Sadly, too many people believe Alaska’s history began the day they came on the scene.
That’s something we’d like to change, because the past has been important in building the Last Frontier to its proper place at the Top of the World. The 49th State’s past, and the people who played a part in developing her, is a subject that deserves to be emphasized in our schools and on social media. There are so many stories that are better than any fiction we might see on screens large or small.
This column will serve as sort of a menu of memorable men and women who marked milestones of the past. Delving deeper into their individual stories would require far more space than available here. Our hope is to encourage readers to seek out the biographies and memoirs of these ordinary folks who did extraordinary things. All can be found just by asking Mr. Google.
Few people can dispute the claim that Alaska is a very special place. We have a greater differential in temperature (from 100 above to 80-plus below zero), are bigger than many of the Lower 48 states combined, have a longer coastline, grow bigger vegetables, have more and bigger wild animals, can look at taller mountains and boast of a more colorful past.
Still young as a state, not gaining our star until 1959, Alaska has been populated for at least 10 millennia. Exactly when the first inhabitants arrived, and from whence they came is still subject to debate. Even though this writer has been around for almost nine-tenths of a century, he still is not old enough to say with specificity when or from where.
What can be stated without fear of contradiction, however, is that Alaska has been home to some very strong, very smart, and very industrious people.
The indigenes who first crossed into the place we call home, whether from a western land bridge linking it to Eurasia or from the Americas to our south, found a hostile environment. They learned to exist in extreme temperatures, with life-sustaining water more than half the year subjected to freezing. Game was plentiful but difficult to bring to the cooking pot. Challenges those first Alaskans faced are mind-boggling.
Russian traders, and the Orthodox priests who accompanied them, established redoubts and trading posts in and after 1733. They learned survival tips from the Natives—who in turn were introduced to trade goods as well as the Good News of the Bible.
After Alaska was purchased by the United States, the Alaska Commercial Company assumed control of trading posts formerly operated by the Russian America Trading Company. A trio of American traders were among those who became prominent. Ethical in business, they encouraged and helped finance prospectors in the years leading up to the Gold Rush.
Leroy Napoleon “Jack” McQuesten was born in 1835 in New Hampshire and went with his family to California during the 1849 California Gold Rush. He later prospected in British Columbia before ending up on the Yukon in 1873. He built the Alaska Commercial Co. (AC Co.) trading post at Ft. Reliance. It was there that he established a reputation for fairness. When the post closed at the end of one season, he left some rat poison tucked away in a jar. Some Natives broke in, found the concoction of cyanide-laced grease and ate it. One died and others were sickened. The elders of the clan demanded compensation, threatening to wipe out all the intruders who were rushing into the region in search of gold. McQuesten negotiated a settlement, ending the standoff.
Arthur Harper, born in Ireland in 1835, ended up on the Yukon in 1874. He also joined the AC Co. and became well known and respected by those with whom he did business. Years later, he contracted tuberculosis and went Outside, looking for a cure, and died in Arizona in 1897. He did not live to see that his youngest son, Walter, was recognized as the first person to summit Mt. Denali (then McKinley).
Alfred Henry Mayo was born in 1847 in Bangor, Maine. Of the three traders, he was the one best known for traveling the Yukon to supply the trading posts. He also was the only one to remain in Alaska for the rest of his life. The settlement around his store still bears his name.
The three bachelor traders had another thing in common. Each married 14-year-old girls from the Native Village at Kokrine’s Trading Post located upstream from Ruby. They arrived together at the village and were attracted to the girls. After proposing and gaining approval from their parents, they were married according to Athabaskan customs. When the brides became 18, they were united in Christian rites. The women, all of whom were educated, were valuable assistants to the traders, handling bookkeeping and other chores in addition to bearing many children. Bilingual, they proved to be able negotiators with the Native customers, working out fair trades for goods in exchange for meat and fur.
After the Alaska Purchase in 1867, the military played an important role in the development of Alaska. For several years, the Army was in charge with Gen. Jefferson Davis in effect governor of the new possession. Exploration was necessary to determine routes, geography, ecology and status of the populace.
Of lasting effect were expeditions led by such people as Gen. Wilds P. Richardson, Capt. Edwin Glenn and Lt. Henry T. Allen. They were assigned to make initial forays into the mostly uncharted area to mark transportation routes. Highways today bear the names of Richardson and Glenn while Allen is memorialized in the town named for both him and Glenn.
Richardson was a graduate of West Point and a native of Texas. He was sent to Alaska to build the Valdez-Fairbanks Trail among other things. In 1905 he was put in charge of the Alaska Road Commission and was to spend two decades in Alaska. In World War I, he was promoted to brigadier general and put in command of the Army’s 78th Infantry Brigade. The unit landed in France two months before the Armistice was signed.
Glenn, also a West Point graduate and a member of the Judge Advocate Corps, was assigned to explore Southcentral Alaska. Expeditions in 1898 and 1899 surveyed routes from Prince William Sound to Cook Inlet and northward to the Yukon. His men suffered severe privations when they ran out of food while exploring the country and on at least two occasions were saved by Native villagers from starving to death.
A member of Glenn’s 1898 party was Lt. Joseph Castner whose detachment was forced to deviate from a planned route through the Matanuska Valley and onward to the Yukon. They ran out of rations still short of their Yukon goal and rescued by a Native hunting party that happened to come on them.
Castner reached the rank of general. His son, Col. Lawrence Varsi Castner, commanded the WWII Army Intelligence group best known as “Castner’s Cutthroats.” Made up of Alaska Natives, soldiers with good survival skills and adventurers recruited from among the populace, they were to take up positions on isolated islands in the Aleutians and mainland coastal locations to provide useful information. They were required to live off the land and make radio contact only in case of emergency. Those on and near Attu and Kiska provided vital information after the invasion by Japanese troops.
Playing a big role in early Alaska development were missionaries who came to the northern frontier to save the souls of “uncivilized heathens.” Mission schools were established to teach both the Three R’s and the Holy Bible. The area was so large and so many religious denominations were involved that Sheldon Jackson, who had been named by President William McKinley as Special Agent for Education, divided the district and assigned designated regions to various theological units.
Many of the missionaries looked on Alaska, now an American possession, as being the same as foreign locations where indigenous people did not speak English and did not know God. They were to find that the Russian Orthodox Church had been active for more than a century and had made much progress in both education and religious training. Practices adopted by their missions elsewhere carried over, however, to the detriment of their converts. Strict policies of language immersion and prohibitions against traditional practices were to cause lasting resentment and hurt. It was not until a decade into this century that those wrongs were acknowledged.
Jackson was the person who established reindeer herds in Northwest Alaska as a means of supplementing the Natives’ diet. Large herds of the animals were imported from Europe, and a program was set up to teach Natives proper husbandry techniques. They were then able to gain ownership of the animals. The reindeer industry still flourishes on the Seward Peninsula; ownership of the animals is limited to Alaska Natives.
One of the successful Inupiat reindeer herders was Charles Antisarlook who built up a large herd. He took part in a legendary trek to take hundreds of animals to Barrow to aid whalers who were marooned by ice. He died in 1900 of measles. His widow, Changunak “Sinrock Mary” Antisarlook, had to go to court to gain ownership of the herd and thereafter became known as one of the richest women in Alaska. Speaking English, Russian, and Inupiat, she often was called upon to serve as an interpreter.
Major changes came with the huge influx of people during the Gold Rush.
When ships carrying passengers whose baggage included gold-filled pokes arrived on the West Coast in July of 1897, it made headlines around the world. With people still struggling to recover from the Depression of four years earlier, tens of thousands of people rushed north in hopes of making their fortunes. Few were prepared for the task. Most, when they did make it to the goldfields, found the streams already staked from mouth to headwaters.
Resourceful people who arrived too late to stake claims turned to skills they already had. One such was Andrew Nerland. A paperhanger and painter, he saw a market for both in the booming mining camps. Unable to find a viable mining claim, he went back to Seattle and returned with a supply of wallpaper and paint. He traded those for gold nuggets, replenished the material and hired helpers to help busy Klondikers beautify their cabins and businesses.
When Dawson’ population began to dwindle, he moved to Fairbanks where he opened a store in the new boomtown, then added a line of furniture. Several generations of Nerlands later, beds and other furnishings are still sold under signs bearing the pioneer’s name.
Many of the early prospectors decided to stay in the Northland and their descendants remain active in Alaska. Born in Montenegro, later known as Yugoslavia, “Wise Mike” Stepovich at age 18 stowed away on a ship bound for the United States, ending up growing fruit in California for several years. He joined the stampede to the Yukon in 1898 and earned the “Wise Mike” moniker by craftily dodging the notorious Soapy Smith gang in Skagway. He mined along the Yukon, finally settling in Fairbanks. His son, Michael Anthony Stepovich, attended college Outside, became an attorney and served in 1958 as Alaska’s last Territorial Governor.
Where money is involved, disputes arise.
Alaska at the dawn of the Twentieth Century was rife with skullduggery and ripe pickings for barristers. A claim-jumping scandal involving a Midwest political figure, a crooked judge and a complicit marshal almost burst into a full-scale war. Rex Beach’s novel “The Spoilers” was based on the event and the saga was so popular that it was made into four movie versions—and its author wealthy.
Sent to clean up the legal mess resulting from numerous lawsuits from wronged miners was Judge James Wickersham. After graduating from the eighth grade in Illinois, Wickersham taught school and read the law on the side in the office of an attorney. He gained a license to practice law and moved to Washington State where he opened his own office. After dabbling in politics, and surviving accusations of an illicit affair, in 1900 he was appointed by Pres. McKinley as a judge in the Third District with headquarters in Eagle. He decided many disputes along the Yukon and nearby settlements before being sent to take over for the disgraced Arthur Noyes. While there he also presided over a murder trial and sentenced Fred Hardy to be the first person legally hanged in Alaska.
Wickersham was an avid outdoorsman and traveled over his huge jurisdiction by dogsled. He kept a diary which consists of several volumes and is now held at the University of Alaska. He was elected as Alaska’s delegate to congress and served intermittent terms involving contested elections. He twice sued over election fraud and was seated over opponents after successfully appealing the results. Retiring from politics, he settled in Juneau where he practiced law until his death. His home there is now preserved as a state monument.
Austin E. “Cap” Lathrop dropped out of high school after being wrongfully accused of vandalism in his freshman year. He moved to Seattle from his Illinois home and became known as “the boy contractor.” As were so many others of that era, he was hit hard by the 1893 Depression. Learning of the discovery of gold in Cook Inlet, he persuaded two partners to join in the purchase of a small steamer, the L. J. Perry.
The Perry proved to be suitable in plying the shallow upper Inlet and Lathrop was kept busy hauling people and supplies up and down the waterway. He became wealthy and later moved to Fairbanks. Seeing value in the new motion picture industry, he built the magnificent 4th Avenue Theatre in Anchorage, among others. He became publisher of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, Alaska’s oldest daily paper still in publication, and operated a number of other businesses.
Newspapers were vital institutions in the early days of Alaska. Before radio or television were known, and with steamships the only way to connect with the Outside, the local newspaper was the only way to hear about anything that occurred outside the camp. Periodicals brought in by newcomers were highly sought-after, passed from one person to another.
Several newspapers sprang up in the same camp in various locations.
One of those, the Nome Nugget, is still published. The initial publisher was John Franklin Alexander Strong, a Canadian national who came to the U.S. as a young man but never became a citizen. He was appointed the governor of Alaska but served for only one term after his citizenship status became known. Strong wrote editorials in a style fitting his name, lambasting public officials and persistently promoting civic causes.
Another writer who took part in the rush to report news of the Cold Rush was Elmer J. “Stroller” White. Writing with humor, he sometimes strayed from the facts to call on fancy to fill open space in the paper. Turning out a weekly column under a headline of “The Stroller,” he later published his own “Stroller’s Weekly.” He was to be elected as a Territorial Legislator.
Several newspaper people became elected officials in Alaska. Highest-ranking among them was E.L. “Bob” Bartlett who was a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News before Lathrop merged it with the Miner. Bartlett was appointed as Secretary of Alaska (now lieutenant governor) and later elected to seven terms as Alaska’s Delegate to Congress. He was chosen as one of three “Members of Congress” lobbying for Statehood under the Alaska-Tennessee Plan. He was officially elected and seated as a U.S. Senator in 1959. Joining him were Sen. Ernest Gruening, who also had experience as a journalist and was governor of Alaska from 1939 until 1953, and Congressman Ralph Rivers.
Working diligently to attain Statehood were Anchorage Daily Times publisher Robert B. Atwood and Fairbanks Daily News-Miner publisher Charles Snedden. Both men poured much time, effort and money into promoting a cause that had been broached ever since Alaska’s purchase and proffered many times since.
The list of noteworthy Alaskans could go on and on, but space is limited. Their history needs to be known by all Alaskans.
Lee Jordan has been an Alaskan since 1949, moved to Chugiak in 1962 and in 2016 moved back to Anchorage. An Alaska history buff, he enjoys writing about the place where he did not want to be sent, but came to love. He has written four books on Alaska history and has a blog at www.byleejordan.com. To reach Lee Jordan, email: email@example.com.