Alaska – The Crucible of the North

ONE day I was reading aloud a new book called ” The Founding of New England,” by James Truslow Adams, which proved so fascinating I was not surprised when later it became famous as a searching analysis of early colonial conditions, treated from their human side. But to us the book is even better remembered for a curious thing which happened while we ourselves were reading it.

Through a slip of the tongue, I read “Alaska” for ” New England ” in one of the opening sentences. That was an inspired slip, I believe, for it opened up to us from that moment whole vistas—a panorama and a swift impelling insight we have never since lost, which have meant much to us in terms of better understanding of our own intimate Alaskan conditions.

“Alaska!” I exclaimed. ” Did I read `Alaska’ just then? ”

” You did,” my husband said. ” But the strange thing is, that statement, as read, is absolutely true.”

” It is—and that’s a queer thing, too. For New England in the seventeenth century seems a mighty far cry from Alaska in the twentieth. I never thought—I say, let’s try something! Let’s read this chapter through, and substitute `Alaska’ for `New England’ every time the words occur, and see what happens! That will be interesting.”

It was so very interesting that we continued to read it so throughout the entire book, and that’s how we came to discover that Alaska to-day is in very much the same estate—politically and socially and economically and all the other ” -allys “—as was colonial New England then. You see, we found that practically every statement Adams made about those Englishmen in America then, applied equally well to us Americans in Alaska now. It gave us much food for thought. I never knew a ” history book” to seem so mighty real! It read like hometown gossip.

Most people think of New England in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century as a land without much of a history—but it wasn’t, for things had already happened there which were to shape its destiny. And though most people think of Alaska to-day as a land without any history at all, that is not true, either. We have even, I believe, a parallel to the saga of the Northmen’s coming and the tale of Leif the Lucky. For if Vitus Bering was Alaska’s Columbus, there is at least a possibility that Chinese sailors were our long-ago first touchers on this shore —who came, and stayed a while in this new Vinland, and then returned, leaving only a lost manuscript to tell of that adventure.

One day in 1926 I was speaking to Mrs. Hoover of my interest in early Alaskan history and the many similarities I had found (led by that tongue-slip clue!) between it and the Thirteen Colonies in the East. She said, as I remember: ” I must tell you, then, of something which I myself found when we were living in China, for it fits in perfectly with your notion. I think the manuscript was from the since-destroyed Han-Lin Academy, which was in fact a classical library, the storehouse of precious literary treasures. But though I do not now remember clearly the details, I do remember well (and you may quote me as having seen the document) that I heard read and translated to me the old, old story of the members of a fishing party, which I think contained two junks full of people, who had been driven by storm north and east and then south and east—until finally, realizing that they were now too far from home to get back before winter, they deliberately went further south along the coast of the `pleasant land’ they had found and spent two winters and a summer there. They started back the way they had come, early in the second summer, and finally reached their home in China, where of course they had been given up for dead. I have a copy of this manuscript, which I made at the time, and I shall be delighted to let you see it—whenever I get all my things together in one place again, and can find it!”

Like the Icelandic tales of Red Eric’s son, this story of Mrs. Hoover takes us back to a land of far away and long ago. It must have been a similar journey, on a similar northern sea—drifting past similar low-eaved earthen huts of similar Eskimo villages, watching the stars slip past their similar carved dragon-crested prows, until they drove upon a similar foggy coast of similar gray flat rocks, porches to similar great plateaus where crowding ice-floes ground—then southward and the landfall of dark tapestry of forest thrown on the islanded shore line, where in calm days they heard the spouting whales, and strange fish leaped upon their similar low decks.

” So Leif came rowing up the Charles, He and his golden-bearded cads.

And so, perhaps, came these dark men from far-off Asia to ” the pleasant land ” of Portland canal, Tongass or Metlakatla. Both tales are legend—but Legend is the name of History’s mother.

” Alaska has no tradition, no legend,” cry some who annually seek for these in alien Switzerland and France. Look nearer home, and you will find here in Alaska not only a written history older than that of many of our own forty-eight states, but you will see history in the making, and living people like ourselves as part of this colonial adventuring. You will drop back 200 years into the very heart of colonial America—the Last Frontier, pushed out and up, under the very ridge-pole of the Earth. Here, every-day life is reenacting one of the oldest plots in history—” That unfinished drama,” as ‘Wells calls it, ” of which our lives are a part.” The early story of Alaska is already written by its earliest settlers, who were driven here by the same incentives which have been characteristic of English-speaking enterprise everywhere—substituting placers for puritanism in the robust glittering excitement of early gold-camps! Adventuring cavaliers from the splendid court of Catherine sought out our coast as cavaliers of Elizabeth’s day sought out both Virginia and that “North Virginia!’ which Captain Smith was first to name ” New England.” Shelikof’s colonization of Kodiak antedates the Constitution of the United States. Sitka-cast mission bells reached California when Philadelphia’s Liberty Bell was yet young. Russian governors were sending representatives to Japan and Hawaii long before our War of 1812. Some of the stoutest little ships on the Pacific were built from Alaska timber and launched from Alaskan ways long years before our war with Mexico; and the Western Union began to survey a telegraph line across Alaska before a firm Atlantic cable had been coupled.

Bering came in the early eighteenth century, whereas Columbus and those others came to the East Coast in late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries; so, to play fair you must give us at least a 200-year handicap! Four hundred years ago Verazzano approached the mouth of Hudson River, and he wrote: ” We left the land with much regret, because of its commodiousness and beauty, thinking it not without some properties of value.” What price New York real estate, then! Two hundred years later Bering came to the coast of Alaska, and his men also re-ported it ” not without some properties of value.” Alaska has but half as old a history as eastern U. S. A. and it has come but relatively half as far upon its path of development.

Two hundred years after Verazzano’s discovery of Manhattan, the little town of New York had a population of 5,000-the population of Ketchikan to-day. In 1700, the colony of New York had almost exactly the same population of whites as Alaska has this minute. In 1763 there were dense woods where New York’s City Hall now stands, a deep pond on the site of the Tombs. But during the Atlantic colonies’ early period Europe was in turmoil politically and economically, and many of Europe’s best citizens were glad enough to pick up and strike out for a new land overseas; whereas Alaska was exploited savagely until 1867, ignored from ’67 to ’98, and since that time no great migration has occurred, because this was a time of unexampled material prosperity and internal industrial development in its Mother Country.

To expect to find a present-day New York in Alaska would be foolish, as it would have been equally foolish to look for another London in the colonies of 1700. But you may find the colonial beginnings of many a thrifty city, here and now, in this new land. In 1700, New England had but one small college, and so have we to-day. In 1740, there were no more newspapers in all the eastern colonies together than Alaska has, now. There was prosperity in the colonies, but little luxury, and the same may be said of Alaska. But there was not a single hospital in all America until 1751, whereas every present-day Alaska town boasts at least one; and enlightened Boston did not light her streets until 1773, whereas every Alaska town of any size at all has electricity. Most of Alaska’s communities today are more comfortable, more prosperous, more advanced, than those of the Atlantic seaboard in 1730. ” A few passable towns were then built—Boston, Philadelphia, New York—but their means were small, their horizon narrow, yet their spirit was large.” There are a score of ” passable towns ” in Alaska—comfortable living places, forward-looking, energetic—which have more immediate raw material of resource lying at their doors this minute than had the ” cities ” of the Atlantic seaboard in 1700, or even 1750.

If ever you come to Alaska, I beg of you to come with this colonial parallel in mind, because the best preparation for a thoroughly good time in Alaska is a well-informed and richly imaginative historical sense. Any one who knows anything of the founding of New England, or the epic story of the winning of the West, will see through these spectacles the true aspect of America’s North today. The person who takes the most mental baggage—and the least actual baggage—is your real traveller, and he will best re-member that even our most cultured eastern states were considered crude and vulgar, not so very long ago, by visiting tourists from England. ” The Great Dickens and the delightful Mrs. Trollope, setting foot on our shores, with diagnostic intentions,” as Langdon Mitchell puts it, ” glanced hastily at the Yankee patient and, using no very obscure or technical terms, said: ` Coarse, crass, ignorant, impudent, barbarous, green yet corrupt, and strangely embarrassed with a superfluity of spittle! “‘ I know of no Alaskan traveller who has reported worse or equal crudities in the northwest colony of to-day! If you bring with you a cargo of sympathetic understanding for the meaning of a colonial job to those who do it, you can here drift out and away from a highly speeded-up mechanistic age, away from hurry, herding and unrest and back into another day, another way of life and thinking—” when the world was younger, less exploited, and a more fresh wind blew between the hills of time.” To do so ” would from many a blunder free us, and selfish notion.”

Alaska grows more complex as it grows older, and the larger towns and longer settled regions are remarkably sophisticated for their actual age. There are sections of the country still in the period of exploration and discovery. Other sections are still in the early fur and fish and hand-mining periods of simple trade and barter, pioneer farming and pioneer herding are springing up in other sections, while ports and routes of trade are fast becoming modern beacon lights of commerce in a most modern and amazing fashion, new things and old co-twisted. Every chapter of the colonial story is open here to the wise man’s reading, and the enquiring person on Alaskan journey may truly turn back history, bid time return. Alaskans have the true pioneer mind, thinking little of the past and much of the future, and the true pioneer spirit of the independence of the individual. The traveller saturated in the color and spirit of America’s early days will see with delight here a firm grafting upon the spreading tree of Anglo-Saxon colonial tradition—another one of those fresh grafts which insure that the old tree will surely live on, because of the Anglo-Saxon heritage of adaptation to the new while yet keeping the best of the old.

He will see here, too, and will understand for what it is, the hot and headstrong and impulsive qualities of national youth, and will realize that the worst of Alaska’s trouble is merely the malaise of pubescence, rapidly being outgrown; for countries have their growing pains of both body and spirit. The wise person does not expect old heads on young shoulders, and he will not expect the sedate qualities of ripe old age to coexist with the exuberance and charm of youth. In 1789, when it took two months for a courier to travel from the new seat of government to the distant frontier, even a Thomas Jefferson could be mistaken in predicting that it would take a thousand years for the country to be thickly settled as far west as the Mississippi. So—do not scoff at empty spaces, in our Alaska.

The wise traveller will not despise the day of small things, for he will recall that in Washington’s day it was seriously debated whether New York or Alexandria, Virginia, would grow to be the greater city! No one could then foresee, and so the wise traveller will not turn up his nose at small cities, but will see in them the seedlings of empire. He will know that a Great Country, even as a great man, has an uncertain childhood and times when help and aid and quiet understanding are needed from kin and elders, more than a slap or a scolding. He will remember that Uncle Sam’s own early years were spent within the family of the British Lion, and so he will feel kindly toward this unlicked Cub of the Great Bear which has been taken to raise. He will recall that great things have inconsidered origins, and that even the world-famous Kennecott was only a prospect hole—once—until a wizard tamed the wildcat with a drill. For all great mines were wild-cats, once, and big capital only comes after small capital has developed possibility into potentiality—mixing time and intelligence, as we do with people, to make them truly ” grow up ” to usefulness and production.

The wise traveller will understand that people often seek out the Frontier in protest against some-thing in the social life of the old country, and so he will expect to find many a true protestant here. The Puritan protest was a fight as well as a creed, and the swords that rang against the pates of cavaliers at Naseby and at Marston Moor were swords of protest, wrought of the selfsame steel that swung in echoing axe-strokes against New England’s primeval forests. While not all who came to New England were Puritans, any more than here, yet the essence of the idea was a fight. There was, and is, plenty of chance for Puritan mettle upon any northern frontier. The North, the forest, the new land, the new way of life—these are a crucible, in which the virgin gold of character is assayed by strong reagents. Let no one cast himself unthinking into this crucible. Let no one with weak armor to his spirit enlist as warden of the northern marches, where only strong men hold the thin far line of civilization’s self, upon the Last Frontier.

Captain John Smith once wrote a famous prospectus for colonists, that Description which will never lose its charm so long as English-speaking people continue to roam and to colonize. In naming New England, at the request of Prince Charles, he said of it:

I would rather liue here than anywhere : & if it did not maintain it selfe, were wee but once indifferently well fitted, let vs starue. . The Summer is not so hot & the winter is more colde in these parts . . . than we finde in the same height in Europe or Asia. Yet the Sea there is the strangest fish-pond I euer saw; & those barren Iles so furnished with good woods, springs, fruits, fish and fowls it makes men think though the Coast be rockie & affrightable : the Vallies, Plaines & Interior parts may well (not-withstanding) be verie fertile . . . & New-England is great enough to make many Kingdomes & Countries, were it all inhabited.

When Professor Snodgrass starts out on his tour to interest northern-minded people in Alaska as a colony, backed up by Uncle Sam himself and the Government Railroad in Alaska, I hope he carries Captain John Smith in his pocket as I know he must do in his mind. I hope that he tells people: ” Quit envying your colonial ancestors their ` chance.’ Take your own chance, today, and yourself become–if you have the proper ` makings ‘—a contemporary ancestor in this new colonial adventure. Here is a land for producers and workers, for those who love to work on a large pattern and see the picture grow —a land not finished, but rather just begun. El Dorado really exists, but whether you find it or not depends upon the seeker and not upon the land in which you seek it. If you have not the durance of our winter wheat, to lie in patient undevelopment until the new soil works its miracle of life in you, do not come North.”

Alaska is not a land of get-rich-quick, any more than was New England. It needs, as New England needed in its youth, both men and time. Alaska doesn’t ask for frenzied gold-seekers, today. She asks for leaders, for thinkers, and ” He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him.” A cultural back-ground is the very best provision for recreative mental normalcy, under the stresses of pioneering life. Alaska is not a land for those who delight in compactitude, in the finished thing, the rounded, the exact, the classically composed entity. This is a land prodigious in flux, a land for people who revel in breadth and strangeness, in ” beauty touched with strangeness “—rough-edged, unfinished. We need colonists who are, as Roosevelt saw it, ” nearest akin to us by blood, belief, speech and law, and that are closest to us by the kindly ties of a former common history and tradition.” That need is vitally and doubly true here in the North to-day. Alaska is to the United States what Scandinavia is to Europe, and that is why Colonel Ohison of the Alaska Rail-road is in search of farmers from Finland and the Scandinavian countries—who have long combined fishing in the Gulf with making hay on the salt marshes—as well as Swiss, German and Hollanders. Alaska’s Delegate to Congress said to me only the other day: ” The most difficult thing, I find, is to get people to think of Alaska as populated with the same racial strains that predominate in the United States. The northern Territory differs from all other American Territories and possessions in respect to its national origins.” The North is, and continues to be, the land of the Northmen.

Every pioneer should be a born optimist, for the frontier is a land for the sanguine and not the melancholic disposition. I do not recommend Alaska today to the ordinary tourist, the person who wants things oil-smooth, who expects be-buttoned bell-boys to emerge from Ritzy hotels en route, who is disappointed if he does not see finished cities and finished lands. Such an one forgets that when a city or a land is finished it is dead, and such people should stay away from the Frontier. The North of freedom and friendliness will appeal most to the observant and intelligent real traveller. To my mind, the difference between a tourist and a traveller is that the latter has some notion of what he goes forth to see, while the former has not. Then, as Plato said so long ago, ” Either we shall find that which we seek or we shall be less likely to think that we know what we do not know, and this surely is no mean reward.” An open and a cheerful mind is an essential to any understanding of Alaska. Written above her gateway, we who know her read constantly this legend: “Abandon Mope, 411 Ye Who Enter Here.”

Neither is Alaska a place for those who are saving of their energies or sympathies. Grumps are not wanted or needed, and if either your mind or your heart is all buttoned up neat and tight, then avoid Alaska as you would the plague, for it is not for you. Even if you came and looked, you’d never really see the true Alaska. Many people going to Alaska on a trip take a change of heavy underclothing. What they really need to bring is a possible change of mind! Stefansson says, ” It is chiefly our unwillingness to change our minds which prevents the North from changing into a country to be used and lived in like the rest of the world.” Uncle Sam’s children have not until the last generation tried living in the attic; but those who do, like it immensely. Come on up, and take a look out of Uncle Sam’s attic windows, if you wish to get a new view of the world. Wasn’t it Lowell who said that our ancestors came to find a new world and found instead a new state of mind?

Bigness is the dominant note, so take your time if you go to Alaska, and don’t be like the Englishman who, on reaching Seattle, said, ” I think I’ll jolly well run over to Alaska for the weekend!” Men and mountains are big here, largeness of heart and broadness of mind match dominoes with largeness of territory. It is a place of big distance, as well as big promise. Its beauty is not arranged and formal like the English landscape, but wide and grand and crude and open—a wild beauty, untamed, and a beauty more than artificially skin deep. It is the very real beauty of inner vigor and health, engendering strength, promising plenty.

This is an adventure for those who value ” peace and their spiritual comforte above any other riches whatsoever,” as Bradford once wrote of some other much more famous colonists. But there is no such thing as salvation by geography. The Pilgrims of old did what they did, and how, because of what they brought with them as mental equipment and because of what they deliberately left behind, much more than by what they found in a new world. Merely coming to Alaska won’t solve any one’s problem, for it is only the Land of Promise to men of promise. The inexorable Law of the Yukon will reject all others. New England once asked that only colonists of “winnowed seed ” be sent to her, and our need here is also for winnowed seed, not chance-blown pollen. Alaska had her one unhappy experience of haphazard unwinnowed sowing, back in the days of ’98, and a good part of that hodge-podge planting of ill-adapted people has since been rooted out as unprofitable weeds. Today she vastly prefers a small working population to a large gambling population. The early New Englanders were but transplanted English, and we Alaskans are but transplanted Americans, not so much founding a new culture as prolonging an old one. We need true pioneer men and we need true pioneer women. To paraphrase Whitman:

” With all thy gifts, Alaska. What if one gift thou lackest (The ultimate human problem never solving) The gift of perfect woman fit for thee? The measured faiths of other lands, the grandeurs of the past, Are not for thee, but grandeurs of thine own—Deific faiths, and amplitudes.”