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 As early as 1889, European and American whalers pursued bowhead whales for their baleen and oil. These great mammals migrated through the Beaufort Sea, in close proximity to Herschel Island. The Island provided a safe harbour for the whalers and many ships would over-winter here.


Baleen, also called whalebone, is a tough, flexible cartilage-like substance found in the bowhead's mouth. An average size bowhead could have 700 pieces of baleen ranging from 6 inches to 12 ½ feet that is secured to the skull by thick muscle. The baleen acts like a sieve, filtering water and trapping shrimp-sized krill that is the mainstay of the whale's diet.


Due to its flexibility, baleen had many uses. The most common were stays in corsets that helped Victorian women attain a 12 inch waist. Baleen was also used to make buggy whips, parasols and umbrellas, fishing rods, caps, suspenders, canes, divining rods, bows, tongue scrapers, pen holders, paper folders and cutters, graining combs for painters, shoe horns, and hair brushes.


The whale's skin covers a layer of blubber that is rich in oil. It varies in thickness and can be up to 20 inches thick in some parts of the body. The blubber from an average size bowhead produced approximately 100 barrels of oil. The oil was used for fuel and lubricants. Some city streets and indoor lamps were lit with whale oil.

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of rows of Baleen

Rows of Baleen

Anglican Church of Canada Archives

P7517-369
© Anglican Church of Canada Archives


Drawing of A Whaling Boat Struck by a Whale.

Whaling Boat Struck by a Whale.

Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington

© Freshwater and Marine Image Bank, University of Washington


Whaling was very profitable for the captains and owners of the ships. A good season could bring up to $400,000. worth of whales. In 1900 whale oil sold for $15 a barrel and baleen for $6 a pound. A single bowhead could yield a hundred barrels of oil and 2000 pounds of baleen, making the whale worth about $15,000.

In the summer of 1890, two American ships based in San Francisco arrived at Herschel Island. They brought sufficient supplies for the coming winter as it was almost impossible to sail north, hunt and return, all in one season. The ships’ crews were a motley assortment from Portugal, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Siberian coast, and America. Many were down-on-their-luck, or running from the law and had never been on a sailing ship. Consequently, although they were well suited for a life at sea, these nefarious characters would have profound negative effects on the native population.

Soon, a number of factors contributed to the demise of whaling in the area. The number of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea declined quickly with the presence of over 30 ships each season. By the mid 1890s, the whales were no longer "thick as bees" around the m Read More
Whaling was very profitable for the captains and owners of the ships. A good season could bring up to $400,000. worth of whales. In 1900 whale oil sold for $15 a barrel and baleen for $6 a pound. A single bowhead could yield a hundred barrels of oil and 2000 pounds of baleen, making the whale worth about $15,000.

In the summer of 1890, two American ships based in San Francisco arrived at Herschel Island. They brought sufficient supplies for the coming winter as it was almost impossible to sail north, hunt and return, all in one season. The ships’ crews were a motley assortment from Portugal, New Zealand, Hawaii, the Siberian coast, and America. Many were down-on-their-luck, or running from the law and had never been on a sailing ship. Consequently, although they were well suited for a life at sea, these nefarious characters would have profound negative effects on the native population.

Soon, a number of factors contributed to the demise of whaling in the area. The number of bowhead whales in the Beaufort Sea declined quickly with the presence of over 30 ships each season. By the mid 1890s, the whales were no longer "thick as bees" around the mouth of the Mackenzie River. The introduction of plastic and the development of petroleum products caused the prices of baleen and oil to fall. In 1904, baleen sold for as much as $5.80 per pound. Within a few years, the price dropped to .50 cent

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Colour drawing of The Arctic Oil Works

The Arctic Oil Works

Courtesy of the Bancroft Museum, University of California, Berkeley
c. 1885
1963.002: 1498-F
© Courtesy of the Bancroft Museum, University of California, Berkeley


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Archaeological evidence indicates that by the 1820s, the Kigirktaugmiut of Herschel Island had trade goods from Russia. They travelled annually to Barter Island in Alaska with furs, sealskins, and oil which they traded with the Alaskan Inuvialuit for iron, knives, and beads. The Inuvialuit of Herschel Island were quite familiar with European trade goods even though they were unfamiliar with the peoples and their cultures.


An Inuvialuit, Nuligak, remembered his first encounter with white men when he was a young boy,


"The sailors we met always had something in their mouths, something they chewed. It so intrigued me that I kept staring at their jaws. One certain day that 'thing' was given to me. I chewed - it was delicious. It was chewing gum. From that day I was able to
recognize some of these white men's things.
"


© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

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The presence of the American whalers on Herschel Island 1889-1908 depleted the natural resources and disrupted the traditional subsistence patterns of the Mackenzie Inuvialuit. Traditionally, the Inuvialuit of Herschel Island were primarily fishermen so the whalers traded with the inland Nunatarmiuts of Alaska and the Gwitch’in for caribou and with the Herschel Island Inuvialuit for fish.


The whalers brought canned and dried foods with them. To prevent scurvy, a disease caused by the lack of vitamin C, they relied on fresh meats and fresh vegetables. A whaling ship with 35 men might consume over 9 tons of fresh meat during a winter. The whalers traded tea, flour, sugar, candy, chewing tobacco, firearms and ammunition, knives, files, whaleboats, small stoves, clothing, combs, soap, hand sewing machines, lines, whaleboats, harpoons and matches, metal cooking pots, matches, scissors, sewing needles, thimbles, canvas, calico, looking glasses, accordions, phonographs, records, and phonograph needles.


In return, the Inuvialuit traded fresh caribou, moose and fish, white fox skins and other furs, ducks, whalebone (baleen), ivory, winter clothing and footwear, and "curios".


© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Photo of a Fur comb

Fur comb

The Manitoba Museum

H5-3-7
© The Manitoba Museum


Colour photo of a Fish Scaler

Fish Scaler

The Manitoba Museum

H5-39-56
© The Manitoba Museum


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The Inuvialuit taught the white men how to survive in the North. Captain Bodfish and his crew started out wearing heavy woollen clothing of all kinds to combat the frigid temperatures and were perplexed at the native attire. As Bodfish explained...


"… we formed the opinion that the natives didn’t know how to keep warm. But before the end of the first winter we adopted the native dress altogether, and provided outfits for all the men. Such clothing was light and perfectly comfortable. We never dressed otherwise from that time on for Arctic weather."


The winter outfit included a caribou skin shirt, knee-length pants, and stockings with the hair turned in against the skin. For outdoor and colder weather a second suit of caribou clothing was worn over top with the hair turned outside. A calico cloth shirt pulled over the skin jacket kept the snow out of the hair during storms. Snow boots of sealskin or whale skin completed the outfit.


The Inuvialuit also taught the newcomers how to run dog teams, travel on snowshoes, hunt, and trap. Without these new skills, many would not have survived.


© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of Captain Bodfish wearing a winter outfit.

Captain Bodfish wearing a winter outfit.

Chasing the Bowhead, Capitain Hartson Bodfish

© Chasing the Bowhead, Capitain Hartson Bodfish


Though the white man introduced new technologies and market and credit economies to the Inuvialuit that made their lives easier, the white man also introduced liquor and new diseases which had profound negative effects on the lives of the native people.

Before 1888, few whites had visited the western Arctic and the Inuvialuit had not built up immunity to common European illnesses. The whalers brought venereal diseases, measles, and influenza. The Inuvialuit had no resistance to these diseases and died in appalling numbers. By the mid 1890s, the effect on the population of the Mackenzie Inuvialuit was evident.
Though the white man introduced new technologies and market and credit economies to the Inuvialuit that made their lives easier, the white man also introduced liquor and new diseases which had profound negative effects on the lives of the native people.

Before 1888, few whites had visited the western Arctic and the Inuvialuit had not built up immunity to common European illnesses. The whalers brought venereal diseases, measles, and influenza. The Inuvialuit had no resistance to these diseases and died in appalling numbers. By the mid 1890s, the effect on the population of the Mackenzie Inuvialuit was evident.

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of A Group of Inuvialuit Women

A group of Inuvialuit women visiting a ship at Herschel Island in the 1890s

Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives

P7517-381
© Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives


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Some whalers spent nine months of the year locked in the snow and ice at Herschel Island. While time was spent preparing the ships for winter moorage and later for the summer whale hunt, much time was spent with little to do. Boredom, loneliness, and disease took their toll on the whalers. Alcohol often aggravated these situations for them.


Captain Bodfish held the superstition that men who gave liquor to the natives would not enjoy good fortune. As a result, liquor was not included in his list of trade goods though it was brought along on the voyage for medicinal purposes and special occasions. All did not hold this outlook, and many ships arrived with cargos full of liquor for trade. The only law on the Island (the North West Mounted Police did not arrive until 1903), was imposed by the ships’ officers, many of whom were not exactly "law abiding citizens" themselves.


In the early years liquor flowed quite freely on Herschel Island. It was sold or traded for furs, walrus ivory, bone, and female companionship. As a result, drunkenness, rape, abductions, assaults, murder, and suicide all occurred from time to time.


Things began to settle down with the arrival in 1893 of Reverend Isaac Stringer. By 1894, many ship captains began to bring their wives and children. The newly established social clubs barred intoxicants.


© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of Winter Quarters

Whalers in Winter Quarters at Herschel Island, May 1895

Copyright Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT

1950.762
© Copyright Mystic Seaport, Mystic, CT


Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify a variety of reasons that led to the exploration of the Canadian North;
  • Identify the difficulties encountered when living in the Great North;
  • Explain the possible repercussions of those difficulties;
  • Analyze the relationships between Aboriginals and Europeans that led to many explorations;
  • Analyze the desire to spread the Christian faith in Canada and the results obtained, as well as the links and relationships that this created with indigenous peoples.

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