Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Curiouser and Curiouser...

A week ago I found myself in a windstorm that had set upon San Francisco Bay. And oddly, at the same moment, there appeared in my email, custom-designed to distract me from the gales, a curious and detailed missive from one H.D. Miller.  In my noreasterly-addled state, it almost seemed that the blast of information Miller provided - in fact the email itself - must have been delivered by the winds, as in some Homeric epic.

But of course, that's not how "the internets" works!  Or so the kids tell me....

H.D. Miller, the curious-missive-sender, is a professor in Tennessee.  He wrote a fascinating email, and included a link to an even more interesting article he wrote fleshing out my partial answer to the question of why there was no poultry business in San Francisco during the Gold Rush or the two decades that followed.

I could hardly do his incredibly funny and entertaining post justice in describing it (you can't possibly do justice to a man who refers to the failure of so many failed 19th-century California chicken start-ups as "Ozymandian ruins"), so I ask that you read it via the link below.  I am quite honored to be included in reference to his inquiry.

What I liked even more about his email, was that it included some additional information about that greater mystery: Charles Melville Scammon and his conversion from hunter to conservationist.  I hope that I will not offend Professor Miller in quoting from his very engaging email:

"One of the things that caught my attention about Scammon, was that phrase “strange duality”, i.e. a killer of whales and conservationist. The more I read about this period, the more I’m convinced that Melville’s conversion isn’t that unusual in America in the late 19th century. In my piece on poultry farming, I talk a little bit about William Temple Hornaday, the man who saved the American bison from extinction. He’d been a taxidermist before becoming a conservationist, one who had gleefully shot 24 orangoutangs in Borneo a decade earlier. There’s book to be written about the conversion of American hunters like Scammon, Hornaday and Teddy Roosevelt to conservationism."

I suppose this means that I still have Charles Melville Scammon a bit too much on the brain.

Speaking of whalers, I picked up Matt Kish's "Moby-Dick In Pictures: One Drawing for Every Page" which is a delightful and subversive entry in the many homages to Melville's own subversive classic.  I viewed the book some years back, but had been so deep into my own project that I failed to understand how funny and lively his drawings are. I feel quite refreshed after perusing it, and hope you will give it a read.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Scammon's Note on Confederate Pirate Ship "Shenandoah"

Of all the ridiculous events that took place during the Civil War, none seem quite so ridiculous as the exploits of the Confederate privateer Shenandoah.  (That's the CSS Shenandoah, not the USS Shenandoah, an entirely different ship.)
Captain James Iredell Waddell, for whom the Civil War ended late.
Pencil sketch by Eva Chrysanthe
Technically speaking, the most notorious "accomplishments" of the CSS Shenandoah - the destruction of nearly half of the Yankee whaling fleet in the Bering Sea - took place in the two months after the Civil War had actually ended on April 9, 1865.  That's in large part due to the fact that the Shenandoah's Captain, James Iredell Waddell, refused to believe newspaper accounts that the war had ended, and continued burning the Yankee whaling ships it had looted.

The whole affair involves too many ironies to recount here. I bring it up only because I just found note - here at The Bancroft Library - of the Shenandoah's path of destruction in Captain Scammon's "Journal of the Flagship Golden Gate: Western Union Telegraph Expedition."

On September 27, 1865, Scammon laconically notes - after a far more heartfelt and lengthy page extolling the virtues and skills of the native tribes of Fort St. Michael:

"All the necessary business connected with the Expedition having been arranged for the present he (Captain Marston) returned on board. We found the Brig Victoria lying here... the Captain visited the ship and from him we learned of the destruction by the Pirate "Shenandoah" of a large number of the whaling fleet cruising the Arctic."
That's it? No mention that of the 38 ships captured by Waddell, at least one of those destroyed - the William C. Nye - had once been under Scammon's command?

Is it possible that the Union-loyal Captain Scammon may have felt some relief that Confederate Captain Waddell had been so ruthless, given that Scammon's conservationist feelings were at that time being greatly encouraged by J.R. Browne and William Healey Dall? 

Were it not for the utterly unintentional conservationist Confederate pirate ships, would whale populations not have rebounded to the extent they were able to? 

The following is a list of the Yankee whaling ships destroyed by Captain Waddell and the crew of the CSS Shenandoah (list does not include Yankee whaling ships that were bonded by Waddell):

  • December 4, 1864:  whaling bark Edward, burned  off Tristan de Cunha in the South Atlantic Ocean. 
  • December 29, 1864:  bark Delphine, of Bangor, Maine, burned in the Indian Ocean
  • April 3, 1865: whaling bark Pearl, of New London, burned in the harbor at Pohnpei Island in Micronesia
  • April 4, 1865:  whaling ship Hector of New Bedford burned in the harbor at Pohnpei Island in Micronesia; whaler Edward Carey of San Francisco was burned in the same harbor. 
  • April 10, 1865: the whaling bark Harvest was burned at Pohnpei Island.
  • May 28, 1865: the whaling bark Abigail of New Bedford burned in the the Sea of Okhotsk. 
  • June 22, 1865: whaling ship Euphrates of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Strait; whaling bark Jirah Swift of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea; whaling ship William Thompson of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea northeast of Cape Narrows; whaling bark Sophia of New Bedford, burned in the Bering Sea; Brigantine Susan & Abigail of San Francisco, burned in the Bering Sea.
  • June 26, 1865: whaling ship Gipsey was burned in the Bering Strait; whaling ship Nimrod was burned in the Bering Sea; whaler Brunswick was burned near the Bering Straits Narrows; whaling bark Congress of New Bedford was burned near the Bering Strait.
  • June 28, 1865: whaling bark Covington of Warren, Rhode Island was burned in East Cape Bay, near Bering Strait Narrows; whaling ship Favorite of New Haven was burned in East Cape Bay; whaling ships Hillman, Isaac Howland, Martha and Nassau of New Bedford were burned in East Cape Bay; whaling bark Waverly of New Haven was burned near the Diomede Islands.
After burning their last whaler, Confederate Captain Waddell - a man without a country and a Southern rebel who found himself without a cause - sailed down to San Francisco with the intention of shelling the city, still believing the Confederate cause had not been lost. Fortunately for everyone involved, shortly before entering the Golden Gate, Waddell was finally convinced by a passing ship that General Lee had surrendered.  Which was convenient, because shelling San Francisco, already protected by Fort Point, would have been a pain in the ass to effect. 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Happy Valentine's Day!

Who says couples must necessarily be romantic?  I've been going through Scammon's scrapbooks over at the Bancroft Archives, and drawing the members of his Alaska expedition (officially: The Western Union Telegraph Expedition to Russian America) in two's. Mostly because that's the space my sketchbook allows.

George Klinefelter and J.T, Rothrock

So it was a pleasant surprise to learn that many of these lesser-known men turned out to be very big deals later in life.  I guess it follows that if you have the ambition, connections, and luck to get yourself on an expedition like that, you might continue in similar fashion. Like J.T. Rothrock, the Harvard man who had provided heroic service as a captain in the Union army, and who later became one of the leading conservationists of the 19th century. It's part of the romance of the 19th century: That a man could do, if not all, then a whole hell of a lot in a young country that hadn't yet established itself on the world stage. Klinefelter, on the other hand, not so much, but who knows? 

Here are another two members of the expedition:

Sabin, on right

John I. Sabin started out on the Expedition as a mere messenger boy. He later became an important player in telecommunications in California, then was called to Chicago to revamp that city's phone systems later in the century. Died in a big house (his own big house) on the 2800 block of California Street, which is not too shabby

Who knows who the bearded guy on the left was? He's "unidentified", but he's catalogued as 1950.003 14.3, if you want to look up his mugshot in Scammon's scrapbooks.

Then there's the great and tragic Kennicott, which I'll have to save for later, because it involves drawing a lot of buckskin. And Dall, the teenaged science prodigy. In the meantime, here are two more fellows rounding out the facial hair brigade on the W.U.T. Expedition:

On the right, it's Lewis C. Butler. To date, I have yet to figure out what function he fulfilled on the expedition, but with a beard like that, he certainly saved a lot of time by not shaving, so hopefully he was extra-productive.  The guy on the left is yet another unidentified crew member, with tremendous mutton-chop sideburns. Laugh all you want at their beards, but given the extremely cold temperatures, and the uncertainty of the journey, it was probably reasonable to keep as much hair on your face as possible.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Wesley Marx on Scammon's Leatherbound Journal

From Wesley Marx's 1960 American Heritage magazine article, which gets at the strange split in Scammon's dual identity as both whaler and biologist:

"At the same time he had been ordering his harpooners to bomb the whales and his flensers to strip the blubber, Scammon was also measuring the girth of dead whales, inspecting the contents of their stomachs, and executing precise drawings of their conformations. The Captain jotted down his detailed observations alongside log entries that recorded the number of whales struck and barrels filled."

And that, as much as The Melville Society's interest in Scammon-as-Ishmael, is what bedevils me about Scammon:  He is a man engaged in the tightly-focused capitalist drive for oil, who doesn't just maintain the idealistic curiosity of the naturalist, but acts on it. 

It's as if he is two totally different men.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015


How do you explain a really exciting find?  And what if you make... three really exciting finds in one day going through Bancroft's Charles Melville Scammon papers?

The big thing, the holy grail, the "rosebud" of Scammon's later literary and scientific life, this is what I pulled out of a file envelope yesterday.

The seed of the great man's landmark work: the little three-inch by five-inch leather-bound, water-blood-and-oil-stained book of perfectly recorded measurements of whales, seals and dolphins collected in the torrent of bloody commercial slaughter that was our demand for whale oil.

Just to hold it in your hands and to think of what it took to make!  To think that Scammon, who, while commanding so many men and so many whaleboats through so much bloody chaos and fatigue, had the presence of mind to take these perfectly ordered notes.  Notes which no scientist had endeavored to collect, and which no whaler would ever conceive of collecting. 

And to synthesize, more than a decade later, those notes into a book that would change the way we looked at mammalian studies? 

I felt less elation than a sense of awe. Followed by the dreadful realization that a man with less than a high school education had managed what no modern Harvard grad, currently engaged in tweeting "pix" of his free lunch at the Google or Facebook corporate campuses, would even conceive of trying. We are not better men today, I am sorry to say. 

The other two finds were in many ways just as interesting, but more on that later. 

Saturday, January 17, 2015

And you think YOU have problems...

Another perfect day at the Bancroft Library perusing Captain Charles Melville Scammon's papers.  The Bancroft librarians were kind enough to provide the actual letters to me today, which are far easier to read than the microfilm.  The letters also really beautiful in and of themselves, especially in this era of digitized everything.

Among all the telling ephemera surrounding the great man's life, this letter caught my eye - it's a nausea-inducing letter from Scammon's publisher, John H. Carmany, regarding the total lack of profitability of Scammon's (posthumously successful) landmark study, "The Marine Mammals of the Northwestern Coast of North America".  It was sent May 29, 1877, nearly 138 years ago.

You can imagine Scammon - growing frail from an undiagnosable ailment and tormented by money troubles - going slightly mad when he opened the letter. Scammon was an enormously talented man, and it appears from his early correspondence that he was a model captain. But in his later career, there are multiple accounts of his losing his temper when he ran into yet another stumbling block, and his outbursts typically only made things worse.

These accounts of his temper appear not when he is a young captain, before his whaling days, but afterward, during the really interesting, thrilling and difficult parts of his career.  I've often wondered if the additional time on the crowded whaling ships may have exposed him to some sort of bacterial infection or virus that affected his brain chemistry, and therefore, possibly, his behavior.  Or maybe he just became ill-tempered as his accomplishments grew greater, and his money troubles grew.

Carmany's letter is provocative.  He starts by claiming that Scammon was in town but declined to see him: "Having see you in town, it strikes me as rather strange that you did not call on me. As apologies are usually looked at as excuses for wrong doing, I certainly need not make any in matters between us, simply relying on facts." Nice intro. 

Carmany goes on: "All attempts to sell your book have failed me, even with the copyright included, and of course I have the 500 copies in sheets on hand, which I will gladly hand over to any person - copyright included - who will liquidate the balance of indebtedness due on publication account."

That's it - no recognition of what a great work Scammon's book was, and no understanding that it would, sometime soon, be recognized as the landmark study in marine mammalogy. (The book also set a precociously modern standard for biological studies in general by focusing as much, if not more, on observation of animals in their natural habitat, rather than relying largely on specimens and skeletons.)

Scammon's own take on the letter is written in pencil, and signed by him, in the space left over on the second page.  You can almost sense Scammon's onset of decrepitude by the worsening script.  In a later letter to Carmany, Scammon's penmanship was so poor that Scammon chose not to mail it, as if he were too proud to reveal how decrepit his condition had become.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Russell on Scammon

There really is no end to the surprising twists in the story of Captain Charles Melville Scammon.  His participation as "enforcer" during the Farallon Egg Wars being perhaps the least interesting of all his myriad adventures.

How Captain Scammon, the greatest and most ruthlessly efficient hunter of gray whales - practically their exterminator! - went on to became the greatest and most loving chronicler of the natural life of the same whales remains a mystery.

Through the boxes of Scammon letters at UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library, I hope to uncover, however partially, that mystery. And to shed light on Scammon's possible relationship to the work of Herman Melville, with whom he shares a nam (Per the learned men of The Melville Society, Charles Melville Scammon is "the very personification of Melville's Ishmael in Moby-Dick", who also goes through a transformation from a killer of whales to a great appreciator.)

In the meantime, there is this revealing tidbit from Dick Russell's 2001 opus, The Eye of the Whale, which is one of only three books I know of that discuss Scammon at any length. After giving some brief mention to Scammon's over-achieving older brothers (including heroic service in the Union army during the Civil War, founding of the Dearborn Observatory and of Chicago's first bank, and enough other accomplishments as to drive the notion of sibling inferiority complex to dizzying levels), Russell mentions that three of the six Scammon brothers were followers of an 18th-century Swedish scientist-turned-mystic, Emanuel Swedenborg.

That the three brothers, with all their scientific curiosity and prowess, would have any interest in mysticism is, frankly, mystifying. But as Russell puts it: "One of Swedenborg's most comprehensive works was The Economy of the Animal Kingdom, in which he described all of life as a marvelous unity, tautly structured according to a grand design."  (Akin to Darwin's larger theory as well as the humanistic ideals on which Darwin's theories were grounded.)

"Certain animals seem to have prudence and cunning," Swedenborg wrote, "connubial love, friendship and seeming charity, probity and benevolence, in a word, a morality the same as with men."

So perhaps it was through Swedenborg's mystical connection with the animal world that Scammon did force himself to wade through the killing bays of his own design, to lovingly measure the whales he had slaughtered, taking the first ever notes on whale anatomy - notes which hold up to today's scientific standards.

Bear in mind, when we judge this terribly flawed man, what the options were for sea captains in 1850's America. Transporting slaves? Transporting food to slave colonies? If you were a humanist, slaughtering whales to bring light to lamps was probably one of the kinder tasks you could be engaged in.

Cruel choice, it was!  But Scammon, it seems to me, was someone who toiled at his own redemption. How many of us in the modern world can claim to be doing the same?