Category Archives: Resources

Helpful and informative resources relating to Alaskan history.

“My Dear Mother”: Dr. James T. White

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“My Dear Mother”: Dr. James Taylor White

Edited by Gary C. Stein, from the March-April, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine

In February 1894 Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle authorized Captain Michael A. Healy to employ Seattle physician James Taylor White as surgeon for the upcoming Arctic cruise of the U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. This was White’s third cruise to Alaska for the department’s Revenue-Cutter Service, a predecessor of the U.S. Coast Guard. In 1894 White participated in missionary Sheldon Jackson’s three-year-old project transporting domesticated Siberian reindeer to Alaska to prevent supposed starvation among Alaska’s Native population.

Bear

Iconic shot of the USRC Bear

White was an astute observer. Not only a physician, he was an avid naturalist and amateur ethnographer. Everything he saw interested him. While his 1894 diary thoroughly describes people and places he encountered, there is a briefer source offering another perspective of that summer on the Bear. His personal correspondence is in the Alaska and Polar Regions Collection and Archives at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He wrote extensively to his mother, Ione Taylor White, throughout his 1894 cruise describing not only what he saw but his personal opinions as well, some of which material never entered his diary.

White boarded the Bear at San Francisco in mid-April. At the end of that month the cutter sailed to Seattle for coal and then stood north for Sitka, arriving at Alaska’s capital on May 11. By early June the Bear had cruised along Prince William Sound to Kodiak Island.

Kodiak circa 1900

Kodiak circa 1900

My dear Mother:

We left St. Paul [harbor], Kadiak Island yesterday. … After having been in smooth water so long it rather upsets one to be suddenly plunging into a rough sea. Strange to say it affects me very little and I have noticed, as well as others, that it has little or no effect on my appetite. 

The trip has been delightful and peaceable. On the whole we have a nice set of officers and no trouble has been experienced, though it is rather too early to talk much. If all is as well when we get through the Arctic part of the trip as now I will be thankful, for that is when it tries one to the utmost. Mrs. H— [Mary Jane Healy, the Captain’s wife] is very pleasant to all and I think influences the Capt. more than he or anyone else imagines.

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The Bear in Dutch Harbor, 1897-98

Dutch Harbor Alaska. June 11th ‘94

My dear Mother:

Dutch Harbor is the headquarters of the new trading company [North American Transportation and Trading Company], and as it is their interests we are to look after we stay here. It is only a couple of miles from Unalaska, so we spend most of our time there. I went over yesterday to attend some of the school children, and I am going in today to patch up a broken head.

Just when we leave here for the Arctic I don’t know but presume it will be about the 16th inst. We have received no mail so far and if the mail steamer is not on time, we will not receive any until next September. Not knowing how things are there I can but hope and wish that all of you are well and that my letters when received will speak of good and happy times.

Today is beautiful, bright and warm. We are taking on coal and everything is dirty and upset. To be continued in my next—-

I remain, well and contented, your affectionate Son

James.

For More Information:

• Gary C. Stein “‘A Desperate and Dangerous Man’: Captain Michael A. Healy’s Arctic Cruise of 1900.” The Alaska Journal, 15 (Spring 1985): 39-45. 

• Gary C. Stein “‘The Old Man is Good and Drunk Now’: Captain Michael A. Healy and the Cruise of 1889.” Alaska History, 24 (Spring 2009): 16-43.

• Gary C. Stein “‘Their Feast of Death’: The Wreck of the Whaler James Allen.” Coriolis, 7 (No. 2, 2017): 21-48.

Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of Natural History, Dept. of Botany Collections.

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March-April 2020 Cover 600Alaskan History Magazine is an independently produced magazine dedicated to portraying the colorful and important past of the Last Frontier as an interesting and exciting journey of exploration. The style is conversational, yet confident and informative, thoroughly researched to bring the true stories of the people, places and events which shaped Alaskan history to a wide readership.

Published bimonthly by Northern Light Media. Full color, no advertising. Subscribe, order all the back issues, or just order a single issue at this link.

Ella Higginson

Portrait by Curtis 420

Portrait of Ella Higginson by Asahel Curtis

From the Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine:

Ella Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, the recipient of several national awards for her short fiction and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, in 1931. In 1863, when Ella was a baby, her family traveled the Oregon Trail, and she was raised near present-day Portland. At 23 she married Russell Higginson, a druggist, and they moved to Bellingham, Washington in 1888, spending the rest of their lives there. Starting in 1904, Ella traveled to Alaska for four summers as part of the research for her book on Alaska.

‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908, went through several editions, and was quoted by leading authorities of the day. Her observations of territorial Alaska are online to read free at the Project Gutenberg website.

Ellas Book 420A few excerpts from her book are shared here: 

• The spell of Alaska falls upon every lover of beauty who has voyaged along those far northern snow-pearled shores with the violet waves of the North Pacific Ocean breaking splendidly upon them; or who has drifted down the mighty rivers of the interior which flow, bell-toned and lonely, to the sea. I know not how the spell is wrought; nor have I ever met one who could put the miracle of its working into words. No writer has ever described Alaska; no one writer ever will; but each must do his share, according to the spell that the country casts upon him.

Sitka long shot 420

Sitka

• Something gives Sitka a different look and atmosphere from any other town. It may be her whiteness, glistening against the rich green background of forest and hill, with the whiteness of the mountains shining in the higher lights; or it may be the severely white and plain Greek church, rising in the centre of the main street, not more than a block from the water, that gives Sitka her chaste and immaculate appearance. 

Screen Shot 2019-10-08 at 1.50.52 AM• We sailed into the lovely bay of Unalaska on the fourth day of July. The entire village, native and white, had gone on a picnic to the hills. We spent the afternoon loitering about the deserted streets and the green and flowery hills. One could sit contentedly for a week upon the hills,—as the natives used to sit upon the roofs of their barabaras,—doing nothing but looking down upon the idyllic loveliness shimmering in every direction. In the centre of the town rises the Greek-Russian church, green-roofed and bulbous-domed, adding the final touch of mysticism and poetry to this already enchanting scene. At sunset the mists gathered, slowly, delicately, beautifully. They moved in softly through the same strait by which we had entered—little rose-colored masses that drifted up to meet the violet-tinted ones from the other end of the bay. In the centre of the water valley they met and mixed together, and, in their new and more marvellous coloring, pushed up about the town and the lower slopes. Out of them lifted and shone the green roof and domes of the church; more brilliantly above them, napped thick and soft as velvet, glowed the hills; and more lustrously against the saffron sky flashed the pearl of the higher peaks.

RESOURCES

Laffrado book 420Selected Writings of Ella Higginson: Inventing Pacific Northwest Literature is a book about Ella Higginson’s life and writing, by Laura Laffrado, a professor of English at Western Washington University, published in 2015 by the Whatcom County Historical Society. 

Dr. Laura Laffredo, an authority on Ella Higginson’s life   

Alaska, The Great Country, by Ella Higginson at the Gutenberg Project  

 

The 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference

Seven Chiefs 420

Group portrait at the first Tanana Chiefs Conference, 1915. Seated front, L to R: Chief Alexander of Tolovana, Chief Thomas of Nenana, Chief Evan of Koschakat, Chief Alexander William of Tanana. Standing at rear, L to R: Chief William of Tanana, Paul Williams of Tanana, and Chief Charlie of Minto. [Albert Johnson Photograph Collection, University of Alaska Fairbanks.]

The Jan-Feb issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the 1915 Tanana Chiefs Conference, which brought together Native Athabascan leaders from the Tanana River villages of Crossjacket, Chena, Minto, Nenana, Salchaket, Tanana/Ft. Gibbon, and Tolovana to meet with government officials to discuss the many changes happening in the Territory of Alaska at that time.

Taking place July 5 and 6, 1915, the government officials at the Council included Judge James Wickersham, Thomas Riggs of the Alaska Engineering Commission, C. W. Richie and H. J. Atwell of the U. S. Land Office, and the Reverend Guy Madara from the Episcopal Church. Also present were interpreter Paul Williams of Ft. Gibbon and G. F. Cramer, Special Disbursing Agent of the Alaskan Engineering Commission.

Tanana Chiefs book 420In March, 2018, the University of Alaska Press published The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, edited by UAF Emeritus Professor William Schneider, noting about the meeting, “It was one of the first times that Native voices were part of the official record. They sought education and medical assistance, and they wanted to know what they could expect from the federal government. They hoped for a balance between preserving their way of life with seeking new opportunities under the law.”

Tanana Chiefs Full group 420Schneider explains further in his Introduction: “For Native leaders and students of Native history, the record of this meeting is a baseline for measuring progress in areas such as governmental relations, recognition of legal rights, land claims, health care, social services, and education. The meeting is also important because it demonstrated the leadership of the Native chiefs, who stated their concerns and expressed their desire to work with the federal government, even though they couldn’t agree with all that was asked of them.”

Tanana Chiefs Transcript 420The transcript of the meeting is at the Alaska State Library [ASL-MS-0107-38-001], and it is a compelling read for anyone interested in Alaskan history, clearly showing the simple clarity and intelligence of the Indian words, and the paternalistic assurances of the white men present.

Resources

• The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, William Schneider, UA Press, 2018

1915 Tanana Chiefs Meeting, by William Schneider, at Alaska Historical Society, 2015

Typewritten Transcript, Proceedings of a Council, at the Alaska State Library

Transcript of the meeting, at the Alaska State Library (easier to read)

George C. Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks, at Wikipedia

National Register of Historic Places, nomination form for the George C. Thomas Memorial Library in Fairbanks, 1976

George Thompson Library 420

The George C. Thomas Library in July 2011, almost the same as when it was built 102 years ago. 

 

1935 WPA Federal Writers Project

ND Cover 420 resThe November-December issue of Alaskan History Magazine includes an article about the WPA Guide to Alaska, which was written as part of the Federal Writers Project, an interesting study of the territory in which the preface sagely advises, “The best way to know Alaska is to spend a lifetime there.”

WPACAThe Federal Writers’ Project was created in 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as part of the United States Work Progress Administration (WPA), a New Deal jobs program, to provide employment for historians, teachers, writers, librarians, and other white-collar workers. Originally, the purpose of the project was to produce a series of sectional guide books, focusing on the scenic, historical, cultural, and economic resources of the United States (including the territory of Alaska, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C.). The project was expanded to include local histories, oral histories, ethnographies, children’s books and other works.

WPANDThe American Guide Series books were written and compiled by the Federal Writers’ Project, but printed by individual states, and contained detailed histories of each state with descriptions of every city and town. The format was uniform, comprising essays on the state’s history and culture, descriptions of major cities, automobile tours were one of the important attractions, and there was a portfolio of photographs in each book.

m7cEAnxa5C9XwK15ggTnnvwA Guide to Alaska: Last American Frontier, was written by Merle Colby, and includes a foreword by John W. Troy, then-Governor of the territory of Alaska. Troy wrote, “Scarcely more than a generation ago, well within the memory of many living Alaskans, the news was flashed in 1897 over telegraph wires that the steamer Portland had arrived in Seattle with ‘a ton of gold.'”

Troy continues: “Even more important, and certainly no less dramatic, is the less-known Alaska of today — the Alaska of graveled automobile roads, of airplanes, used as casually by Alaskans as are taxis in continental United States, of giant gold dredges, of great fishing fleets, of farms with the latest in modern equipment, of homes set in frames of flowers and surrounded with vegetable gardens, of large shops, theaters, churches, schools, clubs, newspapers, and America’s farthest-north university.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-09 at 11.52.08 AMThe entire book can be read online, and there are interesting details throughout the 1939 guidebook, such as this curious advice regarding money: “The 5-cent piece is the lowest monetary unit in Alaska; in the remote interior, the 25 cent piece (two bits). In the latter case, this does not mean that the lowest price of any article is 25 cents, but merely that a total purchase must amount to a multiple of 25 cents. Pennies are almost unknown, and in post offices the clerk will usually make change in one-cent stamps. Prices such as 39 cents and $1.98 are unheard of.”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.17.01 AMThe guidebook’s description of roads in Alaska is notably brief: “Automobile Highways. The Richardson Highway (open in summer only), 371 miles long, begins at the port of Valdez, on Prince William Sound, and ends at Fairbanks, paralleling the Alaska Railroad. Frequent bus and truck service connect with steamship arrivals; good accommodations are available along the route.”

Note that the Alaska Railroad, which reportedly ‘parallels’ the Richardson Highway, does so at a distance of well over 100 miles.

Delta River, Richardson Hwy circa 1922“The Steese Highway (open in summer only) extends 163 miles from Fairbanks to Circle. Bus and truck service connect with train arrivals; there are accommodations along the route.

“Other major summer highways, all with bus or truck service, are:
• Gulkana to Slate Creek, 60 miles
• Anchorage to Palmer and Matanuska Valley, 50 miles
• Fairbanks to Livengood, 85 miles
• Nome to Council, 57 miles”

Screen Shot 2015-08-08 at 8.29.37 AMA few local roads between 5 and 39 miles in length are listed, along with the 80-mile Mt. McKinley National Park gravel road from Paxson, now known as the Denali Highway.

A Guide to Alaska is an interesting in-depth look at the territory in the first half of the twentieth century, divided into six distinct regions and described in terms which would do justice to any modern travel guide, such as this depiction of southcentral Alaska: “A number of large rivers, as well as Cook Inlet, break through the mountains fronting the coast and open up inland valleys having a light forest cover, moderate precipitation, short but rather warm summers, and winter temperatures not unlike those found in the northern tier of prairie States. The level and rolling lands afford excellent opportunities for agriculture. The Matanuska agricultural area is located in one of these valleys in the vicinity of Anchorage. Additional and even more extensive tracts of potential farm lands, notably the Kenai Peninsula agricultural area, are found in this same general locality. ”

The entire book can be read online here.

Jan-Feb 2020 Alaskan History Magazine

J:F 2020 CoverLARGEThe Jan-Feb, 2020 issue of Alaskan History Magazine features a look at the history of Chilkoot Pass and the ages-old trail which crossed it, not only in the Klondike gold rush era, but long before then as a vital trade route for the coastal Tlingit Indians, and later as an access route for the earliest gold prospectors, along with a large number of scientists, military expeditions, explorers and adventurers. 

The cover image is an 1897 theatrical posted titled “Across the Chikoot Pass,” by American playwright Scott Marble, created by The Strobridge Lithograph Co., Cincinnati & New York, part of the theatrical poster collection of the Library of Congress. Scott Marble (1847 – April 5, 1919) also wrote the stage melodrama The Great Train Robbery (1896), which would become a beloved movie classic. 

The first article in this issue is a look at the famous writer, Ella Rhodes Higginson, who became Washington State’s first Poet Laureate. Mrs. Higginson made four trips to Alaska just after the turn of the century,  researching and gathering material for her book titled Alaska, The Great Country, published in 1908. Her flowery detailed descriptions of the land, the people, the towns and villages and much more made her book a popular reference on Alaska for many years.

Tanana Chiefs book 420Also in this issue is a look at the great Davidson Ditch, a 90-mile aqueduct which channeled water from the Chatanika River over hills and across valleys to the rich gold diggings at Fox and Dome Creek, north of Fairbanks. And Fairbanks was the site of another article in this issue, the historic meeting of the Tanana Chiefs in 1915. An excellent book on that gathering was published by the University of Alaska Press in March, 2918: The Tanana Chiefs: Native Rights and Western Law, edited by UAF Emeritus Professor William Schneider, who wrote about the meeting, “It was one of the first times that Native voices were part of the official record. They sought education and medical assistance, and they wanted to know what they could expect from the federal government. They hoped for a balance between preserving their way of life with seeking new opportunities under the law.”

Esther B Darling and dogs 420To the north and west, at Nome, an unusual lady was making a place for herself in the history books as one of the great authors of children’s books, writing classics such as Baldy of Nome and Navarre of the North, beloved by not only children, but by anyone thrilling to a well-told tale about sled dogs and life in the north country. But Esther Birdsall Darling was also a high society lady from a wealthy California family, and her husband, Charles Edward ‘Ned’ Darling, not only founded the farthest north hardware store, but in 1906 he set a world’s record for long distance mushing when he drove his dog team from Nome to Seattle.

This issue concludes with an article about the great Bard of the Yukon, Robert Service, who penned the immortal lines of favorite northern ballads such as The Spell of the Yukon, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and The Cremation of Sam McGee. From crossing the Canadian prairies in his Buffalo Bill cowboy outfit to canoeing the dangerous “back door” to the Klondike, Robert Service’s life was filled with adventures which matched anything in his beloved poetry.

Also in this issue: Governors of Alaska 1867-1959, antique maps of Alaska, and classic books on Alaskan history, both old and new!


The Jan-Feb issue can be ordered via PayPal or Amazon (I’ll add links here when the issue is available), or you can subscribe to Alaskan History Magazine at this website.

 

Still More Classic Alaskan Books

Classic Alaskan books from the Sept-Oct and Nov-Dec issues of Alaskan History Magazine:

Conquering the Arctic Ice, by Ejnar Mikkelsen (1909)

Eijnar MikkelsenIn October 1907 the Danish polar explorer Ejnar Mikkelsen, co-leader (with Ernest de Koven Leffingwell) of 1906-1908 Anglo-American Polar Expedition, which established that there was no land north of Alaska,  set out on a formidable journey, which would take him west along the Arctic coast from Flaxman Island to Barrow, Nome, Fort Gibbon, Manley Hot Springs, Fairbanks, and then down the Fairbanks-Valdez Trail to Valdez, where he boarded a ship for home.

His trip was detailed in his book, published in London in 1909 by William Heinemann. Available to read online at Google Books.


A Dog Puncher on the Yukon, by Arthur Treadwell Walden (1923)

Arthur T. WaldenArthur Treadwell Walden was a dog driver during the Klondike and Alaskan gold rushes. He would become a respected trainer and freighter on Admiral Byrd’s 1928-29 expedition to Antarctica, but thirty years before, in northern Canada, he gained  fame as a sled dog driver and freighter over the northern gold rush trails near Dawson City, Circle City, and Nome. 

After returning to New England Walden began a breeding program which produced the Chinook breed, based on a dog by that name which he knew as a sled dog driver in the North.


Dog Team Doctor, The Story of Dr. Romig, by Eva G. Anderson (1940)

Dr. Joseph RomigIn 1896 Dr. Joseph  H. Romig traveled to Bethel, Alaska, and opened the first doctor’s office and hospital west of Sitka, at a time when there were very few non-native people living in remote southwest Alaska.

 For a time, Dr. Romig was one of the only physicians in Alaska, and he became known as the “dog team doctor” for traveling by dog sled throughout the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta in the course of his work. Four decades later a book would be written about the good doctor’s adventurous and life-saving exploits across the vast northern territory.


Seward’s Icebox, by Archie W. Shiels (1933)

Sewards IceboxArchibald Williamson Shiels, born in Scotland, emigrated to the US in 1893. He became chief of staff to railroad contractor Michael Heney, supervising the construction of the White Pass & Yukon Railway, and was later involved in the construction of the Copper River and North Western Railroad. Shiels joined the Pacific American Fisheries in 1916, the largest salmon cannery in the world, and served as President of the company from 1930-1946.

Shiels collected a vast amount of informational material, from which he researched and wrote many historical manuscripts, books, and speeches. His well-researched Seward’s Icebox begins in 1867 with the transfer of Russia to the United States and continues to the date of publication. 


Tillicums of the Trail, by George C. F. Pringle (1922)

Tillicums of the TrailSubtitled ‘Being Klondike Yarns Told to Canadian Soldiers Overseas by a Sourdough Padre,’ this is a collection of true stories from the Klondike and nearby regions, as told to troops by the Chaplain to the 43rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Forces, at Avion, France, during the First World War. Pringle was a pioneer bush pilot and United Church minister and this book contains some classic northern tales, “….because in every man there is something that stirs responsive to tales of the mystic Northland, vast, white, and silent.” 

Pringle’s true stories to his men included his first trip by dogteam, the legend of the Lost Patrol, the story of Skagway’s notorious “Soapy” Smith, a trip down the Yukon River by scow from Whitehorse to Dawson City, Christmas and wedding celebrations in the Klondike and more. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


Ploughman of the Moon, by Robert W. Service (1945)

Ploughman of the Moon, ServicePloughman of the Moon: An Adventure into Memory is the autobioigraphy of Robert Service, famed Bard of the Yukon whose popular poetry includes The Spell of the Yukon, The Cremation of Sam McGee, The Shooting of Dan McGrew, and countless others.

This warmly personal account traces the first half of his life, from his boyhood in Scotland to his emigration to Canada at the age of 21 with his Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams of becoming a cowboy, drifting around western North America from California to British Columbia, being sent to Whitehorse and later Dawson City by the Canadian Bank of Commerce, and gaining fame for his captivating way with words. The book is available to read online at Project Gutenberg 


Alaska Days, by Erastus Howard Scott (1923)

EH Scott book 420 resPublished in 1923 by Scott, Foresman & Co., this slim 100-page volume is the photo-rich recounting of a journey taken by Erastus Howard Scott and his wife as they travelled from Chicago to Seattle and boarded a ship which took them across the Gulf of Alaska to Katalla, Valdez, and finally Seward.

From Seward they rode the newly-built Alaska Railroad to Fairbanks, photographing and describing everything along the way, including a memorial stop for the recently departed President Harding. Available to read online at Google Books.


Alaska The Great Country, by Ella Higginson (1908)

Ella Higginson book 420 resElla Rhoads Higginson (1862-1940) was one of America’s most celebrated early 20th century writers, and the first Poet Laureate of Washington State, 1931. Her book ‘Alaska, the Great Country,’ an annotated history of Alaska and an absorbing  travelogue of Higginson’s adventures there, was published in 1908 and went through several editions.

Higginson describes her trip with the less than politically correct mores and values of her time, but her keenly written observations of territorial Alaska make this a fascinating account. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.


A Summer in Alaska (Along Alaska’s Great River) F. Schwatka (1893)

Schwatka book 420 resPublished by J W Henry, St. Louis, in 1893, ‘A Summer in Alaska, A popular account of an Alaska exploration along the great Yukon River from its source to its mouth,’ by Frederick Schwatka, is the enlarged edition of his ‘Along Alaska’s Great River, published in 1885. 

The book details Schwatka’s explorations along the Yukon River, from its source in northwestern Canada to its mouth on the west coast of Alaska, the first full-length navigation of Alaska’s greatest waterway. Available to read online at Project Gutenberg.




 

More Classic Alaskan Books

The books section of the July-August, 2019 issue:

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47.


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The entire July-August issue can be read online free at the issuu digital publication site. The May-June and Sept-Oct issues are also available at issuu.