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Regional History
Northwest and Arctic
1897-1920 GOLD

In this section you will learn about:

  • Discovery of gold on the Seward Peninsula
  • The Nome gold rush
  • Mining of gold and other minerals
  • Expansion of Christian missionary efforts
  • Development of the reindeer industry
  • The 1918-1919 influenza epidemic
  • Cooperative fur trading

Lucky Swedes find gold at Anvil Creek

David Libbey, a member of the 1865 Western Union Telegraph Expedition, had noted traces of gold on the Niukluk River that empties into Golovin Bay on the Seward Peninsula. Some 30 years later he returned to Alaska to prospect. Libbey and his partners established the Eldorado Mining District and Council City in 1897. They took out $75,000 in gold before freeze-up.

The following summer three prospectors from Council City investigated reports of gold near Cape Nome. Storms forced their boat into the mouth of the Snake River, 30 miles short of their destination. Finding gold on nearby sandbars, they continued their search. Eventually they came to Anvil Creek where they panned great amounts of coarse gold.

The lucky Swedes," as the prospectors were nicknamed, were John Brynteson, Jafet Lindeberg, and Erik Lindblom. After resupplying at Golovin, a trading post about 100 miles to the east, they set out again for Anvil Creek. There they formed the Cape Nome Mining District. The three staked 43 claims for themselves and another 47 for friends and relatives.

Word of the Anvil Creek gold strike traveled up the Yukon River to Dawson that winter. Gold camps along the river and Dawson itself emptied as hundreds rushed west to the new strikes. The following summer ships docked in Seattle with gold from Anvil City, later to be known as Nome, and more stampeders headed north. Upon arrival the prospectors found all the best claims staked. Troops from Fort St. Michael across Norton Sound came to maintain order.

Nome beaches yield gold

One day, one of the soldiers at Nome went to get water near the mouth of the Snake River. He found gold in the beach sands. An Idaho prospector named John Hummel went to work with a gold rocker and recovered $1,200 in gold in 20 days. Frenzied digging on the beach ensued. One observer noted "Every man in Nome, be he physician or carpenter, lawyer or barkeeper, dropped his usual vocation and went to work with a shovel and rocker."

The officer commanding the troops from St. Michael enforced a land office ruling that claims could not be staked in the tidal zone, a 60 foot-wide strip of beach. During the summer of 1899, 2,000 men and women recovered $2 million in gold from the beaches using shovels, rockers, wheelbarrows, and buckets. As news of the beach gold and its easy recovery spread many more people arrived. Nome was easier to reach than the gold fields of Interior Alaska and Canada. There were no mountains to separate the determined from the lazy. Advertisements led many to think they could pick nuggets off the beach with little or no work.

At the height of the Nome gold rush,, hundreds of tents extended for 15 miles along the beach to the west of town. When Elizabeth Robins, a British newspapers correspondent and actress, arrived in Nome to join her brother, she described the scene on the beach:

The tents come down the shingle in some cases within a few feet of where surf is breaking.

The space remaining is already piled with freight--food supplies barrels of beer and whiskey, bags of beans and flour higher than my head, lumber, acres of it, extending beyond the tents and up on the tundra, furniture, bedding, pots and pans, engines and boilers, Klondike Thawers, centrifugal pumps, pipe and hose-fittings, gold rockers, sides of bacon, blankets, smart portmanteaux and ancient sea chests--as odd a conglomeration as ever an eye rested on.

Lawlessness and disorder prevail

The rush of people to Nome caused chaos. Gangs roamed the streets, buildings were set on fire to provide cover for looters, and claims were jumped and rejumped.

A federal judge became part of a scheme to take over the gold fields. An influential Republican named Alexander McKenzie arranged to have President William McKinley appoint Alfred N. Noyes judge of one of the three newly-created judicial districts in Alaska. Noyes, accompanied by his friend McKenzie, arrived in Nome in July of 1900 to begin court sessions of the Second Judicial District.

The result was a receivership racket. The two men hired others to claim jump. When the legitimate claim owners appeared in court to have disputes settled, Judge Noyes put the claims into receiverships to be administered by McKenzie while the judge supposedly considered the disputes. In this interim, McKenzie hired men to mine the claims. Finally, one legitimate claim owner, Charles Lane of the Wild Goose Company, took his case to the circuit court of appeals in San Francisco. Subsequently, U.S. Marshals arrested McKenzie and Noyes. Judge Wickersham came from the Third Judicial District to settle the cases and restore the claims to their rightful owners.

Gold dredges begin large-scale mining

In 1904 and 1905, old beach lines above tidewater were found to contain gold. The discovery of a second and then a third beach renewed mining close to Nome itself. These strikes, however, were short-lived.

After the initial strikes, mining companies organized to recover gold on a large scale. These operations were often financed by wealthy absentee owners. Hydraulic mining with pressurized hoses that could wash larger quantities of rock began. Dredges, too, were introduced. By 1915, 21 dredges worked gulches and streams of the Seward Peninsula.

Nome settles down

By 1905 Nome had schools, churches, newspapers, a hospital, saloons, stores, and other businesses. A hothouse on the sand-spit across the Snake River provided fresh vegetables. Some of the first automobiles in Alaska ran on the planks of Front Street. Travelers going to the mines at Council City rode in the warmth and comfort of heated stages. These horse-drawn stages were covered with canvas and equipped with small stoves.

In 1904 the first radio station in the United States to transmit over a distance of more than 100 miles began operating in Nome . Messages could be sent from Nome to St. Michael. From there they traveled by the Washington to Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System to Seattle. Before Nome's station was established, radio communications had been limited largely to ship-to-shore messages in harbors in the eastern United States.

Fires burned much of Nome's business district in 1905. The community was largely one of frame structures built on lots only 20 feet wide. Water also damaged the town. Fall gales sent sea water across the beaches and flooded the town. Each year, storms ate away at Nome's shoreline.

Northwest minerals capture nation's attention

The 1898-1899 stampede to the Seward Peninsula also stimulated interest in other parts of Arctic and Northwest Alaska. Some 1,200 prospectors went to Kotzebue Sound. Several hundred wintered at the Native trading center of Eikiktak that was renamed Kotzebue. The town became a jumping-off point for gold seekers. Some journeyed 200 miles up the Kobuk liver where they established camps at Ambler and Hunt River. Others tried the Noatak River.

The Nome gold rush was repeated on a smaller scale at Port Clarence. Prospectors also worked the gulches at York and panned for gold at Carson City, a new town at the mouth of the Nome River. Gold mining at York led to the discovery of another mineral whose production has remained important for three-quarters of a century. Tin was found to occur intermixed with gold in the area.

The York area turned out to contain the only placer deposits found in North America. North of Port Clarence, near Teller, the deposits were 90 per cent pure-as high in quality as world-famous tin from Bolivia. Workers mining the placer tin lived in a collection of shacks they named Tin City at the foot of Potato Mountain. Over the next decades they extracted tin valued at more than $1.6 million.

Development of Northwest and Arctic Alaska's minerals attracted national interest in the region. In 1900 the U.S. Geological Survey sent three expeditions to study the geology and topography of the Seward Peninsula. The same year, the U.S. Coast and Geodetic Survey sent ships from St. Michael to Port Clarence to chart the coastline. In 1901, geologists undertook other surveys in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. One group traveled from southern Alaska to Point Barrow by dog sled and canoe in what was considered "probably the most notable exploration" made by the U.S. Geological Survey. The survey team outlined mountain ranges and defined river drainages. Other scientists made natural history collections, obtained data on arctic animals and ecology, and studied movements of tide and ice.

Missionaries expand work

Churches continued to expand their work in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. The Swedish Covenant Church sent missionaries from their headquarters at Unalakleet to visit every village on the Seward Peninsula and around Kotzebue Sound. In 1900 a Lutheran mission began at the old Teller Reindeer Station.

The Society of Friends (Quakers) established a school at Kivalina in addition to their Kotzebue mission. The Episcopalians extended their work to Noatak and Kivalina, sometimes overlapping Quaker territory. Presbyterians added missions at Wainwright, Barter Island, Anaktuvuk Pass, Kaktovik, and St. Lawrence Island.

The Quakers believed, as did many other missionaries, that Natives should be isolated from the influence of whalers and gold miners. In 1914 they moved Kivalina mission to a new site 70 miles east of Kotzebue. They named the new mission Noorvik. By 1918 the Noorvik school had an enrollment of 182, one of the largest in the territory.

Several Roman Catholic priests visited the Seward Peninsula soon after the first gold discoveries. In 1901 a priest was permanently assigned to Nome. The church opened a hospital in the gold rush community in 1902. Their next mission in Northwest and Arctic Alaska was established at Mary's Igloo, an Eskimo village about 80 miles north of Nome, in 1907.

Reindeer industry fluctuates

In 1907 Lopp, who had helped establish the reindeer industry, succeeded Sheldon Jackson as general agent for education in Alaska. Among the reasons for Jackson's removal from the post was that he had used missions to run the government reindeer program. Lopp increased the number of government stations so there were more apprenticeship positions through which Natives had become reindeer owners. Markets for both meat and hides had been created by the thousands of newcomers brought by the gold rush.

By 1915 over 1,000 Natives owned herds of reindeer. W.C. Shields, who headed the government Reindeer Service at Nome, wanted to help them learn better ways to herd and care for their deer. He arranged reindeer fairs where herd-owners could exchange information. Herders gathered in late winter for a week of games, races, and contests involving reindeer. Some fairs led to Native cooperatives.

As gold miners left, the Alaska market for reindeer products declined. Another blow to the reindeer industry was the death of Shields in the 1918-1919 influenza epidemic. Shield's efforts towards better management of the herds had produced good results. After his death few reindeer fairs were held. A number of herders also died in the epidemic. Many untended deer joined herds of wild caribou.

Carl Lomen, The Reindeer King

In 1900 Carl Lomen and his father left Minnesota for Nome. Their gold claims produced no fortunes, but Lomen's father soon established a profitable law practice. Carl's mother, brothers George, Harry, Ralph, and Alfred, and sister Helen moved north. The Lomen brothers bought a photographic studio in Nome, then opened a drug store. George became Nome's city clerk, assessor, and municipal judge.

The family organized Lomen and Company in 1914 when the family bought a herd of 1,200 reindeer from Laplander Alfred Nilima of Kotzebue. Within a half dozen years the Lomens had increased their herd to 8,600 animals. In 1916, Lornen and Company shipped a little more than 10,000 pounds of reindeer meat to markets outside Alaska. Four years later, their shipments had grown to 250,000 pounds.

Marketing reindeer was not easy. Some states considered reindeer to be game animals that could not be sold commercially without special permit. When a national newspaper columnist mourned about "Santa Claus's reindeer" being sold as chops, Lomen replied that Santa had been hit by the high cost of living in Alaska and had to sell some of his choicest deer to pay for the Christmas gifts in his sleigh. Because of the large public response to this exchange, Lomen began to use the Christmas season to promote the sale of his products. He sent reindeer teams with Eskimo drivers to open the holiday season in cities across the United States. In the process, he earned the nickname "the reindeer king."

Getting the deer meat to markets led the Lomens to organize the Arctic Transport Company in 1923 for coastal shipping and lightening at Nome. Lomen continued to look for new reindeer products and markets. He had meat made into sausage. He hired Eskimo women to sew reindeer clothing. They made the outerwear worn by members of Admiral Richard Byrd's two expeditions to the Antarctic.

When the caribou herds in the Canadian Arctic dramatically declined, the Canadian government decided to replace them with reindeer. The Lomens agreed to deliver 3, 000 reindeer to the Mackenzie River delta, 1,200 miles from Nome. The expedition, led by Laplander Andrew Bahr who was over 60, left the Seward Peninsula the day after Christmas in 1929. Blizzards, runaway deer, and a host of other problems plagued the 12 drivers. The first year they covered only 200 miles. Bahr and his drivers delivered 3,282 deer on March 6, 1935. Ninety percent of the deer that were delivered had been born during the five-year drive.

By the 1930s the reindeer industry was beginning to falter. Wolves were attacking the deer. Many reindeer owners had let their herds run free, and an overpopulation of half-wild deer was depleting the lichens on which they fed. Midwest beef growers campaigned to keep reindeer meat out of U.S. markets. In 1937 Congress passed a law that prevented non-Natives from owning reindeer herds. The federal government bought the large Lomen herd, but at a very low price.

The sale of the herd did not end the Lomen family's involvement with Northwest and Arctic Alaska. They had their other business ventures, some that can be read about in Carl Lomen's book Fifty Years in Alaska (New York: David McKay, 1954).

Disease strikes Native villages

The influenza epidemic of 1918-1919 meant tragedy to Northwest and Arctic Alaska. Five out of every seven persons died in the village of Wales. One hundred persons died in Nome. The flu claimed 1,500 persons on the Seward Peninsula alone. Some communities tried to protect themselves from the epidemic. Trader Jim Allen used armed guards to prevent outsiders who might be carrying the disease from entering Wainwright or Barrow. So many children lost both parents that missions established orphanages to care for them.

Northwest Natives enter fur trade

Disease was not the only problem that Natives faced in the early 1900s. Although the last commercial whaler left the Arctic Ocean in 1913, the bowhead population did not increase. Walrus were scarce, too. Without these animals for food, Eskimos needed either cash or products they could trade for supplies. Many Natives turned to trapping and land furs became a form of currency in Northwest and Arctic Alaska.

Men who had come north on the steam whaling ships at the turn of the century operated most of the trading stations. They had married Native women, raised families, and become accepted members of Eskimo communities. They encouraged the Natives to trap and hunt in order to obtain supplies. Without a doubt these traders profited from encouraging the Natives to trap and hunt, but they also helped the Natives adjust to new circumstances.

The Bureau of Education also became involved in marketing furs in Northwest and Arctic Alaska. The agency believed that if Eskimos could obtain food and supplies at lower prices than the traders charged, the Native standard of living and health would improve. The Bureau opened Native cooperative stores at Wales, Gambell, Noorvik, and Wainwright. The Bureau also opened an office in Seattle where Natives could sell furs and handicrafts directly and by-pass local traders. Natives profited from this sales outlet. Fur prices, however, fluctuated, preventing a stable economic base for the northern Eskimos.

Leffingwell: Prudhoe Bay's Pioneer Scientist

In the summer of 1971 geologist C . G . Mull helicoptered to remote, wind-swept Flaxman Island in the Beaufort Sea. There he erected a cedar plaque honoring an earlier, geologist whose pioneering scientific work in Northwest and Arctic Alaska laid the basis for much of today's understanding of the region. The plaque commemorated Ernest de Koven Leffingwell. Perhaps the least known of arctic explorers, Leffingwell mapped Alaska's arctic coast and named the Sadlerochit geological formation that has since been found to extend to Prudhoe Bay, where it forms the main reservoir of the Prudhoe Bay oil field .

Born in 1875, Leffingwell became a polar explorer when he headed the scientific staff of the Baldwin-Ziegler Polar Expedition that worked out of Greenland. At this time he met Enjar Mikkelsen, a Danish adventurer and arctic expert. The two decided to form an expedition of their own to explore Alaska's Beaufort Sea and investigate rumors of a land mass to the north of the arctic coast.

With the backing of John D. Rockefeller, who contributed $5,000, the pair organized the AngloAmerican Polar Expedition. In 1906, with a doctor, a naturalist, and four sailors, they set sail from Victoria, British Columbia. By the end of the summer the explorers had journeyed as far as Flaxman Island. Here their ship, The Duchess of Bedford, was immobilized in the ice. The explorers wintered on Flaxman Island. When spring came they found that their small schooner was no longer seaworthy. Mikkelsen journeyed overland to Valdez with a team of sled dogs while all of the others but Leffingwell were picked up by a passing whaling ship.

Leffingwell volunteered to remain in the Arctic. Between 1906 and 1914 he spent nine summers and six winters on the coast between Point Barrow and Herschel Island. With the aid of Eskimo helpers he made 31 trips by sled and small boat, covering 4,500 miles during 30 months away from his base camp.

The winter of 1913-1914 was Leffingwell's last on Flaxman Island. He left in the spring and traveled to Washington, D.C. There, using offices provided by the U.S. Geological Survey, he spent a year and a half writing a professional paper on his investigations. It was published in 1919 under the title The Canning River Region, North Alaska. Writing in 1961, Leffingwell described his work.

In addition to the astronomical observations . . . I triangulated about 150 miles of the coast and mapped the details upon a scale of 1 / 125, 000, and entered the positions of about 1,500 soundings. I made a sketch map of the entire coastline between Point Barrow and the Canadian boundary . . . mapped the main geographic features of an area of about 50 by 80 miles of the mainland . . . drew the known and probable distribution of 15 geological deposits . . . . Ground ice I discussed at length and elaborated the Wedge theory . . . . My report of petroleum seep ages near Point Barrow attracted more attention than all the rest of my work. It started a small oil rush .... However, President Hoover . . . withdrew it . . . and created a Naval Petroleum Reserve . . . . I have heard that a large oil field has been mapped, and that the large establishment at Barrow is now heated by gas from wells in the neighborhood.

Leffingwell commented that his work in the Arctic "Not being spectacular, attracted little public notice, and during the excitement caused by Peary, Cook, Stefansson, and Amundsen, I was the forgotten man."

The pioneer scientist's view of how others perceived him was proved wrong before his death in 1971, however, as Mull and others accorded him well-deserved recognition.

Summary questions

  1. How were the conditions during the Nome gold rush different from those in Interior Alaska and the Canadian Klondike?
  2. Why did the Eskimos turn to furs for a livelihood?

Inquiry questions

  1. Investigate and describe conditions during the Nome gold rush.
  2. What prospects presently (or in the future) exist for mineral development in this region?

WORLD OF THE NORTHERN ESKIMO
1732-1871 AGE OF ARCTIC EXPLORATION AND WHALING
1871-1897 ARCTIC EXPLORATIONS
1897-1920 GOLD
1920-1945 THE AIR AGE
1945-1980 WEALTH OF THE ARCTIC
Suggested Readings


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