13. Tropical Winter Life At Point Barrow — 1852-83

One of the nineteenth century's great tragedies had among its compensating results that it left us what most agree is a great classic of Eskimo history and ethnology: “Observations on the Western Eskimo and the Country they inhabit; from Notes taken during two years [1852-54] at Point Barrow," by Mr. John Simpson, surgeon, R.N., Her Majesty's Discovery Ship Plover. This contribution is part of Parliamentary Papers: Further Papers Relative to the Recent Arctic Expeditions in Search of Sir John Franklin (London, 1855).

Everything broke right for preserving a faithful and sympathetic account of the first Europeans who ever wintered on the north coast of Alaska, and of the people among whom they wintered, who were still fully in the Stone Age and most of whom had never even glimpsed a passing European. Around the 1850's so many ships were searching for Sir John and his 129 lost companions that it seemed wise to the British Admiralty to station a depot vessel, the Plover, at Barrow to replenish with food, fuel, or anything else necessary, any other expedition that found itself short.

The Plover's skipper, Commander Rochefort Maguire, was (October 29, 1852) the first European to report from the north coast of Alaska upon naked men in dwellings of tropical warmth:

“... I paid a visit to the village, accompanied by Mr. Simpson, the surgeon ... The winter huts were now covered with snow; the chief's stood about five feet above the ground, with a square opening at one end, into which we followed through a low dark passage ... when we stood beneath the opening in the floor of the inhabited part of the hut ... Passing [up] through it we stood upon a smooth board floor ... the roof was seven feet high ... There were four or five young men, and two women with children laying about the floor, all naked to the waist, the children entirely so ... it soon became insufferably hot ...”

This was, it seems, Dr. Simpson's first experience, as well as the captain's, with the typical heat of northern Alaskan winter dwellings. Simpson kept revisiting Eskimo homes during the seven winter months of two years. He describes a healthy and happy people of apparently high longevity who, during the winter, lived practically naked — the children wholly so — in earth and wood dwellings that were seldom cooler than 70° F., who avoided all vegetable foods and salt, and who lived on fat and lean fresh meats that were undercooked or raw. Sweating in temperatures which, during the afternoon and evening, ran to 90° and 100° F., they drank ice water continually.

The only non-native “foods” the Barrow people used in Simpson's time were tea and tobacco, which they had been receiving overland and across the Bering Strait from China long before the Russian “discovery” of Alaska. The tobacco the Barrow people, like all Alaskan Eskimos, smoked in Chinese opium-type pipes, inhaling the smoke. They also chewed; but they did not spit, swallowing the juice instead. They did not, apparently, dip or snuff. Following are a few of Simpson's passages that bear on food and food habits, health and longevity:

“These people ... are robust, muscular and active, inclining rather to spareness than corpulence ... presenting a remarkably healthy appearance ... The expression of the countenance is one of habitual good humor ... The physical constitution of both sexes is strong ... Extreme longevity is probably not unknown among them; but as they take no heed to number the years as they pass they can form no guess of their own ages ... Judging altogether from appearance ... [one man] could not be less than eighty years of age ... There was another ... whose appearance indicated an age nothing short of seventy five. This man died in the month of April 1853 ... There is another man still alive who is said to be a few years older ...

“... in their treatment of their aged and infirm parents they ... not only give them food and clothing, sharing with them every comfort they possess ... Orphaned children are provided for in the same way ... We have never heard of the sick and aged being left to perish ...

“[In their houses, by the use of seal- or whale-oil lamps] not only a good light but a great deal of heat may be produced, so that the temperature of a [winter] house is seldom below 70° F. and so great a care is taken to keep it trimmed, no offensive degree of smoke arises ...”

Following Dr. John Simpson, the next wintering by Europeans on the north coast of Alaska was nineteen years after the Plover's and was again for two continuous years, 1881-83. This was not on a ship at anchor but in a house ashore. It was the International Polar Year participation of the United States Army. In the account of this wintering the Eskimos were again sympathetically described. The narrative is readily found in libraries; whereas Simpson's account is a great rarity. Of the sources available (including the formal report of the commander, Lieutenant Patrick Henry Ray), the best description of the people is the account by the anthropologist John Murdoch: “Ethnological Results of the Point Barrow Expedition,” published in the Ninth Annual Report of the Bureau of Ethnology to the Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution (Washington, D.C., 1892).

The American anthropologist finds himself in nearly constant agreement with the British doctor, his only predecessor. Examining both, I have found but one outright contradiction, where Murdoch says: “I cannot agree with Dr. Simpson that the turning out of the toes gives ‘a certain peculiarity to their gait difficult to describe.’ I should say that they [the Barrow Eskimos] walk like well-built athletic white men.” On his own Murdoch says that “the males, even when very young, are remarkable for their graceful and dignified carriage ... In walking they move with long swinging elastic strides ...”

Murdoch in the 1880's finds nothing, or very little, to disagree within the Simpson account of the 1850's as pertains, directly or indirectly, to food and food habits. Opening his consideration

of “Physical Characteristics,” Murdoch quotes Simpson: “In statute these people are of medium height, robust and muscular, ‘inclining more to spareness than corpulence,’ though the fullness of the face and the thick fur clothing often gives the impression of the latter.” Murdoch further agrees that “the general expression is good-humored and attractive.”

“For north Alaskan attitudes and methods in caring for the aged, and in bringing up children, Murdoch joins with Simpson in giving the highest praise. Simpson says:

“For the tender solicitude with which their own infancy and childhood have been tended, in their treatment of their aged and infirm parents they made a return which redounds to their credit ... among the people of fourteen summer tents and as many boats [I saw] one crippled man, a blind and helpless old woman, two grown-up women with sprained ankles, and one other old invalid ... carried by their respective families, who had done the same for the first two during many successive summers ...”

While usually in agreement with Dr. Simpson, Murdoch occasionally disagrees with other writers — for instance, with Dr. Sutherland, who “expresses the opinion that ‘an individual in such case [totally blind] would be quite unfit for the life of toil and hardship to which the hardy Esquimaux are exposed. The neglect consequent on this helpless condition most probably cuts off its afflicted objects.’ This seems quite reasonable on a priori grounds, but nevertheless the blind man at Cape Smythe had lived to middle age in very comfortable circumstances ...”

Evidently believing that individual traits are frequently the result of the general way of life, Murdoch says of the Barrow Eskimos: “As a rule, they are quick-witted and intelligent ... In disposition they are light hearted and cheerful, not easily cast down by sorrow and misfortune.”

In addition to agreeing generally with Simpson's dietetic observations of the 1850's, Murdoch amplifies in the 1880's:

“The food of these people consists almost entirely of animal substances ... We saw and heard nothing ... of eating the half-digested contents of the stomach of the reindeer ... As far as our observations go these people eat little, if any more fat than civilized man; and, as a rule, not by itself ... It is usually supposed, and generally stated in the popular accounts of the Eskimos, that it is a physical necessity for them to eat enormous quantities of blubber in order to obtain a sufficient amount of carbon to enable them to maintain their animal heat in the cold climate which they inhabit. A careful comparison, however, of the reports of actual observers shows that an excessive eating of fat is not the rule ...

“We saw these people eat no vegetable substances, though they informed us that the buds of the willow were sometimes eaten [especially in time of famine] ... Food is generally cooked ... Meat of all kinds is generally boiled ... and the broth thus made is drunk ... Fish are also boiled but are often eaten raw ... Meat is sometimes eaten raw frozen ... When living in winter houses they ... have no regular time for meals, but eat whenever hungry and have leisure. The women seem to keep a supply of cooked food on hand for anyone to eat ... They are large eaters, some of them, especially the women, eating all the time ...” Elsewhere Murdoch relates that during winter the Barrow women stirred around very little, did little heavy work, and yet “inclined more to being sparse than corpulent.”

Murdoch was impressed with “the habitual drinking of water, which the people consume in great quantities ... and like to have very cold ... When tramping about in winter they eat large quantities of [crushed] ice and snow ... This great fondness for plenty of cold water has been often noted among the Eskimos elsewhere ...”

Murdoch is, if anything, warmer in his praise than Simpson for the social relationships and especially the home life of the Barrow Eskimos:

“The women appear to stand on a footing of perfect equality with the men, both in the family and the community. The wife is the constant and trusted companion of the man in everything except the hunt, and her opinion is sought in every bargain or other important undertaking ...

“Children are nursed until they are 3 or 4 years old, according to what appears to be the universal habit among the Eskimos ... The child is carried naked on its mother's back under her clothes and held up by the girdle ... When she wishes to nurse it she loosens her girdle and slips it around to the breast without bringing it out into the air ... We have never heard of a single case of infanticide ...

“The affection of parents for their children is extreme, and the children seem to be thoroughly worthy of it. They show hardly a trace of fretfulness or petulance so common among civilized children, and though indulged to an extreme extent are remarkably obedient. Corporal punishment appears to be absolutely unknown, and children are rarely chided or punished in any way. Indeed they seldom deserve it; for, in spite of the freedom which they are allowed, they do not often get into any mischief ... The older children take very good care of the smaller ones ...”

Murdoch found that in the nineteen years since Simpson there had been only a slight change in the way of life:

“Since 1854, when the first New England whalers came as far north as the Point, there has hardly been a season when ships have not visited ... The Barrow Eskimos have however adopted very few civilized habits. They have contracted a taste for civilized food, especially hard bread and flour, but this they are unable to obtain for 10 months in the year and they are thus obliged to adhere to their former habits ...” Elsewhere Murdoch speaks of the fondness of Barrow Eskimos for “sugar and molasses; and some of them are learning to like salt ...”


Murdoch's verdict in the 1880's on the Barrow Eskimos, that “the have however adopted a few civilized habits,” in my opinion still held when I first spent time with them some twenty-five years later, in 1908. But his conclusion was no longer applicable twelve years after my time, when the Presbyterian medical missionary Dr. Henry W. Greist, and his trained-nurse wife Mollie Ward Greist, took charge of the mission and hospital. This I know from numerous sources, but especially from an as yet unpublished book-length manuscript which I have been fortunate to have on loan.

After a preliminary year at Cape Prince of Wales northwestern Alaska, the Greists reached the state's northern tip, Barrow, in 1921, and remained in charge of Farthest North Hospital and the mission till 1936. After their retirement they lived at Monticello, Indiana, where Dr. Greist wrote Seventeen Years with the Eskimos. He died in 1955 and in 1957 Mrs. Greist lent me the manuscript of the unpublished book. The Indiana physician found Alaska's most northern Eskimos no longer uncivilized, and no longer healthy. But from conversations with Charles DeWitt Brower, who had lived at Barrow since 1885, and with a few elderly Eskimos, some of whom still remembered Maguire and Simpson (and many of whom remembered Ray and Murdoch) — from conversations with these, and from other sources, the Greists became convinced that there had formerly been a high average of health and longevity among the northern Eskimos. With Mrs. Greist's permission I quote from Chapter 24 of Dr. Greist's manuscript:

“For untold centuries ... the Eskimo of the far north had solely a carnivorous diet ... He was healthy ... He suffered from neither tuberculosis nor any venereal disease; and had rheumatism, if at all, in a limited degree. Barring accidents, starvation during lean years, and epidemics of unknown character, he lived to a very great age with his teeth intact, but worn to the gums since he used his teeth as a third hand ... When starches and sugars were introduced by the whalers and the traders he at once began the development of carious teeth, something he never had previously.”

In the rest of his manuscript Dr. Greist names a good many other troubles, besides rottenness of teeth, that he thought had come to the Eskimos with the introduction of European food and food habits. I shall return to those later.

With relation to the medical missionary theory, that “the tropical life of the polar Eskimos” may perhaps have had an inhibiting effect upon cancer incidence — regarding this possible relationship, it should be emphasized that what I have said applies hardly at all except to winter living. But winter constitutes about two-thirds of the Eskimo year.

Sometime in May, whether at Barrow or in the Mackenzie delta, the snow on the nearly flat earth roofs of the houses began to melt and the roofs began to leak, whereupon the family moved into tents that had no gravity control of temperature. Also, the nearly airtight and gravity-heat-control clothes were not replaced by anything suited to keeping the people warm in the raw and sleety weather of spring. So in May began the time when the Stone Age Eskimos did their shivering of the year. This trouble decreased when summer advanced, for the climate warms until the days are 60° and 70° F. in the shade at Barrow, and a good deal warmer than that inland.

The autumn, also, is a time of chill. I, for instance did bit of shivering with the Shingle Point Eskimos during early September in 1906. By late September we were in fairly comfortable houses, though we had to burn a lot of driftwood in sheet-iron stoves to manage it. For our community was so civilized already that they used doors in the sides of the houses, which we had to open and close furtively against the chill that was no longer under gravity control but was always free to rush in.

During the pre-Europeanization time, the winter houses that were stationary tropics kept the people superwarm for, say, 240 days a year. Then of the remaining 120 or so days almost half were comfortably warm even on the seacoast; and more than half the days were too warm, inland. It was my experience hunting with the coastal Eskimos, who followed the caribou out upon the northern prairie, between 50 and 200 miles from the coast, that they complained of the heat most of the time from June 15 to August 15, the thermometer frequently showing above 90° F. in the shade.

When men like Captain Leavitt and Dr. Marsh discussed the Eskimos' artificially tropical life as covering only two-thirds of the year, they did not forget that there were also, especially inland, spells of weather that were tropically hot and humid.

So, as the northern medical missionaries saw it, while the artificial tropics of houses and clothes affected metabolism two-thirds of the year, the natural heat of the weather, during parts of the remaining third, continued the tropical atmosphere.

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