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Alaska and the Yukon Gold Rush

The Oxford Companion to World Exploration

Dee Longenbaugh

Alaska and the Yukon Gold Rush. 

The first maps of Alaska were drawn by native people who had crossed the Bering Land Bridge from Siberia thousands of years ago. Native maps are still poorly understood because they require a different mindset—one that can consider maps as embracing time itself. This mind-set is specific to the Tlingit Indians of southeastern Alaska, but its basic ideas are found in many other aboriginal cultures. The maps of this kind are mental, based on territorial geographic place-names handed down for countless generations. They are landscapes of the mind that reach back to when animals and people could talk to each other. The names are not only site-specific, but clan-specific as well, and thus apply to clan descendents. Children memorize these names in order of direction so that, even if they never see the places themselves, they have a clear mental map—a map of the area that in turn is a map of their own being, as much part of them as their lungs or kidneys. At the same time, the maps are also spatiotemporal. Detailed linear maps, including fish camps, trails, or the bay that a giant beaver destroyed, can be easily drawn. Early Europeans were completely dependent on native guides and their maps.

The first Europeans known to come through the Bering Strait were Semen Deshnev and his companions in 1648, who were searching for walrus tusks. These men were some of the first promyshlenniki (lower-class or low-ranking fur traders). Four of their initial six koches (round-bottomed ice boats) wound up on the shores of Anadyr Bay, Siberia. These explorers had seen nothing but fog and the Siberian shore on their epic voyage, but—unknowingly—they had made history.

The next European to visit the strait was Mikhail Gvozdev in 1732. A geodesist, he constructed a chart after meeting hostile Inupiat Eskimos (one of the four native groups of Alaska) around the Seward Peninsula, but he did not go ashore. Vitus Bering made his first foray to the north in 1725, but the notorious fogs of the strait later named for him kept him from seeing the Alaskan coast. Shortly after, mostly illiterate promyshlenniki rushed to the Aleutians for “soft gold”—sea otter and fur-seal pelts. There were at least ninety-two voyages in the early years. Because of the sweeping storms and strong currents at deeply indented shores of the Aleutian Islands, the gateway to the Bering Sea, it was almost impossible to chart the area accurately with only a sextant. Andreian Tolstykh discovered the central islands in 1749, and Stepan Glotov found new islands, including Kodiak Island, between 1763 and 1765.

The reports of the new discoveries and the rich furs led to royal interest. The secret Levashov-Krenitsyn expedition from 1764 to 1771 found fifteen of the Aleutian Islands and the north shore of the Alaska Peninsula. The charts remained unpublished in order to keep the findings secret.

Lieutenant Ivan (Johann) Sindt and the Englishman Joseph Billings were sent by the Russian government in 1764 and 1785, respectively, to chart the Bering Sea. Both are remembered in history as bumblers who accomplished little, but this assessment is unfair. The Von Staehlen Map, a highly erroneous document which was attributed to Sindt, was in fact prepared in 1754 by two Cossacks, Lazarev and Vasyutinsky, under Tolstykh; it was later carried by James Cook. Actually, Sindt's chart of the Diomedes and part of the Seward Peninsula is perfectly adequate. Billings submitted his journal of the expedition, which has never been published, unlike the book of his secretary Martin Sauer. Sauer loathed Billings, and his well-known account made Billings's seven years of voyage seem like a series of failures. On the other hand, examination of the accounts of Gavril Sarichev, Billings's co-captain, and of Heinrich Merck, the expedition's naturalist, paints a totally different picture.

Gradually the chaos of the individual entrepreneur was replaced by the organization of the corporation. The Russian American Company (RAC) was granted the royal franchise in 1799, shortly after Gregory Shelikov, its primary founder, died. While Shelikov overstated the grandeur of the company and its accomplishments, he did hire the legendary Alexandr Baranov. Baranov's tenure until 1818 consolidated the company's power in Alaska, produced handsome profits, and made Baranov famous as “Lord of Alaska” throughout the Pacific. Meanwhile, Vasilii Ivanov, Gerasim Ismailov, Dmitrii Bocharov, and Petr Korsakovskii all explored southwestern Alaska overland in 1792, and from 1818 to 1819, Adolf Etholen and Vasilii Khromchenko explored by sea. Andrei Glazunov made three lengthy explorations in western Alaska between 1833 and 1839, one of which lasted 104 days and covered nearly 1,400 miles (2,333 kilometers).

Southeastern Alaska was first surveyed by the Spanish and English. Juan Bodega y Quadra and Antonio Mourelle sailed as far as Icy Strait in 1775. In all, six voyages were made by the Spanish, the most famous being that of Alejandro Malaspina, who led the last great Spanish around-the-world voyage in 1791. Although they reached Unalaska, the Spanish left nothing except some place-names.

Captain Cook searched for the Northwest Passage in 1778 and was stopped by ice at 72° N, but he charted the first outline of Alaska's coast to that point. After his death the ships returned, but failed again. George Vancouver charted southeastern Alaska and Cook Inlet from 1793 to 1794, proving that no passage existed there. Representing France, Jean-François de Galaup de La Pérouse discovered Lituya Bay in 1786, but suffered serious losses.

By 1847, not only was the coast of Alaska mostly charted, but the great rivers (the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Nushagak, and Copper) were well known. Odinochkas, or trading posts, were quickly established along them. Finding beaver pelts was the objective, and the Russians traveled vast distances to obtain them from the natives. Semen Lukin from Kolmakovskii was warned in 1839 not to make his annual thousand-mile (1,667-kilometer) trek to the Copper River because the people there blamed the Russians for the smallpox epidemic. The exploration of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta from 1842 to 1844 by Lieutenant Lavrenti Zagoskin resulted in a valuable account as well as map.

Experience had shown that the cheapest and most efficient supply route to Alaska lay in around-the-world voyages. Associated with these were Yuri Lisianskii and I. F. Kruzenstern (on the first such Russian voyage), V. M. Golovnin, Aleksandr Avinov, Gleb Shismarev, M. D. Teben'kov (author of the great 1852 marine atlas), and Otto von Kotzebue. Besides surveying for the RAC, Kotzebue explored what would be named Kotzebue Sound on a privately financed expedition from 1815 to 1818. Baron Ferdinand von Wrangell—explorer, geographer, ethnographer, manager, and diplomat—also sent subordinates in quest of information. Cook had named the main coastal features, but the Russians filled in the details, including the stormy and heavily indented Aleutian Islands.

F. W. Beechey was sent to Kotzebue Sound from 1826 to 1827 to wait for Sir John Franklin and survey as far as east of Point Barrow. Franklin never arrived, but valuable charts resulted nevertheless. Edward Belcher was with Beechey, and in 1837 he examined Prince William Sound. More charting was done by the Franklin Relief Expedition of 1849 to 1854. In 1855 a United States survey was made by the Ringgold-Rodgers expedition, which took advantage of the Crimean War to examine the Aleutians in aid of the whalers in the Bering Sea. It is said that some of those charts were used as late as World War II.

Robert Kennicott and other United States scientists of the Western Union Telegraph Expedition surveyed the Seward Peninsula and Norton Sound from 1865 to 1866. The successful laying of the Atlantic telegraph cable ended the effort, but William Healey Dall, “dean of Alaska experts,” stayed on two more years at his own expense and later surveyed in the Aleutians. His 1870 Alaska and Its Resources was the first book about Alaska published in English. Kennicott died in the Yukon in 1866 at age 30.

The first explorer to ascend the mighty Yukon River was Ivan Lukin, in 1861. He was Creole, the child of a Russian father and native Alaskan mother. The Creoles are mainly forgotten today, but they did much of the Russian mapping and were charged with keeping journals detailing geology, flora, fauna, natives, and everything else that was encountered. The Kashevarov family alone contributed ten important members over four generations. From 1838 to 1839, Petr Malakhov established the northernmost RAC post, at Nulato on the middle Yukon River, and discovered the Koyukuk River. Ruf Serebrennikov lost his life exploring the Copper River in 1848 and, among other adventures, Afanasii Klimovskii distributed 636 doses of smallpox vaccine from Kodiak to Saint Michael at the mouth of the Yukon River in an overland trip in 1837.

The sale of Alaska in 1867 meant that the United States now had control of the region. Several seasons by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (USC&GS) in southeastern Alaska built on the old charts. The cities of Juneau (founded in 1880) and Sitka were considered valuable but, other than the Pribilof Islands and its fur-seal herds, little else was.

Gold changed this situation. In response to the discovery of gold, prospectors needed maps and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) was sent to gather information. Captain William Abercrombie failed to ascend the Copper River in 1884, but in 1898 he divided his twenty men into two groups: one examined Prince William Sound, and the other traversed from Valdez to the Yukon River. Lieutenant Henry Allen and party made in 1885 a remarkable journey of 1,500 miles (2,500 kilometers) up the Copper River to the Yukon and down to Saint Michael. Geologist Alfred Hulse Brooks made twenty-four trips to Alaska and surveyed the Seward Peninsula and Tanana and Kuskokwim river basins. Another explorer on the Copper River, as well as on the Susitna and the Tanana Rivers, was Captain Edwin Glenn from 1898 to 1899. Joseph Herron, under Glenn, went from Cook Inlet across the Alaska Range to the Kuskokwim drainage and the Yukon. Many other USGS personnel examined this giant land and conducted coast surveys, many of which continue today.

After the gold rush, interest in Alaska faded; generally only mountaineers and geologists still cared to explore it. Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, who traveled extensively in the interior, had Walter Harper, a Creole, climb the final few feet during the first ascent of Mount McKinley in 1913. Luigi Abruzzi's Italian party ascended to the summit of Mount Saint Elias in 1898, and I. C. Russell combined geology and mountaineering from 1890 to 1891 when he mapped a thousand square miles (2,600 square kilometers) around Saint Elias. Bradford Washburn, whose wife, Barbara, became the first woman to climb Mount McKinley, began a long career among the mountains in 1934.

Occasionally other explorers appeared in the region. In 1931, the forester Robert Marshall named the “Gates of the Arctic” in the Brooks Range, and Ernest Leffingwell spent 1909 to 1912 and 1913 to 1914 around Flaxman Island, mostly at his own expense, mapping and learning Inupiat Eskimo nomenclature. The revenue steamer Bear, with “Hell-roaring Mike” Healy as its most famous captain, patrolled Alaska during thirty-four summers between 1885 and 1926. Lieutenant David Jarvis and three companions drove a reindeer herd from Teller to Barrow in 1899 to relieve icebound whalers.

Yukon Territory, Canada, was under the purview of the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), although from 1825 to 1827 Sir John Franklin charted the coast from the Mackenzie River to within a hundred miles (167 kilometers) of Beechey's survey before being stopped by ice. That last 100 miles, to longitude 154°25’ W, was completed in 1837 by Peter Dease and Thomas Simpson of the HBC, mostly overland.

In 1847, Alexander Murray deliberately established Fort Yukon on the river about 150 miles (250 kilometers) inside the Alaska boundary, but the HBC feigned ignorance, as it was their most lucrative post in the district. Russia resented this action, but lacked the force to remove the post; it was, however, able to block the HBC from using the river. Captain Charles Raymond proved that Fort Yukon was within Alaska in 1869, and the fort was moved. Veteran Robert Campbell established Fort Selkirk in 1848, but it was destroyed in 1852.

Canadian government geologists George Dawson, R. C. McConnell, and William Ogilvie surveyed and mapped (based on Indian guides and maps) the territory in the 1880s. There were also various prospectors present after the Cassiar gold discovery of 1872. Jack McQuesten, Al Mayo, Arthur Harper (father of Walter), and later, Joseph Ladue, all traded and prospected along the Fortymile River.

From 1889 to 1891, a United States boundary survey was completed along the 141st meridian by John Turner and John McGrath of the USC&GS. Lieutenant Frederick Schwatka later wrote popular accounts of his travels in the area.

In 1898, the Klondike gold discovery burst suddenly upon a world undergoing financial turmoil and thousands flocked to the Yukon, most to have a grand adventure and a few prospectors to become rich—but it was the shipowners and merchants from Seattle, Edmonton, Juneau, and Skagway who won the most. Whaling, on the other hand, was the bonanza of the north coast. Joe Tuckfield and several Inupiat traveled 500 miles (833 kilometers) from Barrow to Herschel Island from 1888 to 1889 and found many bowheads, making the island the headquarters in the Beaufort Sea for years. Roald Amundsen stopped there on his famous transit of the Northwest Passage. In 1905, Amundsen mushed over 500 miles round-trip to Eagle, Alaska, to telegraph his victory.

[See also Hudson's Bay Company; Russian American Company; and biographical entries on figures mentioned in this article.]

Dee Longenbaugh


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