“Stampeding to high latitudes in search of gold was rarely a decision made in sober contemplation, and the affliction known as Klondike fever (or Klondicitis) hijacked the imagination, jettisoned reason, and thrived on rumors and unsound advice.”
With these words of warning about what lies ahead, Chris Allan begins the story of a little-known gold rush that most certainly thrived on unsound advice and nothing more. The unsound advice came from a whaler named Barney Cogan who spent the summer of 1897 in the Bering Sea, where he got word of a massive gold strike near the Klondike River, hundreds of miles away.
Returning to California that fall, Cogan found stories from the Yukon had launched a nationwide hysteria of men already racing north. Recognizing his opportunity, he announced that gold was free for the taking near Kotzebue Sound, along Alaska’s western coast, north of the Arctic Circle. Whether he honestly believed this is uncertain. But he started booking hapless passengers for transport to his promised gold fields come spring. Fortune’s Distant Shores is Allan’s account of what followed.
Other skippers followed Cogan, and by late spring of 1898, over a thousand men were swarming onto shores that had previously been home to just a handful of Inupiaq residents. Among them was a very young Joseph Grinnell, who would go on to become one of America’s most renowned early twentieth century biologists. An astute observer, he kept a journal that is one of the primary sources Allan draws from in this book.
The miners sifted the sands, ransacked the rivers, ground the gravel, and found nothing. Over the course of one year, a community of about 900 was erected, inhabited, then hurriedly abandoned when the men returned home empty handed as soon as ships could sail again. The Kotzebue stampede would be relegated to footnote status in Alaska’s gold rush history, and from there be largely forgotten.
That is, until Allan, a National Park Service historian and past president of the Alaska Historical Society, stumbled on it. “I was at the Anchorage Museum looking at archival photographs, and I found the collection of Joseph Grinnell’s photographs,” he told me. “I knew immediately that this was a big story and something that was worth telling.”
Allan’s instinct was right, although it took him seven years to bring it to print. “I had those photographs in my back pocket the whole time,” he said. Those images and many more, historic as well as a few contemporary ones, heavily illustrate this well-written and lively tale. Pictures of cabins and camps, both inside and out, of men working and resting, of landscapes seized in winter’s grip, and of the people themselves, both the indigenous and the intruders are found throughout.
The Inupiaq people in the region had been living their traditional subsistence lifestyle for centuries when the impending twentieth century washed ashore in the form of men driven mad by a metal unknown in the region. The local Inupiat had previously only had minimal contact with white people, but according to Allan, relations were good despite the manner in which the newcomers pushed their way in. But as had happened across the Western Hemisphere, the arrival of Europeans brought unfamiliar diseases that took the lives of vulnerable residents.
“Why we have selected Kotzebue Sound as the field of our maneuvers it would be difficult to give a rational reason,” Grinnell wrote in his journal. Readers of Fortune’s Distant Shores will quickly gather that there wasn’t a rational reason. And thanks to Chris Allan’s skillful storytelling, they’ll find out why.
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