Dr Samuel J Call
In the history of Alaska, heroes are plentiful. The northern frontier attracted men
and women who often had large measures of bravery, fortitude and physical stamina in
their makeups. But even in a land of heroes, some rise above - such a man was Samuel
Johnson Call, who was awarded a Congressional Medal for bravery during an Arctic rescue
mission in 1897-98.
Born in Missouri in 1858, by the age of 22 he was employed by the Alaska Commercial
Company (ACC) as the surgeon at their Unalaska post. He was to spend five years at
Unalaska, during which time he made lengthy trips to villages from Attu to St. Michael
(Cocke). As the only physician in the Aleutians, he of course met many of the men of
the Revenue Cutter Service, including Captain Shepard of the cutter Richard Rush and
Captain Michael Healy of the Bear. After leaving the ACC in 1890, he was accepted into
the Revenue Cutter Service, and was posted to the Bear when she sailed north in 1891.
On that voyage was Dr. Sheldon Jackson, and the following year, Dr. Call assisted Dr.
Jackson in his project to import reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. As a result of seeing
the results of that project, Dr. Call became a life-long promoter of the value of
reindeer-herding in Alaska.
The latter part of the century was a period when whales were one of Alaska's most famous
resources, and dozens of ships cruised the Bering Sea in search of what could be
fabulous wealth. But the icy seas could also trap and kill even the most experienced
sailors. Shipwrecks in 1876, 1881, 1882 and 1888 had resulted in the construction and
staffing of a rescue station at Point Barrow in 1889 to try to avert a tragedy that was
almost inevitable. However, the costs of maintenance were naturally very high, and in
1896, the rescue station was sold.
The open-water season of 1897 ended early, and abruptly. In the last week of September,
8 whaling vessels became trapped by the early ice. The crews organized themselves, and
sent 2 men of 1,700-mile trek to call for help, as none of the ships had enough
supplies to last over the winter. Charles Walker was sent along the relatively easy
Herschel Island/Mackenzie River route, while George Tilton was to try a new route south
along the Alaskan coast. Both men made it, even though Walker spent a few weeks at
Herschel, getting drunk while hundreds of his mates waited.
Charlie Brower, who operated a supply post at Point Barrow, and Edward Avery McIlhenny,
a naturalist who was spending the winter in the old rescue post, had both sensed that
winter might be early and that some ships could be trapped. To prepare for this
possibility, they had been storing as much game as possible in their ice cellars. With
further hunting and salvaging of supplies, assisted by local Eskimos, the trapped
sailors were successful in accumulating an impressive list of stores for the winter:
2,300 ducks and geese;
30,000 pounds of whitefish;
more than 1,000 beluga whales, from a small patch of open water when they had been
trapped by the ice;
a large stock of coal; the Navarch was carrying 80 tons, but two men set her on fire
when they got tired of hauling coal! (Bockstoce)
When word reached Seattle that eight ships were trapped near Point Barrow, the
government had no way of knowing that the natural bounties of the land had ensured the
survival, if not the comfort of the whalers. A rescue mission was immediately organized
by the Revenue Cutter Service - on November 27, three weeks after returning from her
annual Alaskan tour, the cutter Bear headed north again, with a volunteer crew under
Captain Francis Tuttle, who had orders to use all possible means to reach the whalers.
Captain Tuttle's experience in northern waters led him to expect to be able to reach
Cape Nome before the ice stopped the ship. However, the furthest the Bear could reach
was near the village of Tanunak (north of Cape Vancouver), still 1,200 miles from Point
Barrow (see map). An expedition was organized, under the command of Lieutenant David
H. Jarvis, to travel overland to Point Barrow, gathering reindeer along the way to feed
the whalers. Accompanying Jarvis were 2nd Lieutenant Ellsworth Price Bertholf, Dr.
Samuel Call, and Eskimo guide F. Klotchoff.
The first reindeer were gathered near Cape Nome, where Charlie Artisarlook gave them
138 animals. At Cape Prince of Wales, another 310 animals were rounded up, and W. T.
Lopp, a missionary, teacher and highly experienced reindeer herder, was persuaded to
The expedition finally reached Point Barrow with their reinder in March 1898. Many of
the 382 remaining reindeer, however, had been driven nearly 700 miles in less than two
months, and were so skinny that they were of little use once they arrived. The
expedition was by no means a complete waste, though - discipline had fallen apart,
fights and thefts from the Eskimos and each other were common, and hygiene was poor.
Lieutenant Jarvis was able to restore order, and while he ensured the safety of the
sailors, Dr. Call attended to their medical needs. While there had been 3 deaths over
the winter, none were related to the living conditions. The old Pacific Steam Whaling
Station, where bunks had been built for 144 men, was so filthy it was torn down for
As spring passed into summer, successful whaling from shore made life infinitely easier
on the men, and at the end of July the Bear and the Jeanette finally reached Point
Barrow. The ice, however, closed in again, pinching the Bear so severely that the iron
plates in the engine room deck were buckled (Bockstoce). In mid-August, by blasting
their way through a pressure ridge, the surviving ships, the Bear, Jeanette, Newport,
Fearless, and Jeanie were able to sail south. The Navarch was burned by the sailors,
while the ice claimed the Orca, Jesse H. Freeman, Belvedere and Rosario.
The rescue station where much of this saga took place still stands, although
substantially modified - Charlie Brower's descendants now operate a restaurant in the
building. It is one of the oldest frame buildings in Alaska, and is on the National
Register of Historic Places.
Dr. Call's adventures were far from over - in August 1899 he resigned from the Revenue
Cutter Service and set up a private practise at Nome, the new gold-rush boom town. He
was to remain there until 1903; during the summer of 1900, nearly 25,000 people were
living in the area, and poor sanitation led to a high incidence of disease. Over the
winter of 1901-1902, he undertook another trip which he told a reporter was potentially
even more dangerous than the Point Barrow expedition. It resulted when a Catholic
priest, Father Jacquet, became violently insane and needed to be taken to the mission
at Holy Cross, 600 miles away. They left Nome on November 22, 1901:
Dr. Call's fears proved well grounded. It was a grueling journey. Fr. Jacquet talked
and shouted continuously except when asleep and had to be guarded around the clock. The
party reached Holy Cross on December 18, rested two days and started back for Nome.
They had a narrow escape when a blizzard caught them while crossing Norton Bay. They
were trying to find the way when they discoveed that the ice was bending beneath their
feet. Fortunately, the storm lulled. Just ahead was open water and the ice was beginning
to break up around them. They managed to turn the teams and reach firm ice. It was
January 14 when they reached Nome - and the 1,200-mile journey proved fruitless. The
staff at the Holy Cross Mission could not adequately care for Fr. Jacquet and had to
send him to the jail at St. Michael. (Cocke).
In September 1903, Dr. Call returned to the Revenue Cutter Service, serving on the
Thetis, and later the McCulloch. As with so many of our pioneers who pushed their
physical limits, his health had deteriorated, and he was forced to retire in September
1908. He moved to Hollister, California to live with a sister, and on February 16, 1909,
he died there at the age of 50.
During his 27 years in Alaska, Dr. Samuel Call had served the country well. He had taken
an interest in photography at around the turn of the century, and his photographs in
the collections of the University of Alaska Archives and the Alaska Historical Library
now serve to not only document life along the Alaskan coast during that period, but
help to keep alive the memory of one of Alaska's true heroes.
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