Web Text-ures Logo
Web and Book design,
Copyright, Kellscraft Studio

(Return to Web Text-ures)
Click Here to return to
Discovery of the North Pole
Content Page

 Return to the Previous Chapter
Kellscraft Studio Logo



Out of all the disappointments, privations and successes of polar exploration has come one great result that, whatever may be said of the value to mankind of scientific discovery, will always be of real human interest. This is the study of the Eskimos, the native of the frozen zone. Had man never sought to reach the north pole these people, so primitive in many ways, might have remained in savagery. As it is, they have been largely Christianized; and they have been partly civilized. The best tribute to the Eskimos as regards their mastery of the region in which they live is that no white man who has traveled there has succeeded in his activities, or even in clinging to life itself, without imitating the Eskimos. Both Peary and Cook say their discoveries were made by actually as those swarthy people do. It becomes, then, of the utmost interest, in this age of the world, to learn the mode of life of the straight haired men and women who so resemble our American Indians, and yet differ from them in so many traits.

Nearly all the great explorers have given graphic accounts of Eskimo life. Dr. Kabe described his first meeting with the natives as follows:

"As we gathered on the deck, they rose upon the more elevated fragments of the land-ice, standing singly and conspicuously, like the figures in a tableau of the opera, and distributing themselves around almost in a half-circle. They were vociferating as if to attract our attention, or, perhaps, only to give vent to their surprise; but I could make nothing out of their cries, except 'Hoah, ha, ha!' and 'Ka, kaah! ka, kaah!' repeated over and over again.

"There was light enough for me to see that they brandished no weapons, and were only tossing their heads and arms about in violent gesticulations. A more unexcited inspection showed us, too, that their numbers were not as great, nor their size as Patagonian, as some of us had been disposed to fancy at first. In a word, I was satisfied that they were natives of the country; and, calling Petersen from his bunk to be my interpreter, I proceeded, unarmed, and waving my open hands, toward a stout figure, who made himself conspicuous, and seemed to have a greater number near him than the rest. He evidently understood the movement; for he at once, like a brave fellow, leaped down upon the floe, and advanced to meet me fully half-way.

"He was nearly a head taller than myself, extremely powerful and well-built, with swarthy complexion, and black eyes. His dress was a hooded capote or jumper, of mixed white and blue fox-pelts, arranged with something of fancy; and booted trousers of white bear-skin, which, at the end of the foot, were made to terminate with the claws of the animal.

"I soon came to an understanding with this gallant diplomatist. Almost as soon as we commenced our parley, his companions, probably receiving signals from him, flocked in and surrounded us; but we had no difficulty in making them know, positively, that they must remain where they were, while Metek went with me on board the ship. This gave me the advantage of negotiating with an important hostage."

The Eskimos were taken aboard ship. Says Dr. Kane:

"They were lost in barbarous amaze at the new fuel, — too hard for blubber, too soft for fire-stone, — but they were content to believe it might cook as well as seal's fat. They borrowed from us an iron pot, and some melted water, and parboiled a couple of pieces of walrus-meat; but, the real pièce de résistance, some five pounds of head, they preferred to eat raw. Yet there was something of the gourmet in their mode of assorting their mouthfuls of beef and blubber. Slices of each, or rather strips, passed between the lips, either together or in strict alternation, and with a regularity of sequence that kept the molars well to their work.

"They did not eat all at once, but each man when and as often as the impulse prompted. Each slept after eating, his raw chunk lying beside him on the buffalo-skin; and, as he woke, the first act was to eat, and the next to sleep again. They did not lie down, but slumbered away in a sitting posture, with the head declined upon the breast, some of them snoring famously.

"In the morning they were anxious to go; but I had given orders to detain them for a parting interview with myself. It resulted in a treaty, brief in its terms, that it might be certainly remembered; and mutually beneficial, that it might possibly be kept. I tried to make them understand what a powerful Prospero they had had for a host, and how beneficent he would prove himself so long as they did his bidding. And, as an earnest of my favor, I bought all the walrus-meat they had to spare, and four of their dogs; enriching them, in return, with needles and beads, and a treasure of old cask-staves."

A brother of Dr. Kane, who was one of a relief party sent out in 1855, has this to say of the Eskimos:

"Improvidence, is another trait of these 'fresh children of impulse.' We were at their village as late as the 19th of August. Yet, although the auks were flying round them in such quantities that one man could have been able to catch a thousand an hour, they had not enough prepared for winter to last two days. They were all disgustingly fat, and always eating, — perhaps an average ration of eighteen pounds per diem, — yet they had lost seven by starvation during the last winter, though relieved, as far as we could make it out, by the Dokto Kayens.

"They suffer dreadfully from cold, too; yet there is an abundance of excellent peat, which they might dig during the summer. They know its value as fuel, and are simply too lazy to stack it. The little auk, which forms their principal food, may be said also to be their only fuel. Indeed, it quite fills the place which the seal holds among the more southern Esquimaux. Their clothes are lined with its skins, they burn the fat, and, setting aside the livers and hearts, to be dried, and consumed as bonbons during the winter, they eat the meat and intestines cooked and raw, both cold and at blood heat.

"They are very hospitable; the minute we arrived, all hands began to catch birds and prepare them for us. Tearing off the skins with their teeth, they stripped the breasts to be cooked, and presented us with the juicy entrails and remaining portions to eat raw, and stay our appetites. The viands did not look inviting to us, who had witnessed their preparation; but they appeared so hurt at our refusing to eat, that we had to explain that it was not cooked but raw birds we wanted. This was satisfactory. They set out at once to catch some for us; and in a few moments three of them were on their way down to our boat loaded with birds."

Dr. Nansen, in recounting his crossing of Greenland, describes many domestic traits of the Eskimos with a touch of realism. He tells thus of entering the home of an Eskimo family:

"We had been at once invited to sit down upon some chests which stood by the skin-curtain at the entrance. These are the seats which are always put at the disposal of visitors, while the occupants have their places upon the long bench or couch which fills the back part of the tent. This couch is made of planks, is deep enough to give room for a body reclining at full length, and is as broad as the full length of the tent. It is covered with several layers of sealskin, and upon it the occupants spend their whole indoor life, men and women alike, sitting often cross-legged as they work, and taking their meals, and rest and sleep.

"The tent itself is of a very peculiar construction. The framework consists of a high trestle, upon which a number of poles are laid, forming a semicircle below and converging more or less to a point at the top. Over these poles a double layer of skins is stretched, the inner coat with the hair turned inward, and the outer generally consisting of the old coverings of boats and kayaks. The entrance is under the above-mentioned trestle, which is covered by the thin curtain of which I have just spoken. This particular tent housed four or five different families, each having their own particular partition marked off upon the common couch. Before every family stall a train-oil lamp was burning with a broad flame. These lamps are flat, semi-circular vessels of pot-stone, about a foot in length. The wick is made of dried moss, which is placed against one side of the lamp and continually fed with pieces of fresh blubber, which soon melt into oil. The lamps are in charge of the women, who have special sticks to manipulate the wicks with, to keep them both from smoking and burning too low. Great pots of the same stone hang above, and in them the Esquimaux cook all their food, which they do not eat raw. Strange to say, they use neither peat nor wood for cooking purposes, though such fuel is not difficult to procure. The lamps are kept burning night and day; they serve for both heating and lighting purposes, for Esquimaux do not sleep in the dark, like other people; and they also serve to maintain a permanent odor of train-oil which, as I have said, our European senses at first found not altogether attractive, but which we soon learned not only to tolerate, but to take pleasure in. * * *

"The man embraced a fat woman, and thereupon the pair with extreme complacency pointed to some younger individuals, the whole pantomime giving us to understand that the party together formed a family of husband, wife, and children. The man then proceeded to stroke his wife down the back, and to pinch her here and there, to show us how charming and delightful she was, and how fond he was of her, the process giving her at the same time evident satisfaction. Curiously enough, none of the men in this tent seemed to have more than one wife, though it is a common thing among the east coast Esquimaux for a man to keep two if he can afford them, though never more. As a rule the men are good to their wives, and a couple may even be seen to kiss each other at times, though the process is not carried out on European lines, but by a mutual rubbing of noses. Domestic strife is, however, not unknown, and it sometimes leads to violent scenes, the end of which generally is that the woman receives either a vigorous castigation or the blade of a knife in her arm or leg, after which the relation between the two becomes as cordial as ever, especially if the woman has children. * * *

"Their hands and feet are alike unusually small and well shaped. Their hair is absolutely black and quite straight, resembling horse hair. The men often tie it back from the forehead with a string of beads and leave it to fall down over the shoulders. Some who wear no such band have the hair cut above the forehead, or round the whole head, with the jawbone of a shark, as their superstitions will not allow them on any account to let iron come in contact with it. But, curiously enough a man who has begun to cut his hair in his youth must necessarily continue the practice all his life. The women gather their hair up from behind and tie it with a string of sealskin into a cone, which must stand as perpendicularly as possible. This convention is especially stringent in the case of young unmarried women, who, to obtain the desired result, tie their hair back from the forehead and temples so tightly that by degrees it gradually gives way, and they become bald at a very early age." * * *

The hospitality of this desolate coast is quite unbounded. A man will receive his worst enemy, and entertain him for months if circumstances throw him in his way. The nature of their surroundings and the wandering life which they lead have forced them to offer and accept universal hospitality, and the habit has gradually become a law among them.

Eskimo society has one great principle underlying it: Community of interest. If a hunter finds game and buries it under a stone, another hunter may come that way and take the meat without any protest being made. Says Astrup, who accompanied Peary on his first great journey: "The tribe forms a single family, and each member, without exception, consecrates the work of his life to the common good.

"It is extremely seldom that Esquimaux quarrel, and when a disagreement occurs it is a very tame affair. The parties do not talk loudly or call each other names, but simply separate. They are quiet and gentle people, and very much dislike anything in the way of disturbance or discord."

Another thing that may not be generally credited to these swarthy folk is that they are intelligent, and almost invariably truthful. Simple-hearted they of course are, so that by promises of beads and other ornaments explorers have been able to convince them of things that were not true; but it is the unanimous belief of most men who have lived among the north people that their morals and their domestic relations as regards the division of labor between man and woman include much that might well be copied by other nations.




The method of building an Eskimo snow-house is told by one of the explorers who learned the trick from the natives. He says:

"The process of constructing a snow-house goes on something in this way, varied, of course, by circumstances of time, place, and materials. First, a number of square blocks are cut out of any hard-drifted bank of snow you can meet with, adapted for the purpose; which, when cut, have precisely the appearance of blocks of salt sold in the donkey-carts in the streets of London. The dimensions we generally selected were two feet in length by fourteen inches in height, and nine inches in breadth. A layer of these blocks is laid on the ground nearly in the form of a square; and then another layer on this, cut so as to incline slightly inwards, and the corner blocks laid diagonally over those underneath, so as to cut off the angles. Other layers follow in the same way, until you have gradually a dome-shaped structure rising before you, out of which you have only to cut a small hole for a door, to find yourself within a very light, comfortable-looking bee-hive on a large scale, in which you can bid defiance to wind and weather. Any chinks between the blocks are filled up with loose snow with the hand from outside; as these are best detected from within, a man is usually sent in to drive a thin rod through the spot where he discovers a chink, which is immediately plastered over by some one from without, till the whole house is as air-tight as an egg."

The Eskimos are well cared for by the government of Denmark, and always have been as far back as 1851, Kennedy wrote. Speaking of Upernavik:

"It is one of that interesting group of little colonies with which the enterprise of the Danes has dotted the west coast of Greenland. Here, considerably within the Arctic Circle, we found a Christian community, not only living, but, after a fashion, thriving. We were informed by the governor that there were, even at this early period of the season, one thousand Danish tons of oil and blubber stored, from the produce of the summer fishery. There was likewise visible evidence in every direction of an abundance of venison, water-fowl, and eggs, as well as seals. The houses were built of wood, very small, and had a singularly amphibious look about them, from being covered with tar from top to bottom, — appearing, for all the world, like so many upturned herring-boats, ready, on any emergency, to take to the water.

"A party of the Esquimos, attached to the settlement, had come in with the produce of some hunting excursion in which they had been engaged; and I was much struck with their intelligence, and their well-clad, comfortable, and healthy appearance. This, I learned, was in a great measure due to the benevolent interest of the Danish government in their behalf. There is not a station, I was given to understand, along the whole coast of Greenland, which has not its missionary and its schoolmaster for the instruction of the natives; and, judging from what we saw and learned at Upernavik, the Danish exchequer is not without material and substantial proofs of the gratitude of the poor 'Innuit.' Thus instructed, cared for, and their energies disciplined and directed, the Esquimos of Greenland give employment to six ships annually, in carrying the produce of their hunts and fisheries to Denmark."

Eskimos are, of course, among the most skilful big-game hunters of the world.

They are especially wary in stalking the walrus. An Eskimo hunter will approach as near as possible on a sledge and then leave vehicle and dogs behind and continue on foot.

Describing what follows, Astrup (one of Peary's men) writes: "Soon there seems to be a singing and cracking in the ice; then there is a break into many pieces, and up through the opening thus formed a bearded walrus quietly and majestically lifts its large head and grinning face. You hear its deep breathing, which in the twilight of the forenoon seems to resemble a slow snoring, and you see its breath like a cloud of vapor, which in the very low temperature that prevails looks as white and shining as the steam from an engine. A moment afterward the animal slowly disappears in the deep. It is usually while the walrus is engaged in breaking the thin ice in order to form a breathing-hole that the Esquimo rushes to the attack, though sometimes, in spite of the cold, one is found that has crept upon the ice where it is strong enough to bear the weight."

Capt. Hall once harpooned a seal according to the Eskimo method. He was watched by a number of Innuits (natives) as he took his seat by a seal-hole, which is an excavation under the ice where the animal dwells below the frozen surface. Hall at length heard breathing and scratching at the spot. He jabbed his harpoon down and in a moment the line was jerked from his hand, but, "quick as a flash," he says, "I seized it again, or I would have lost my prize, as well as the harpoon and line. The sealers far and near saw that I was fast to a seal, and although I called to Nu-ker-zhoo, 'kiete! kiete!' — come here! come here! — there was no necessity for it, for before I uttered a word he and all the others were making their way to me. Had I caught a whale there could not have been more surprised and happy souls than were these Innuits on finding I was really fast to a seal. Laughter, hilarity, joyous ringing voices abounded. Almost the last Innuit who arrived to congratulate me was my good friend Ou-e-la, accompanied by his dog, dragging a seal which he had just captured. Last of all came the young ladies, Tuk-too and Now-yer, with dogs and sledge, and a seal which Ar-mou had taken a little while before. All this time nobody had seen my seal, for it was flipping away down in salt water beneath the snow and ice, still fast to one end of my line while I held on to the other. Nu-ker-zhoo, with his pelong (long knife), then cut away the snow, two feet in depth, covering the seal-hole, and removing still more with my spear, he chiseled away the ice-lining just above the hole. Soon the seal came up to breathe, and then the death-blow was given to it by a thrust of the spindle of the spear directly into the thin skull. The prize was drawn forth — a larger seal than either Ou-e-la's or Ar-mou's. Again the air resounded with shouts and joyous laughter. It was the first case among them of a white man's success in harpooning."

Despite their skill in the hunt, the Esquimos often suffer from hunger. Capt. Tyson, who was with Capt. Hall on the Polaris, told of a visit to the hut of an Esquimo known as Hans, to see a sick boy. He says:

"The miserable group of children made me sad at heart. The mother was trying to pick a few scraps of 'tried-out' blubber out of their lamp, to give to the crying children. Augustina is almost as large as her mother, and is twelve or thirteen years old. She is naturally a fat, heavy-built girl, but she looks peaked enough now. Tobias is in her lap, or partly so, his head resting on her as she sits on the ground, with a skin drawn over her. She seemed to have a little scrap of something she was chewing on, though I could not see that she swallowed anything. The little girl, Succi, about four years old, was crying — a kind of chronic hunger whine — and I could just see the baby's head in the mother's hood, or capote. The babies have no clothing whatever, and are carried about in this hood, which hangs down the mother's back, like young kangaroos in the maternal pouch, only on the reversed side of the body. All I could do was to encourage them a little. I had nothing that I could give them to make them any more comfortable. I was glad, at least, to see that they had some oil left."

This same Capt. Tyson interestingly describes the capture of a whale: Captain Tyson, who was with Captain Hall in the Polaris expedition, thus describes the killing of a whale, in which he participated:

"I once had, when I was boat-steerer, quite an adventure with a whale which was determined not to die. It was a large and valuable balleener. Soon after the boat was lowered we got alongside. As I rose to heave the harpoon it seemed, almost in an instant, that the whale had plunged down to the bottom of the bay; as the rope uncoiled and went over the gunwale it fairly smoked with the intense rapidity of the friction, and I had to order it 'doused' to prevent its taking fire. It came, too, within a hair-breadth of capsizing us. Fortunately, the line was over seventy fathoms long, and of the strongest kind. After she plunged we followed on, it taking all our strength to bring the boat near enough to keep the line slack. She stayed under "water the first time so long that we thought she was dead and sunk. It was nearly an hour before she rose: and when she did, the jerk almost snapped our strong line, already weakened by the friction and unusual tension.

"As soon as she appeared she began to beat the water with her flukes, and swirled around so that it appeared impossible to get a lance into her, and, while I was endeavoring to do this, our line parted, and away she went, carrying the harpoon with her. We followed with all the speed we could force, and at last, after several hours' hard pull, came up with her. She seemed to know we were following, and several times disappeared, and then would come up to blow, perhaps half a mile off; but we were bound to have her. On and on she went, on and on we followed. The moon was shining, and the Arctic summer night was almost as light as day, and deep into the night we followed her. Down she went, for the sixth or seventh time, but fatigue was getting the better of her. She was weakening, while with all the fatigue our spirits, and strength, too, were kept up by the excitement. At last, when we had been nearly twenty-four hours on the chase, I got another harpoon in her. This seemed to madden her afresh. Another plunge, which had nearly carried us with her; but this time she did not stay down more than ten or twelve minutes. Up she came once more, the water all around covered with blood, and we knew she was done for. Three or four lances were hurled into her ponderous bulk, and at last our exertions were rewarded by seeing her roll over on her side. She was dead. We bent on another strong line, and soon towed her to a floe. But we found ourselves with our prize, a good nine miles from the ship. We could not, therefore, save the blubber, but we made a good haul of balleen, with which we loaded our boat to its utmost capacity, and then dragged her, with her heavy cargo, the whole distance over the ice to the ship, which is what I call a fair day's work."

Book Chapter Logo Click the book image to turn to the next Chapter.