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“The Seals Are About Gone…”

May 2024
15min read

The crusading conservationist thought he had saved the fur seal from extinction. Then from the Pribilofs, home of the last great herd, came an alarming telegram:

Every spring more than a million and a half Alas-kan fur seals “haul up” out of the waters of the Bering Sea onto the rocky shores of the Pribilof Islands, to rest, to give birth, to breed, to moult, and then when winter comes, to take to the sea again, in an ages-old routine. That this vast herd still exists to come to its chosen homeland for the brief weeks of an arctic summer is largely due to the lifelong efforts of a crusading artist-naturalist, Henry Wood Elliott.

Born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1846, Elliott grew up in an age that calmly permitted the wanton destruction of the passenger pigeon, the Eskimo curlew, the great auk, the elk, the wild turkey, and the buffalo. And for forty-five years after the United States acquired the Pribilof Islands in the Alaska purchase of 1867, it appeared that the same blind indifference, plus a frenzy for profit, would result in the extermination of the fur seal.

In the first two years of American ownership, various unauthorized sealing outfits took more than 200,000 fur-seal skins from the Pribilof rookeries. To halt this piracy the United States leased the islands to the Alaska Commercial Company, granting it the exclusive right to take sealskins (under government supervision) for a period of twenty years. The annual quota was to be 100,000 pelts.

No one knew whether that arbitrary quota would increase, maintain, or deplete the herd. For the strange truth was that although sealing had been practiced for hundreds of years—to the almost total extermination of every fur-seal herd in the world save this one—no definite knowledge existed about the fur seal beyond its appearance every summer by the millions on three of the Pribilof Islands, and in much smaller numbers on two or three Russian-held islands. To insure the highest possible returns from its new asset, the government needed a scientific study of the fur seal’s life cycle. In the spring of 1872 the Secretary of the Treasury appointed Henry Wood Elliott, a gifted young artist-naturalist of the Smithsonian Institution, as a special agent to undertake such a study.


Twenty-six-year-old Elliott had already seen much of his country while exploring the Northwest coast with the Russian-American Telegraph Expedition in 1865, and while serving as artist for the Hayclen Survey of the Wyoming Territory in 1869–70. Everywhere in his travels he saw trappers, hunters, “sportsmen,” needlessly killing game in quantities that threatened one day to destroy every wild creature in the country. Then, after the Alaska purchase, came reports of the slaughtering of the last remaining herd of fur seals. In the interests of science and conservation, Elliott welcomed the opportunity to study and report upon this valuable, defenseless sea mammal, and to do what he could to check its destruction.

A few weeks after his appointment Elliott was standing atop a rocky bluff on St. Paul Island, the most important seal island of the Pribilof group, peering through a foggy drizzle at the surf below. Every day for a week he had scrambled up this bluff and stood in the never-ceasing wind to watch seals swimming and diving just beyond the breaker line. Every day there were more of them out there, seemingly reluctant to come upon the land. At last, on this day—May 5—a phalanx of leaders came sweeping through the crashing breakers onto the beach. Shielding a pad of drawing paper from the mist as best he could, Elliott began recording in a series of drawings the life of the seals as it unfolded before him that spring, summer, and fall.

On the shaly beach the first of the breeding bulls were hauling up. The great creatures, heavy with fat from the winter’s feeding, but alert and belligerent, took the vantage places nearest the water, there to await the coming of the cows. A week or two after the arrival of these beachmasters, the “seal weather” set in. Gray banks of fog rolled over the islands, and the bull seals began swarming from the sea by the hundreds and thousands, filling the rookery acres, each bull lord of his own circle of ground. Once established with their harems, they would never leave their stations during the entire breeding season for a single instant, night or day, not even to feed or to drink.


In the first week of June the females began appearing in the surf. As they came ashore, in streak after streak of silvery brown, the waiting bulls met them and coaxed them toward their own domains. This touched off furious battles between the bulls, every animal desperate to get possession of at least one female, if not all within reach. The big fellows nearest the water line obtained the greatest number, some of them getting and holding as many as fifty wives in their harems. The females—gentle creatures only a fifth the size of their masters—stayed where they were pushed or tossed, unless carried off by a bull stronger than their original suitor. Within a few hours, or at most a day or two after arriving, each female dropped her pup in the thick of the crowded harem, where it was in considerable danger of being trampled by the clumsy bull. Soon after giving birth—since the female seals are bi-uteral—the cows bred again.

Unlike the bulls, the cows went frequently from the rookery into the water to bathe and to feed, their search for food taking them long distances, for absences of two or three days, sometimes longer. To Elliott, one fat, round-eyed pup left bleating in the rookery looked like any other, but a nursing mother returning from a foray recognized the cry of her young, though ten thousand pups were chorusing at once. She would suckle no other; if she did not return, her pup starved. The new-born pups could not swim. Elliott noted that they never even ventured into puddles on the rocks until they were five or six weeks old. After that they cautiously experimented in the wash of the surf, and gradually, as the season progressed, they became expert swimmers, unafraid of the roughest surf.

The bachelors—seals too young or too weak to accumulate harems—herded by themselves on any free stretch of beach or around the edges of the rookeries; if they made the mistake of putting so much as a flipper on the breeding grounds, the harem-masters savagely drove them off.

The whole scene during the height of the season was one of incredible confusion, the rookeries jammed with bulls and their families, the young bachelors restlessly travelling about in heavy platoons, the pups playing endlessly together or sleeping in tight little jjods, while a chorus of constant bellowing, chuckling, piping, and bleating; carried far out to sea.


From the bachelor class, constituting a third to a half of the total herd, came the most marketable pelts: those of the three-year-olds. Every morning during sealing season, long before daybreak, Elliott crawled from his blankets to accompany the native Aleuts on the daily seal drive. Carefully trained in their work by their former Russian overseers, the Aleut crew quietly approached the bachelor herds and aroused the sleepers. The drive to the killing grounds then began, with only two or three men required to guide and secure as many as a thousand of the docile creatures at a time. They permitted the seals frequent rests to cool off, as heating injured their fur. During these rest periods the awkward, shambling march ceased, the herders stepped back, and the seals stopped in their tracks to fan themselves with their hind flippers. Rested and cooled, they took up again their march to death and the markets of the world. At the killing ground the drivers culled all seals too old, too young, or with damaged skins, and any females accidentally included in the drive. The killing gang then struck down each selected male with a heavy blow from a club, dispatched him with a knife, and skinned him on the spot. An official of the sealing company and the resident government agent kept a daily record of the number and size of the skins taken in each drive.

Around the end of July the systematic arrangement of the harems broke up; the worn-out breeding bulls dragged off to the sea; cows, pups, and young bulls roved over the rookeries in restless companies. In September the cows began staying for long intervals in the surf, while the pups grew at home in the breakers; and finally, with the coming of cold weather, the herd gradually departed for warmer waters to the south. (Most of them would winter along the continental shelf of the United States and Canada.) From the bluff, on a day in December, 1872, Elliott watched the last stragglers take off on their long migration.

When Elliott turned back to the village it was not to bachelor quarters, for somehow during his first six weeks on St. Paul he had found time to fall in love with and marry eighteen-year-old Alexandra Melovidov, the pretty daughter of a former Russian official. They lived, he wrote a friend, in “a nice house with a good library and an excellent kitchen,” similar to the new frame houses built by the Alaska Commercial Company for the Aleut workers. To Elliott, the company houses were far superior to the half-underground “barrabakies” that formerly sheltered the natives from the howling winds. Absolutely oblivious of physical hardships himself, and completely absorbed in his two loves—seals and Alexandra—Elliott was not aware that the company stinted on coal and the natives shivered in their flimsy cottages. But he did notice that both company officials and government agents were remiss in the matter of charting the rookeries and taking a census of the herd. Without these operations, how could any increase or decrease be determined?

To correct the oversight, Elliott decided to make the maps and take the census himself; thereafter the lessees, whose profits depended on the number of marketable three-year-olds, could be instantly aware of and report any changes. Not until long afterward—when it was all but too late—did Elliott realize how naïve he had been.

Carrying his instruments, notebooks, and drawing pad, Elliott tramped tirelessly over every wind-swept square foot of St. Paul and St. George islands. The natives had never seen the equal of this man with the pencil and note pad. By calculating the area of each rookery and allowing two square feet per seal he arrived at a census of three million breeding seals. A count of the others was impossible due to their mobility, but his estimate was another three million. After the snow gales began, Elliott worked indoors on his field notes and drawings. When he left for Washington in the fall of 1873, Elliott carried a portfolio bulging with sketches—the most complete and probably the first pictorial record ever made of the Pribilof seal herd. Unfortunately, he also took with him the conviction that he was leaving those teeming millions of fur seals in good hands.

Publication of his exhaustive report established young Elliott as an expert on the fur seal and sealing. Second and third visits to the islands in 1874 and 1876 confirmed his conclusion: the abundance of the herd and the highly polygamous nature of the breeding bulls would allow the fur company to take 100,000 bachelor seals each year without injury to the natural increase of the herd, “ provided no abnormal cause of destruction occurred .”


Confident that his findings would insure the continued well-being of the herd, the expert returned to his work at the Smithsonian Institution, in his spare time lecturing, writing, and painting. His was a full program, but as the guardian angel of the fur seals he never failed to peruse the bulletins from the government agents on the Pribilof Islands. Invariably, year after year, the reports read: “Seal herd in good condition.”

But all the while an unforeseen “abnormal cause of destruction” was relentlessly building. The age-old killing of seals at sea, “pelagic” sealing, practiced in a small way by natives in canoes, changed radically in the 1870’s when white men began transporting canoes and hunters by schooner into the track of the migrating herd. The number of seals taken at sea increased enormously; and the majority were females, loo heavy with unborn young to escape their pursuers. The increase in pelagic sealing did not immediately alarm Elliott. He still believed that any substantial diminution of the herd would be promptly reported by the Alaska Commercial Company or the government agents.

In 1886 the United States seized three Canadian schooners sealing in the Bering Sea. This action led to a lengthy controversy between the United States and Great Britain in which the United States tried to establish the Bering as a closed sea, for the protection of the seal herd when on migration. Elliott declared that this would be impossible. Pelagic sealing should be ended, but could be ended, he argued, only on a compensation basis, by paying Great Britain a percentage of the land catch in return for a cessation of pelagic sealing by British subjects. Ridicule greeted this quixotic stand. Men and nations were not yet ready for conservation by international co-operation.


While diplomats wrangled, slaughter at sea doubled and tripled with every passing season. Then, in the fall of 1889, the Secretary of the Treasury received from newly appointed Agent James Goff, on St. Paul Island, a startling telegram: “The seals are about gone.”

Elliott dropped everything to study the records. Questions, doubts, apprehensions tormented him. If countless unborn pups had died at sea and countless others had starved to death in the rookeries, why had not the agents reported a progressive reduction in the herd? How had the fur company filled its quota?

The answers could not be known until summer. By then Elliott was on his way as a special agent to investigate. In July, 1890, he stepped ashore at St. Paul.

Once again he stood on the windy bluff looking down on the rookery that had excited and thrilled him eighteen years before. Now he surveyed it “as one would locate a graveyard.” Instead of filling that great space at intervals of seven to ten feet apart, the groups were 100 to 150 feet apart; the bachelor hauling grounds were grass-grown where there had been bare rock polished by the flippers of seals. The scattered harems were in charge of old, idle bulls. Where were the formerly countless reserves of young breeding stock? Killed at sea before birth. Sharp-eyed and angry, Elliott inspected every shrunken rookery, examined skins in the salt-houses, studied the company records. He found the Aleuts had whistles for routing elusive seals, and were under orders to sprinkle coal oil and strew broken glass on ledges where the animals might retreat out of reach of the killing gangs. He saw seals who were past the desirable three-year limit driven and redriven, as the relentless hunt for marketable skins went on, until they dropped dead from exhaustion. At the close of the breeding season many females appeared in the daily drives. On July 20, ElIiott and Goff ordered all killing stopped. Goff remained at his post while Elliott hurried to Washington to expose the criminals and to save the remnant of the herd if it were humanly possible. Sick at heart, he blamed his own stupidity in believing that a commercial company would put the welfare of the herd ahead of profits.


Back in Washington, Elliott reported that the fur seals were facing extermination. The remedy was to stop all killing on land at once, for a period of years. He charged the fur companies with misconduct and deceit∗; government agents with falsifying reports; the government with gross negligence. Pelagic sealing should be controlled, he again insisted, by giving Great Britain a share in the sealing industry.

∗The lease of the Alaska Commercial Company had expired in 1890; the North American Commercial Company, as higher bidder, was thereupon awarded a twenty-year lease.

Such overwhelming charges of malfeasance by government officials stood little chance of government publication. The report was suppressed, and killing in the Pribilofs began again. Determined to make known the fur seals’ plight, Elliott released a digest of his report to a newspaper. Later on, when the controversy over pelagic sealing was before a tribunal of arbitration in Paris, the British counsel demanded and obtained the entire document, to use as evidence. The arbitrators paid close attention to the sections dealing with the abuse of the herd on land; they ignored the sections condemning pelagic sealing. Thus, by a painful irony, Elliott’s report became a factor in the decision of the tribunal that the United States—since it had allowed the ruination of the herd on land—had no property rights in the animals at sea. Unwittingly, the guardian angel of the seals had helped to do them in.

The decision of the tribunal unloosed a carnival of slaughter. Between 1893 and 1896, pelagic sealers took not less than 500,000 seals. Conscience-driven, frantic to save his seals, Elliott entreated politicians, lawmakers, and committee members to stop the killing on land until pelagic sealing could be halted by an international treaty; to act before it was too late to save the fur seal as a species. But many of his former supporters, fearful of their political futures and unable to comprehend Elliott’s ultimate goals, deserted him. His enemies called him fanatic, British agent, madman. He was excluded from inner conferences on the fur-seal question and was not appointed to serve on the Anglo-American commission of investigation sent to the Pribilofs in 1896. Instead of Elliott, Dr. David Starr Jordan, president of Stanford University, represented the United States.

After a brief stay on the islands, Jordan submitted to the government a report in complete variance with everything Elliott held to be true. Passionately, Elliott attacked Jordan’s report as the result of utter ignorance of the seal life and a desire to protect the North American Commercial Company, one of whose important stockholders, D. Ogden Mills, was a wealthy trustee of Stanford University. Among other accusations, Elliott charged Jordan with failure to stop the lessees from filling out their quotas with undersized skins—those of one- and two-year-olds.

Elliott’s exposure of the scandal kept the seal problem constantly before the public and frequently on the legislative agenda, but although Congress occasionally yielded to pressure and passed regulations intended to check the taking of undersized skins, the practice continued unabated. A beam of hope shone briefly in 1903, when the members of a congressional committee returned from the islands in unanimous agreement with Elliott’s long-held recommendations: land killing should be stopped and a treaty made with foreign nations. For the first time, a group of legislators saw the conservation of the herd on an international level.

Encouraged by Secretary of State John Hay, Elliott drafted a treaty of “mutual concession” and secured informal approval of it by the British ambassador—but Hay’s death in 1905 halted any further action. Elliott took the treaty draft to Hay’s successor, Elihu Root, but Root laid it aside with evident disinterest.

Root’s indifference and the defeat of a bill to stop land killing, followed closely by reports of Japanese sneak raids on the rookeries, finally broke Elliott’s spirit. Burdened with a guilty sense that the whole tragedy was the result of his blind trust in lessees and government agents, he sank into despair. One day in 1907, utterly without hope of saving the seals through his own efforts, he wrote a single line to his old friend Dr. William T. Hornaday, director of the New York zoo, “Do something to save those seals.”

For the first two years Hornaday’s efforts also met defeat; meanwhile, the seal herd steadily diminished. Then, backed by the influential Camp Fire Club of America (of which he was president), and with the support of Senator Joseph M. Dixon, chairman of the National Resources Committee, Hornaday launched a vigorous campaign to arouse sympathy for the seals. In February, 1910, Senator Dixon introduced a bill in Congress embodying Elliott’s main objectives: abolishment of the leasing system, and a five- to ten-year suspension of land killing. Charles Nagel, Secretary of Commerce and Labor, got the bill reworded to give him discretionary powers over leasing the islands and permitting or suspending land killing. Hornaday protested the changes but had to settle for a “gentlemen’s agreement” that the original provisions would be upheld. The revised bill became law on April 21, 1910.


Nine days later a Seattle newspaper stated that the Commissioner of Fisheries intended to allow the taking of seals as usual during the coming season.

“The lid is off,” Hornaday wrote to Elliott. “Get into the fight any way you see fit.”

That note brought Elliott into the fray like an avenging fury. Charging the Department of Commerce and Labor with misconduct, he demanded and obtained a congressional investigation into the administration by the Bureau of Fisheries of the fur-seal industry. The hearings began in May of 1911, and continued for nearly three years. Elliott was the complaining witness and, it might almost be said, the prosecutor, for he, as often as any member of the committee, interrogated witnesses or interposed barbed questions to bring out the validity of his charges.

Among those charges were that Commissioner of Fisheries George M. Bowers had obtained his position through the influence of Senator Stephen B. Elkins of West Virginia, a stockholder in the North American Commercial Company; and that Senator Elkins had put him in that job in order to have control over the bureau; that Bowers’ chief agent, W. I. Lembkey, allowed the illegal killing of 128,000 yearling seals between the years 1896 and 1911; that the skins of these yearlings were loaded with blubber and salt to make them weigh up to the required five pounds; and that there was no truth in David Starr Jordan’s statement that surplus bulls trampled pups to death and should therefore be killed.

Perhaps the mire of misconduct and crooked politics Elliott exposed generated a far-reaching wave of moral revulsion, for in July, 1911, the envoys of the four nations most concerned with sealing—Japan, Russia, Great Britain, and the United States—met in Washington and without friction or delay signed a treaty of “mutual concession and joint control”—basically the treaty drafted six years before by Elliott. At last, through international co-operation, the seals were safe at sea.

It took longer to protect them on land from unscrupulous government officials. Despite the hearings, the killing continued with ruthless vigor during the summer of 1911. In 1912 Elliott and Hornaday succeeded in getting a law passed for a closed period of five years. But it was not until 1913 (Elliott was on St. Paul’s gathering further evidence at the time) that the closed-season law became effective, giving the seals their long-delayed holiday from death. From that time forward the seal harvest was to be under government operation, with no leases to private companies. The seals were saved.

The hearings on the conduct of the Bureau of Fisheries concluded in 1914. The majority of the committee members supported the charges, with referral of the matter to the Attorney General for possible trial. But there were still friends of the culprits in high places; no one was ever brought to trial. Elliott, weary from his long campaign, retired to his home in Cleveland, satisfied that his chief goal was accomplished.

His retirement was brief. Within two years he was back in Washington to take up arms against the awarding of a government contract to a private firm for the processing and selling of sealskins harvested by the government. To Elliott, it was the old specter of selfish interests seeking control of a public resource. He contended that if raw skins were sold without a middleman, the public coffers would benefit; but his words went unheeded. The fur-dressing contract was awarded to—and has been held ever since by—a private fur company. For ten years thereafter, whenever the contract was up for renewal, Elliott tried to influence the terms for the benefit of the American public. He made one last appeal in 1926. Then eighty years old, he finally realized he would have to leave the guardianship of the sealing industry to future generations.

Four years later the old man died. It could almost be said that he left a unique bequest to the world: the fur-seal species, Callorhinus alascanus .

Since Elliott’s day, under a scientific management that uses many of the procedures first suggested by him. in 1872, the rehabilitated herd has grown from an all-time low of 130,000 animals in 1910 to more than a million and a half in 1962. Casual visitors are not permitted on the Pribilof Islands, but persons having business there may see the present herd distributed over the rookeries and hauling grounds of those fogshrouded islands much as they were when Elliott began his long crusade to save their ancestors.

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