The sidewheeler USS Saginaw achieved fame for both her beginning and her ending.
In 1859 the Saginaw’s launching was celebrated as the very first at the Mare Island Navy Yard. The ship’s ending in 1870 - wrecked on a Pacific island - resulted in one of the great sea rescue stories of all time. In between those two events Saginaw had an important career as a symbol of the U.S. Navy’s ever-expanding presence in the Pacific.
In April 1868, USS Saginaw steamed northward to Alaska, exploring along the coast of this newly-acquired American territory. She would remain in Arctic waters for the next year, with one brief return to Mare Island for repairs and provisioning. It was during that return trip to Mare Island (from September through November 1868) that the following interesting account appeared in the Vallejo Evening Chronicle:
November 9, 1868
Lo! The Poor Indian
“It is not generally known that our Government has been obliged to resort to a new method to prevent crime. We have noticed for some time, three Indians walking our streets, dressed occasionally in marine or sailor clothing of the U.S. Navy, but not until quite recently were we aware of the fact that these Indians were Chiefs of some tribe in our new possessions in the North and were held as hostages on board the USS Saginaw. It seems that a discovery of coal was made by the Saginaw’s officers, and a small party was left in charge of the stores on some part of the coast of Alaska, until the return of the Saginaw to that place; on return it was found that the Indians had been somewhat troublesome and had appropriated the stores without the consent of those in charge; a new supply was landed and placed in charge of a few men who consented to remain until the Saginaw had made a cruise to the Mare Island Navy Yard, and back to Alaska; but to prevent any more depredations, three Indian chiefs were taken on board the Saginaw, to be held as a guarantee that the stores of the party remaining behind might be safe from the incursions of the Indians in that locality. These are the main facts in the case, and we understand the Chiefs are getting very anxious to return to the bosoms of their families, but the Saginaw remains yet at the Yard. They may be seen almost daily walking our streets, and at times present rather a ludicrous appearance in their new costumes, they are rather intelligent looking individuals, and we do not know but that it would be a good plan for our Government to import more of them on the same terms and make sailors of them. Seriously, however, this is a matter that deserves attention, if our information is correct, and may be the cause of some trouble in the future.”
The three Alaskans eventually returned north aboard the Saginaw. One of those Alaskan chiefs, named Kitcheenault, was later popularly known as “Saginaw Jake.” (photo above courtesy of Alaska State Library Historical Collections) Only a few stories mention these Alaskan natives held hostage, and most indicate that they were “imprisoned” during their stay at Mare Island. The above account from the Vallejo newspaper would at least seem to indicate that they had the freedom to move about town without restraint during their stay here.
An excellent account of the voyage is the 1997 book USS Saginaw in Alaska Waters: 1867-1868 by Robert N. DeArmond.