“The Seals Are About Gone…”


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.