Only published for one year, 1866-1867, The Esquimaux was Alaska’s first newspaper, edited by a Western Union Telegraph line man named John J. Harrington. The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine shares the story of this unique publication, and the little-known history behind it.
Twenty miles south of present-day Teller, Alaska, on a sand spit separating Port Clarence Bay from the stormy Bering Sea, a Western Union telegraph cable construction camp named Libbysville was the site of Alaska’s first bona fide newspaper.
There were around forty men stationed at Libbysville, part of an ambitious Western Union project to lay an electric telegraph line from San Francisco, California to Moscow, Russia. The route would run up the west coast of the United States through northern California, Oregon, and Washington; then 850 miles through the colony of British Columbia (the project would be known in B.C. as the Collins Overland Telegraph) and cross into what was at that time Russian America, traversing 1,800 miles across the land which would later become Alaska before dropping under the Bering Strait, coming back to land at Plover Bay, Siberia, and then crossing Siberia to Moscow, where lines would connect to Europe. The project would be an alternative to the deep-water Trans-Atlantic Cable under construction at the same time by the Atlantic Telegraph Company.
The U. S. Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, has made The Esquimaux available to read online, and it records much history of early Alaska, such as the death of Robert Kennicott, who had been the Expedition’s naturalist: “Kennicott.––Died at Nulato, R.A. May 13th, 1866, Maj. Rob’t Kennicott, aged 32 years, a native of Louisiana, U.S.” The second issue would carry a lengthy front-page obituary for Maj. Kennicott, whose reports on the geology, flora, and fauna of the territory were among the earliest recorded, and may have precipitated the U.S. purchase of Alaska.
The July-August issue of Alaskan History Magazine, which includes the history of the newspaper, and the history of the trans-Alaskan telegraph cable project which was its reason for being, can be ordered here.