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Sketch of the Alaskan missions : with an account of the death of the late Most Rev. Charles J. Seghers,… 1887

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   ~ofi  434,
Written August,  1887.
Archbishop Seghers had asked several times Missionaries for Alaska
from various religious Orders, but could not obtain any. Finally the
Reverend Father Superior of the Rocky Mountain Mission, S. J.,
having received some young religious of his Order from Europe, answered the Archbishop's earnest and repeated request, by sending
him two Fathers of the said Society, who should go with him to explore that country before opening there a Mission. These were
Fathers Tosi and Robaut, to whom were given, as companion, a certain Mr. Fuller, who had offered himself for this purpose. This
Fuller had been known to the Fathers for several years, having for
some time acted as helper at Industrial Schools, but he was neither a
Brother nor a postulant to become such.
The place where the first Mission was to have been founded was in
that part of Alaska where the Stuart river flows into the Yucon,
about 250 miles from its source, in the eastern part of Alaska, and
about 2,500 miles from its mouth in the west. The Yucon river has
a length of 2,800 miles, and seems to be larger and deeper than the
Columbia; it flows through the heart of Alaska, and is the largest
river as yet kntown of that country, many tributaries emptying into
it. In winter there is no other way of exploring that country than
by traveling over the frozen surface of rivers and lakes. In summer
the Yucon is navigable, and people travel up and down it in boats or
on rafts. The Indians are mostly found on the banks of the rivers
or on the sea coast.
The Archbishop first intended to leave San Francisco in the spring
of 1886, by one of the steamers that go to the western part of Alaska;
these steamers enter the Yucon and pursue their course eastward, very far into the interior. According to this plan the Missionaries would have reached the place of their iu tended explorations
without any trouble or difficulty. But something happened that
obliged them to change their plans. The Archbishop had to wait
till he should receive the Pallium from the Archbishop of Oregon,
and it was not till summer that this solemnity could take place. It
being too late then to take one of the steamers that go up the Yucon, Archbishop Seghers and his companions had either to wait till the
following spring, or to change their plans, that is, to travel from east
to west instead of traveling from west to east, as was at first intended;
and after reaching the headwaters of the Yucon follow the river to
the intended place. This plan they finally adopted. This road did
not present any extraordinary difficulties till they reached a spot
about 35 miles from the Yucon, where swamps and lakes abound.
As soon as they reached this part of the country they were obliged
to travel on foot across streams, rocks and glaciers. For help they
had Indians, who carried the baggage on their backs. With these
Indians one must have great patience and pay them wed for their
services. They are experienced packers and good guides, knowing
the country well, as they are employed for that by the miners that go
to that country. Having reached the headwaters of the Yucon the
Indians left the Missionaries and returned to their homes. There our
travelers put themselves to the building of a very solid raft, because
when any party comes to this spot and are unable to secure a raft
from others returning they are obliged to build their own, if they
want to continue their journey. On such rafts explorers row over
lakes, shallow places and rapids, till they reach, on the Yucon, the
terminus of their journey. It is needless to say that such a way of
traveling is full of hardships, fatigues, want and unforeseen accidents;
yet there is no danger for the lives of the travelers, otherwise the
Archbishop would not have risked those of his companions. The
greatest difficulty, says F. Tosi, is to make a good raft to go down the
river. In this way, on a raft, the Archbishop and his companions
penetrated into the interior of Alaska, and reached the mouth of the
Stuart river after many accidents, which are described in two letters,
one written by the Archbishop, and the other by F. Robaut. When
the Missionaries had reached the junction of the Stuart river it
would seem that they had come to the end of their journey for that
year, and that they should make there their winter quarters, as there
is no communication in winter, except between places that are very
near to one another. But the zeal of the Archbishop was pushing
him on further. He thought that three Missionaries in one and the
same place were too many, seeing the want of the whole country;
besides, he feared that the numerous bands of Indians near the banks
of the Yucon would be lost to the Church by any delay. For these
reasons the Archbishop resolved to leave the two Fathers and travel
900 miles further down, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of F.
Tosi to the contrary. Thus the Archbishop left on the 8 th day of
September, 1886, with Mr. Fuller as companion. F. Robaut says in
his letter: "This separation was very hard for him and for us, but.
it was necessary, he said, and so, after a tender and repeated good bye, he departed from us." When the Archbishop was about leaving
they all agreed that the two Fathers would go down the river as- soon
as it would be open for travel, and meet him at his new station,
which would probably take place towards the end of May or the
beginning of J une. Then they would consult together what was to
be done, and one of the Fathers would remain in Alaska, and the
other would return with the Archbishop to San Francisco; the Superior of the -Mission, on being informed as to what could be done
there would then refer matters to the Very Reverened Father General
of the Society of Jesus, for the establishment of the Alaska Mission.
In accordance with this agreement the Fathers went down the river
some time in May, in the expectation of meeting the Archbishop full
of life and crowned with success. It is difficult to imagine what was
their disappointment, sorrow and consternation at the news of the
awfnl tragedy of the Archbishop's death. At first they could not
believe the terrible news, but they had to submit themselves to the
disposition of Divine Providence, when they came to the evidence of
the facts. They were told that the Archbishop had been shot dead
by Fuller, and that his body was at St. Michael's in a Russian Church.
And of the murder's mind are as follows: During the voyage from
Portland to the southwestern coast of Alaska, Fuller's conduct was
often so extravagant that F. Tosi twice counseled the Archbishop to
send him (Fuller) back with the same steamer, which would return
from Alaska to Portland, for it seemed dangerous to F. Tosi to continue traveling such a lone distance with a man of this kind. But
the Archbishop, judging his services necessary, both during the voyage and during the winter in that most difficult country, took him
along, in hopes that the extravagances of Fuller, which -arose from a
fear that the whites wanted to take his life, would subside as soon as
he would be far away from them, and though Fuller's extravagances
continued, yet the Archbishop, in his zeal, separated himself from
the Fathers, and traveled down the river alone in company with Fuller. F. F. Tosi and Robaut, when near St. Michael's learned the
following facts: "Nearly a month had passed since the Archbishop
had reached the end of his trip of 900 miles, when he took the resolution to make a third and shorter journey to visit some other tribe
of Iudians. He took with him Fuller and two Indians as companions.
The Archbishop traveled with them for several days until he reached a
place about one day's distance from a camp of the Indians he intended
to visit. It being late in the afternoon and Fuller tired, he proposed
to the Archbishop to camp there for the night and not to go any
further  that day.    The Archbishop having asked the advice of the Indians thought better to go on, which they did, and reached an
empty Indian house in the evening. According to the Indians who
accompanied the Archbishop, Fuller was very much displeased that
his advice had not been followed, and he complained bitterly, because,
he said, the advice of Indians had been preferred to that of a white
man. They say, also, that Fuller was very much excited during the
night, and seemed not to have slept. At daybreak they saw him get
up and go about as if he would start the fire, but did not do it. All
at once he called the Archbishop, telling him to get up. The Archbishop arose to a sitting posture, and on seeing Fuller with his gun
levelled, folded his arms on his breast and inclined his head, when the
man shot him. The bullet passed through his forehead near his left
eye and came out from the upper part of the neck. The Archbishop
died instantly. The Indians witnessing the tragedy got frightened,
and fearing that Fuller would kill them also, disarmed him, but Fuller assured them, saying coolly and calmly that he had made up his
mind to kill only the Archbishop. Then he and the Indians arranged
the body of the dead Prelate, taking away only the pastoral cross and
ring, which objects, he said, he would give to the ecclesiastical
authorities in Victoria, B. C. From this it would seem that we can
safely conclude, that Fuller's mental faculties had been upset, partly
in consequence of a previous disposition for monomania and partly,
also, in consequence of the sufferings he had undergone during the
voyage; further, we may suppose that he killed the Archbishop in a
fit of madness. This conclusion is corroborated by the following fact:
He is reported to have said that when thev will hang him he wants
the consolation of confessing to a Catholic Priest—not to accuse himself of the murder of the Archbishop, for which he feels no remorse—
but of his past sins. The only consolation left to us who have known
this beloved Archbishop is the thought that Almighty God, who, in
his inscrutable wisdom and providence over his creatures, governs
and directs all to his greater glory, will know how to use the tragic
death of this holy Prelate as an efficacious means of propagating the
saving light of the Gospel. We are aware that the crown of sacrifices which the Divine Goodness imposed on the holy man for the
salvation of the Indians in asking from him the renunciation of the
Archbishopric of Oregon, in order to undertake such an arduous mission, full of hardships, received its most brilliant gem in the bloody
sacrifice of his precious life. We cannot suppose that God, on beholding a sacrifice so precious, will not be moved to grant in some
future time, perhaps not far distant, the conversion of the poor creatures, for whose salvation the sacrifice was made.
Neither F. Tosi nor F. Robaut knew anything about this sad event
until last June, when they went down the Yucon to meet the Arch- mmmm
bishop. F. Tosi left the body of the Archbishop as it was, in a zinc
casket surrounded with ice "to preserve it. It is in the Russian
Chapel at St. Michael's which is situated about 500 miles from the
mouth of j the Yucon, and when possible it will be taken by steamer
to Victoria, B. C. Father Robaut went then to the Indians in whose
Territory the Archbishop was killed, and Father Tosi left on the
steamer bound for San Francisco, to acquaint Superiors of all that
had happened. In this last trip he had good opportunity to visit the
western sea coast of Alaska, both above and below the mouth of the
Yucon. He arrived from San Francisco to Portland on the 23d of
July, and gave us all the details of the facts just related, besides
much important information about the country and its inhabitants,
which we shall now relate.
The climate of Alaska is not very changeable, it being very cold in
winter, and but moderately warm in summer, and this uniformity of
climate makes it very healthy. F. Tosi, whose chest was always
more or less weak, and who suffered from rheumatism, like most of
our Missionaries in the mountains, says that his health has very much
improved during his stay in Alaska, and the writer, who saw him
after his return from there can testify to the fact that he appeared to
be much stronger. It seems that along; the Yucon river the snow is
not very deep, last winter it was not deeper than two feet, whilst in
the Rocky Mountains it was very deep. In summer it rains but
seldom, hence on the Alaska mountains there must be a great deal of
snow, to feed, when melting, a river like the Yucon, one of the largest
rivers in the world. During the winter the thermometer marked on
an average 15 deg. below zero (F), though sometimes it went down
to 60 deg., and even 70 deg. below zero (F.). During extreme cold
a wonderful phenomenon takes place—the respiration is accompanied
by a perceptible voice that can be heard at some distance. This
strange phenomenon must be ascribed, it would seem, to the condensation of the volume of warm air, which on leaving the mouth is
instantly condensed by the very cold air without. The dwellings of
the natives are built partly under and partly above ground, and covered with a thick layer of clay as a protection against the severe
cold. Dense forests of different kinds of wood can furnish fuel
necessary for any purpose. A great quantity of wood being necessary it is evident that to procure and transport it is accompanied with
many and great difficulties; but should the winter supply of wood
give out it is possible to get more, even in winter, only a person has
to take the precaution of clothing warmly and lighting a large fire
on the spot where he cuts his wood. To form an idea of the intensity
of the cold in those regions it is sufficient to mention that to procure
the necessary water, they have to go to the middle of the river with .     6
a pick-axe and make a hole in the ice, which is about six feet thick,
and that they have to cover it with branches- before leaving, if they
don't want to have to go through the same process again next day.
To get water near the shore is impossible, or at least very difficult,
because there the water either freezes from the surface to the bottom,
or the ice is much thieker there than in the middle of the river,
where the current is swifter. In summer one can travel in a boat
down without any difficulty, and even up the river, but not without
some exertion. In winter there is no country in the world that has
roads more level than Alaska, that is to say, the frozen surfaces of its
rivers, lakes and swamps. The- ice is so thick that there is no danger
of breaking through, how heavy soever the load may be. The only
vehicle in use in winter is a sled drawn by dogs; these animals are
very large and tame, and accustomed to hard work. They are placed
before the sled in files of two or three and are driven without the aid
of a bridle, sometimes, however, one of the party on snowshoes precedes the dogs, making the road and leading the way. The dogs
carry in this manner considerable weights, and sometimes even the
driver, who jumps on the sled from behind while it is moving. It
happens not seldom that the sled is upset in going over a heap of
drifted snow or some other obstacle, and if the driver is not very
quick in jumping off he is thrown into the snow, because the dogs
cannot be stopped all at once, on account of their having no bridle.
A person ought not to loose courage if the dogs, from time to time,
are difficult to manage, since much patience is needed in traveling
wrth dog-sleds in Alaska. There are no horses in the country, but F.
Tosi thinks that it would not be very difficult to keep them, even
in winter, if only warm stables were built that would protect them
from the cold. Hay grows in all the swamps, which might be mowed
in summer and stored away for winter. Still with all this it is to be
doubted if horses would be of any utility in Alaska, otherwise they
would have been imported long ago. One of the difficulties, and by
no means the least, would be the impossibility to carry along on a
horse the amount of hay required for a trip of any extent. The
same difficulty does not encumber one who travels with dogs,
because these, besides being able to endure hunger for a longer
time, may be fed with dry fish of which a sufficient quantity
can be taken along on the sled, and which can be procured, if
needed, wherever the Indians live. Although there can be found
in Alaska large tracts of good land, still on account of the
severe and protracted cold it would not do to cultivate them, and
therefore they will always lie waste. Nevertheless F. Tosi thinks
that during the short period of summer one could raise without much
difficulty such vegetables as need only a short time to come to ma- ■HBMMi
turity, as potatoes, cabbages, etc., for the sun remaining on the horizon
for nearly four months (May, June, July and August), its heat must
produce a good effect on vegetation. This being as yet only an
opinion, experience must show whether it be right or wrong. But
as in other countries, so in Alaska—a person who has money can
procure from San Erancisco dried pear, beans, etc., etc., also fresh
vegetables of every description preserved in air tight tin cans. There
are three steamers that run between San Francisco and the interior of
Alaska, going up the Yucon river. One of them leaves San Francisco about the middle of March, another in the beginning of April
and the third at the end of May. These three steamers having completed their voyage up and down the Yucon and along the coast of
Alaska, return to San Francisco, and if we mistake not the first of
these steamers returns before the third leaves. The company that
owns these vessels has been very kind to the Missionaries. For F.
Tosi's last trip from Alaska to San Francisco the company refused to
take any money. The charges for freight are very moderate. By
these steamers the Fathers of Alaska would have a means of direct
communication with San Francisco, where there is a colleo-e of the
Society of Jesus. One of the Fathers residing in California might
might act as Procurator, supplying all the things necessary for the
Missions in Alaska. By this communication with San Francisco
the Alaska Missions are in a much better condition than the Rocky
Mountain Missions were in years past. The Missionaries were then
entirely separated from all civilization,'and were obliged to provide
themselves with the necessaries of life by undertaking long journeys
of several hundred miles over rough and difficult roads, transporting
everything by means of pack-horses. Missionaries of Alaska, by
simply writing a letter to their Procurator in San Francisco, may obtain every year a full supply of everything they need for the next
year, and keep up a comparatively easy correspondence with their
The country furnishes abundance of food, as fish and game of different kinds. Thousands and thousands of Indians with their dogs
live almost exclusively on fish. Every stream and river abounds with
them. There being no falls of any height that might prevent the
fish from going up the Y ucon, those from the sea find no difficulty in
ascending the river, and therefore it is full of them. There is a certain kind of white fish there, about a foot and a half long, which is
of exquisite taste. The Indians fish with strong nets, very ingeniously
made of sinews. In winter time they make first a hole in the ice, and
then throw in their nets, so in Alaska one may secure at any time a
quantity of fresh fish. Game, however, is not as abundant as fish, yet
we ought not to wonder at this since warmblooded animals cannot 8
live in such a cold climate. Nevertheless they are great numbers of
deer, moose and bears, the meat of which is very good to^ eat.
In hunting these animals a person has to be very cautious if he
values his life. Hunters there use a kind of bullet which explodes
in the body of the animal and kills it instantly. Let this suffice with
regard to the country and climate.
We will now proceed to give some particulars of a more important
nature—about the Indians or natives. We do not intend to say any
thing about the whites that are spread here and there over the interior
of the country, as they are very'few. On the south coast, however,
which is very healthy on account of its mild climate, and on which
several mines have been discovered, the Indians have been overwhelmed by the whites and infected with corruption, so that it is
very probable that they are lost to religion. It seems, too, that there
is very little hope of converting those Indians who live on the west
coast of Alaska, south of the mouth of the Yucon, but the same can
not be said of those Indians who dwell on the west coast of Alaska
north of the mouth of the Yucon, as also of those who live in the
interior of the country, along the shores of the same river and its
tributaries. These latter Indians are very numerous and are all
heathens. F. Tosi says that he met about 10,000 of them who, in
their eager desire to be instructed in the truths of religion, have
asked for Missionaries. He also saw about 5,000 who belong either
to the Protestant or Russian ,Churches. Unfortunately F. Tosi
lacked the opportunity of visiting the more northern regions of
Alaska where, according to the most authoritative accounts the Indians are the most numerous, and have as yet never seen a Missionary
of any denomination. The zeal of the English Protestant Ministers
is very great. Last year five of these Missionaries went up the Yucon
to open a school for the Indians. We may state here that for many
years there lives on the shores of one of the tributaries of the Yucon
an old minister. F. Tosi has met this gentleman, and says that he is
for the Protestant Missions of Alaska what F. Joset is for the Catholic Missions of the Rocky Mountains. His zeal for the conversion of
these Indians is so great that without ever relenting he undergoes
the greatest hardships and difficulties. F. Robaut has taken up his
abode amongst the Indians who were to be visited last fall by the
Archbishop, and he is all alone. Let us pray to the Almighty that
he may take this good Father under his protection, who very probably will have to remain in his present solitary position until next
spring; however, all possible measures have been taken that F. Tosi
and his companions—F. Ragaru and B. Giordano, S. J., may reach
him before winter sets in. They left Victoria on August 9th, 1887.
In consequence of the dangers that would follow from delay, F. Tosi 9
thinks that serious steps ought to be taken to open those Missions at
once, and he is also of the opinion that at each station there should be
at least two Fathers and one Brother. In the region where these
first stations should be established there are more than 15,000 Indians anxious to put themselves under the care of Catholic Priests.
But if the number of Missionaries necessary could not be supplied at
present, then there should be—for the moment—one Father with a
Brother at each station. Even during winter communication might
be had between these several stations. The two which are the
farthest apart are about 300 miles from each other. The trip could
be made with facility, there being all along the way, at a distance of
from fifteen to thirty miles, Indian villages. But the distance between all the other stations would be only from 100 to 200 miles.
Of those stations, all accessible either by the river or by the sea, four
would be in the interior, on the banks of the Yucon, and three would
be near the seacoast. These Indians speak only two languages that
are entirely different from each other; one of these is spoken by those
living in the interior, the other by those living near the seacoast.
Besides these, there are several dialects, more or less different from
the mother language. The coast Indians are Esquimaux, and all
these, to the number of several thousands, gather together in summer
time for the purpose of fishing, which circumstance would offer to the
Fathers a good opportunity to work for their conversion. In general,
these Indians may be said to be of a very pacific disposition, like the
Indians of the Rocky Mountains—there being no danger at all to go
and live among them. They are very intelligent and well disposed to
be instructed in religion, which assertion can be proved by the conversion to Protestantism of many thousands of them. Those of the
Indians who had the happiness of making the acquaintance of Archbishop Seghers respected, honored and loved him very much, and
whenever any of them happened to meet him they would say that they
preferred the Catholic Bishop to any other teacher.
From this we may infer of how great importance it is that the place
left by our lamented Archbishop be .as soon as possible filled by another, in order that the Indians may know that if they have lost a
good friend and father in the Archbishop, they have found another
with a spirit like his and who like him desires nothing more than to
make them know God and the religion that leads to him. One of the
principal motives of the hope we cherish of their easy and speedy conversion is the absence of that detestable plague—polygamy—which is
and always has been the greatest obstacle to the conversion of the Indians of the Rocky mountains. It seems that the fact of this exceptional continency among those Indians must be ascribed to a peculiar
custom generally observed among them.     When their children have 10
come to the use of reason, that is about the age of 7 or 8 years, their
parents make an agreement by which they are betrothed to each other.
From the time of this—their betrothal—the children are obliged to
help each other as if married already, although they continue to live
each in his or her respective family. For instance, whenever the boy
goes a fishing he has to give part of his fish to his future wife, and so
in like manner in all other things. On the other hand, the girl is
obliged to mend the boy's clothes, to dry them when they are wet,
and to prepare his meals whenever necessary. In this way they grow
up loving each other from their tenderest years. Further, when they
have come to a riper age, they go and live together, continuing all the
while to love each other so exclusively that the same affection for
other persons never arises to interfere. This custom, says F. Tosi,
not only keeps far away any polygamy, but even renders any breach
of conjugal faith very difficult, and what is more wonderful is that
without any religious teaching their morals are in general very good.
But we must not think that the missionaries will have no difficulties
to surmount. One very great obstacle will be the superstitions or
practice of Indian medicine—probably even of magic arts. It is evident that these Indians will not give up so easily such practices, which
are of so high repute among them that anyone who is versed therein
is considered by the tribe a wise and powerful man. Let us hope that
the all-powerful grace of the Almighty will overcome all these obstacles. Let us pray that He, the Lord of the harvest, may send
laborers into this uncultivated part of his vineyard. A grand opportunity is now open to secure to holy church the charge of these
numerous tribes. To do this, however, requires immediate action, or
the enemy will creep in and sow the cockle in this' virgin soil, as he
has already done on the southwest coast of Alaska, and if so, the
cockle will take such firm root as to require years of endeavor to eradicate it—if possible even then. The many Indians visited by the now
martyred Archbishop and his companions appealed to him in the
most urgent and piteous manner to have the Fathers stay with them,
and teach them the way to heaven. Shall their appeal be in vain?
Shall the labors of the apostle of Alaska be'nowlost after having shed
his blood to water that promising soil? This is the question now to
be considered by all Catholics who have the welfare of souls at heart
and desire to raise a monument to the memory of one of the greatest
Apostles of Holy Church.
Let students of all Seminaries and Catholic Universities both of
Europe and America offer themselves to go and toil there, mingling
their sweat with the blood of this new Martyr of the Northwest.
Let Superiors of religious houses and dioceses, who cannot go themselves to that field of labor, exercise their merciful zeal towards those 11
abandoned souls by encouraging their young Levites to imitate Archbishop Seghers.
We, who hear the cries of these poor Indians for help, wish we
had a voice of thunder like the Angels trumpet, which would carry
to the four corners of the globe these words of Eternal truth: Date
et dabitur vobis, date Missionaries to Alaska and dabitur vobis cen-
tuplum, dabitur to your souls, dabitur to your parishes, dabitur to
your religious communities, dabitur to all your flocks.
To the Laity, also, are addressed these same words: Date et dabitur vobis, give and it shall be given unto you, because they can help
the Missionaries with their means, and to them a hundredfold shall
be given here, and life everlasting hereafter.
The children of the Church all over the world, whom God has
blessed with temporal goods should remember in their comforts, that
whilst they are enjoying themselves and at the same time believe that
they are pleasing God, many souls in Alaska are allured into the bottomless pit by the enemy of their Divine Benefactor. Let them consider that by giving up some of their superfluities in favor of the
Alaska Indians, those abandoned souls will be enlightened in the ways
of the Lord—will enjoy an everlasting happiness and will pray for
their benefactors here upon earth and in heaven.
For further information apply to the
Spokane Falls, W. T.,
U. S. of A.
Or to Vert Reverend Father J. J. Jonokan,
Administrator of the Diocese of Vancouver Island,
Victoria, B. C.   


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