Septima M. Collis

A Woman's Trip to Alaska: Being an Account of a Voyage through the Inland Seas of the Sitkan Archipelago, in 1890

“Three hundred and fifty dollars cannot be more profitably spent for a summer vacation, and this is more than it costs from New York to the icebergs and back. Think of it! Hardly the price of a French costume, a ring, or a bracelet, and yet the memory of such a trip will outlive them all.” 

Septima Maria Levy was raised to culture and privilege, the daughter of a banker in the idyllic plantation world of Charleston, South Carolina, prior to the Civil War. At the impressionable age of only 19 she experienced the Civil War like few others would when she married a prominent young Philadelphia lawyer, Charles H. T. Collis, born in County Cork, Ireland. Charles Collis joined the 18th Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment at the start of the war, returning to Philadelphia to form a colorful company known as the Zouaves D’ Afrique, modeled after the elite Algerian troops of the French Army. Collis received the Medal of Honor for his leadership at the battle of Fredericksburg, and he rose to the rank of Brevet Major General. A monument with his bust at Gettysburg National Cemetery honors his memory. 

Despite her southern sympathies, Septima Collis accompanied her husband throughout the war.  Her 1898 memoir, A Woman’s War Record 1861-1865 (G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1889), recounts her struggles to reconcile being the sister of a Confederate soldier and the wife of a Union officer. Paraphrasing Confederate General Robert E. Lee she quipped, “I went with my state—my state of matrimony.” 

Following her husband to the front, as was acceptable early in the conflict, Septima was presented before President Lincoln, of whom she wrote, “I shall never forget that wonderful man, and the pressure of the immense hand which grasped mine, so fervent, true, and hearty was his manner.” Tragically, Septima later lost her brother, David Cardoza Levy, “a handsome, gallant lieutenant in the Southern army, killed at the battle of Murfreesborough.”

Twenty-five years after the end of the war which had divided her family, Septima, by then separated from Charles and a seasoned world traveler, booked a steamship cruise to far-off Alaska. She boarded the two-masted, three-deck S. S. Queen in Tacoma, Washington, and described it as “…a fine vessel,” finding “everything in apple-pie order, clean, neat, spacious, and thoroughly comfortable.” She commented, “….to those of us who are fond of travel and adventure this is a very important matter, for unless we find ourselves in a contented frame of mind, we are in no mood to appreciate the surroundings.”

Septima Collis discovered much to appreciate on the voyage, and she wrote glowingly vivid descriptions of that which pleased her, but she also found plenty to dislike and harshly criticize, beginning with this rant about Fort Wrangell: “The fort itself or stockade was an utter wreck; in fact I would not have known of its existence if left to discover it for myself, so I hurried on, picking my way as best I could through the muddy thoroughfares to get a view of my first totem pole. I assure you my initial experience of a promenade in an Alaskan city was far from agreeable, and several times I wished myself back in our good ship, where I could view the rocks and trees from far off, rather than be bruising my poor feet upon the one, and crawling over the prostate forms of the other. It was evident that the place was entirely without horses and vehicles of any kind… It seemed to me as though there was not energy enough in the whole place to light a fire on a cold day.

“But I saw the totem poles; and since that time at various other places have seen them, and pictures of them by the score, and although I confess there is little about these totem poles which is at all attractive from a physical point of view, they are interesting in so far as they illustrate the fact that all humanity, even in its aboriginal and its barbarous state, adopts for its own protection certain rules and laws of government. The totem pole of the Alaskan Indian is his crest, his family name. He is a ‘bear,’ or an ‘eagle,’ or a ‘salmon,’ or a ‘crow,’ or a ‘whale,’ and being so he owes certain duties to his kin…”

In later passages Septima displays her penchant for exuberant description, as with this exultant account of encountering the icebergs of Glacier Bay: “These icebergs were curious studies; I did not fail to realize that each one of them outranked in age any other moving thing I had ever seen, except perhaps the moon. For hundreds of years these tons and tons of solid ice have been slowly forcing their way down to the temperate waters of the North Pacific Ocean, bearing upon their begrimed sides and edges the evidence of these fierce struggles for freedom with the rock-bound passes in the mountains, and carrying victoriously aloft the massive granite slabs and boulders crunched in the conflict. Thicker and thicker grew the sea of ice, larger and more threatening the bergs, many of them rising to the level of  our upper deck and grazing the ship’s side as we forged ahead.”

The S.S. Queen took Septima and her fellow voyagers up the length of the Inside Passage, visiting Sitka, Glacier Bay and the Muir Glacier, Juneau and the Treadwell Mine, the Lynn Canal and Chilkat, Davidson Glacier, Killisnoo, Wrangell Narrows, Clarence Straits, Fort Simpson, B.C., Metlahkatlah, Vancouver Island, and then back to Tacoma, where Mrs. Collis set off for the Yosemite in California. The mother of three, a noted world traveler, she passed away in Aux-les-Baines, France, in 1917.  ~•~