Tales of Gold and Tlingit Totempoles

The Felters have finally made it to Alaska! After many months of travel, Frank and Nell pass Dixon Entrance, the maritime boundary between the U.S. and Canada. In 1903, a treaty between the two countries made the northern line of this strait the official border. While they’re still on their steamer, the couple hear stories about Frank Dinsmore, a famous prospector who made a fortune in gold up around Bonanza Creek in 1896. Dinsmore’s success was described by Jack London and other travel writers and no doubt encouraged others to come north looking for gold. 

They stop briefly in the small town of Ft. Wrangell, where they admire Tlingit locals and their totem poles. I found it interesting that Frank decides not to describe the Native Americans he observes in Alaska in nearly as much detail as the Chinese immigrants he sees in California. “We did not have time to read any of these family histories, and besides we never believed in prying into other people’s affairs.” If they had asked, they would have learned that they had visited the grave of Chief Shakes (KaawishtĂ©), a local leader who lived in Wrangell between 1840 and 1878. Shakes’ heirs still live in the area today. To learn more about Wrangell, visit their historical society!

After our missionary friend has subsided we listen to a young man who has made his pile, and has just deposited it in a Seattle Bank. Among other things he told of a certain Frank Dinsmore who took out $240000.00 of free gold in a single day at Bonanza Creek. He also spoke of several who came to Alaska with a few thousands in cash and dropped it all in worthless claims, returning home sick and tired of the Golden North. Before the British Government levied 10% royalty on all gold taken out of their territory in the Klondyke region the miners were inclined to boast of their big findings, but now, they keep their mouths shut and only pay royalty when they have to.

Working No. 4 Bonanza, Klondike, sterograph, circa 1900. University of Alaska Anchorage.

In the year 1898 a royalty of $1,200,000.00 was paid to the British Government, and in 1899 over double that amount.

Just before our steamer cuts the Alaskan waters, we have a few ocean swells while passing Dixon’s Entrance, and here we are treated to a sign of 10 or 15 whales swimming among the surface of water, gathering in great mouthfuls of small fish and spouting out the water through the blow holes in the top of their heads. We have noticed a few whales previously, but never so many at one time, as on this occasion.

Killer Whale.jpg
Tlingit Killer Whale Figure, 1962. National Museum of the American Indian.

Our first meal taken in Alaska, is breakfast, and we observe the absence of our friend with the nuggets chain and his family, they having got off at Ketchikan about midnight. This does not affect us however half as much as does the rain which has been coming down for some time and which continues until we approach Fort Wrangel about 4 P.M., when it stops for a while. Every one who can now gets off to take a walk through the town which is said to have Six hundred inhabitants, and to do a considerable business in lumber and in salmon canning. Halibut, Cod, and other fish are shipped to Seattle packed in ice taken from a large glacier a short distance from town. There are two breweries in this little town: some U.S. troops, and a whole lot of Indian graveyards and Totem Poles. A Totem Pole is supposed to be a history of the tribe and is usually chiseled out of a log and set up in front of the home of the most prominent Indian of the tribe.

Two Carved and Painted Totem Poles, One with Killer Whale Atop Seated Human Figure;Other with Bear on Top and Bear Paws On Front; Forest in Distance, Ft. Wrangle, 1885. National Anthropological Archives.

We stopped to look at some of these poles some of which are over 30 feet high and two feet through, all covered with figures carved to represent birds, frogs, bears, men, and other animals.

We did not have time to read any of these family histories, and besides we never believed in prying into other people’s affairs.

Auk-Si-Eager, Ft. Wrangle
Auk-Si-Eager, Ft. Wrangle, 1904. Library of Congress.

The Indians here seem to have quite comfortable houses to live in, but many prefer to sit on the outside with their knees hugged up close to their chin, -a favorite attitude with them.

After walking around until our feet are wet trying to find the Fort, we are told that there is no fort here, so we go back to our steamer wondering why names are so misleading.

Early next morning we pass through Wrangle Narrows. This is a difficult and dangerous passage for some 25 miles, and only undertaken at high tide.

All the officers of the ship are on duty at this time, and as they look watchful and cautious we finally consent to leave the vessel in their charge while we go down to breakfast. Once we thought the ship had struck on a rock, and all hands started to run on deck, but as soon as the cause of the trouble was known we resumed our places and finished eating, thankful that it was no worse.

It seems that our missionary (without provocation and without a warning), had cracked a large joke, and that was what “jarred us.” Watching him carefully, lest he repeat the trick, we find ourselves on deck again and the sight that greets us drives out the least spark of resentment from our hearts.

We have left the narrows behind us still wrangling over the rocky bottom, and we behold on our right, Patterson Glacier, 6000 feet high, glistening in the morning sun. Now we see another one, and with our glasses gaze at these fields of ice, and at the numerous mountain tops covered with snow. Indeed as we continue Northward, it seems we are hemmed in on all sides by snow and ice packs.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.


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