Fortune’s Distant Shores: A History of the Kotzebue Sound Gold Stampede in Alaska’s Arctic
By Chris Allan, National Park Service, 188 pages, 2019. Free in pdf form
Few people think gold rush when they think of Kotzebue, and with good cause. There’s not a lot of gold to be found in those parts. But this didn’t stop prospectors from swarming into the region in 1898 on a crazed search for precious metal, an event that was pivotal to the history of both the town and to the rivers feeding into the Chukchi Sea.
It’s a tale I have to admit I knew nothing about until sitting down to read “Fortune’s Distant Shores” by National Park Service historian Chris Allan. But it turns out to be quite the story, and in Allan’s able hands, it’s well told.
The background is pretty simple. In 1898, fortune seekers scrambled north by the thousands, hoping to pull easy money out of the ground. The first stampeders converged on the confluence of the Klondike and Yukon rivers at what became Dawson City in the Yukon, and soon spread westward into Alaska. But even at the outset, some potential gold seekers quickly realized that with so many others headed into Dawson, the odds of success there weren’t in their favor.
Some of these men had high hopes, however, and bolstered by a little chicanery, they were sold on the idea that on the Kobuk River in northwestern Alaska, millions of dollars could be had. Thousands headed that direction, hundreds overwintered, dozens died there or along the way, a few had some good adventures, and just about all who returned had empty pockets. Such are the risks of chasing easy money.
Allan is a skillful storyteller who guides readers through the events that transpired over a little more than a year, yet permanently transformed life for the Inupiat people who were there long before white men arrived, and who were left behind when nearly all bolted to Nome or other parts south little more than a year later.
The rush had its origins in one of those classic late-19th-century con jobs. Barney Cogan was a whaler who plied arctic waters. His ship was one of many that spent the summer of 1897 in the Bering Strait. That year, as word spread of Klondike gold, crewmen from many vessels abandoned their posts and headed off for the goldfields.
Upon his return to California, Cogan and his first mate told tales of seeing gold in the Kotzebue Sound region, and he quickly began promoting the area with promises of “nuggets as big as hickory nuts” as the reward for those who would pay $200 — a tidy sum at the time — to book passage on his ship the following spring. The captains of other ships caught wind of it and offered similar deals, and the rush was on.
One man who was sold on the prospect was Joseph Grinnell. He would go on to become one of the most prominent American biologists of the early 20th century, but in 1898 he was a 21-year-old fledgling ornithologist. In truth he was more interested in birds than gold, and thus he’d be one of the few stampeders to come back with something to show for himself. Grinnell and some friends formed the Long Beach and Alaska Mining & Trading Co., chartered a vessel, and headed north with the rest that spring.
Allan brings readers onboard the fleet of ships that surged up the West Coast and into northern and arctic waters. Some were rickety and sank, others succumbed to foul weather and accidents, and more than a few men drowned. It wasn’t a good omen.
Most made it to shore in Alaska, however, but it was quickly apparent that the region’s rivers were devoid of any measurable amount of gold. Many turned around and left before the sea ice moved in, but about 900 took their chances that something would yet come of it and dug in. What most got in return amounted to little more than months of growing cabin fever as the Arctic winter brought nearly everything to a halt.
Allan evokes the men’s experiences with fine detail, giving his readers a sense of what life during this one year in a faraway corner of Alaska was like. His account is enhanced by a trove of historical photographs. Although a relatively short book, it’s rich in narrative and visual details.
Allan also considers the local impact. The Inupiat people of the region had previous contact with white people, but it was limited. The Russians barely visited when they controlled Alaska, and Americans and other Europeans didn’t arrive in significant numbers until the 1850s when the whaling potential was recognized. The stampeders, however, arrived at the same time as the Quaker missionaries who would establish the town of Kotzebue proper.
The newcomers brought Western values and vices. And Natives and prospectors alike suffered diseases. “For the Inupiat,” Allan writes, “mumps and pneumonia had arrived months earlier and were now reaching epidemic levels in their settlements. Among the stampeders, cases of scurvy were increasing at an alarming rate.”
Amid the tragedies, however, cultural exchanges began reaching for a new middle ground. The Americans and the Inupiat got along well and engaged in extensive trade. Western foods, clothing and ideas filtered into local customs, while Inupiat medical and survival tactics helped the majority of the Americans stay above ground.
Cogan, whose questionable claims of gold spurred the rush — claims he might or might not have himself believed — made a tidy sum in 1898, but his name was forever tarnished when the rivers thawed and the men emerged. Grinnell was one of the few to obtain anything of value, thanks to his scientific observations. But as Allan writes, “the only thing most stampeders harvested were blisters and sore muscles.”
Time, money, effort and more than a few lives were expended on this gold rush to nowhere. Allan serves us well by digging up this long-forgotten chapter of Alaskan history and making it available to all.
“Fortune’s Distant Shores” is available for free as a PDF from the National Park Service.