When I met Tommy LaPorte in 1972, he was hanging from the wall of my father's bedroom in Fairbanks. That is, his framed certificate of membership in the Yukon Order of Pioneers, a fraternal organization, was hanging from the wall. The certificate said Tommy had "arrived on the waters of the Yukon" in April 1903 and become a member of the Rampart lodge in October 1904.
That's all I knew about Tommy for years.
After my father died in 1975, Tommy's colorful but smoke-damaged certificate hung from my wall, a reminder of my father's passion for history.
From time to time, I made desultory attempts to find out where Tommy came from and what happened to him. Museums and archives in Dawson and Whitehorse had nothing. Fairbanks newspapers offered no help.
But gambler Billy Porter, whose diary of early Rampart my Dad owned, mentioned Tommy several times. Billy said Tommy won all the money in a marathon poker game, cleaning out the "knights of the green cloth," as the Rampart newspaper called gamblers. And while I was looking for Billy in those newspapers, Tommy turned up here and there -- he shared a prize at a masked ball for "outclassing all competitors" in the cake walk. (Tommy was rewarded with a cake, reminding us again that the phrase "take the cake" comes from the popular 19th century dance.)
I also found Tommy mentioned in a probate file in Juneau. He dug Dan Savoy's grave in Rampart in May 1928 and received $11 for his labor.
Pioneer, miner, gambler, dancer, grave digger. That's all I knew until I learned Internet searching and found him in various censuses that proved he was born in Canada in 1858. The other bookend of his life -- year of death, 1944 -- came in a newspaper clipping from a friend in Fairbanks. Tommy died in the Pioneer Home in Sitka, age 86 -- probably a charity case.
Historical research can be reminiscent of mining -- dig on promising ground, and you might find something. I was digging in the federal archives here in Anchorage recently, looking at petitions for citizenship from the 1930s, about to quit for the day. I turned the page, and there was Tommy LaPorte staring at me from a poor passport-sized photograph. He wore a coat and tie, presumably his Sunday best.
The photo was attached to his declaration of intention to become a citizen, dated Aug. 18,1931.
According to the declaration, Tommy was born in Hyacinthe, Canada (near Montreal), Jan. 1, 1858, and came to the United States, entering Detroit by train, March 16, 1879. He had made a previous declaration in Butte, Mont., in 1884 but never followed up. The form says that at age 73 he was dark-complected, with gray eyes, 5 feet 4 inches tall and 200 pounds. Apparently he wasn't missing many meals -- or spending long days on the woodpile. The photo confirmed his chunkiness.
According to a second citizenship document, signed in 1933, Tommy came to Alaska in September 1897 -- before the Klondike rush.
He never married, he said.
Tommy became an American citizen Feb. 16, 1934, after renouncing the king of England and all other "princes and potentates" as well as promising he was neither an anarchist, a polygamist nor a "believer in the practice of polygamy." The reference to polygamy clearly reflects national concerns about the "dangers" of Mormonism.
Why did Tommy LaPorte bother with citizenship approaching his 80th birthday? He had lived in the United States without it for half a century. I offer only a guess. Some benefit awaited him. How about government relief for an aging, increasingly infirm man.
There's another question that's frustrated me since I first saw Tommy's YOOP certificate in Fairbanks. Where did my Dad get it? I should have asked but didn't -- just as I failed to ask about Billy Porter's diary. I know Fabian visited Rampart a number of times in the '50s and '60s, so I suspect some old-timer who knew Tommy gave him the certificate -- or my Dad took it from Tommy's abandoned cabin where it awaited fire, flood or ignorant, uncaring hands, the primary agents of the destruction of Alaska early history.
Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.