Billy Mitchell In Alaska


Peering over the bank, I could see the top of a tent. It was about lunchtime. Yelling “gee” to the leader, I jumped up the bank with the team. There in front of the tent was a sled on which a man was sitting, with his head leaning over on his hands. Sitting in front of him, immovable, was a large, black dog. I called to the man but received no response, and going closer found that he was frozen to death. The mail was in the sled under him. Between his teeth was a match, and between his knees was a box on which he had tried to scratch the match when his hands had frozen.

Pieces of harness showed where four of his dogs had bitten out and left; his only remaining companion was this half-bred dog with all four feet frozen. We put the body of the mail carrier in his tent, which we laced up, and shot his dog. Then we proceeded on down the river.

In a couple of days we arrived at Copper Center, where there was a settlement of Indians. I noticed one especially handsome large Indian with reddish hair and blue eyes. I asked him his name, and he answered, “Me named Cross River Joe.”

“Who your papa?” I asked.

“Long time ago big soldier chief, he come here. He my papa,” Joe replied. “Now me chief of tribe.”

“Where your mama?” I went on, inspired by some curiosity.

“She live in cabin up river,” he answered. I told him I would like to see his mama tomorrow, so the following day she appeared, decked out in very handsome beaded caribou-skin clothes, with a large aneroid barometer hanging around her neck, like a jewel. It was of brass, polished till it shone. The barometer had been given her as a magic talisman by the “soldier chief” who was Joe’s father.

Copper Center was just north of the Coast Range, and here I encountered a sergeant from Valdez who had some telegraph supplies in his charge. Proceeding south from there, I came to the Thompson Pass in the Coast Range, where I met Captain Burnell.

I had now traversed the whole route over which the telegraph line was to run from Eagle City to the coast. We made all arrangements possible between ourselves for its completion. I returned over the trail we had broken and fortunately got by the Tokio River without breaking through again.

On this trip I fell in with the Middlefork Indians on the Forty Mile Creek, whose chief, Joseph, became one of my great friends and companions later on. He had thirteen families under him. Their country began about one hundred miles south of the Yukon and extended over to the Tanana divide. They were great hunters, trappers, and fishermen.

Every Indian tribe had its own clearly defined hunting grounds and boundaries, and each hated every other tribe. The only time they got together was in their general hate for the white man. All of them, however, respected the soldiers, especially the “soldier chiefs.” I was the first officer to come into Chief Joseph’s camp. As he heard my men calling me lieutenant, he always afterward addressed me as “Chief Klutina,” that being his rendition of the word “lieutenant.” I was later known by that name to all the Indians in that part of the country.

Back at Fort Egbert, Mitchell found his men still in a bad state. Growing restless in the dark and melancholy Alaska winter, they had taken to brawling with the townspeople of nearby Eagle City. Mutiny threatened. Characteristically, Mitchell decided that his best course was to get them to work as soon as possible. His plan was to head south in January, 1902, surveying the telegraph route and transporting poles and supplies to be cached along the way.

Mitchell’s goal was the Tanana River, about 150 miles distant. To reach it, he took a somewhat circuitous route, following the Yukon River east a way into Canada, and then turning south along its tributary, the Forty Mile Creek, which eventually recrossed the border. “I decided to go that way,” he explained, “because there was no trail broken over the mountains for horse sleighs... Sledding along the rivers made the distance further but did not require anything like the exertion incident to scaling the mountains and ridges.”

Progress was slow and laborious; but by the end of the winter a right of way had been cut to the Tanana. “Gradually it began to dawn on people that we were going to build the telegraph lines,” Mitchell wrote with no little pride, “and that it was possible to do so in the dreaded winter. Those who had failed accused us of wasting equipment and endangering the lives of men and animals, but I never lost a man or even had one seriously frozen.” Unless some unforeseen accident occurred, he felt certain that the telegraph system across Alaska would be completed within the next two years.

Gradually the streams showed signs of breaking, and we came back from the trail to Fort Egbert, putting our dogs in the corral for the summer. The snow melted from the hills and ran down, forming pools of water. From the south, ducks began to arrive, first by tens, then by hundreds and thousands. In May, the Yukon River was still frozen.