Books

Book review: The diaries of an itinerant doctor reveal the harsh realities of late 19th century Alaska

“I Wish You Could Come Too”: The Alaska Diaries of Dr. James Taylor White 1889, 1890, 1894, 1900-1901, By Gary C. Stein

“I Wish You Could Come Too”: The Alaska Diaries of Dr. James Taylor White 1889, 1890, 1894, 1900-1901

By Gary C. Stein; Northern Light Media, 2021; 440 pages; $29.95

Anyone who’s read much history knows that some of the best details are found in the footnotes. For instance, in a brief endnote to a comment about pestilent insects along the Yukon River in 1900, the late historian Gary C. Stein quotes an Army sergeant from the same summer who wrote, “We had hoped that the mosquitoes would be less plentiful around the post this spring as we burned over all the country near here last week and burned up about 8,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,429,765,382,170,210,000 of them. However the loss of that many does not seem noticeable.”

This particular nugget can be found in “I Wish You Could Come Too,” Stein’s compilation and annotation of the diaries of James Taylor White, a physician who made multiple journeys north to Alaska as a member of various Revenue Cutter Service crews, and who kept personal records of what he encountered along the way.

White was born in Washington State and educated in California. His father was a well regarded captain in the Revenue Cutter Service, precursor to the Coast Guard. Other relatives, meanwhile, had pursued medicine. So it’s perhaps no surprise that he merged the two occupations so effortlessly. He had a highly observant nature and interests in botany, ethnography and other fields that educated persons of his era were drawn to. Even more so, he had a sense of adventure, and the sea was his calling.

White first journeyed north in 1889 onboard the Revenue Cutter Bear. Barely two decades after the United States had acquired Alaska from Russia, the vast possession was not yet even a territory, governance barely reached beyond Sitka (still the capital at the time), and law enforcement was practically nonexistent. So revenue cutters were sent to the Bering Sea and beyond to enforce whaling and sealing laws and administer justice, sometimes months after crimes as severe as murder had been committed.

In the decade that followed, White made three more trips to Alaska, extending as far west as the coast of Siberia, and culminating in a full year spent in the Interior beginning in late summer 1900. He experienced Alaska just as it fully entered the nation’s consciousness, transitioning in the public mind from wasteland of ice into the massive depot of exploitable resources that some still view it as. And he saw firsthand the deadly results of the Gold Rush on Indigenous residents.

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Stein, who received his Ph.D from the University of New Mexico in 1975, and who worked as a research historian for the University of Alaska, as well as the Department of Natural Resources, acknowledges a longstanding affinity for White, a somewhat obscure figure who served under the mercurial revenue cutter Capt. Michael Healy and assisted the controversial missionary Sheldon Jackson, and who everywhere he went took notes.

Those notes form the skeleton of the book’s first half, where White’s diary entries are brief, but Stein’s accompanying endnotes are vast. In these sections, White sketches an outline of what happened each day, while Stein’s extensive notes offer historical context, as well as providing priceless details like the mosquito story quoted above. Those who ignore footnotes will miss much of the best of what this book contains.

When White first sailed north with Healy in 1889, the Arctic remained largely unexplored. The Franklin calamity was still living memory, and the catastrophic failures of the Greely and Jeanette expeditions were quite recent history. Neither pole had been attained, and the Northwest Passage had yet to be navigated. Whalers and sealers, however, weren’t waiting for government-sponsored expeditions to clear the path. With money to be made, they were on location, wantonly killing for profit, without regard for the fact that they were taking food out of the mouths of peoples who had subsisted from Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean for centuries. Northern waters remained dangerous, but administrative duties needed fulfilling to avert disaster.

White writes of searches and seizures of vessels, of transporting criminals, of helping Jackson ship reindeer from the Chukchi Peninsula to Alaska and more. He was a man of his time, and in the politically correct age we now live in, he was deserving of some criticism. As with any writings from previous eras, there are cringeworthy moments in this book, but overall he emerges as fairly progressive for his era. And as a physician, he assisted everyone.

This is particularly notable when he headed up the Yukon in 1900. By this time, the Gold Rush was at its peak. It’s a time often romanticized even by the best historians, but White’s diaries paint a far different picture. Prospectors rushing in from Canada and Alaska’s southern coast had brought influenza, while measles spread inland from the west. Villages were decimated. The lengthy section covering White’s penultimate Alaska expedition is an often grim account as he traveled upriver, attending to Yup’ik and Athabascan victims of the diseases, victims who were too sick to bury their own dead, too sick even to obtain food for winter. It’s a nightmarish travelogue — and a reminder that while the United States never waged war against Alaska Natives as it had against the Indigenous residents of the lands our country claimed elsewhere, the arrival of Americans still led to a relentless wave of death for those already present. “We go everywhere that we can,” White wrote, “distributing food and medicine and doing the best we can, but it is very little.”

White Bering Sea diary entries are fairly brief, but the writings from his time on the Yukon are extensive, as are Stein’s notes. The combined result is a book that offers an in-depth examination of the political, legal, cultural and economic realities of daily life in Alaska in a time of massive change. This book is not a straightforward narrative. It’s more of an assemblage of information built around four journeys. Stein didn’t live to see it published, but he’s left us a gift. This book will be referenced by future historians for decades to come.

David James

David A. James is a Fairbanks-based critic and freelance writer. He can be reached at nobugsinak@gmail.com.

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