- Historic Sites
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
It was a typical example of the stage where circulation begins to slow up, preparatory to freezing. I jumped squarely on his face with both my snowshoes and wiggled them around, then jumped on his chest and kicked him in the stomach, all the time abusing him verbally, trying to make him get up and fight me. At last I got him on his feet and slapped him in the face as hard as I could with my open hands, to make him so mad that he would exert himself. Dutch was a good man physically, and ordinarily would take no foolishness from anybody, but I had a terrible time trying to rouse his ire and get him started down the trail. At last I succeeded and walked along with him, hitting him every few moments and dragging him along. As we rounded the turn, I saw that Joe had gotten the fire started in a jiffy. Flame and smoke were rising from the dried spruce boughs.
The sight seemed to work a transformation in Dutch. His eyes stuck out, and he made straight for the fire. When he got there, he jumped squarely into it. We had to drag him out to keep him from burning himself. As it was, he burned a part of one snowshoe and one moccasin, and it took us an hour to repair them. He now began to tingle all over and appreciate how cold he was.
I had two bottles of Perry Davis Pain Killer in each sled. This is the greatest medicine ever invented for use in the North. I do not know the ingredients, other than alcohol and some laudanum, but I would hazard a guess at red pepper, turpentine, and tabasco juice. You can take it internally or rub it on as a liniment. For man or dog, it is one of the best remedies I know for frost bite.
I gave Dutch a good swig of it and rubbed some on his neck and chest. In a little while he was well heated up. We ate a good hearty lunch, and I filled him full of hot tea. Then I put him ahead of the sleds and kept him there for the rest of the trip.
Five days out from David’s house, or ten days away from the head of the Goodpaster River, we reached its mouth, a distance of 170 miles. Rounding a point, we came all at once on the Indian village, which consisted of ten or twelve log cabins, with caches outside of them. Birchbark canoes were piled up for the winter outside the houses, and sleds and dogs were in front of the doors. As the dogs heard our bells, they put up a great hue and cry. An Alaskan dog cannot bark, it can only howl. If one does hear a bark in the North, it is an unmistakable sign that the dog is of an outside breed.
As we came up the bank to the village, these Indian dogs ran up to my leader, Pointer, apparently with the idea of biting him. Pointer grabbed one of them by the throat and threw him five or six feet, never looking at him at all, but keeping right on the trail. The dog beat a hasty retreat, and none of the others came near us again.
The Indians seemed tremendously astonished to see us, and eyed my Indian, Joe, curiously. He spoke an entirely different language from their own, but he made himself understood by signs and a few words common to all Indians. Several of the Goodpaster Indians spoke quite a few words of English, having been down to the mouth of the Tanana River to trade their furs.
I explained to them that I was a soldier chief, engaged in putting up a “talk string”—as they called the telegraph wire—which I said would be a great assistance to them when installed. One asked me if it would bring more white men into the country, and I told him it probably would not, because the “talk string” would do the work of many mail carriers who otherwise would have to go through that country. One Indian said he had heard that game would not cross the “talk string,” and that therefore the migration of the caribou would be changed, much to their disadvantage.
This was really so. The caribou at first were very much afraid of the right of way that we chopped through the country and of the wire that was laid on the ground, because when they came into contact with it, it cut their legs. We found that caribou had become entangled in our wire in several places and pushed it a hundred feet away from its original location, but afterward let it severely alone. Gradually they became used to it and after a while crossed the right of way without hesitation. I explained this to the Indians and told them it would make no difference with the caribou migration. In addition, the telegraph line went straight from point to point and would always afford them a fine winter trail.
They asked me why I had brought an Indian of another tribe with me, because he might find out things there which they did not wish him to know. I replied that I was a soldier chief, and he was an Indian chief, that we were great friends and companions, hunted and fished together, and I had made him come with me against his will, to assist me on this trip.
The Indians seemed satisfied with these explanations and told me they were glad to see me, that I was the first white man who had ever come down the river, and they were greatly surprised that I came through in this terribly cold weather. They themselves had even stopped trapping, they told me.