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The First American on the Yukon, 1865

      Old newspapers make for fascinating reading. However, they need to be viewed with a critical eye, as their credibility is suspect at best. The article which follows is a good example of that - George Adams arrived in Dyea to invest time and money in developing the fledgling community, and The Dyea Trail was only too happy to assist in building the reputation of their new neighbour, with little regard for the absolute accuracy of Mr. Adams' reports.

      Even Robert Kennicott, George Adams' commanding officer, had been in the Yukon basin long before Adams. With the support of the Smithsonian Institution, the Audubon Society of Chicago, and the Hudson's Bay Company, he was working as a naturalist along the Yukon River by 1861. It isn't even clear whether Adams made the trip to Nulato that he claimed - Kennicott traveled across the Unalakleet portage to Nulato over the winter of 1865-1866, but with Charles Pease and 2 Canadians, Frank Ketchum and Michael Lebarge. And it has never been proven that Kennicott committed suicide - many reports state that he died of a heart attack.

      But while newspapers may be of questionable reference value at times, they often open doors to our history that don't exist elsewhere, and in any case, the often flambouyant, not-politically-correct writing styles can be very entertaining.

The Dyea Trail

January 19, 1898



A Resident of Dyea Was the First American in the Yukon Basin

      The first American who ever set foot in the Yukon basin is in Dyea. His name is George R. Adams. He will engage in the general merchandise business in this city. He is a pioneer of pioneers. Many years have passed since first he set foot in the frozen north, yet he is still one of the handsomest and best preserved men who walk the streets of Dyea. His hair and mustache are white, but Mr. Adams is strong and active and as full of hope as ever. As he has cast his lot in Dyea, a few facts of his history will be interesting.

      Nearly thirty-five years ago, Maj. Robert Kennicott, of Cleveland, Ohio, sailed from San Francisco for St. Michael, at the mouth of the mighty Yukon, in command of an expedition for exploring the coast of Alaska, for the Russian-American telegraph line. With him was a youth of twenty summers, strong, hardy and energetic - George R. Adams. The party of thirteen sailed for the north on the bark Golden Gate and late in September established winter quarters at Unalaklik, at the mouth of the river of that name. Lieut. Adams, for that was his title in the service in which he had enlisted, was placed in charge of the first expedition to penetrate the Yukon valley. He was the first American to set foot in the Yukon basin. With a half breed Russian and an Indian guide, he penetrated the interior during the winter of 1865-6 as far as Nulato, making a portage from the headwaters of the Unalaklik river to the Yukon.

      Mr. Adams lived in Alaska for twelve years following this in the employ of the Alaska Commercial company. His experiences in Alaska have been extensive and his knowledge of the Yukon country is large. Back of the plain story of hardship and danger which Mr. Adams can tell when he feels like indulging in reminiscences, is a story of romance which is a part of the history of Alaska. To tell this story one would have to describe the death by his own hand of Maj. Kennicott, who was in charge of the party, and whose failure to reach Fort Yukon, whre he expected to meet another party from the Frazer river, so preyed on his mind that he took a dose of strychnine. Another incident in that memorable campaign was a long, mind-killing wait at St. Michael for the steamers which were to bring supplies to the little party, and the ravings of two men who, when the steamers arrived after all hope had vanished, succumbed to the terrible mental strain and were put in irons and sent back to the states, both total wrecks.

      Mr. Adams said that shortage of food is an old story in Alaska. When he organized his expedition to explore the Yukon basin from Unalaklik, food was exceedingly scarce at St. Michael. Sugar was worth $3 per pound, and they were most willing to pay that unusual price. Ice was beginning to form in the Unalaklik river when with the Russian and Indian he started in a skin canoe for its headwaters. He found an easy portage from its source to Nulato. After establishing a base of operations at this point, he returned to Unalaklik for provisions. After securing these he started again for Nulato, this time over the frozen surface of the river with dog teams, which he had obtained at Cape Romanoff. Several times the journey was made between the two points for provisions, which were very scarce and hard to get. During that winter Lieut. Adams and his two companions were forced to subsist on supplies obtained largely from the Indians. As they proceeded they found that the natives were short of food and some even on the verge of starvation. A diet of bean soup, plentifully salted, was the rule.

      "Even under such circumstances," said Mr. Adams, "I grew stout and hearty. It was when we returned to Unalaklik in the summer of 1866 and waited until the surface of Norton Sound was a glittering sheet of ice, and still the supply boats did not come, that the awful terrors of a winter in that latitude without food dawned upon us. We had all arranged to scatter over the country, hoping to live with the natives during the winter. I had prepared to set out on a trip down the coast alone when a storm came up and the ice was broken. A few days later the steamer Wright, which was the flagship of the expedition, and the ship Nightingale appeared in the harbor, laden with supplies and bringing the first intelligence from civilization we had enjoyed in fourteen months. Of course we were overjoyed. The strain, however, was too much for two unfortunate fellows, Green and Cotter. Both became raving maniacs and were put in irons. Both died some years later without having fully recovered from that awful experience."

References & Further Reading:
  • George Adam's diary was published in 1982 as Life on the Yukon, 1865-1867
  • George Adam's diary was used extensively by Sandra Spatz Schlachtmeyer in researching A Death Decoded: Robert Kennicott and the Alaska Telegraph
  • Allen A. Wright - Prelude to Bonanza: The Discovery and Exploration of the Yukon (Sidney, B.C.: Gray's, 1976)
  • Alfred Hulse Brooks - Blazing Alaska's Trails (Second Edition) (Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press, 1973)
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