “The story of J.B. Vincent, the sole survivor of the lost whaling bark Napoleon, will remain one of the most thrilling and eventful of any that has ever been told of the Siberian coast.”
The Napoleon sailed from San Francisco in the spring of 1885. The bark, crewed by 36 men, headed to Hawaii and onwards to the Bering Sea where she arrived in April of that same year. On the 5th of May, she was crushed in ice approximately 50 miles SW of Cape Navarin, Siberia, but the crew was lucky enough to have time to deploy 4 lifeboats – 9 men for each vessel. However, the crew was not able to secure any food from the stores of their vessel before it sank, and to reach land they knew they would have to drag their boats across the ice pack that lay between them and the distant shores of Cape Navarin. Safely off the ice, all of the crew remained together for 1 day as they waited for the gale to pass, but afterwards they soon became separated by the wind and strong currents. For the next 48 hours, two boats containing Vincent and Captain S.P. Smith of the Napoleon struggled through the storm until, because of sheer exhaustion and hunger, they tied up to the ice pack. The lack of food was becoming a critical problem, and because Vincent, a thoroughgoing seaman from Martha’s Vineyard, was seemingly stronger and could endure the cold better than his companions, Captain Smith sent him across the ice to hunt for seals, with only a broken oar as a weapon (Bixby 1965:209). While Vincent searched for game far across the mountainous ice floes, the captain sighted a sail far away. Immediately he cast off and the men rowed towards the ship, which proved to be the whaler Fleetwing. All of the men were so weakened by their condition that 4 died almost immediately after their rescue. Meanwhile, Vincent had traveled miles across the pack ice, securing two seal pups with his makeshift weapon. As he made his slow return to the location of his compatriots, he was dumbfounded to learn that they had all vanished! Although Captain Smith told the master of the Fleetwing he was on the ice, a thorough search was made but Vincent could not be located. Forlorn and filled with despair, Vincent thought his fate was sealed but as luck would have it, the other two boats of the missing crew came into sight and Vincent hailed them and then scrambled aboard with his catch.
But this chance encounter was only the beginning of a continuing nightmare! For the next two days these boats, containing 18 men, drifted in the open sea, 9 of the crew succumbing to the exposure before the remaining 9 members finally landed upon ice that skirted the coast, about 10 miles SW of Cape Navarin. Sadly, the very next day 5 of the survivors died from starvation and frostbite (their feet dropping off at the joints), and the remaining 4 men remained here on the ice for the next 26 days, subsisting on raw seal meat. The survivors then decided to make for the open sea in the hopes of contacting a passing whaler. They headed approximately 60 miles to the south, only to return unsuccessfully towards the Navarin coast where they saw a low opening among the steep cliffs. As soon as Vincent and his colleagues landed, they spied a party of local people, who I believe were the Kerek, and who called out to them, “Masinka!” “Masinka!,” a polite form of address derived from Chukchi – a people that as we will come to see the Kerek often traded with. These coastal dwellers who saved Vincent and his companions remained unnamed in Vincent’s reportage, but later authorities such as the pioneering ethnographer Waldemar Bogoras traveled through this region on sledge in 1901 “and visited all [of] the Kerek settlements” here (Jochelson 1908:440).
Vincent and his companions, who were in far worse shape than he, lived among the Kerek for the next month. Vincent described them as a “little, sturdy race of people” who lived in “low huts.” Vincent observed that their settlement was located near “a fresh-water lagoon, which might have been a quarter of a mile wide and twenty miles long…it was well stocked with trout, salmon and a red fish something like a trout” (NYT 1887). Vincent never recorded a name for this Kerek settlement – based on my calculations it must have been located near present-day Meynypil’gyno – nor did he describe how many inhabitants lived there. However, the Russian ethnographer Waldemar Jochelson (1908), using data provided by Bogoras, noted that two Kerek settlements existed in the region: Vati’rkan (containing 3 underground houses with about 50 persons, and the settlement of Annon that maintained one house with 25 inhabitants). However, it must be remembered that the Kerek, like other Siberian coastal groups, lived inside yurt-like skin tents during the warmer summer months and Vincent never described their semi-subterranean structures, only their “low huts.”
Nonetheless, Vincent’s life was about to take another abrupt turn. One day he observed a caravan of some 50 sledges drawn by reindeer and driven by what he called “25 Indians, tall, well built fellows who had befriended us. The coast Indians treated the new arrivals, or Tchuktchis, with a great deal of respect, and I struck up a friendship with an old man 70 years of age, over 6 feet tall [whose] name was U-tourat. I made him understand how we had got shipwrecked [and] he swore he would put me back to my people” (NYT 1887). I should note here that these people were most likely Reindeer Chukchi, or what Bogoras called the Telqä’p Chukchi with whom he stated that “the Kerek obtain…reindeer-skins for garments, sinew for nets, meat, Russian wares, and American rifles and cartridges” and who “are the roughest and most indomitable of all the Chukchee [that] in former times were the leaders in the wars against the Koryak” (Bogoras 1904-09:26, 49).
Vincent quickly determined that the “deermen” provided the best chance of rescue, and because his health was adequate he left his three suffering companions behind and took up travel with U-tourat and the inveterate Reindeer Chukchi traders. Vincent stated, “They came from an inland valley 165 miles from the coast, on the other side of the Trade Mountains, and made the trip down to the lagoon every year” (NYT 1887). The Chukchi gathered supplies of fish and other resources near the lagoon for several months and Vincent began living with them, learning how to become a herdsman during this time. Once the Chukchi broke camp in September 1885, Vincent took charge of a team of reindeer and accompanied them across the coastal mountains back to their home in a remote valley.
Vincent lived with the deermen during the winter but was not able to travel to the Anadyr River and the Russian Trading Post located there as U-tourat had promised. So in March 1886, he returned with the Reindeer Chukchi to the Kerek village where his companions were living. Unfortunately, all three men perished shortly after Vincent’s arrival. Vincent again decided to return with the deermen over the mountains with the arrival of fall, and finally in January 1887 U-tourat’s son Katilkot – and a caravan of 12 sleds – made the 3-day journey over the Trade Mountains to the Russian trading post on the Anadyr River, which was located approx. 100 miles from the river’s mouth on the Bering Sea. Here, Vincent met Chukchi visiting from Cape Bering, Siberia, on the Chukotka Peninsula, and with a pocket-knife he scrawled a message on a wooden board that included his name, ship, and location of the lagoon south of Cape Navarin where he thought he could be rescued. This he presented to the Cape Bering traders for delivery to “any countrymen into whose hands the board might fall” (NYT 1887).
A Wooden Board
Over the course of the winter of 1886, the board that Vincent had carved slowly made its way up the Siberian coast. We will never know through who’s hands it passed or how many times it may have been mistaken for a good piece of firewood in the treeless tundra landscape (!), but remarkably it survived and a legend was born!
But alas, our cast of characters is not complete – now enters the New Bedford, Massachusetts, Evening Standard reporter Herbert L. Aldrich. Some may remember Aldrich’s travel book “Arctic Alaska and Siberia, or Eight Months with the Arctic Whalemen” published by Rand, McNally in 1889, but for those of you who don’t Aldrich had a very good reason to leave his beloved newspaper job for the Arctic. His doctor had told him he had one year left before tuberculosis would kill him, and he wanted one last adventure before he died. But the doctor was mistaken, and Aldrich lived until 1948!
Nevertheless, Aldrich journeyed to Bering Strait in 1887 chronicling the life of the Arctic whalemen in word and picture. On June 8 of that year, calm weather allowed the whaling bark Hunter that Aldrich was sailing on to anchor off Cape Bering, Siberia – yes, that same Cape Bering that J.B. Vincent had gifted a deerman of that locale with a piece of carved wood some months before. As the ship sat in still water, two native boats were observed approaching the decks. These were manned by “Masinkers” or Chukchi, as Aldrich recalled, and the traders came aboard, asking first for tobacco and bread before they began their brisk trade in reindeer fur and hair seal. Aldrich wrote, “One old deerman produced a piece of wood carefully wrapped up, on which were letters crudely carved…We interpreted the message as follows: That J.B.V. (whom we afterward found to be a [Massachusetts] boat-steerer of the Napoleon) was still alive, in 1887, and that he wanted tobacco to be given to the bearer of the message; that he was still southwest of Cape Navarin, ten miles, and wanted help to come and rescue him….We decided that the only thing to do was to report what we had learned to the United States revenue cutter Bear (Aldrich 1889:44). Mr. Aldrich kept the wooden message and later gave it to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
A written version of the message reached U.S. Revenue Cutter Captain Michael Healy on July 7, 1887. Healy, who took command of the Bear in 1886 and was the first African American to command a U.S. ship, had just quelled a mutiny on the bark Pearl in Port
Clarence, Alaska, but immediately took action and by noon of the following day steamed straight for Cape Navarin (Healy unpublished letter 1887:4). But before he left the port, the crew of the Bear hired a St. Lawrence Bay (Siberia) Chukchi named “Rainbow” from the whaling-steamer Beluga, and according to unpublished Healy correspondence “his services as interpreter proved of inestimable value during our search for Vincent” (Ibid. 4).
Back in Siberia, Vincent had wintered again with the Reindeer Chukchi and eventually returned to the Kerek settlement by the lagoon in April 1887 in the hopes of being rescued. He was told by the Kerek that two days prior to his arrival the whaler Sea Breeze had touched upon the shore to inquire if Vincent was still alive. Vincent later related to a reporter that “this [missed opportunity] nearly did me [in!]; but I waited [with hope] and on the 17th of July, while I was fishing inshore, I heard voices in the fog, and then a boat loomed up close to me. It was a boat from the Bear” (NYT 1887).
Healy recounted in unpublished papers that the cruise to Navarin was difficult and after 14 days at sea the Bear and its crew anchored off Cape Navarin. After two days of fruitless searching, a local guide, most probably Kerek, named Warpuco was hired because he said he knew where Vincent lived. Healy stated in unpublished correspondence that Warpuco led them to a unnamed settlement about 45 miles southwest of Cape Navarin and it was here that the Massachusetts whaler was found (Ibid. 4). The Kerek who had cared for Vincent were given gifts of flour, bread, molasses, and useful articles from the Bear’s stores, both “as reward for caring for [Vincent] and to insure kind treatment by them [or] of any other unfortunate mariner whose lot might in the future be cast among them,” Healy wrote (Ibid., 5). Warpuco was landed at his home near Cape Navarin, perhaps the Kerek village of Ke’ñiun situated just north of the Cape, and Rainbow was likewise repatriated to North Head, St. Lawrence Bay. Vincent remained onboard the Bear until her arrival in San Francisco, whereupon he was met by reporters from around the globe.
“Gifts for the Esquimaux”
While in San Francisco, Captain Healy of the Bear drafted his annual report to the Secretary of the U.S. Treasury, since this Department operated the U.S. Revenue Cutter service under which Healy served. Dated November 26, 1887, Healy’s unpublished report provided a
detailed first-hand account of Vincent’s unfortunate hardship in Siberia. A few months later, Vincent’s ordeal appeared in the published “Annual Report of the Secretary of the Treasury for 1887,” wherein the Secretary recommended that “it is highly advisable that a moderate sum be used in purchasing suitable articles to be sent by the next revenue cutter visiting those waters as a reward to the natives who, in a condition very near starvation, sheltered and fed Vincent and his unfortunate companions” (Fairchild 1887:LIV-LV).
Shortly thereafter in an unpublished letter dated January 17, 1888, the U.S. Department of State wrote Captain Healy noting that this Federal Department received a letter from the New Bedford, Massachusetts, Board of Trade dated November 26, 1887, requesting “that some substantial award be made by the President to the Esquimaux in Siberia for kindness and hospitality to the crew of the whaling bark ‘Napoleon’, and especially to Mr. Vincent, the sole survivor of those who reached the Siberian coast, who owes to them his life, and whom, it appears, you brought away from Siberia” (Healy Papers, UAF Archives, #93, Fold. 3: 1-2). The author of this letter, the Asst. Secretary of the U.S. Department of State, stated “before taking the matter into consideration the Department should be in possession of the fullest possible information – such as the number of natives entitled to recognition, their names, places of residence, and the nature of the service rendered, etc. (Ibid: 3).” Healy subsequently provided this information.
The U.S. Congress acted quickly on this measure and exactly one week after the Department of State’s initial letter to Healy on January 17, House Bill 1528, entitled “Gifts to the Esquimaux,” was passed on January 24, 1888. In the published one-page report that accompanied the Bill, Vincent’s story and unlikely rescue were retold, and the justification for the gifts was clearly stated: “It would seem not only just but expedient to testify to our sense of the generous hospitality of those people, who, while suffering from want and hunger, performed such a signal act of humanity. So long as the enterprise of our people carries them into this dangerous area such casualties will occur, and the assistance of the inhabitants of the Asiatic and American coasts will continue to be essential to the escape of our shipwrecked mariners” (USG 1896: n.p.). It would not be until the summer of 1890 that $1000 dollars of gifts would be delivered by Captain Healy to the “Deermen & Eskimo near Cape Navarin, Siberia” (Healy Papers 1887-1894, UAF Archives, MF#93, Fold. 5, “Invoice of Presents”).
The ‘Koriak’ Collection at the Sheldon Jackson Museum and Kerek Tattoos
Rev. Sheldon Jackson was a Presbyterian missionary who came to the newly acquired Territory of Alaska in the 1880s. In 1885, he was appointed General Agent of Education in Alaska and he routinely toured the educational facilities of this vast northern land aboard Capt. Mike Healy’s Revenue Cutter Bear. On the annual cruise of 1890, Jackson accompanied Healy on the voyage to distribute and deliver the Congressional appropriation of gifts to the Natives who cared for J.B. Vincent during his Siberian exile.
On June 23, 1890, Cape Navarin was sighted rising above the fog that obscured most of the horizon. Although it was late June, Jackson wrote “the whole country was still covered with snow [and] a more desolate and dreary scene is hard to conceive of” (Jackson 1893:1267). He continued: “A sharp lookout was kept for the native village which was located upon the map, but which was not found upon the coast. At length two tents were seen on the beach, and abreast of them we anchored at 2 p.m. The Captain and Mrs. Healy, Lieut. Dimmock, and myself went ashore” and the gifts were then distributed (Ibid.).
Jackson observed: “There are three tribes or families of natives on the Bering Sea coast of Siberia: the Kamchatkans, occupying the peninsula of the same name, the Tchuctchee, occupying the general region west of Bering Straits and the Gulf of Anadir, and the Koriaks, occupying the country between the former two. Our visit was to the Koriaks, although I afterwards met the Tchuctchees at East Cape…In hunting whales, walrus, and seals they use spears with ivory points set in bone sockets…They have two kinds of boats[,] the large, open boat is called by the natives oomiak [and] these will carry from 25 to 50 people. The smaller boat is intended for 1 to 3 men, and is entirely encased in skin, except the openings left for the men to sit in. These are called kyaks, kayak, or bidarka…The men shave the crown of their heads…giving them the appearance of so many monks… The women wear their hair parted in the middle, the two braids hanging down the back…The women are very generally tattooed down the center of the forehead and along each side of the nose to the nostril, and elaborate designs cover the cheeks. I also saw tattooing on the hands, wrists, and arms. One girl had two waving lines from the forehead to the nostrils, and nine in a fan shape from the lower lip to the chin. Another, with the other marks, had an ‘X’ on the chin at each corner of the mouth. Occasionally the men were tattooed…[I noticed] one woman throwing her arms around her husband’s neck and they rubbed noses (their method of salutation in the place of kissing). I secured from them for the museum of the Society of Natural History and Ethnography in Sitka, a number of things to illustrate their manner of living” (Ibid., 1267. 1269).
But these “Koriak” people were actually Kerek. More specifically, N.L. Gondatti, commander of the Anadyr District in 1884, precisely determined the borders of Kerek territory. He wrote, “the Kereks [are] a people who live in small settlements on the shore of the Great Ocean to the south of Cape Navarin and almost to Cape Oliutorskii (aka Cape Annanon), and along the rivers which flow into the ocean here” (Gondatti 1897:175). And as Jochelson (1908:439-40) noted long ago, “Before the Jesup Expedition, not a single white person had traversed the entire Kerek territory…[until] Mr. Bogoras was the first [in] (1901) to pass with dog-sledges along the seashore, and visit all  Kerek settlements” from Barykoff Cape to Cape Annanon (aka Oliutorskii). Gondatti attributed the lack of information on the Kerek and lack of Russian influence here to the difficulty of access to the territory of their settlements (Orekhov 1987:5). He wrote: “To visit a settlement of the Kereks from the mainland is difficult, since the Novo-Mariinskii post in winter time, when communication here is only possible by a dry land route, is entirely cut off from them by a desert region, where no one from the settlements has ever gone and not even a single reindeer [herder] is encountered who could be a guide” (Gondatti 1897:175).
Thus, and at the time of Jackson’s visit to Cape Navarin, Russian and American data concerning the Kerek were very much confused and lacking. In fact, the Kerek, whose language was distinct from Koryak and Chukchi (Skorik 1968), were also distinct in their outward appearance because they were shorter than their neighbors. Also, Kerek tattooing practices, which Jackson is perhaps the first and only person to describe in some detail (e.g., the most detailed ethnography on the Kerek by Leont’ev (1983) doesn’t mention tattooing at all (!!) and sadly I have found no illustrations of the tradition), are markedly different from those observed for the Koryak by Jochelson. For example, Jochelson (1908:604) reported: “Ornamental tattooing is practiced by women only, but I have seen very few tattooed women; all were married…[T]he tattooing of Koryak women, which I had occasion to see, consisted of two or three horizontal lines over the nose, or of two or three equidistant curves on the chin and cheeks.” However, Jochelson does not describe hand, wrist or arm tattooing, nor “X-like” markings near the corners of the mouth for Koryak women, but Jackson did for the “Koriak” he met near Cape Navarin. Interestingly, such traditions were very common among the Chukchi and especially Siberian Yupik peoples of Chukotka and St. Lawrence Island, Alaska, until recent times (Bogoras 1904-09; Krutak 1998, 2007, 2014). That being said, the marked information I have presented here provides additional evidence that Jackson did, in fact, interact with the Kerek, and not the Koryak as he suspected.
In the realm of material culture, Jackson’s collection of “Koriak” objects provides further proof that they were manufactured by the Kerek. Kerek objects of material culture are extremely rare today, and I only know of three museums that hold such objects. The earliest collection is housed at The Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in St. Petersburg, Russia, and was made in 1897 by the assistant commander of the Anadyr District, Ankudinov. The second collection is housed at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and was made by Bogoras during his sledge journey through Kerek territory in 1910. And finally, there is Jackson’s collection of 24 objects which today is housed at the Sheldon Jackson Museum in Sitka, Alaska. I have not been afforded the opportunity to view the Kerek collection housed in Russia, although the archaeologist Aleksandr Orekhov (1987:5) who has been working in the Kerek area states that it has not been published in its entirety. However, many of the Kerek objects housed at the AMNH, which also have not been published upon in their entirety, closely resemble those that Jackson collected in form, function, and detail. In summary then, I believe I have demonstrated sufficient proof in this paper that the coastal people who rescued J.B. Vincent and his companions, and that received gifts from the U.S. Congress and were visited by Captain Healy and Sheldon Jackson, were indeed Kerek.
Reindeer to Alaska
As a brief anecdote to this paper, I would like to close with a final point of discussion concerning the introduction of Siberian reindeer to Alaska. As many other writers have pointed out over the years, whoever first looked towards Siberia to initiate the reindeer industry in Alaska remains a mystery. Some argue that Captain Hooper of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Corwin suggested the idea in 1880 (Mike Healy was the Executive Officer under Hooper at that time) (Strobridge and Noble 1999:52), or perhaps it was Dr. Charles Townsend who was aboard the same ship in 1885 and wrote that domestication could be beneficial for Alaska’s Natives (Townsend 1887:88). Nevertheless, what is known is that Sheldon Jackson, with the assistance of Captain Healy and the Bear, was the first to import Siberian reindeer to Alaska in 1891 but what is not widely recognized is that Jackson credited his Cape Navarin trip as the necessary impetus to hatch the plan; therefore, I argue here that the Kerek were directly responsible for this successful experiment that continues to this very day.
In Congressional testimony for additional governmental appropriations for the reindeer project in December 1894, Jackson stated: “Congress had voted $1000 [dollars] to make presents to some Siberians who rescued a crew of whalers. We went over to the Siberian coast, as the captain [Mike Healy] had charge of these presents to deliver. There I met my first tame herd of reindeer – 1,500.”
“Where was that,” the Chairman of the Session asked?
Jackson replied, “Cape Navarin. I asked how many reindeer they had in that country, and they replied that they did not know – that everybody had reindeer. I asked them if they got enough to eat, and they said that they always had enough to eat, as they eat reindeer. That suggested to me the idea, with only 46 miles from Siberia to Alaska, with a similar climate and similar food products, so I said to the captain, ‘Why could not we introduce tame reindeer into Alaska and teach the people to take care of them? We cannot restock the ocean with whale and walrus, but we can stock the land with domestic animals…” (USG 1896:89).
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