The Sea Wolf
Alex MacLean with Stetson Hat image courtesy of Carol Brookman, proprietor of Heinold's First and Last Chance Saloon, Jack London Square, Oakland, CA.
“Pacing back and forth the length of the hatchway and savagely chewing the end of a cigar was the man whose casual glance had rescued me from the sea… my first impression…was…of his strength…a sinewy, knotty strength…a strength we are wont to associate with things primitive…a strength that was excessive and overwhelming.” Such begins Jack London’s description of Wolf Larsen, in his novel The Sea Wolf. Larsen is captain of a sealing schooner in the North Pacific, and with his physical and mental strength rules the ship with an iron hand. He seems a simple brute, but in fact he is a highly intelligent man with intellectual interests. But he lives as a virtual savage on board his ship, and despises the refinements of civilization. His crew are similiarly tough, and life aboard the ship is basic and primitive.
London created this character, and in doing so mythologized the sealing industry and its frontier way of life. But many claim that Wolf Larsen was not a creation. Rather, they say, he was modeled on the life of a real sealing captain, Alex MacLean. MacLean, based in Victoria in the 1880s, could well have been his model. Originally from Cape Breton, he and his brother Dan were legendary for their prowess at catching seals, and for their brushes with the law. Just how wild and brutal Alex MacLean was remains in dispute, with many claiming he was not brutal at all. But there was still truth in London’s tale. Sealing in the North Pacific was tough and unpredictable, where you could easily win a fortune or lose a life. It attracted those who were willing to live on the edge. Someone who thrived in this industry, such as Alex MacLean, was bound to become a legend.
Sealing began in the North Pacific, long before MacLean’s arrival . The prized species was the North Pacific fur seal, which mostly breeds on the Pribilof Islands. These islands are in the Bering Sea, off Alaska. A smaller number breed on north Asian islands. When not breeding, these seals roam the open Pacific Ocean.
Russia owned the Pribilofs, and began a land harvest in the eighteenth century. Gradually they decimated the herds, but restored them as they saw the need for conservation. In 1867 the Americans bought Alaska. Without the Russian conservation program in place, an orgy of killing occurred. The American government, waking up to the herd’s possible demise, halted the slaughter. They then awarded an exclusive contract to the Alaska Commercial Company. This company, beginning in 1870, harvested and managed the seals until 1890.
In British Columbia, sealing began as a small industry on the coast, with natives selling skins to white traders. It was small because the seals were difficult to catch. Native people were forced to paddle to the open ocean before starting the hunt. In 1868 the trader James Christiansen attempted to change that. He loaded four canoes and twelve hunters on his schooner Surprise, then took them out to the sealing grounds. Now the natives could stay nearby, and avoid long distance paddling. The first trip did not go well, but the second one was very successful. The word spread, and the North Pacific pelagic sealing industry was born.
Pelagic sealing (or sea hunting) had been practiced for several years when Alex MacLean arrived. He came from a seafaring family in Cape Breton, and arrived on the west coast in 1881. After working at various jobs he, and his brother Dan, became active in sealing. Sealing was expanding in the early 1880s. A technical development, the easy removal of guard hairs from seal pelts, increased the demand. Fur seal coats were becoming very fashionable.
In 1883 the MacLeans, in different boats, made pioneering voyages to the Bering Sea. This was the richest area for pelagic sealing, and Canadian sealers had not gone there before. Both made substantial catches. In 1884 they went back again, and did even better. Alex got 1,754 skins, and Dan 1,954. They went back every year for the next few years. The size of their catches just kept on climbing.
In 1885 they did an experiment. Alex went out in a boat staffed only with aboriginal hunters, Dan with white hunters. The idea was to see who would have the most profitable season. Dan caught more skins, with 2,309 skins to Alex’s 2,073. But Alex had lower costs, so it was a dead heat.
Whatever the method, the industry kept expanding. In 1886 Alex brought in 3,325 skins, while Dan brought in a record 4,256 skins. Also, the number of boats was expanding. Throughout the 1870s there were always less than 10 boats out. In 1881, though, it was 19, and in 1886 it was up to 38. It peaked at 124 in 1892. Most were American or Canadian ships, but some were registered under different flags, and some were of unknown origin. Most of them sailed out of Victoria.
An inherent conflict in the industry began to erupt. The success of pelagic sealing threatened the size of the land harvest. The American government began to be very concerned with the depletion of what they considered to be “their” resource. In 1886 American revenue cutters began to seize ships in the Bering Sea. They were laying claim to the Bering Sea as American territorial waters. This was in direct contravention to international law, which considered any ship sixty miles or more from land as being in international waters. The four ships seized that season, including one partially owned by Alex MacLean, were all beyond the sixty-mile limit. The British and Canadian governments strongly protested, claiming this was “a blatant violation of traditional rights on the high seas”. They were ignored. The Americans stepped up their policy, seizing fifteen vessels in 1887. International tension picked up, and many feared that war would break out.
For sealers, dodging American cutters became a new hazard in their work. They risked losing all their catch, and possibly being stranded in Alaska. Sealing was so lucrative they were willing to take a chance. This is when Alex MacLean’s “outlaw” reputation began. As well as dodging American authorities in the Bering Sea, some of his activities seemed suspicious. He would sometimes spend more time than normal in port, or land at unusual locations. In the years to come there were many rumours of his smuggling, gun-running, and poaching activities. Some of the poaching is documented, but not much else. MacLean tended to avoid the press, and not tell people what he was doing. As a result his legend grew, but few facts were actually known. In many ways he is still a man of mystery.
MacLean and his family moved to San Francisco in 1890. He had formed a business relationship with Herman Liebes, who owned a company that dealt in furs. Liebes was particularly good to work for, and treated his captains well. MacLean may also have preferred San Francisco. It was a boisterous , free-wheeling city, with lively action in the saloons.
Part of MacLean’s legend is that he was a hard-drinking, sometimes pugnacious man. This seems to have been generally true. But another part is almost certainly false. He was, supposedly, a brutal, demonic captain on his ships, terrorizing his crews. But the information we have on him is different. Anecdotal evidence depicts him as a stern taskmaster, but no monster. One documentary source we have is the “Red Record”, published in the San Francisco Coast Seamen’s Journal. This recorded all reported instances of cruel treatment on American ships. MacLean, who sailed out of San Francisco from 1890 on, never made that list.
In 1891 the British and American governments came to an unexpected agreement. In an effort to calm tensions and conserve the seal population they agreed to a one-year halt to all sealing in the Bering Sea, both on land and at sea. But it had some unexpected effects. Conservation was not helped, as the sealers turned all their attention on the Asian herds. Their numbers were drastically reduced. Also, since pelagic sealing was allowed outside the Bering Sea, many more were killed on the open ocean. Pelt prices were so high, many sealers were willing to risk anything. Consequently sealing became a very rough business. Russians as well as Americans were strongly protecting the seas around their rookeries. Sealers thus had to dodge guards, when they attempted to seal in forbidden waters.
In this situation the MacLean brothers took a gamble. They made a coordinated raid on Russian rookeries on Copper Island. But the effort failed. As they began the raid, the Russian guards spotted them and opened fire. Dan MacLean made his escape, and eventually made it back to San Francisco. Alex was not as lucky. His ship was boarded by the Russians, and he and his crew were arrested. They were taken to Vladivostok. Alex loudly proclaimed his innocence, and demanded a trial to prove his innocence. The Russians ignored him. But he and the crew had the freedom of the city, and only had to report to the police once a day. After ten weeks the Russians let them go, and they found a ship back to San Francisco.
The next few years were not easy for MacLean. The prices for fur seal pelts dropped significantly. The Americans had put more ships and resources into patrolling the Bering Sea, harassing the pelagic sealers. This eased up in 1894, but the low prices meant few people made any money. He did some sealing off Japan, but had trouble with his Japanese crews. Finally, unusually bad weather frequently made sealing impossible.
The result was that MacLean decided to leave the business. By then it was becoming obvious that the glory days were over. Too many sealers and a declining seal population were making it hard to make any money. Both Alex and his brother Dan had foreseen this. In 1892 they had submitted papers to fur seal arbitration proceedings. In these papers they had claimed that if the situation did not change the seal industry would soon be finished. Alex gave it ten years, Dan only three. Both stressed the absolute need for more conservation. But whatever conservation was done was not enough. So because of this, and other factors, Alex decided it was time to move on.
>For the next few years Alex MacLean pursued other ventures. In 1897 he sailed to the South Pacific, hunting for gold in the Solomon Islands. That project failed. Next, he decided to pursue his fortune in the Klondike. He never found gold, but saw an opportunity in steam boats. For the next few years he ran paddle wheelers on the Yukon River.
In 1904 he was lured back to the seal industry. The industry had continued to decline, but seal prices were very high. Also, the Russo-Japanese War, which had just broken out, meant that the Russian seal islands were less protected. A group of four San Francisco investors decided to take advantage. They bought a boat and registered it under the Mexican flag. They did so because Mexico was not a party to any fur seal agreements. Americans were actually forbidden to do any pelagic sealing. This however, did not stop the investors. They hired Alex MacLean to be their captain. MacLean could not legally be a sealer, since he had become an American citizen. But such things did not get in his way.
MacLean and his crew headed to Copper Island, to attempt some poaching. But though the Russian navy was absent, there were still guards on the island. When the sealers attempted to land, the guards opened fire. One of the crew, Walter York, was struck by a bullet in the head. They did manage to get him back to the United States, but he died on the operating table.
Despite this outcome, MacLean and the investors decided to try again. In 1905 they changed the Mexican registration, and gave the boat a new name. They did so because the United States government was starting to investigate. MacLean gathered together a rag-tag crew, and headed out to sea. After he left, the government closed in on the investors. They arrested them, and indicted them on several charges. As for MacLean, American revenue cutters were instructed to intercept his boat and arrest him.
Ironically, it was a literary event, and not the cutters, which ended his voyage. In 1904 Jack London published his novel the “Sea Wolf”. The lead character, Wolf Larsen, was modeled on MacLean. Initially the press did not make the connection. When they did, though, they went wild. They painted MacLean as a “pirate”, roaming the seas beyond the law. All the exaggerated characteristics that were Wolf Larsen’s were now MacLean’s. It made the sealing expedition impossible. MacLean’s crew found out, from newspapers given by passing ships. They decided the game was up. They refused to carry on, and forced MacLean to head back to North America. That meant Canada of course, as MacLean would be arrested in the United States.
He landed at Clayoquot, on Vancouver Island’s west coast. This was not a customs port, so he was forced to come to Victoria a week later. He was fined for customs infractions, but was not arrested, and did not have to return to the United States. In a way he was lucky, but he was bitter at the press. To a reporter he said “You’ve broken up my voyage – that’s what you’ve done. Things were printed in the newspapers about me, and when the crew read ‘em they wouldn’t seal any more….If it hadn’t been for the newspapers I’d be sealing yet”. He went on to claim his complete innocence.
Regardless of the outcome, though, he wouldn’t have been sealing much longer. The opportunities for sealing were just disappearing. Only seventeen ships sailed out of Victoria in 1906, and five in 1909. There were simply too few seals left to catch. In 1910 the main sealing nations, United States, Great Britain, Japan and Russia, sat down to discuss the issue. Canada had some issues about compensation claims, and so did not participate. But Great Britain still had international authority for Canada, so it did not matter. In 1911 they established the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention. By this convention all signatories were prohibited from pelagic sealing. The fur seal herds would be allowed to recover. When possible, surplus males would be harvested from the rookeries, with the proceeds being split among the signatories. It was a landmark agreement, and one of the first major international treaties created for wildlife conservation.
MacLean did not long outlive the end of sealing. His family moved up from San Francisco, and they settled in Vancouver in 1906. He had various maritime jobs, such as operating tugs. At one point he was running explosives up the Skeena River. He died in a drowning accident in 1914.
The legends about Alex MacLean have grown over the years. But the real man remains elusive. One writer has said that he believes very little of what he reads or hears about MacLean. One reason certainly is MacLean’s reticence. He appears to be someone who spoke little about himself, especially to the press. The famous novel has only complicated the matter. The scholar Don MacGillivray has done an excellent job of sorting out myth from reality. But in one sense it may not matter. MacLean, with his alter ego Wolf Larsen, has become a symbol of the sealing life. A tumultuous frontier often spawns larger-than-life characters, who through their exploits define an era. MacLean certainly did his. We will probably never know the real Alex MacLean. But the myth of his life lives on. He highlighted an era and provides us with a way of understanding it. And that, in the end, is all we may ever really care to know.
For further reading:
Captain Alex MacLean: Jack London’s Sea Wolf by Don MacGillivray.
Call number : 639.29 MAC
The Vagabond Fleet: A Chronicle of the North Pacific Sealing Schooner Trade by Peter Murray.
Call number: 639.29 MUR
The War against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery by Briton Cooper Busch.
Call number: 639.29 BUS
The Sea Wolf by Jack London.
Call number: LON
There is also a biography clipping file in the Local History Room on Alex MacLean. It has the heading “MacLean, Alexander”.
Stephen Ruttan, Local History Librarian