Douglas H. Strong, Book Review Editor
Johan Adrian Jacobsen: Alaskan Voyage 1881-1883. An Expedition to the Northwest Coast of America. Translated by Erna Gunther from the German text of Adrian Woldt. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1977. Appendix. Bibliography. Index. Drawings, one Map and two Plates. 276 pages. $17.50.
Reviewed by Richard A. Pierce, Queen’s University, Ontario, Canada.
This is a lively account of extensive travel on the Northwest Coast and in Alaska nearly a century ago. The author, a young Norwegian, had already proved his stamina and self-reliance in Arctic fishing voyages and in a journey to Greenland, persuaded an Eskimo family to make an exhibition tour of Europe under the famous Carl Hagenbeck of Hamburg. In 1881, when he was 28, the Royal Berlin Ethnological Museum sent Jacobsen to the Northwest Coast of America to collect native artifacts.
Jacobsen’s adventures and observations during the next two years were ghost-written in German by Adrian Woldt and published in 1884. Now Erna Gunther, a specialist on the Northwest native peoples, has made an English translation of the book.
The author describes, with humor and zest, the natives, traders and missionaries he met, modes of transportation, weather, food, clothing and everything else that met his eye. He began his adventure in September1881 with a visit to the Haida in the Queen Charlotte Islands and later the Kwakiutl on the north and west coasts of Vancouver Island. In February 1882 he visited the Koskimo and Quatsino, the “longheaded” Indians of the Strait of Georgia, where he tried unsuccessfully to repeat his Greenland coup and to get a family to go to Europe for a tour. In July he went to Fort St. Michael, from there by kayak up the Yukon and back, and then, easily mastering winter travel dogteam, to Seward Peninsula and Kotzebue Sound, and the Kuskokwim drainage area. From there he went to Lake Iliamna, Nushagak, Kachemak Bay, to Nuchek on Prince William Sound, and then to Kodiak and San Francisco. After a quick and fruitless trip to Arizona, on 23 November, 1883, he was back in Berlin, having supplied his satisfied sponsors with over 7,000 specimens.
The trip was part of the desperate effort by ethnographers and museum personnel of that day to gather all they could of the handiwork of non-European peoples before they were engulfed by a modern culture “which wipes out every stage of the past.” If the pace is less fevered now it is because abundant sampling of the artifacts of many regions has been made and because in many it is already too late. Jacobsen’s work on the Northwest Coast complements that of the Russian museum collector Voznesenskii in 1835-1845, of Dall, collecting for the Smithsonian Institution in the 1860’s, of the brothers Aurel and Arthur Krause, representing the Geographic Society of Bremen, and others. Their methods were often superficial, skimming off as they did only what seemed noteworthy, and spending insufficient time on non-material culture traits. However, they saved what would otherwise have been lost, providing rich stores of materials which today are still being made to yield secrets through application of new techniques and viewpoints, such as ethnohistory. Jacobsen’s account can also shed light on native acculturation in his day.
The translation reads well and is complete except for omission of a final chapter on the hasty trip to Arizona, irrelevant to the rest of the work, and some sections which the translator says “reflect impressions so closely rooted in Jacobsen’s own time and culture as to be irrelevant today.” One may differ on this point, for the author’s attitudes are a necessary part of the total picture of the man and his work.
The line drawings are excellent. A detailed map would have been helpful in place of the tiny sketch which is offered.