The Sea Wolf

He did not strike it rich in Yukon’s gold rush, but Cape Breton’s Alexander MacLean became one of the many legendary characters who ventured north in that era. In fact, he was the basis for the central character in Jack London’s famous book, “The Sea Wolf.”

Alexander MacLean was born in 1858 in East Bay on the Bras d’Or Lake. According to a book by Neil MacNeil, “The Highland Heart in Nova Scotia,” MacLean was highly thought of in Cape Breton, known for his bravery, strength and skills as a seaman. He was also said to be generous, gentle and kind, though a strict disciplinarian as a ship’s captain.

It is hard to reconcile that image with the legend of MacLean that grew during the decades he lived on the west coast. A 1958 article in the Atlantic Advocate said he “was wanted by at least seven countries for an assortment of crimes ranging from seal poaching and pearl theft to murder and piracy. He was suspected of seventy murders at least, although he was never brought to justice or charged with any of them.”

With MacLean, it is hard to separate the man from the myth.

MacLean learned to sail on Cape Breton fishing boats before leaving around 1873, as a teenager, for Boston and other eastern US cities where he worked at sea. In 1879, he sailed to the west coast where he was based for the rest of his life.

As a captain, he commanded ships for hunting, hauling freight and passengers - whatever would pay the bills, legal or not.

He was a well-known seal hunter and he helped pioneer pelagic sealing (hunting seals on the ocean rather than in their breeding grounds on land). His hunting included poaching in several countries and he was arrested by the Russians and spent several months in captivity – but only after trying to ram and sink the Russian ship that was pursuing him when he realized he could not outrun it. In so doing, MacLean risked sinking both ships and, according to a 1922 article in MacLean’s Magazine, he “was absolutely reckless and fully determined to sink the Russian, regardless of consequences to himself and his crew.”

MacLean’s Magazine said MacLean, “by general consent, appears to have been the most daredevil sealing skipper who ever poached seal in the Behring Seas. There are more stories told of his utter fearlessness and recklessness, his positive enjoyment of danger, his delight in finding himself in an emergency and then making a dramatic way out, than there are told about any other half dozen adventurous skippers on this coast.”

MacLean periodically got involved in mining.

In 1882, he left Victoria and took a steamer to Juneau, Alaska, a gold rush boom town. MacLean spent seven months trying his hand at mining but disliked it and returned to the sea.

In 1897, MacLean met Captain Niels P. Sorensen who, it turned out, was as much of a rogue as MacLean himself. Sorensen had in fact served ten years in prison for piracy off the coast of Australia.

When he met MacLean, Sorensen was promoting the South Sea Island Mining and Trading Company and he produced ore samples that he claimed contained $5000 worth of gold per ton. Gold was selling for about $20 per ounce in that era, and successful Nova Scotia gold mines often produced several ounces of gold per ton of ore, so $5000 per ton was a fanciful claim that should have raised MacLean’s skepticism. Instead, MacLean joined forces with Sorensen to mine gold in the Solomon Islands where, Sorensen said, large deposits were just waiting to be extracted. The two of them, and money Sorensen raised from investors, set sail.

In Apia, their first port, MacLean was warned by the American consul that Sorensen had gotten in trouble in Australia for a similar expedition. MacLean continued to learn about Sorensen’s shady reputation as they stopped at various ports along the route.

In the Solomon Islands, some mining was done but no ore of any value was found. MacLean decided to abandon Sorensen. However, he was told that the British authorities wanted him removed from their jurisdiction, so instead of just leaving Sorensen behind, MacLean agreed to drop him and some food on a remote island where an Australian ship would pick him up two weeks later and take him away. It is said that MacLean did not just leave Sorensen on the island, but had him tied to a tree and whipped.

According to MacLean, on the return voyage, yellow fever killed everyone else on board except one crew member who was too sick to help with the sailing. So MacLean, who also got sick, sailed the ship single-handedly for what he said was six weeks and 2000 miles. (Neil MacNeil wrote that the trip took two weeks and a total of four survived, but either way, sailing such a ship alone for an extended period was an extraordinary feat.)

In 1899, MacLean was in Bennett City, part of the route along the Yukon River that led to the goldfields in the Klondike and Alaska. MacLean found himself playing cards with a notorious gambler – a notorious cheater, actually – whose cheating was tolerated by folks in Bennett because the gambler was an excellent gunman. Earlier that winter, a man had accused the gambler of cheating but was killed in the duel that resulted. The gambler always played with two Colts on the table, one ready for each hand, according to Neil MacNeil, whose father was Johnny A. MacNeil, also of Cape Breton. Johnny A. owned the Palace Hotel in Bennett and was a cousin and friend of MacLean’s.

MacLean caught the gambler cheating, slammed his cards on the table and made the accusation. The gambler challenged MacLean to a duel to settle the matter.

MacLean was a great fighter with his hands but not a great shot, so a duel with the gambler seemed like certain death. Still, MacLean accepted the challenge and appointed Johnny A. to be his second.

To unnerve MacLean, the gambler took the ace of spades from the deck of cards and stuck it on a nail that was sticking out of the wall. He then walked dramatically away from the card, turned at the far end of the room and fired at the card without even seeming to aim. He hit the card and shot it again as it fluttered to the ground.

MacLean did not seem concerned by this display of skill. He said, “I don’t know much about duels. Neither does my second. But I understand it is my privilege to name the distance.” The gambler agreed.

MacLean said, “All right then. You stand on one side of that table and I will stand on the other side. And you yellow-bellied son of a sea cook, you are not going to shoot first.”

The gambler knew his marksmanship would be no help at point blank range and MacLean forced him to admit that he was a cheater and murderer. MacLean then beat him up and threw him out of the saloon. The gambler left town and was never seen in Bennett again.

MacLean again tried prospecting while he was up North. He teamed up with two Montana miners and left Bennett with them to seek his fortune. Two months later, he returned to Bennett alone. Johnny A. asked about the Montana men and MacLean said, “They just got sick and died.”

“Captain Alex MacLean,” a book by Don MacGillivray, describes what happened when Johnny A. asked MacLean how many men he had killed: “He denied that he had ever killed a man, and this is still believed by some of his relatives and friends surviving in Cape Breton. He explained, however, that he had lost fifty-nine of his men, which was probably an understatement.”

MacLean also tried making money at his regular profession in the North, captaining ships. In 1902, he bought a steamer, hired carpenters to build accommodations for passengers and set out in late October for White Horse loaded with passengers and freight. Many predicted the ship would get trapped in the ice that late in the season, but the ship made the voyage safely. MacLean then made the return trip, taking different passengers and freight back to Bennett. The story added to his reputation as a sailor.

MacLean later ended up in Nome, Alaska, where the gold rush had resulted in a wild, lawless town with daily robberies and murders. Nome was so dangerous that no one was willing to serve as sheriff. Someone suggested MacLean could be sheriff, an ironic notion since he was wanted in the United States, Canada and Russia, and likely in countries such as Australia, England and Japan, for poaching and other alleged crimes. Still, MacLean was given the job and for a brief period, crime dropped and Nome was safe. He did not stay long in Nome, however.

American author Jack London, known for books such as “The Call of the Wild” and “White Fang,” worked on a sealing ship and in the North during the gold rush, gathering material for his books. He published “The Sea Wolf” in 1904. The book featured a powerful and amoral sea captain named Wolf Larsen who was based on MacLean, although the fictional character’s villainy is said to have far exceeded anything MacLean actually did.

MacLean was called the Sea Wolf for the rest of his life, but the connection did not do him any good. The author of the 1922 MacLean’s Magazine article wrote, “I have it on the good authority of his personal friends who esteemed him highly, that, from the year when the book was published until the day of his death, he suffered severely financially from having his name linked with that of Wolf Larsen—for obvious reasons. There was hesitation in employing a man whose reputation for deviltry and sealing piracy, after the publication of the book became a by-word on this Pacific coast.”

MacLean’s brother, Dan, also a ship captain on the west coast whose career was intertwined with his brother’s, was the basis for another character in the book, Death Larsen, Wolf’s brother.

Despite his extraordinary exploits – some true, some not - MacLean’s death was the result of a simple accident. He was docked in False Creek, an inlet of Vancouver Harbour, in 1914. To get from the dock to his ship, a person had to walk across the decks of two other ships. MacLean, apparently sober, fell in between two ships while returning to his at night. His body was later found floating in the water.