By June 1871, there was a fleet of 39 American and 1 New Zealand whale ships that passed through the Bering Strait in pursuit of the bowhead. At certain points the ice was heavy and closely packed enough that some of the ships turned to catching walrus when whaling wasn't possible. Once it was realized that walrus oil was almost as valuable as whale oil, and their ivory tusks also in demand, it was a disaster for the walrus and for the Inupiac Eskimo who were dependent upon the walrus for food. Thousands of Inupiacs died of starvation due to the walrus slaughter by the whalers.
Early in the Arctic Whaling season of 1871, the natives came out to the ships warning that the weather would be unusually bad in the upcoming months. If the ships ventured between the ice and the land, whalers were told, they might not be able to get out. Because the whalemen did not always understand the native language well, the warnings went unheeded by most of the whaling captains.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration