Monday, January 26, 2015

Treasure Trove

The community of St. Michael, c. 1906. What appears to be water is frozen harbor ice.
Photographer unknown.

The Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society recently completed digitization of a unique group of primary historical records. The "Fragmentary Records of The Custom House of St. Michael, Alaska, 1894-1917" is now available to read via computer without risk of damage to the original documents.

Why is this important? The small island Alaskan community of Fort St. Michael, once a Russian trading post, then an American military site, sat close to the mouth of the Yukon River. As such it became the port of embarkation for miners headed up the Yukon River to the gold fields during the Gold Rush of 1897, as well as smaller strikes prior. In this chaotic period of marine traffic, the Customs House was a vital player in maintaining US law and order in a remote enclave.

A number of documents salvaged from the shuttered customs house found a home at PSMHS. In the early 1960s PSMHS member William Taylor, himself a traveler on the Dawson Trail as a boy, organized the material in a bound volume and provided a detailed historic overview in order to place them in context.

The document shown is a request for information to be used in a dispute over a "seaman's wages." 


The correspondence and records, both typed and hand-written, offer a window into life during this frenetic period of boom and bust. In amongst the routine matters of import, export, accidents, and taxation are glimpses of human drama:

There is a plea for special assistance from a miner “since I have already been so unfortunate as to have been blown into the Yukon.”

A request to the Treasury Department for clarification of some points of maritime law relating to stranded sailors reveals the precariousness of sea life: “I have the honor to inform you that on November 30th last [1901], the Chilean steam whaler “Fearless” was blown on the rocks and wrecked at Dutch Harbor...The wreck of the vessel left the crew destitute.”

A “poor lone mother” in Ohio begs for information about her lost son: “His last letter was June 1902 and promised to be home and we received no more of since. He should have been on the General Siglin.” A hand notation on the page indicates there was no news of the boy and newspapers of the day gave the sealing schooner up for lost.

An unusual item, which may have been sent to all U.S. ports of call, is a request from the French ambassador to be on the look-out for a stolen work of art from the French town of Laguenne…”a so-called Eucharistic dove of the thirteenth century, of gilt and enameled copper, standing on an engraved copper tray hanging by four chains from a jeweled crown. The eyes of the dove are represented by gems, and the wings and tail are also set with rare stones. In the back there is a hinged opening for the introduction of the [sacramental] hosts.” An internet search easily picks up images of these religious artifacts.

It comes as little surprise that the regulation of the liquor trade commands a large share of the correspondence. Several documents relate to the request of a James Wilson to receive a permit to sell “intoxicating liquors for medicinal, mechanical and scientific purposes” at his place of business in Circle City, Alaska. The exact type of business is not specified, but it should be noted that Circle City was a distant outpost on the Yukon River populated almost exclusively by miners.

What type of medicinal liquor did Mr. Wilson propose to sell? The import permit issued at Sitka in 1896 lists the following:

200 gals whiskey

20 gals Rum

50 gals Brandy

50 gals Port wine

50 gals sherry

200 gals Claret

1 case Absinthe

1 case Chartreuse

1 case Benedictine

50 bbls Beer

5 bbls Porter

One hopes that these quantities were sufficient to last until the Klondike Stampede of 1897 turned Circle City back into a ghost town.

Others attempted less legal methods of bringing liquor to the cold country. In 1898 the Collector of Customs at St. Michael was warned by his counterpart in Sitka that “the steamship ‘Laurada’ has aboard a valuable cargo of whiskey, which it will be attempted to land unlawfully within the District of Alaska; that the bulk of the liquor is stored underneath the ship’s coal, so that great care must be taken that none of the liquor is landed over and above what appears on her manifest as ship’s stores, and in bond.”


Digitization of a large volume is not inexpensive. We are grateful to a group of historians researching shipwrecks on the Yukon River, the S.S. Politkovsky research team, for a special donation to make this happen. PSMHS Executive Director Karen Marshall worked with the University of Washington Digital Initiatives Program to create high-quality scans of each page of the collection, including a map hand-drawn and colored by Mr. Taylor. Thanks to their efforts, Mr. Taylor’s compilation can be stored permanently within archival-quality housing while digital copies are available to view on CD-ROM.

PSMHS has over 800 cubic feet of archival materials available for scholarly and personal research, including over 60,000 maritime related photographs and negatives, including the Joe Williamson Collection, 7,000 ships’ plans, press clippings, legal and financial records of a number of maritime companies and shipbuilding firms, and detailed records of ships’ movement in and out of Puget Sound ports during the first half of the 20th century. Our holdings relate to maritime life and commerce both in Puget Sound and up and down the Pacific Coast from Alaska to California.
If you are interested in working with our collections, please contact the PSMHS office to schedule an appointment in our research center, located in Georgetown at the MOHAI Resource Center.

-- Eleanor Boba