Billy Mitchell In Alaska
Early in his military career, the apostle of air power blazed a trail through the wilderness, forging the last link in a telegraph line to the edge of the Bering Sea
February 1961 | Volume 12, Issue 2
Major F. had heard him say, “What for you bring stranger here?” and immediately he was off again, thinking the Indians were in league against him. For several days after this we saw nobody, and again he was becoming quiet, although he would frequently get up at night with his weapons and look around.
Arriving at our little station on the Tanana River, I ordered the two men there to whipsaw some lumber and make a boat for us to descend the Tanana River. We then proceeded south through Mentasta Pass to meet Captain Burnell’s party.
A few days later we met a large and well-appointed pack train with the supplies from Valdez. Captain Burnell had accompanied them, and we conferred again about our plans for joint action. After their hard journey, the men were certainly a tough-looking lot in their buckskin clothes, leather chaps, and long beards, their faces covered with running sores caused by mosquito bites. The mules and horses looked more like skeletons than the sleek animals one sees in the United States. I could see that Major F. was becoming nervous again. He took me aside and said he thought we had better get away from that rough crowd, as he feared he might be grabbed up by them at any moment. Here in the wilderness nobody would ever know what had happened!
We returned to the Tanana River station, where we found our boat completed, so we started down the river. For twelve days we traveled on, catching fish, both salmon and trout, and seeing many animals on the banks: bears, wolves, beaver, caribou, otter, and moose. I purposely avoided Indians on this trip, because at the mouth of the Tanana we would run into another military garrison, and I thought it best to keep the Major from seeing anyone as long as possible. He had said not a word about his hallucinations during this stage of the trip, and I thought he might be over them.
When we finally arrived at Fort Gibbon, we looked pretty tough. Our clothes were in rags. I had lost my hat in the river, and my head was shaggy. Our bearded faces were full of sores from mosquito bites, but we were in fine physical condition. The exercise and fresh air had done Major F. a great deal of good.
Upon our arrival, one of the officers began to jolly us about our appearance, and immediately Major F. was off again. He took this as an indication that the officer was linked up with the gang who were after him. His fears redoubled, and they had to send him out of Alaska under guard. Fortunately, with a year of quiet and good care, he recovered his health, and was sent back to full duty with his organization. In due course he retired from the Army, and afterward became a professor in a large university.
Leaving Major F. in safe hands, Mitchell took a steamer up the Yukon to his headquarters at Fort Egbert. When he arrived, he was elated to find the telegraph line actually working through to the Tanana River. The connection with the party coming north from the port of Valdez would soon be made. With this first line all but completed, Mitchell’s next project was to lay a second one from Fort Egbert to Fort Gibbon, near the confluence of the Tanana and Yukon rivers. Somewhere along the way he was supposed to meet the party under the command of Lieutenant George Gibbs, which was working eastward from the Bering Sea.
The most obvious route for the new line would have simply followed the tortuous course of the Yukon River. But Mitchell thought he saw a shorter way to his goal, one that would save both hundreds of miles and thousands of dollars. It seemed typical of the man that this alternate route ran through a wilderness that was entirely unexplored. What Mitchell proposed was to cut a trail cross-country from Fort Egbert to a small tributary of the Tanana, the Goodpaster River. He planned to set out just after New Year’s of 1903 to scout the new and hazardous route, accompanied by a packer named “Dutch” De Haus, and Chief Joseph of the Middlefork tribe, whose acquaintance he had made the winter before.
No white man had ever been down the Goodpaster River, and few Indians in our vicinity knew anything about it, because the Middlefork Indians’ domain stopped at the divide at the head of the river, and the Goodpaster Indians, who live on the Tanana, did not come over on the north side of the divide. I had consulted several times with Chief Joseph of the Middlefork tribe about the trip I proposed to make down this river. I wanted him to accompany Dutch and myself, to help break the trail down there. He always said it was a terrible trip, and it was a tradition among his people that anybody who went down it in wintertime never came back.
These Indians were very bad, he explained. If they looked at you intently, they made you sick, and they stole from graves. I assured him that I could protect him against these things, that he need not worry because I had fine dogs, good toboggans that we would use on the snowshoe trails, good rifles and snowshoes, and the best of food in the North. We had become great friends, having hunted and fished a great deal together, and for that reason he agreed to go with me.