Misconceptions of Alaska were brought about by early writers

By Steve HaycoxMay 31, 2012 

Alaska has always inspired myth. Because myths contain more or less of reality; the challenge is determining which is which. Separating the two can be quite difficult, especially after first impressions have taken hold.

In early 1867, when Russian foreign minister to the U.S. Eduard von Stoeckl and American Secretary of State William Seward were negotiating the Alaska purchase treaty, American journalists got wind of the discussions and, acting on their first, ill-formed impressions, ridiculed the potential acquisition of a land of permanent ice and snow as a costly and worthless endeavor: Seward's Folly, Icebergia, Walrussia.

But there had been numerous Russian and other scientific expeditions to Russian America and adjacent lands by the time of the sale to the U.S. which together provided abundant information about the true nature of Alaska and its likely storehouse of resources.

Informed solons read these, and later, when it was time to vote, the full Senate, under the leadership of Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, ratified the treaty 37 to 2.

Yet the myth of useless Alaska, firmly established in the public mind, persisted. Montana State University historian Rob Campbell captured well the prevailing perception of Alaska in the period before the Gold Rush by titling his book on the period "In Darkest Alaska,"

echoing the title of New York Herald journalist Henry Morton Stanley's book on searching Africa for explorer David Livingstone. Such writers as Rudyard Kipling contributed to the idea of Alaska as a forbidding and dangerous mysterium with poems such as his "Rhyme of the Three Sealers," about seal pirates in the Bering Sea falling out with one another:

Then dark they lie and stark they lie -- rookery, dune, and floe,

And the Northern Lights come down o' nights to dance with the houseless snow;

And God Who clears the grounding berg and steers the grinding floe,

He hears the cry of the little kit-fox and the wind along the snow.

With others, Kipling introduced the idea of the north as undisciplined and lawless, where everyone was on their own. His principal malefactors actually debated the issue, ship Captain Reuben Paine, mortally wounded, speaking first:

"Sorrow is me, in a lonely sea and a sinful fight I fall,

But if there's law o' God or man you'll swing for it yet, Tom Hall!"

Tom Hall stood up by the quarter-rail. "Your words in your teeth," said he.

"There's never a law of God or man runs north of Fifty-Three."

Robert Service exacerbated this image with his irresistible gold-rush era versifying. The Spell of the Yukon painted a picture of a desolate landscape no one could or would relish:

No! There's the land. (Have you seen it?)

It's the cussedest land that I know,

From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it

To the deep, deathlike valleys below.

Some say God was tired when He made it;

Some say it's a fine land to shun.

But he outdid himself with the aura with which he surrounded The Cremation of Sam McGee:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.

Linguistic, literary and historical scholars have argued that we form our most important understandings of reality through the stories we hear and read. The more effective the stories, whatever their truthfulness and literary form, the more lasting the images they imprint. Numerous historians worked at debunking the unknowable Alaska myth, most notably Anchorage-born Morgan Sherwood in his 1965 study "Exploration of Alaska, 1865-1900," and Ted C. Hinckley in "Americanization of Alaska, 1867-97," both critical reads for a fact-based history of Alaska reality. They show an Alaska being explored by the U.S. Army, governed by civil and judicial officials, and invested in by resource developers.

Yet insistence that Alaska was terra incognita, a land incomprehensible, lives on, serving as the touchstone of a romanticized history far more titillating than the more interesting and useful reality that was. Often, such is our way of knowing.

Steve Haycox is a professor of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

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