They also wielded skull-crushing clubs.

In April 1877, sometime-poet Lieutenant Charles Erskine Scott Wood arrived in Sitka, Alaska, on orders to escort Charles Taylor. The adventurer was making an attempt to scale what was then believed to be the highest mountain in the world—Mount Saint Elias— deep in Tlingit territory.

The Tlingits were unlike anything American mainlanders had ever encountered. They were a sea people, with a society more similar to the Polynesians of the South Pacific than Indians on the North American continent. Tlingit ancestors settled the ice-free islands of what became southeast Alaska. The sea teemed with life, providing salmon, halibut and shellfish. The rain forest provided trees for gigantic canoes for ocean travel.

Plunder, slaves and revenge became the order of the day. Highly decorative war canoes, some over 70 feet in length, carried 100 warriors on raids. Wearing wooden masks with animal designs, their bodies transformed by red, black and white paint, they struck hard, wielding skull-crushing clubs, daggers and spears. In warm weather, men wore little clothing, but they had shirts made of caribou or moose skin and fur robes for cold weather.

While putting the Taylor expedition together, Wood became fascinated with totem poles, some ranging to heights of more than 100 feet. Every important Tlingit house had one near the front door warding off evil spirits and giving an account of family lineage.

Tlingit cabins were built of wood planks set on edge and fitted together, sometimes so well they did not need caulking. They were square in shape with a bark roof and a center opening to allow smoke to escape. Cabin doors were circular, 2 feet in diameter and covered with a seal or bear skin. Inside, the floor was wood planked but covered with blankets and bearskins. A central fire usually had an iron pot on the boil.

In the Sitka market, Wood first saw the pelt of a Ghost Bear. Russian traders called them Saint Elias Bears. The pelt was a silver-white fur. It not only was rare and high priced, it also frightened many of the natives. A large crowd gathered to watch the hunter who was hawking the pelt.

Wood was there to find transportation north, but the captain of a schooner said his ship would not sail because the appearance of the Ghost Bear pelt had scared off potential crewmen. Wood and Taylor had to settle for a war canoe and even then, negotiations took many days. Every time Taylor agreed upon a price, the women of the tribe, who had the final say over the men, would veto it.

Finally, the women were satisfied, and Wood was able to secure a canoe on April 16. With a heavy drizzle coming down, Wood and Taylor set out in the canoe for Mount Saint Elias, with a miner named Meyers as their guide and four Tlingit paddlers. Eleven days later, the swells of the Pacific grew so immense that Wood’s party was forced to take shelter at a Chilkat Tlingit village. The chief treated them to an endless seafood buffet. Halibut was pulled from the sea on a thick line made of twisted cedar root fiber with hooks on the end. The inner bark of other cedars was chewed for its sweetness.

While waiting out the storm, Wood made his observations on Tlingit society.

At the village, he encountered his first slaves. Captives from the interior, the slaves ate and joked with their owners, but Wood noted they were the ones who chopped the wood and carried the water. They could not marry without their owner’s permission. And when it was believed the gods were angry, they were the ones sacrificed.

Wood noted three main gods—one of the air, one of the earth and one of the water. The Tlingits believed that Yehl was the creator of all things. The spirits of those killed in war became Ki-yekh. The Aurora in the night sky was deceased warriors dancing their war dance. Strangers among the Tlingits called each other brother or sister—a practice that confused Wood. Here he learned totems were not just tall decorative poles, but a caste system. The wolf totem, for example, was the warrior caste. Tlingits saw their castes as being as much family as bloodlines.

When the storm had passed and the ocean had calmed, Wood and his party continued to follow the coast north. They encountered Hoonah Tlingits, who were also traveling north in canoes, on their way to harvest potatoes. The two parties made camp together at a small Hoonah fishing village. Wood studied an old woman chewing on a pair of sealskin boots to soften them, while his host, Tsatate, explained how he came to have so many wives. Widows were considered personal property and were passed on to the kin of their husband’s totem.

Sometimes a man refused to take his aunt, sister-in-law or cousin as an additional wife, and the woman’s totem would go to war to erase the insult, Tsa-tate explained. Wood studied the chief’s own aunt, whom the chief had not yet decided to accept as an inheritance, noting that she must have weighed 300 pounds. War could be avoided if the right price was paid to erase the insult, but Tsa-tate said that he was but a poor chief.

Yakutat, at the foot of Mount Saint Elias, was now five days away. But the Tlingit paddlers refused to go any farther, despite Taylor’s threats and Wood’s bribes. These Sitkans had learned from the Hoonahs that a Ghost Bear had been sighted. “One mountain is as good as another,” said a Sitkan.

Taylor simply deflated. He had lost his desire to go on and conquer Mount Saint Elias. Instead, he asked Wood to escort him back to Sitka. The young lieutenant made sure Taylor safely made his ship before heading back north. Wood was still determined to climb the “tallest mountain in the world” himself, even if it was in the land of the Ghost Bear.

Wood returned to Tsa-tate’s village and made arrangements for goat hunters to take him to Mount Fairweather, and from there to neighboring Mount Saint Elias. Less than a week later, the party crossed the foothills and entered a wooded valley at the base of Mount Fairweather. The Tlingits suddenly froze in fear. Coming into a clearing from the forest ahead was a Ghost Bear. Not as large as a brown bear, the unusual creature was light blue with the tips fading into a silvery white. The animal crossed the clearing and disappeared into the forest.

The Tlingits would not move. “Nothing to do but turn back,” the disgusted Wood wrote. The party went overland to a Hoonah camp that sat along a massive bay choked with icebergs. The natives attached wooden false siding and a false prow to their canoes for travel through the ice. The chief told Wood that when he was a child, the bay did not exist; the area had been solid ice. Wood became the first white man to see Glacier Bay.

While preparations were being made for the voyage to Sitka, an old chief begged Wood to come to his village. The chief’s son had fallen ill. Wood went but somewhat reluctantly: He knew that the Tlingits usually killed the doctor if the patient died. Finding the child feverish, Wood gave him a series of hot baths and soda powder. The doctoring worked, and soon Wood had a long list of patients, including an elderly man he felt would die soon. Despite the demands on his profession, he still found time for other activities.

It was a Tlingit custom for a village chief to share one of his wives with a visiting dignitary. Wood did not refuse the young wife, claiming he feared it would insult the village if he turned her away. Having the young woman in his bed kept him in the village far longer than was for his own good. The elderly man did not look at all well. Wood fed him dried onions stewed in sugar, some cod-liver oil and lots of alcohol so the patient would stay alive while Wood said his goodbyes.

Wood arrived in Sitka not totally fulfilled, for he had failed to climb Mount Saint Elias. But he had seen some things that most white men never would. He had encountered the Ghost Bear, lived among the fierce Tlingits, recorded their customs and discovered Glacier Bay. Lieutenant Wood left Alaska on June 11, 1877, to join Brig. Gen. O.O. Howard’s pursuit of Chief Joseph and the Nez Perces.


Originally published in the February 2008 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here