French explorer Jean-François de Galaup La Pérouse’s world-wide expedition of 1785-1788 was remarkable for its wide-ranging scope and focus on scientific discovery, reflected in the explorer’s careful documentation of areas including South America, Hawaii, Alaska and Australia.
Of particular interest to Southeast Alaskans is the explorer’s visit to Lituya Bay in 1786, where the notoriously difficult tidal currents claimed 21 of La Pérouse’s crew, and where the explorer established what is widely believed to be the first face-to-face contact between Europeans and Tlingits.
La Pérouse’s impressions of those encounters, notable for their peacefulness, are described in detail in his journals, which have become a heavily quoted historical resource.
What is less well known on a global scale is the view from the opposite perspective: the Southeast Alaskans’ experience of La Pérouse’s surprising arrival in the familiar waters of Lituya Bay.
Sharing perspectives from both viewpoints — one from the water, one from the land — is one of the goals of local group La Pérouse Alaska Association. Through lectures, social gatherings and knowledge sharing, the group works to form a more complete picture of historical events and cultural interaction.
This week the group will welcome a contingent of eight French visitors from the Lapérouse Society to Southeast Alaska. The trip will include a trip to Lituya Bay on July 13, the day in 1786 when the 21 sailors from the La Pérouse expedition drowned, an event commemorated with the naming of bay’s Cenotaph Island, still in use today. The Tlingit name for the island is Deikée X’akå (Inside the Mouth at the Outer Coast).
Several public events have been scheduled during the visit, including a talk by French cruise ship captain Philippe Fichet Delavault, “La Pérouse meets the Tlingit: A French perspective,” at 6 p.m. Friday at the UAS Egan Lecture Hall. There will also be a brown bag lunch lecture led by Delavault and Lapérouse Society president Henri Colombe at noon Monday — Bastille Day — at the Alaska State Historical Library. And later that afternoon, a community potluck will be held beginning at 3 p.m. at Auke Rec.
The events highlight an ongoing relationship between the France-based Lapérouse Society and Juneau-based La Pérouse Alaska Association. Co-chairs Kathy Ruddy and Jackie Schoppert decided to form the local group in 2009 after attending a presentation about La Pérouse’s expedition, organized by Delavault and Ruddy’s friend John Baldry, a cruise ship pilot.
Current board members in addition to Ruddy and Schoppert are Baldry, Delavault and Dee Longenbaugh of the Observatory Book Store. Carver Doug Chilton and photographer Ron Klein will also be involved in this week’s events.
Ruddy said her interest stems from a passion for maritime and Alaska history, and a desire to share perspectives.
“The view from the land is really important to this narrative,” Ruddy said.
For Schoppert, who is Tlingit and was raised in Southeast, it also offers an opportunity to bring the past forward.
“For me personally, it was a way to start educating the public about Native maritime history,” she said. “Everything (written about Tlingit culture) is in the past tense, nothing has been written about what we are now.”
Schoppert said she grew up with the story of La Pérouse’s visit to Lituya Bay, handed down through clan historians throughout Southeast.
“It may not be so much like that now, but when I was child growing up in Douglas, we grew up with those stories. When the elders talked about ancient history, we had the privilege and honor of sitting and listening,” Schoppert said.
In the story Schoppert was told, the Tlingits didn’t know what to make of the French ships, with their billowing white sails.
“There was nothing strange about them — it was just strange to our people because we had canoes,” she said. “We did have sails but it wasn’t like the big ships had.”
According to a version published in “Haa Shuká, Our Ancestors: Tlingit Oral Narratives” edited by Nora and Richard Dauenhauer, as told by George Betts in Angoon in the 1960s, translated by Nora Dauenhauer and prepared by Constance Naish and Gillian Story, the people on the shore thought the ships might be Raven, and fled into the forest. After examining the ships through makeshift telescopes made of hollowed plant stalks (to avoid looking at them directly), they went back down to the beach, where some of the men volunteered to go out and see what it was. They rowed out on a canoe and climbed aboard and saw that the ship was full of regular men. After being offered a meal of rice with sugar, which they believed to be worms with sand, the men made their first trades, and the meeting ended amicably.
George Emmons’ version of the story, collected in 1886 in Juneau from Tlingit leader Cowee, is basically the same, except that an old man is the only one who volunteers to go aboard the ship, as is a third version, published in Alaska magazine in 1927.
This oral record from Tlingit history backs historical evidence that indicates La Pérouse was the first European the Tlingits had seen. Though both Vitus Bering and James Cook had landed in Alaska by the time La Pérouse got here in 1786, neither made recorded contact, according to multiple sources, including a study on Glacier Bay prepared for the National Park Service by historian Rick Kurtz. Bering, who was Dutch but working for the Russians, scouted the area in 1741, but the 15 crew members dispatched near Sitka never made it back to their ship. In 1778, Cook came through, but didn’t make a landing in Southeast.
La Pérouse’s journals describe Lituya Bay as a busy trade center, with an estimated population of 300 residents and an additional 700-800 more Alaska Natives passing through during his stay. He also noted the presence of iron and other materials that he described as likely products of Russian trade from other areas of the state.
La Pérouse and his two ships, the Astrolabe and the Boussole, remained in the area for 26 days before heading to the Russian coast, where La Pérouse dispatched his journals and other Alaskan materials back to King Louis XVI in Paris.
“They were sent overland on a sledge” Ruddy said. “They sent journals and maps and natural specimens, it was crate after crate. It took the guy a year to get across Russia.”
La Pérouse then traveled south to Australia, where he and his crew were shipwrecked and both ships sank. But his legacy as a humanitarian explorer remains, and many geologic and urban places around the world bear his name, including La Perouse Glacier in Glacier Bay National Park, and La Perouse Avenue in Juneau.
Though the history of contact is characterized by cultural suppression for Alaska Natives, La Pérouse’s expedition was a notable exception. His orders from King Louis XVI — 200 written pages, according to Ruddy — were to gather information about the land, the people, the sea, and return that information to the king, while remaining respectful of the people he encountered. His crew of 215 included multiple scientists, astronomers, naturalists, artists and musicians.
Ruddy said King Louis XVI’s curiosity about far-flung communities around the world reflected a common French mind-set of the time.
“The philosophers were trying to understand the nature of human kind,” Ruddy said. “They had this idea that living in cities was not good for the human spirit so they were eager to learn about people that had not suffered the indignities of civilization. They wanted to know what the natural man was like.... So they were really trying to get to have the capacity to understand all aspects of the people that they encountered.”
That curiosity continues to thrive through La Pérouse Alaska Association. Two years ago, both Ruddy and Schoppert traveled to France, along with other members of the La Pérouse Alaska group, to the town where La Pérouse was born, Albi.
The common ground provided by the group is also reflected in the friendship that has sprung up between Schoppert and Captain Delavault, who frequently converse via Skype.
“It was very interesting because he has a very French point of view and I have a very Native point of view,” Schoppert said. “We were able to iron out our differences and agree to disagree.”
Schoppert said her affiliation with the La Pérouse group also stems from a more general curiosity about different cultural perspectives. Later in life, after having studied cultural anthropology and traveling around the world, she came to realize that as a Tlingit woman raised with a clan stories in Southeast, her world view was characterized by the same ethnocentricity she saw in others.
“It was just a difference in perspective, in how we look at the world from our own culture,” she said. “Traveling the world, I found out that as I traveled, I changed. My perspective changed, to the point where when I did come back home, I was different. My thought process was different. I could accept change.”
Know and go
What: Talk by Philippe Fichet Delavault, “LaPerouse Meets the Tlingit: A French Perspective”
When: 6 p.m. Friday
Where: UAS Egan Lecture Hall. Sponsored by UAS.
Details: Free and open to the public.
What: Presentation on La Perouse by Captain Philippe Fichet Delavault and Lapérouse Society president Henri Colombie
When: Noon Monday
Where: Alaska State Historical Library
Details: Bring a bag lunch. Free and open to the public.
What: Community Bastille Day Potluck
When: 3-10 p.m. Monday
Where: Auke Rec. Main Shelter
Details: Special guests will include Doug Chilton of the One People Canoe society and local dancers. Free and open to the public.