The Isaac Family
Culture and Religion
Books and Reference
MOOSE HUNTING WITH THE TRO-CHU-TIN
The Tro-chu-tin are better known as “Klondike Indians”.
Their village numbering sixty or seventy souls was located at the mouth of the
Klondike River until white men discovered gold on Bonanza Creek and crowded
them away to its present site on the Yukon, two miles below the town of Dawson.
One morning early in January three Indians sought an interview with Captain Hansen agent of the Alaska Commercial Company – “Isaac”, the chief, “Silas”, a “smart” young man; and “John”, a former chief and medicine doctor or shaman. Silas, having been interpreter for the traders spoke, spoke middling English; Isaac, worse; the old man, none at all. On this occasion Isaac was spokesman. Said he: “First time, Jack McQuesten all same Injun papa; Yukon Injun all same her children. Just nup, McQuesten he gone; A.C. Company all same Injun papa; her children hungry.” The meaning of this was that the Alaska Commercial Company, from the time when it received the lease of the Seal Islands and came into a practical monopoly of the fur trade of Alaska, had exercised through its various agents, one of whom had been Jack McQuesten, a paternal care over the native tribes, by directing their hunts and feeding them when fish, moose, or caribou were scarce or difficult to obtain.
As the Indians had been accustomed
during the quarter of a century before the discovery of the Klondike to appeal
for aid in time of hunger to McQuesten, it now seemed proper to lay before the
visible representative of the company at Dawson the fact that they were on the
verge of starvation. This condition was not exceptional.
Captain Hansen told them in reply that it was true that the “A.C.” Company now was “all same Jack McQuesten”, but times had changed. It was no longer necessary that they should consider how much fur there was on the beaver’s back, but how much meat on the moose’s bones. He had no food for them, nor for the white men (it is still fresh in mind that starvation stared us all in the face that winter). They must hunt the moose and bring the meat to the white men, and then, but not until then, could he give them food from the store.
Several days after the above conversation a friend introduced me, in the street at Dawson, to a tall rather angular individual, dressed in a black fur cap of peculiar design, a coat of gorgeous “upholstery” –patterned Mackinaw blanket, “store” trousers further encased in leggings of the same fancy material as the coat, moose-hide moccasins with pointed toes and bright scarlet tops. A pair of large caribou-skin mittens hung from his neck by a thick plaited green and white worsted cord, and he was further protected from the dry arctic cold by a knit yarn scarf wrapped once around his neck, the ends being tied behind his back out of the way. In features he was a North-American Indian, thought the Northern interior “Woods” Indian type; light brown in color, with prominent cheek-bones, a strong chin, aquiline nose, a large mouth with a stringy black moustache that drooped at the ends, and a flashing eye, that gave the impression both of mastery and shrewdness. Although he carried himself with conscious self-respect, Isaac, as I saw him that first time and during our subsequent “partnership”, would have presented a droll appearance anywhere save in the busy street of a Northern mining camp, where other man wore a shirt like “parka”, and other articles of native dress appropriate to the place and season.
After an effusive greeting and vigorous hand shaking, Isaac readily assented to my proposition to accompany the village on the hunt; first, however, warily inquiring whether I could snowshoe, and then saying that I should bring along two sacks of flour, five pounds of tea, I do not know how much sugar – in fact, a quarter of a year’s outfit, including a tent and the usual miner’s sheet iron stove! Isaac’s handling of English was atrocious and unique, while of course my knowledge of his own language was nil; but by much repetition, aided by gestures, I gathered that the hunt would last until the sun rose high above the horizon – three months later; that he expected me to “grub-stake” him with provisions, which he would repay out of the first moose he killed; that the hind quarters belonged to the hunter who shot the moose, the rest to the village; that he and I were “pudnas” (partners), and would give each other a fore shoulder; and when the smoke inside the “skin house” made his eyes “too much sisk”, he would come into my tent. The time, however, being more than I could spare for such an adventure, I cut down the grub list and further resolved that if I could not live in the “skin houses” exactly like one of them, not to go at all.
On the 13th of January the sleepy miners’ camp
was startled by a wild, screaming, howling cavalcade of Indians – men, women,
boys, girls, and babies – and dogs of all degrees of leanness, the dogs hauling
birch toboggans, on which were piled smoke browned house poles, skins, and blankets,
with babies and pups, the women driving the dogs, and nearly every man hauling
a Yukon miners’ sled (Isaac had explained that nearly all the dogs had been
sold to the miners).
The procession, a quarter of a mile long, numbering forty
or fifty people and as many dogs, turned up a smooth trail on the frozen
surface of the Kondike, the dogs, poor things, howling dismally as the women
with shrill voices and long sticks urged them on. Two miles from the Yukon,
above the mouth of the Bonanza Creek, the head of the caravan stopped and Isaac
marked the place for the camp at the edge of the river, along side a dense
grove of spruce trees.
As we turned off the smooth miners’ trail every person
old enough to walk slipped into snowshoes, as the snow was about two feet deep.
The women took long handled wooden shovels and removed the snow off the ground
an elliptical space eighteen feet long by twelve feet wide, banking it all
around two feet high. While some covered the exposed river gravel with green
spruce boughs and kindled a fire in the centre, other cut sticks three to five
feet long and set them upright a foot apart in the bank of snow, the long way
of the intended house, leaving an opening at one side two feet long, whittled
out of spruce and previously bent and seasoned into the form of a curve, were
then set up in the snow at the ends of the camp to the number of sixteen or
twenty, their upper ends pointing toward the middle in the form of a dome then
feet high. These were strengthened by two arched cross poles underneath, the
ends of which were lashed to the side stakes with withes of willow twigs thawed
out and made pliant over the fire. Over this comparatively stiff frame work
next was drawn a covering of caribou skin, tanned with the hair on, made in tow
sections, and shaped and sewed together to fit the dome. The two sections,
comprising forty skins, completely covered the house, except in the middle
where a large hole was left for the smoke to escape and at the doorway over
which was hung a piece of blanket.
The toboggans with the balance of the loads were hoisted upon pole scaffolds each side of the house, out of reach of the dogs who looked and acted as if ready to devour anything from a moccasin to a rawhide toboggan lashing. Not until the house was done and enough wood stacked before the door to last until morning did any one stop for a moment. In a climate where the temperature remains not higher than thirty degrees below zero, and occasionally drops to fifty or sixty below, it is dangerous to dally, as white men are prone to do under the same conditions.
In our little village there were seven lodges. In the chief’s
house were nine persons and eleven dogs, divided into two households, each
having a side of the fire to itself. On ours were Isaac, his wife, Eliza with a
nursing boy less than a year old, myself, and three native dogs – Chicken
(child), Gagul (broken-leg), and black native pup, and an extremely miserable
short haired white man’s pup, wrapped in a blanket to keep from freezing, and
weighing just fourteen pounds by Isaac’s spring scales.
On the other side were
a middle aged, slockily built man known as “Billy”, or “the missionary’s man”,
and his wife with two girls respectively about eight and ten years of age, and
a boy of the same uncertain age, four large native dogs, and two pups. The
human occupants kneeled or reclined before the fire, which was ingeniously
built to throw the heat in two directions and to draw well, notwithstanding
which latter, I soon discovered that it was often necessary to lie close to the
ground, and when the smoke became too thick, to lift the lower edge of the skin
covering. We cooked a loaf of baking powder bread in a frying pan. A scrap of
bacon and a cup of tea completed our meal.
The Indians were really near starvation. Isaac himself had the only sack of flour in the village. Each family had its own cooking outfit, consisting of a frying pan, a tin milk pan, a tin dish pan, several tin cups and plates, and a small tin pail for boiling tea and a larger on holding two or three gallons, for making soup and boiling meat and washing the children’s under garments.
The following morning before daybreak the work was given, “All go”. Toboggans were rattled off of caches, and houses taken down and loaded as swiftly as they had been set up. We made ten mile, part way on a miners’ trail, the rest on snowshoes, and camped exactly as before. It was still dark when wall hands were awakened, the stars were shining brightly, the white aurora flashed feebly in the northern sky, the black domes of the village were dimly outlined against the snow and the black wall of spruce, and a few sparks and thin smoke were rising from the early fires. Isaac went outside and began to declaim in a loud voice. He spoke not in the smooth, melodious tongue of the Eastern Indian, but slowly and deliberately, in short crisp, incisive monosyllables. When he was done, he informed me in broken English that we were to hunt on the left hand side of the river. He buckled on his belt full of “forty five seventy” cartridges, and went outside.
Some time afterwards a young man who was warming himself by our fire asked me if I “go hunt moose”. Ducking out of the narrow door, and seizing rifle and snowshoes off the cache, I fell into a trail along with tow shadowy figures, with rifles over their shoulders. In half an hour it was light enough to see that my companions were a boy of about twelve, with a large repeating rifle, and the old shuman, John, dressed in a coat of bright orange blanket and nether garment of caribou skin. He carried a single barrelled shotgun in a caribou leather case handsomely embroidered with beads and red cloth, and a sort of pouch made of black cloth, richly beaded, for holding bullets and caps, hung on his breast, while a leather covered powder horn hung at his side. After we had walked seven miles, the river valley, in increasing light, was seen to be several miles across, the white frozen stream winding between low flat banks covered with a growth of scrubby spruce, beyond which rose evenly sloping mountains covered sparsely with small spruce, birch, and cottonwoods. The trail made by several snowshoes ahead of us turned abruptly to the left. The boy and I turned into the spruce. The old man kept on alone, and we saw no more of him.
We reached the hill and were quite on the crest of the first
ridge when the toe of one of my snowshoes broke off. Motioning Indian fashion
for the boy to go ahead, he disappeared among the snow laden trees, leaving me
to limp slowly on. It was just twelve o’clock by the watch when I heard a rifle
shot, followed quickly by another. The next thing I was in a moose’s feeding
ground, and saw snowshoe tracks running hither and thither among the bowed down
birches, in evident pursuit. Plunging on the moose’s trail, down the back side
of a little hill, I had not gone two hundred yards before I saw smoke among the
evergreens, and the familiar figure of Isaac and several other around a long
fire, and two other nearby skinning a large moose which lay in the snow. It was
a gory site – the white snow splashed with the blood, the Indians in variegated
red, yellow, and green blanket coats, holding portions of the moose’s vitals in
the flames on sticks, and greedily licking up the fat that dripped into the
snow. They were all smiling and happy. They had made the fire without axes,
simply breaking off dead limbs with their hands. The two Indians soon had the
moose skinned, and proceeded to separate part from part, using only their
After cutting off a chunk of ten to fifteen pounds of meat for each person present, the rest of the meat was covered with snow, and the smaller pieces were wrapped in spruce boughs and made into a pack, a braided rawhide cord, which each carried, being used as a sling. At just one o’clock each of us shouldered a pack, and we started back single file, reaching camp at dark, having travelled about eighteen miles. On the way we passed another moose, which an Indian was skinning. That accounted for the second shot. That night the old shuman and Billy, who had gone off separately, returned, each with a piece of moose, making thus four moose for the first day’s hunt.
No wonder everyone was happy! Even the dogs, who had been having nothing but a thin soup of boiled salmon heads, took a new lease of existence. Our moose was a fat cow. The moose are still too plentiful for the Indians to stop to consider the ultimate consequence of killing cows at this season, when they are heavy with young. Indeed, they much prefer the cow to the bull. “Mull (bull) moose”, said Isaac, “too much tup (tough); cow moose plenty fat; he all right”. He would eat the cow moose himself, and sell the bull moose to the miners.
The following day we moved camp seven miles and the morning
after that a man went ahead with an axe and cleared a trail for the women and
toboggans, who hauled the meat into camp, where it was taken into the several
houses and laid over poles at the side of the house, so as to be guarded from
the dogs. The hides were brought indoors, and women at once set to work
dressing them. The hair was shaved off; then the skin was turned over, and all
the sinew and meat adhering was removed by means of a sort of chisel made of a
moose’s shin bone; and finally scraped, a work requiring a whole day of
incessant and tiresome labor. The skin was now washed in a pan of hot water,
and then wrung dry with the help of a stick as a tourniquet. After which the
edges were incised for subsequent lacing into a frame, and then hung outdoors
over a pole. The tanning, with a “soup” of liver and brains, is done the next
summer. After which the skin is smoked, and made into moccasins, gold sacks,
The various portions of the moose were divided among the village. One family got a head, another a slab of ribs, another the fore shoulders. The shin bones were roasted and cracked for the marrow; the ears, although nothing but cartilage, were roasted and chewed up; the rubberlike “muffle”, or nose, and very particle of flesh, fat, or gristle that could be scraped from the head or hoofs, were disposed of. Even the stomach was emptied of its contents and boiled and eaten; but the very choicest delicacy was the unborn moose, which was suspended by a string around the neck and toasted over the fire. With plenty of meat, the village was in no hurry to move. There were no regular meals now. Whenever on wanted anything to eat, he cut of a piece of meat and threw it into a frying pan. In our house someone was cooking about all the time. No one cared for salt: it is a civilized habit they have not yet acquired. Moose meat answers all requirements of nature, and one can live on it alone.
The killing of the fat cow is celebrated by a feast. Our first was prepared by Isaac. Two or thre4e of the largest tin pails were brought into the house and an Indian selected by the chief as cook filled them with water from an ice hole in the river and hung them over the fire, with all sorts of adds and ends of meat and bone. While the meat was cooking, the hunters gathered inside to the number of twenty-three, lying on their backs with their feet to the fire, completely filling the little room. They laughed, talked, smoked until about noon, when the cook brought out a large wooden spoon, and skimming the pure grease of the top of the kettles, passed it around the circle. Each took a sip at the fiery hot, saltless tallow, apparently regardless of considerable moose hair and wood ashes. When the meat was done, a number of milk pans and plates were partly filled, each one’s share being apportioned according to the size of his family.
A cup or kettle of tea was set before each person, and all hands sat up and pitched in with hunting knives and fingers. Now I learned the way to eat meat: people who eat nothing but meat surely ought to know the way. You grasp the bone, or roll of fat, tightly in the left hand, and seize the other end firmly in the teeth. Then with the hunting knife, dagger fashion, in the other hand keeping both elbows well out and lifting the lips away so that no accident may happen by a lip of the knife, you bring the keen edge squarely downward, severing as much as you wish for a mouthful. Never have I seen so much energy thrown into eating. Whatever was left in the pans was handed out to the women and children, and eaten in their respective houses. Then we lay back for more smoking and talking until another batch of meat was ready. At 3 P.M. pans and plates were again filled, and again disposed of, tow the accompaniment of the same fierce arm and elbow movements. Thus ended a day of feasting, which, come when it may, is really the “Sunday” of a hunting people. Several sleds took meat to town, where it readily sold to the miners for $1.25 to $1.50 per pound. When all the meat had been cared for, the hides were hoisted on poles into trees out of reach of wolverines, to be picked up at the end of the hunt. We journeyed leisurely on, making six or seven miles each day, and hunting both sides of the river. By the time we reached the Forks of Klondike, forty miles from Dawson, nearly four weeks had elapsed; just thirty two moose had been killed, and eaten, sold, or “cached” until the final homeward trip.
The broad valley and mountainous banks of the Klondike are an admirable feeding ground for the moose. The temperature in winter is exceedingly cold and crisp, but the snowfall is light, and by reason of the intense cold the snow does not settle or pack. There is so little wind, especially during the early part of the winter, that the snow accumulates on the trees in strange and often fantastic masses, giving the landscape, especially on the mountain tops, the appearance of having been chiselled out of pure white marble. On account of its lightness, the snow is no impediment to the long legged, gaunt moose, which is not obliged to “yard”, as in southern deep snow regions, but wanders at will from valley to mountain top in search of the tender twigs of willow, white birch, and cottonwood. The Indians surround the moose in its feeding ground, and as it runs, one or more of them is tolerably sure of a quick shot. Their skill with the modern repeating rifle is remarkable, especially in view of the fact that comparatively few years ago they had no guns at all, but stalked and killed the moose with bow and arrow alone. The “old-time” way of hunting the caribou was for a bank of Indians, number of sometimes fifty and more, to surround the unsuspecting herd and run in upon them at a given signal. The frightened animals were easily shot down, and sometimes out of a heard of several hundred not a single one escaped. Billy, who asserted that he himself had killed moose with a bow and arrow, preferred to leave the roundup and hunt alone. Three of the moose that fell to his rifle he shot through the head as they lay in their beds in the snow.
Not many years ago the Tro-chu-tin dressed entirely in the
skins of animals. The sable, mink otter, and beaver of the Yukon are of great
fineness and value, the sable especially being considered second only the
Russian sable. In exchange for furs, they received from the traders guns,
ammunition, tea, tobacco, sugar, flour; also extremely thick blankets, which
often weigh twelve pounds, and are made expressly for the Northern trade. Out
of these, as well as of fancy cottons and bright flannels, they made garments
that have now to some extent supplanted the old. The younger men affect a
bright Mackinaw coat that vies with the spectrum in brilliancy and variety of
color. One fellow was the proud possessor of a coat striped in brown, pink,
yellow, blue, and green; and another of a coat checked in large squares of
pink, green, blue, yellow, and lilac. With these are worn blanket trousers
stuffed into the tops of moccasins. The old men, who cling tenaciously to old
customs, wear a garment, comprising trousers and moccasins in one, made of
caribou skin, with the hair inside. These are worn next the skin. One old man
wore, in addition, a “parka”, or shirt, made of white rabbit skins cut into strips
and plaited, leaving openings through which on could thrust the fingers; and
yet in the coldest weather he work positively nothing else, except a blanket
hood and mittens of rabbit skin. The mittens are generally made of caribou
skin, with the hair inside, and are very warm. The women, when in doors, wear a
dress of light cloth fashioned on civilized lines, but when travelling they don
either a blanket coat over a shortish shirt or the same, or a voluminous over
dress of caribou skin, having a hood, which upon occasion may be hauled over
the head, but in which commonly reposes the baby.
The women’s head gear is invariably a large fancy silk or cotton kerchief knotted under the chin. The skin dress reaches half way from the knees to the ground, deer skin legging moccasins protecting the lower extremities. The little girls wear garments similar to their mother, while the boys wear a shirt of caribou skin, with fur outside, made with a hood for pulling over the head. Their legs are encased in diminutive skin trousers with feet, while the mittens of the very smallest children are sewed fast to their sleeves. When a small boy gets ready to go outdoors, he lies on his back and sticks his legs into the air, while the mother draws on his “pants”.
The children, dressed in their warm thick furs, have as happy a time as children anywhere. Most of their play is out of doors, where they make play houses in imitation of the large ones, and roll about in the snow like little polar bears. Sometimes they take papa’s snowshoes and slide down some little bank, but they did not use the toboggans for that purpose. A favourite game was “kli-so-kot”, or “throwing the stick”. A row of five or six small stakes is set up in the hard packed snow of the village street, and another row thirty or forty feet distant. Each contestant provides himself with two clubs, and taking turns, they throw these at first one, then the other, of the group of upright stakes, the one who knocks down the greatest number of stakes being the winner. Although these Indian children are so tough, they are great cry-babies. One of the things the women particularly wanted to know was whether white babies cried very much. Isaac’s “hope of posterity” was a fearful nuisance. He was crying about a third of the time. Not a regular cry, but a nasal, monotonous drone, punctuated at intervals by three or four inward catches of the breath. He would keep this up for perhaps half an hour without the slightest diminution, until humoured or petted.
Often Billy’s boy would imitate him, with the result only of increasing and prolonging the distressful performance. I rarely saw a child punished, and never one whipped.
They had learned what a camera was, but they had never seen anyone make pictures “by hand”. I drew everything I saw, and it amused them to recognize the various members of the village and the different dogs. They never tired looking at the sheets and passing them around the circle, screaming with laughter as they recognized some person or dog. I was given the name “picture man”. Some of the old men and women objected to having their pictures mad, but it was more from fear of ridicule than superstition. Isaac himself had objections to “hand pictures” of himself, as he called them. He asked me privately, as a favour, not to make any. “Machine picture, he all right”. He evidently thought it did not befit the dignity of chief to become an object of even harmless merriment.
The dogs are a feature of every Northwest Indian village.
Ours were a ragged, wolfish, scrawny, poor, miserable lot, the best, with few
exceptions, having been sold to the miners for twenty times what they were
worth a few years ago.
Soon after the first day’s hunt Isaac had conveyed word to me that one or two of the Indians were nervous about my hunting with them in the bunch, lest when the moose ran I should shoot an Indian instead of the moose. He stated that although he himself did not share that fear, he thought it best I should hunt alone in future, as they now had few Indians, and could not afford to lose any. It was a rather hard compliment, but as the camp life of the people themselves was so interesting, it really mattered little whether I hunted at all. A the Forks we remained upwards of a week, the Indians securing in that time twelve more moose. Here I made long excursions, in some cases then mile from camp, hunting alone on the sides and tops of the high mountains. But in the first place I had misjudged the ease with which a moose could be picked up: in the next place I was not acquainted with the country, nor was I able to learn from the Indians’ well meant directions just what ground they were hunting over. So that at the end of a week of the hardest and most persistent hunting of which I was capable I found myself without a moose to call my own.
One day after an unusually long tramp, wherein I had resolved to get beyond the snowshoe tracks of the Indians, I had remained overnight at a new miner’s cabin, returning to camp next day. Being unable to dry the perspiration and frost from my clothes thoroughly as by the direct blaze of the skin house, a cold set in that took a sudden and serious turn. I followed the Indians another stage up the “North Fork”, but realizing the danger, I started back, and leaving the sled behind, succeeded in reaching a miner’s cabin where for six days I lay unable to eat or sleep. Isaac and his people had cared for me as one of themselves, but now their solicitude, expressed in language I could not understand, but in looks that left no doubt, could be of no assistance. Isaac reported in Dawson: “Picture man too much sick. Mebbe two days he all right, mebbe two days he dead.” My partner came after me with a basket sleigh and four stout dogs. Meanwhile I was up and on my way home, and passed him in a bend of the Klondike River. The Indians killed in all about eighty moose and sixty five caribou, much of which they sold to the miners in Dawson, as Captain Dansen advised them, and invested the proceeds in finery and repeating rifles.