New book of essays pays tribute to ‘Alaska’s public historian,’ Terrence Cole

The Big Wild Soul of Terrence Cole: An Eclectic Collection to Honor Alaska’s Public Historian

Edited by Frank Soos and Mary F. Ehrlander. University of Alaska Press/Snowy Owl Books. 354 pages, 2019. $19.95

It isn’t every university professor who has a book published in his or her honor. In fact, few can claim that distinction. But it makes sense in the case of Terrence Cole. The longtime professor of Northern Studies and History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks has been prominent for decades not only here in Alaska, but well beyond.

Often referred to as Alaska’s public historian, Cole has made his mark on the state’s understanding of its own history, tirelessly promoting and and expanding knowledge of who Alaskans are and how we came to be this way. Through books, lectures, articles, public appearances, and more, he’s shown us our past as a means of understanding our present and a tool for planning our future. He’s mentored countless graduate students through UAF’s Arctic and Northern Studies Program. He also reaches out to us laymen. He’s emailed me more than once to comment on the historical context of something I’ve written, offering clarifications or corrections.

So it makes sense that University of Alaska Press has chosen to honor Cole’s life and legacy with a volume that both celebrates his work and builds upon in. “The Big Wild Soul of Terrence Cole” is an engaging collection of essays by friends, colleagues, and students of Cole’s who don’t just gush over their favorite academic, but instead demonstrate how he and his work have impacted them.

Edited by Frank Soos, professor emeritus in English, and Mary Ehrlander, history professor, both at UAF, the book opens with a several authors paying tribute to Cole, including his twin brother Dermot, who was lured north by Terrence and their oldest brother Pat in 1973. Appreciations are also offered by Ehrlander, who now directs the Northern Studies program, retired political science professor Gerald McBeath, and historian and retired arctic bibliographer Ron Inouye.

But the real heart of this book is what follows. For nearly 300 pages, readers are treated to works of historical scholarship that dig into little known corners of Alaskan history, and that offer insight into the process of historical detection.


Former Alaskan Sherry Simpson, one of the most eloquent writers to have graced the Last Frontier, examines the role dogs played in Gold Rush-era Alaska and the Yukon. Look at any photograph from the period, she says, and you’ll likely see one or more dogs, “loitering on the fringes of crowds, lounging in saloons, posing stolidly before resuming the strain against the harness or beneath the pack.” A dog’s life, we learn from her, could be wonderful or wretched, depending on the quality of its human companion. But the animals were vital to northerners.

Retired art professor Kes Woodward traces the life of famed Alaska artist Sydney Laurence, drawing a pathway through the Nugget Shop in Juneau, the first to market the budding painter’s depictions of northern landscapes.

Chris Allan shows readers the challenges historians face teasing truth from archival sources. In a piece on the fate of the first American flag raised in Sitka upon the moment of Alaska’s formal transfer from Russian ownership to America, he describes the numerous tall tales, misremembered details, and probable fabrications that found there way into newspaper articles and other publications in the decades following that day.

In what will likely be the most contentious essay in the book — especially in the present environment — Ross Coen, one of Cole’s students, digs into claims that signs reading “No Dogs or Natives Allowed” were once widely seen in storefronts in Alaska. Coen has been unable to find any contemporary reference to them from the era preceding the passage of the territorial Anti-discrimination Act of 1945. Coen notes that the first mention of them found anywhere in the historical record comes from the 1970s, when similar signs were described elsewhere in America and abroad. In Alaska, individuals including civil rights activist Roy Peratrovich stated that they remembered seeing these signs decades earlier, but as of yet, no photographs or written mention of them from the time have been uncovered. Coen acknowledges that a negative cannot be proven, such signs might have been displayed, but they aren’t a documentable fact of history. He also expresses concern that widespread belief that they once existed but no longer do can lead many to believe the civil rights struggles of Alaska Natives are over, something far from factual.

Another entry that will cause consternation in some corners is Dan O’Neill’s response to Michael Pollan’s bestseller “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.” O’Neill appears to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with the book. While admiring the author, he finds bones to pick over Pollan’s advocacy of vegetarianism, and does so by taking readers to remote Alaskan villages where wild game provides the foundation of diets for Native peoples who have lived in the North for millennia. In doing so, he detours into exorbitant carbon footprints and costs of imported food, the cultural significance of hunting, and the nutritional value of what can be harvested relative to what gets flown in. He presents Pollan’s conclusions as an urban viewpoint that ignores northern necessities altogether.

Other submissions examine Alaska’s transportation history, how the border with Canada was finalized, the ways polar bears are used and misused in advertising campaigns, the impacts of boom-and-bust economics, the processes for establishing historic sites, the death of transient Christopher McCandless, the human side of Exxon Valdez captain Joseph Hazelwood, and the 1960s rediscovery of Henry Allen, whose 1885 expedition across Alaska is now the stuff of legend.

The entirety is a fine tribute to Cole, and the lessons of Cole’s career and this book are perhaps best summarized by his friend, University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Stephen Haycox, who writes,

“History is filled with contingencies; because this happened, that was possible; because that didn’t happen, this was or was not possible.”

Because a young and curious Terrence Cole came north a half century ago and chose to pursue history, we have this book and a whole lot more.

[Because of a high volume of comments requiring moderation, we are temporarily disabling comments on many of our articles so editors can focus on the coronavirus crisis and other coverage. We invite you to write a letter to the editor or reach out directly if you’d like to communicate with us about a particular article. Thanks.]

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based freelance writer, and editor of the Alaska literary collection “Writing on the Edge.” He can be reached at