A lonely death on the Stony River

April 27, 2010 

Who was E.C. Tawney? The men who buried him on the banks of the Stony River 90 years ago knew but his name. That's all we know today.

On March 23, 1913, the United States commissioner at Georgetown, a mining camp on the Kuskokwim River, received word a man's body had been found 45 miles above the confluence of the Stony and Kuskokwim.

"I immediately proceeded to get ready to go to the place and hold an inquest," Commissioner Edward J. Stier, 43, said in his official report. "My next move was to get transportation for myself and (the) jury and witnesses, there being no road-houses or stopping places on the upper river. ..." The jurors and the man who discovered the body, Frederick Bishop, provided dog teams. Bishop and the jurors were paid for bringing their teams.

Four days of mushing in soft spring snow were necessary to reach the body. At night the travelers, had, in Stier's words, to "siwash it," using "the heavens for a tent."

Stier and company arrived at their destination on the morning of March 27, 1912. The inquest and burial took a day and a half, digging a grave the most time-consuming activity. Lumber for a coffin was aboard the sleds; one of the mushers was a carpenter or enough a carpenter to do the job.

Inside a tent, Stier and the jurors "found the body of a man of small stature lying upon what he had used as his bed. He was dressed in an undershirt and had on his trousers and moccasins. He had on what proved to have been his best clothes as we found no others." E.C. Tawney had taken his life with a 12-gauge shotgun. He also had shot his dog, which lay in a corner.

Tawney left a note dated "abot" Feb. 12, 1913.

"My leags al swelled up i can bearly walk. I can hardley breath can't sleep at night. Wood is getting im possible I guess I mite as well quite weake walk about 25 ft verry slowly. 6 skins to bury me. Mr. E.C. Tawney." The skins, which Tawney expected whoever discovered him would sell, also were in the tent.

"We found nothing to indicate where he came from," Stier wrote, "not a note or letter, or anything to give us any clue as to where he had relatives or friends. ..."

The inquest in the snow began with Bishop explaining how he found the body. During the previous fall, the 43 year-old trader put up the tent to cache goods destined for his store at Sleetmute. When he returned in March, he discovered Tawney had moved in and eventually taken his life. Tawney wrote the suicide note on the reverse side of a note Bishop left warning potential trespassers to stay away. A Native named Waska working for Bishop provided confirming testimony.

Bishop and Waska were asked if they knew Tawney. Both said no, they only had seen him the previous summer, Bishop in Georgetown, Waska on the Stony River.

Ever maintaining protocol, Commissioner Stier put preparation of the body for burial, digging the grave, and hammering together the coffin out to bid. The commissioner's traveling companions were the sole bidders.

"The grave being dug," Stier concluded, "the coffin made, and the body ready for burial, we took the remains of the deceased across the river from where the body had been found and buried him upon the hill, marking his grave with a rough cross with his name written upon it."

The cost of reaching Tawney's body and burying him was almost $1,000. The skins brought $70 when Stier sold them to the Northern Commercial Company agent in Georgetown.

Why did Tawney call himself "Mr. E.C. Tawney" in his note? Here's a guess: He wanted to maintain a certain dignity in the face of death. The reference to selling the skins suggests Tawney, ill as he was, recognized a decent burial costs money and would do the little he could to meet the bill.

Did Tawney lack wilderness survival skills? Was he the victim of bad luck? Was he a serious trapper or a misfit with a trapping license? We don't know. It is probable, however, he was new to the region and unprepared for adversity. A man who understood the country would not have been so poorly outfitted.

The territorial inquest records bulge with mournful stories of Alaskans who, like E.C. Tawney, took their lives. In tents. In cabins. In hotel rooms. In mine shafts.

In despair.


Michael Carey is the former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He can be reached at mcarey@adn.com. Carey would like to thank the staff of the Alaska State Archives in Juneau for their help with this story.

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