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Alaska Life

In 1916, Emil Anderson hiked 20 days solo across grueling Alaska terrain, just for the purpose of turning himself in to jail

  • Author: David Reamer
    | Histories of Anchorage
  • Updated: January 24
  • Published January 24

Part of a continuing weekly series on local history by local historian David Reamer. Have a question about Anchorage history or an idea for a future article? Go to the form at the bottom of this story.

It was 1916, only a year after the establishment of Anchorage and another year before the United States entered World War I. At a Naknek cannery, off Bristol Bay, Emil Anderson and J. Renner worked together as they likely had for hundreds of days. One June day proved somewhat more dramatic.

The Cordova Daily Times described the resulting event as a “quarrel,” though that word undersells the apparent animosity. The reason for their fight is lost to time. Regardless, the argument definitively ended when Anderson pulled a knife and stabbed his coworker in the back.

Anderson’s crime is merely the prelude to his subsequent journey. That journey separates his narrative from the many thousands of similar assaults in frontier Alaska. His story after the Naknek brawl is also an interesting case study of self-governance. People are ultimately defined by their actions, especially when there is minimal personal benefit. Many Alaskans claim to value law and order, but their willingness to adhere to its judgements varies.

Renner’s wound was reported as serious though not life-threatening. Anderson was quickly taken into custody, charged with assault with intent to kill, hauled before the area commissioner, and bound over to the grand jury. Due to fears of Alaska Railroad labor strife around Anchorage, District Judge Fred M. Brown that year did not travel to the more far-flung settlements under his jurisdiction, an early 1900s Alaska practice known as the floating court system. Thus, Anderson was carried as a prisoner on a Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Unalga, to Valdez.

On Sept. 29, Anderson was found guilty of assault with a dangerous weapon. The jury, however, asked the judge for “extreme clemency.” While Anderson was clearly guilty, the victim had instigated the confrontation and “probably deserved all he got and perhaps more” per the Seward Gateway. The next day, Judge Brown sentenced him to return home and serve only 30 days in the Naknek jail, a lighter sentence than otherwise expected. The judge likely took into account the two months Anderson had already spent in custody awaiting trial.

It is an understatement to say that the path from Valdez to Naknek is long. As the crow flies, there are roughly 400 miles between the two towns. As taken by the Unalga, the water route covers nearly 1,500 miles, around the Kenai Peninsula, down to and through the Unimak Pass in the Aleutians, and followed with an immediate northeast turn towards Bristol Bay.

There was no return prisoner transport. He would make his way back as best he could. The sentencing came on Sept. 30. By then, the last boat for Bristol Bay had already left. There was no deadline on Judge Brown’s ruling, no time frame for Anderson to report to the Naknek jail. Likely no one would have faulted him for wintering somewhere and waiting until spring to turn himself in. He reportedly considered taking a temporary job with the Alaska Railroad in Anchorage or Seward.

Anderson had a home in Nushagak near Dillingham and some other outstanding business to conclude. Maybe he was too homesick to consider spending several more months away. And maybe he wanted to clear all his outstanding obligations. So, he bought passage on a boat willing to take him around the Kenai Peninsula and as far as Iliamna Bay on Cook Inlet’s west coast. From there, he set for Nushagak across another peninsula, a distance of about 180 miles in a straight line. Denali, Cordova and Homer are all closer to Anchorage than 180 miles in a direct line.

But straight lines do not mean much when it comes to travel across Alaska. A straight line between Iliamna Bay and Nushagak does not reckon with the terrain — the hills, mountains, lakes, rivers and bogs. There was also the encroaching winter. And Anderson was poorly equipped, with limited food and camping equipment.

For 20 days in cold October weather, he worked his way through the upper Alaska Peninsula wilderness. He swam, waded and walked. He slept in the open with minimal cover. He ate sparingly of the little food he carried, twice saved by the generosity of Alaska Natives he encountered during his journey.

Finally, on Oct. 27, he reached Nushagak and surrendered to Deputy Marshal Bill Fursman. He served his time and was released Nov. 25. It took two more months before the news reached Valdez that Anderson had followed Judge Brown’s orders.

Then the story took on a life of its own. Like a dentist on a hoverboard, Anderson’s journey went viral. By February 1917, the story was circulating among the Alaska newspapers. The Seward Gateway joked that he had set a record for the longest “unescorted hike from court to cell.” By April, newspapers across the country were running articles on him, which continued into the summer.

Then and now, readers in the Lower 48 devour tales from Alaska. The details were also stretched a little, a familiar occurrence with Alaska stories. Suddenly, 20 days in the wilderness became 34. Along the way, the seemingly Finnish “Emil” became the Swedish “Emile.” Mainstream American newspapers have long struggled with non-Anglo-Saxon names, often due to lack of effort.

Anderson was nowhere near sainthood. In 1914, he was working at a cannery around Dillingham when he brutally assaulted a different coworker. He served six months in the Valdez jail and was fined $250, about $6,500 in 2021, for that offense. In other words, he had a track record of violence. Yet, in October 1916, he went significantly out of his way to fulfill an obligation at significant personal risk with little personal reward. For this, he was praised. There is a small lesson in that.

Key sources:

“Cannery Hand in Quarrel Stabs Opponent.” Cordova Daily Times, June 28, 1916, 1.

“Dillingham Man is Sentenced.” Valdez Daily Prospector, May 21, 1914, 4.

“Emil Anderson Guilty.” Seward Gateway, September 29, 1916, 1.

“Long trip to Serve Time in U.S. Jail.” Seward Gateway, February 16, 1917, 4.

Naske, Claus-M. “Alaska’s Floating Court.” Western Legal History 11, no. 2 (1998): 163-183.

“Seven Insane Men Brought from West.” Seward Gateway, July 28, 1916, 1.

“This Alaskan Made a Record.” Fairbanks Alaska Citizen, April 2, 1917, 7.

“To-Day’s Doings in District Court.” Valdez Daily Prospector, October 2, 1916, 8.

“With Himself a Prisoner.” Boston Globe, April 15, 1917, 16.