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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p146  Chapter X

A Winter in the North

Return to Alaska — Captain Francis' Story — Rescuing the Elder — Settling an Indian Difficulty — "Baptist Jim" surrenders.

As soon as I had stood a tour of duty I took the first ferry for Vallejo, walked up Georgia street and down the hill, looking on the starboard side for Staade's saloon, and his wife and children. They were not there.

At Mare Island I found that several new officers had reported for duty on the Pinta — O. W. Farenholt, commander; T. W. Kinkard, engineer; and Carl W. Jungen, senior ensign. Arnold, our new medical officer, had had a wonderful and checkered career. He was born in Kentucky and reared in Tennessee, where his family had lost its fortune during the war. He was ambitious for an education in medicine, and his stories of the way he had lived on crackers and cheese and milk were most interesting. He had about given up all hope in life when he chanced to read Mary Murfree's celebrated book, The Romance of Sunrise Rock.​a It inspired in him a new outlook on life. He persevered, was graduated from the Tennessee medical school, and later passed an examination for the Navy.

With repairs completed the Pinta left San Francisco, on October 2, 1889, and in five days reached Port Townsend. From there we made a leisurely voyage north by the inside passage, and upon arriving at Sitka secured for the winter. Our pilot was Edward H. Francis, who was known to all the old‑timers as about the most skilful and efficient  p147 in Alaskan waters. Some thought that Captain George was his equal.

I quote verbatim Captain Francis' strange story of "Meek, the Mish, or the Power of Imagination," as it was published years later in one of the Seattle papers.

"Yes," said Captain Edward H. Francis, the celebrated Alaskan pilot, as he sat in the lobby of the Butler Hotel, in Seattle, a few months before his death, "the power of imagination is wonderful. I well remember a case in point. One of the best known characters in the United States Navy some twenty-five years ago was Passed Assistant Paymaster Edwin B. Webster, known to his friends as 'Pottsy.' He is now a captain in the Cuban army.

"Thirty years ago I was piloting a United States vessel from Puget Sound to Alaska through the inland passage. Webster was paymaster of the ship. A medical officer, new to the service, who was making his first cruise, had joined the ship on the coast a few days before sailing.

"Leaving Port Townsend we were passing through the narrow straits of Rosario, north of Victoria, one morning when Webster and the doctor were on deck. On a small island on the port side I noticed a semi-round rock, some twelve feet in diameter, with a fire on it, and a number of Indians gathered around it. It was in October. The doctor's attention was naturally attracted and he asked what we supposed they were doing.

" 'That,' said Webster, 'is called the Sacred Rock by these Indians. Some years since, during a heavy storm, it dropped from space while a band of Indians were camped near here, and ever since then the natives have considered it sacred, and have kept a perpetual fire on it.'

"The surgeon gravely opened his notebook and made an entry of the matter for his diary. Webster winked at me and went aft.

 p148  "Late in the afternoon of the next day, after passing through Seymour Narrows and a part of the weird piece of water known as Johnstone Strait, we struck thick weather and the captain decided to anchor for the night before tackling Queen Charlotte Sound. So I piloted the ship to a good anchorage I knew called Alert Bay, Cormorant Island.

"This port was the seat of a large canning factory and trading post, and was managed, if my recollection serves me, by a bright and energetic Englishman named Hall. Hall was well educated, and was running the cannery and saw mill. We had scarce cast anchor when a boat pulled off from the beach near the cannery and headed for the ship. Webster had his fishing line over the port side of the ship and was talking to the officer of the deck when the surgeon came up and, seeing the boat approaching, strolled over and said, 'I wonder who that is in that boat?'

"Webster took a look at the craft, borrowed a pair of glasses from the officer of the deck, took another look, and then exclaimed, 'By George, I believe that's him!'

" 'Who? What? inquired the surgeon.

" 'That,' said Webster, is 'Meek, the Mish, a most wonderful man, and the head of the Mish tribe of Indians who live here. He is a great organizer and has a powerful hold on the people.'

"The boat drew nearer and approached the gangway. Rising up, the man in the stern sheets (Mr. Hall) asked, 'Have you a surgeon on board?'

" 'Yes,' replied Ensign Blank.

" 'One of my men in the mill has broken a leg,' said the Englishman, 'and I must ask for assistance.'

The commanding officer promptly gave authority and the young physician went ashore. He set the man's leg, took dinner with the Englishman, who later brought him back to the ship. The captain  p149 was on deck when the boat returned. Mr. Hall came up for a moment, thanked him and then rowed away.

" 'And who is that man, doctor?' said the captain.

" 'Well, Captain,' replied the young surgeon, 'they call him, Meek, the Mish, and he is the head of the Mish tribe of Indians here. I have been with him for two hours and he talks, eats and acts just as good as any white man.'

"The officer of the deck fell down on his deck at this, and I only saved myself by hanging on to the mizzen rigging.

"Webster never dared to tell the story for fear the surgeon would kill him."

In settling down for the winter Dr. Arnold and I, being the only bachelors, decided to take a place on shore. We hired one of the old Russian houses, equipped with the regulation Russian stove, and bought a cord of wood. On a bet we sawed and split one cord of wood in twelve hours, and won ten dollars. We slept in our new home just one night, and came so near freezing to death that we never returned to it. We could not handle the Russian stove.

In Sitka, at this time, poker parties were all the rage. I played on two occasions. The second time I won thirteen dollars and a half, and the wife of an officer had to pay me. Her husband had borrowed fifty dollars from me that day to pay his mess bills, and also owed me twenty-five that I had paid on clothes for his children. Since then I have never played the game.

Captain Farenholt believed in cruising, and even before spring opened up he had made many trips, by small boat, to the harbors of southeastern Alaska, within easy range of Sitka harbor. He obtained the services of Francis for the early spring piloting, and utilized them to the fullest extent.

Unfortunately the Pinta developed further engine  p150 troubles. It was almost impossible to get the old craft to reverse. When we wanted to anchor we would stop ahead of the spot selected, and take a chance that when the anchor was dropped the chain would not be carried away — a disastrous occurrence in those Alaskan currents.

In the spring we had a fine cruise, taking in Glacier Bay, and we had another view of the celebrated Muir Glacier. We took the Israel Russell expedition to Yakutat, when it made its first attempt to climb St. Elias. We measured and named all of the glaciers of the St. Elias Alps. Our selections, however, were not approved by the authorities in Washington. Most of them were the given names of women, and they were not acceptable. On this cruise I had my best chance to learn piloting in southeast Alaska, with Francis as pilot. He took the ship to Winter Harbor near the British coast, a shelter against "southeasters," and then on a long trip up the Portland Canal on the tide. We had to reach the upper end at slack water in order to turn safely, and go back on the ebb tide.

We visited Port Simpson, British Columbia, and found supplies cheap there. Liquor, as well as wine and beer, was allowed on board ship then. As wine caterer I laid in a winter's supply of square-face gin at only twenty cents a bottle. I made out a new wine list and placed at the top, "Square-Face Gin, $.22 a bottle."

J. T. Smith came to me and said, "Coontz, don't you know gin is hard liquor?"

I said, "No, I don't."

"Well, it is," he continued, "and you had better send to the cabin and get the price list you gave the captain and take it off."

"Too late," said I, "the captain has already taken twelve bottles."

 p151  We returned to Sitka and expected to be there for July 4th.

On a bright moonlight night the steamer George Elder grounded in the narrowest part of Whitestone Narrows. Hawsers were sent ashore and secured to trees, but the old craft heeled to a great angle, and was in grave danger of turning over. The captain sent a small boat to Sitka to ask for aid. He had on board a party of tourists, along with other passengers, and among the latter were my future brother-in‑law, Dr. Wyman, and his wife.

The Pinta got under way immediately, and went as close as possible to the stricken ship, anchored and threw out lines to her. We worked until four o'clock in the morning, when, with a heavy tug on the hawsers, the vessel slid off the reef, and we almost hit the beach on the other side as the strain eased up. The Elder was not injured, and proceeded to Sitka, where we had a wonderful Fourth of July. The owners of the Elder offered us life passes on the boats of their lines, but only two officers accepted them.

I was greatly exhausted by the rescue work, and the story is told that I sat on the sidewalk to see the day's sports and fell asleep. I had had the brunt of the Elder job. In July there wasn't any night anyhow. The captain decided to send me to Hot Springs, sixteen miles south of Sitka, to recuperate. I had with me a doctor and a quartermaster, and after taking mineral baths the first night I felt better. The second morning we decided to make a little excursion over the mountains to Redoubt Bay. On the chart the distance looked short.

We had sufficient food for lunch and did not realize how great the undertaking was. Late in the afternoon we came to a small lake surrounded by precipitous bluffs, and we lowered our quartermaster down to get water. We also felt the need  p152 of food and our clothing was badly torn. The surgeon was exhausted and wanted us to leave him there until the next day. This we refused to do and literally dragged him along. Late at night we reached the western end of Redoubt Bay, followed its bank, and by great luck came upon a band of Indians sitting beside a fire, eating baked beans and hard tack. Even now I look back upon those baked beans and regard them as the best baked beans I ever ate. We hired the Indians to take us to Hot Springs in their canoes, and arrived there at daybreak. I lay in a bath tub for a long time, and then slept for eighteen hours. I was not troubled with insomnia.

After I had returned to the Pinta word came from Sitkoh Bay that trouble had broken out between the Indians and the white fishermen. The captain summoned me as soon as he received word from the Governor, and ordered me to take command of a relief expedition starting out on a cannery tug early in the morning.

He gave me the following written orders:

U. S. S. Pinta, 4th Rate.

Sitka, Alaska, July 12, 1890.


You will take charge of a guard of six marines and proceed with them in the tug Baranof, to Sitkoh Bay. Misunderstanding as to the fishing rights between white men and Indians has broken out at that place. The enclosed papers explain to you the situation. You will endeavor to arrange matters peacefully. If, in your judgment, you think it necessary to arrest persons, do so and bring them to Sitka, with such witnesses as are necessary. Explain to the Indians that they have no business to interfere with the legitimate business of the whites; that the latter, so long as they carry out the fishing regulations, will be upheld by the law. If the Indians have grievances, they must, as the whites do,  p153 come to Sitka and present them to the proper authorities. They must not take the law into their hands. Say to the Indians if they do not behave themselves, the Pinta will come and destroy their canoes, and bring the men to Sitka for trial. Do not use force until all other means have failed, but protect the lives and property of the whites with the full force under your command. I rely in the execution of these orders on your judgment, the knowledge you have of the Indian character, and hope the misunderstanding will be amicably settled. Return to this ship whenever you think it is proper for you to leave. During your stay ascertain if there is a safe channel for the Pinta to go into Sitkoh Bay. If you have time, make a sketch of the bay, the bearings of the principal points, depth of water, etc.

Wishing you a safe and speedy return, I am,

Very respectfully,

O. W. Farenholt,

Lieut. Comdr., U. S. N.,


Ensign Robert E. Coontz, U. S. N.

U. S. S. Pinta.

Returned, July 17, 1890, duty performed to my entire satisfaction.

O. W. Farenholt,

Lieut. Comdr., Comdg.

I selected six good marines and took an Indian interpreter, Lewis Koshook. I was very much interested in a young lady in Sitka at this time, and the captain himself took the watch while I went over to see her and say good‑bye.

We carried what we considered would be an ample supply of provisions, but it proved to be insufficient. When we reached our destination I found the white men in the upper part of the bay with their seines and everything ready to haul, and a band of one hundred and twenty-five Indians on a point of land where a little stream enters the bay. The tug took us close in to the shore, and we lowered a boat.  p154 I endeavored to get one or two Indians to come out and talk with us, but failed. We saw that they were all armed with shotguns, rifles and other implements of war. I picked out the leader, whom I found to be Baptist Jim. He was a big fellow with a black beard and looked like a man of importance. We knew that we had no chance with them unless something desperate were done at once. I landed the boat about two hundred yards from the Indians and instructed the marines to fire if the Indians shot me, and to keep up the firing until all of our party were killed.

With my trusty six‑shooter in my right hip pocket, and accompanied by the interpreter, I walked down the beach. As I neared the Indians, Baptist Jim took a bead on the center of my stomach, and I could almost feel the charge from his shotgun going through my body. The time for action was then or never. I walked boldly up to him, shoved the shotgun to one side and demanded the surrender of the entire party at once. He demurred, but I told him that even if he did kill us, the federal government would sooner or later have its innings with them, and that if the Indians had real grievances, they could be adjusted by the Governor. I was perspiring freely by this time, and felt very much relieved when he said he would agree. We stacked our arms in a tent and sat down to wait for the vessel that was to reinforce us and take us back to Sitka.

I was afraid to let the Indians know how short our food supplies were. After we ate the two days' rations, all we had was raw fish and brown sugar, and a pint of brandy for medicinal purposes. I have never eaten raw fish since nor tasted brown sugar. When the tug which was to relieve us came in sight I opened the pint of brandy and we all had one good drink.

 p155  The tug could not carry a hundred and twenty-five prisoners, so we chose about twenty of the leaders, got them on board, and at midnight hove up anchor and started for Sitka, leaving the families of the Indians to come on later as best they could. It was a mean thing to do, but it was necessary. Their troubles dragged for months, and the governmental investigation took so long that the poor Indians, who stayed with their friends at the Ranch in Sitka, gradually became discouraged, and one by one went home.

As soon as the Indians surrendered I ordered the white men to start fishing, and I remember that on the first haul of the seine they took in more than a thousand salmon.

From the captain I received high commendation for my work in this affair, and later from the Bureau of Navigation as well. After that experience I knew I was a man.

Thayer's Note:

a A short story, actually. It is online.

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Page updated: 9 Oct 16