In the spring of 1898, the Columbia
Exploration Company of Kentucky, bankrolled a team of 13 men in
search of gold on the Kuskokwim River in Alaska. Most of them were
from wealthy southern families and each one paid $1,000 to join the expedition.
The Kentucky company provided the team with a freight
steamer (the SS Jessie), a scow (the Minerva)
and all the supplies and food that they would need for two years. In return
for their investment, the Kentucky company was to receive half of
all gold recovered by the team between July 1898 and July 1900.
the ocean schooner, Lakme, left Seattle, headed north, with the SS
Jessie and the Minerva lashed to her deck. She also carried hundreds
of hopeful prospectors, destined for the Alaska Gold Rush, including the 13
men contracted by the Columbia Exploration Company.
After 3 weeks
at sea, the Lakme docked in Unalaska, a routine resupply stop for
most commercial vessels headed to the Bering Sea. While there, the Captain
of the SS Jessie hired extra help for their Kuskokwim voyage: a
Japanese cook, an Eskimo guide and a Moravian interpreter. Little did
they know what tragedy lay directly ahead of them.
Historians have had theories about the demise of the SS Jessie
for over a century. Everyone agrees that she sunk in Good News Bay,
just hours after she was unloaded from the Lakme, but they disagree
on the specifics of how she went down.
Some sources say the SS Jessie foundered at the entrance
of Good News Bay during a storm; others say she sunk in the rough waters
at the mouth of the Kuskokwim River; some even say that she managed
to get a good distance up the river before she sunk.
As for the fate of the 18 souls aboard the SS
Jessie, everyone agrees that they perished. Some historians
are convinced that they drowned when the SS Jessie foundered;
others say the crew and passengers were rescued by the Yup'ik Eskimos
of Quinhagak village and later murdered by them. This report will give
you both sides of the argument so you can decide for yourself.
JESSIE and the SCOW MINERVA
Jessie was a 65 ton, 50' long freight steamer with a 14' beam. As
far as her seaworthiness, some newspapers reported that she was unstable
because her previous owners sold the ships lead ballast and tried to replace
it with cheaper scrap metal, but that has not been proven. The Minerva,
was a tow behind scow that was loaded with a years worth of provisions
and supplies for the exploration team.
CREW AND PASSENGERS OF THE SS JESSE
The 13 men who signed
up with the Columbia Exploration Company for a two year
prospecting adventure were:
Murphy from Bowling Green Kentucky (signed
up as Captain)
2. Charles Kinsler formerly worked
for Louisville & Nashville Railroad (signed up as Engineer)
3. Robert Payne Frierson
owned a law firm in Chattanooga, Tennessee
4. Will T. Payton a former freight agent for the
Louisville & Nashville Railroad
5. Charles H. Mitchell from Gallatin, Tennessee
6. Eli Knudsen from Genesee, Idaho
7. Dr. Richard Madison Allen from Dixon Springs,
8. George Smallhouse son of Capt. C.G. Smallhouse,
a very wealthy Kentucky banker
9. Harry C. Hedreen former clerk for A.J. Prager
10. E.S. Lines formerly owned a pack saddlery business
11. Archibald C. Stetson former clerk for M. Seller
12. O.E. Aurud formerly owned a jewelry store in Seattle
13. Clifford H. Hart from Tennessee (very wealthy)
THE ADDITIONAL CREW HIRED IN UNALASKA
14. Ogawa the ships Japanese cook
15. One Eskimo guide (name not known)
16. Ernst Ludwig Weber Moravian missionary from
Ougavik Village on the Kuskokwim (interpreter)
17. Carrie Weber Moravian
teacher and wife of Ernst Weber
18. Freddie Weber Four year old
son of Ernst and Carrie Weber
THE SS JESSIE HEADS
FOR KUSKOKWIM BAY
at 10 AM, Captain Carlson of the Lakme, unloaded the SS
Jessie and the Minerva at Goodnews Bay. From there, it was
supposed to be a relatively short and safe voyage to Kuskokwim Bay.
The safety of Kuskokwim Bay itself, was another story. It was known
to be "dangerous in good weather and treacherous in stormy weather". The
most treacherous section was the final (uncharted) 10 mile approach to
the mouth of the Kuskokwim River, which had tides from +14' to -.7'
BEFORE THE STORM, MOST SOURCES AGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING
At low tide, the Bay's extensive
rocky shoals, shifting sand banks and muddy water, made for dangerous travel.
On top of that, the mouth of the river had fast currents, heavy breakers
and a strong undertow to contend with.
While in route from Unalaska to Goodnews Bay, the veteran Captain
of the Lakme tried to convince the Capt. of the SS Jessie
that it would be wise for him to hire one of the "locals" at Quinhagak
Village to pilot the Jesse through the mouth of the river, but he
was ignored. Instead, the Captain of the Jessie asked passenger Ernst Weber
for advise since Weber had lived on the Kuskokwim River for
nearly a decade. Weber knew that he was not experienced enough to pilot
the Jessie up the river, so he suggested that the Captain hire
John Kilbuck, a Moravian missionary (and full blooded Delaware Indian) that
lived in the nearby Yup'ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak. John Henry Kilbuck
and his wife Edith (Romig) Kilbuck knew the Kuskokwim waters well and if
anyone had a chance of successfully piloting the SS Jessie through the mouth
of the Kuskokwim, it would be Kilbuck, so the Captain agreed.
Weber piloted the
steamer across the Bay, to the mouth of the Kanektok River, and then rowed
a small boat about one mile upriver to Quinhagak where Kilbuck lived.
He wasn't home, but his wife, Edith, advised Weber to wait out the approaching
storm. Weber told Edith that he was anxious to get underway and was going
to try and make a run for it himself. It would be a fatal mistake.
THE DEMISE OF THE SS JESSIE
--- VERSION ONE
When the Kilbuck's didn't see the SS Jessie in the Bay the
next morning, they assumed that Weber had safely piloted the steamer upriver,
ahead of the storm. In fact, no one even suspected the Jessie might
be missing until almost a month later, when 3 bodies washed ashore near
An old time trader from St. Michael, named Edward Lind,
was at Quinhagak when the bodies were found. The villagers told Lind
that the bodies must have come from a steamer that sunk in the Bay during
a recent storm. When pressed for more details, they told him that a steamer,
towing a heavily laden scow, was seen struggling in the Bay during a heavy
storm about a month earlier and described watching the steamer cut its
scow free in an effort to re-gain control. They explained how they tried to
rescue the people aboard the steamer, but couldn't get out to them before
it sunk. The scow was later found washed up on the north shore of the Bay.
Lind asked the villagers to take him to the scow, which they did.
It had no freight on it because the locals had already harvested everything.
The sides of the scow were stove-in and it was half full of water; the
name on the side of the scow was the Minerva.
Lind then reported to the authorities at St. Michael's,
that a steamer had sunk in Kuskokwim Bay and three bodies had washed ashore.
THE DEMISE OF THE SS JESSIE
--- VERSION TWO
R. C. Marsten, a white fur trader living
in the village of Kweegamute on the south side of Nunivak Island,
was married to a Yup'ik Eskimo woman who grew up in Quinhagak village.
Every summer, she went back to visit her grandmother.
In early July of 1898, about a week after the big storm that sunk
the SS Jessie, Mrs. Marsten went to Quinhagak for a visit.
She attended a two day feast where the villagers served food and drink
that she didn't recognize. She also noticed that many were wearing
new clothes, gold watches, neckties and had unexplained amounts of cash.
As the potlatch continued into the evening, intoxicated villagers began
fighting over some breech loading rifles that were also new to the village.
asked her elderly grandmother where these strange items came
from, and the story her grandmother told her would eventually reach Washington
D.C. She said that the whole village watched a steamer and scow struggle
against the storm and start to sink. Villagers paddled out and cut the scow
free and rescued 18 people that were aboard the steamer.
The story didn't surprise Mrs. Marsten very much because
she knew of other instances where the villagers rescued white men in
the Bay for which they were usually paid handsomely. However, the rest
of her grandmothers story alarmed her.
After the white
men were on shore and had set up a camp, the villagers asked for everything
that was on the scow as payment for the rescue. The Captain tried to explain
to them that they could not afford to give away a years worth of supplies.
The old woman told her granddaughter
that the angry villagers held a council meeting, later that night, and
decided to kill the people they had rescued and take what they felt
was owed to them. The next night, after the white men were asleep, the
villagers killed all 18 of them, then took the bodies out into the Bay
(in canoes) and threw them overboard.
Mrs. Marsten was so alarmed about her grandmothers story, that
she told her husband about it when she returned to Nunivak Island. Her
husband wrote everything down in a letter and mailed it to Richard Chilcotte,
the head of the Kentucky based company that owned the SS Jessie.
Chilcott forwarded Marsten's letter to U.S. Marshal Shoup in
Juneau. Shoup, then forwarded the letter to Kentucky Congressman William
Thomas Ellis, who then forwarded it to the U.S. Department of Interior,
who then forwarded it to Alaska Governor John Brady. Brady assured
all concerned that an investigation would begin the following summer
after weather permitted travel into the Kuskokwim area.
In a report to the Dept. of Interior, Marshal Shoup wrote: "There was,
no doubt, a massacre on 6/27/1898 and I will bring the murderous Indians
to justice. The Revenue Cutter McCullogh will soon find safe anchorage in
Kuskokwim Bay and I will bring a well armed party of sailors ashore that
will proceed up the Kuskokwim River with Native and missionary guides in
canoes. I will bring all of the Indian suspects to Sitka for trial."
In the fall of 1899, the Revenue
Cutter Corwin, commanded by Capt. Herring, was sent to Nunivak
Island to talk to R.C. Marsten, the author of the original letter of
concern. Capt. Herring took Marsten to Quinhagak village to join U.S. Marshal
James M. Shoup and U.S. District Judge Charles Johnson who were heading
the investigation into the deaths of the 18 people aboard the SS Jessie.
One of the first things the investigators
did, was to dig up the three bodies that washed ashore the
previous summer. Fortunately, the permafrost had preserved the
bodies well and Shoup was able to recognize Ernst Weber, the Moravian
missionary. The second body was that of a tall man with a gold
front tooth and the third body still had papers in his pocket saying
he was J. F. Murphy, the Captain of the SS Jessie.
Next, the team went to Quinhagak village where they
asked villagers about the fate of the SS Jessie. Everyone
told the same story: that the steamer sunk in a violent storm near the
mouth of the Kuskokwim River and they all drowned. Even Mrs. Marsten's
grandmother told the same story. When Marshal Shoup reminded her of
a different story that she told her granddaughter, she said she had "forgotten"
that story. The more Marshal Shoup talked to the villagers, the more he
was convinced that they were covering up the murders.
Marshal Shoup then interviewed Capt. Carlson of the ocean steamer
Lakme. Carlson told Shoup that, when he unloaded the SS Jessie
at Goodnews Bay, he thought they might be headed for trouble because
"none of the crew knew what they were doing". He said the Captain of
the Jessie had NO experience on Alaska waters and that the engineer
had no marine experience at all, having only ever worked as an engineer
for the railroad.
I have never been able to determine if anyone was arrested for the
deaths of the people aboard the SS Jessie.
THE FOLLOWING IS A BACKGROUND STORY ABOUT THE MORAVIAN
The story of how the Weber family came to be on the SS
Jessie, is a harrowing story of its own. Ernst Ludwig Weber, the
son of German immigrants, originally came to Bethel, Alaska as a Moravian
missionary in 1888. His future wife, Caroline "Carrie" Detterer arrived
in Bethel as a Moravian teacher in 1889. They married a year later and
were transferred to the tiny Kuskokwim village of Ougavig (80 miles upriver
from Bethel) where they worked as missionaries for 9 years.
WAS ABOARD THE SS JESSIE THE DAY IT SUNK
By 1897, the Weber's had 3 little boys (Christian
6, Freddie 3 and Albert 3 months). Mr. Weber's health was in decline
and they asked the Moravian church for a year long furlough so he could
get medical help on the east coast.
That fall, the Weber's boarded a 275' steam powered schooner
called the Mexico and headed for Seattle. On August 8,
1897, as the ship approached Dixon Entrance at full speed and in the dark,
it hit West Devil's Rock and sunk. All crew and passengers were saved but
there wasn't time to save all of the luggage, so the Weber families entire
savings, $300, went down with the boat.
The crew and passengers rowed their lifeboats to the small Indian village
of Metlakatla where Father Duncan and the village Indians cared for them
and sent word to the SS Topeka that the survivors needed to be rescued. It
was only the first of many tragedies that would
descend upon the young Weber family that year.
After almost a year in Utica, New York, Ernst had
recovered his health and the Weber's were anxious to return to the
Kuskokwim. They made arrangements for their oldest son Christian
to stay behind and live with his paternal grandmother while he went to
school in New York.
Ernst, Carrie and their two youngest sons planned to ride the train
from New York to the west coast, with a mid-trip stopover in Dover,
Ohio to visit family and friends. From Seattle, they would head to Alaska
While in Ohio, The Weber's youngest son, Albert,
now 15 months old, became very ill. He was treated at a hospital,
but the illness grew worse and the baby passed away and was buried
In Seattle, the grief stricken Weber's boarded an ocean
steamer that was headed for Alaska. Their first destination was the
small town of Unalaska on the Aleutian Chain, the closest supply
stop to their final destination of Bethel village. What the Weber's
didn't anticipate was the number of gold rush prospectors waiting for
passage out of Unalaska. It was going to be a long wait for the Weber's,
so they found temporary housing in the Methodist Jesse Lee Orphanage and
waited weeks for passage.
Eventually, Ernst Weber heard that the SS Jessie was offering
free and immediate passage up the Kuskokwim River in exchange
for anyone who could work as an interpreter for them; Weber jumped at
the chance (the whole family spoke Eskimo fluently). They would all be
dead two days later.
Weber's oldest son, Christian Otto Weber, survived the harrowing
year of 1898. He was raised by his grandmother in Utica, New York and
became a prominent Moravian minister in Winston Salem, North Carolina.
His grandson, F. Herbert Weber returned to the village of Bethel
in 1999 to give a sermon in honor of his grandparents who were missionaries
there from 1886-1898.
*Several of the people aboard
the SS Jessie took out life insurance policies before they
left for Alaska. I found considerable information about the mens
business arrangements with the Columbia Exploration Company inside
those records, especially the Aetna Life Insurance files.
A policy written for Robert Payne Frierson, a prominent lawyer
(for example) was for $5,000, and that amount would double if Frierson
died while in route to the gold fields. Aetna argued (during
several appeals) that the insurance policy was void because Frierson signed
a document saying he was not working in a hazardous occupation. Aetna's
claimed that prospecting in Alaska WAS a hazardous occupation. However,
Frierson's attorney countered that argument by saying Frierson was still
traveling TO the Kuskokwim River when he died (and had NOT started
prospecting yet). Aetna ended up paying $10,000 to Frierson's mother.
Kuskokwim Bay wasn't charted in 1898. The USGS charted the bay
* I was not able to find a record of anyone ever being arrested for the
deaths of those aboard the SS Jessie. I can only assume that no further
action was taken in this case.
* John Kilbuck's wife, Edith (nee Romig) was the older sister of Dr. Joseph
Romig, a well known pioneer Alaskan bush doctor who later practiced in Anchorage.
SOURCES USED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE
Wachovia Archives Moravian Quarterly Report
San Francisco Call 9/7/1897
Boston Evening Transcript 8/10/1897
Sacramento Daily Union 8/9/1898
The Wachovia Moravian Report Salem, North
Carolina August 1898
San Francisco Call 8/10/1898
The Semi-Weekly Messenger Wilmington,
North Carolina 8/12/1898
Oregon City Courier 9/16/1898
Moravian Archives Hernhut, Germany (Minutes
of the Provincial Elders Conference 9/17/1898)
Seattle Post-Intelligencer 11/14/1898
Duluth Evening Harold 11/22/1898
Sacramento Daily Union 11/23/1898
Lewiston Evening Journal Lewiston,
Los Angeles Herald 11/23/1898
Wichita Beacon Wichita, Kansas 11/23/1898
Arizona Republican 11/29/1898
Wyandott Herald Kansas City, Kansas
Reno Evening Gazette Reno, Nevada
Arizona Republican 3/27/1899
San Francisco Call 4/1/1899
The Daily Mail and Empire Toronto
Sacramento Daily Union 5/29/1899
The Anaconda Standard 6/30/1899
Rome New York Daily Sentinel 7/1/1899
Chicago Tribune 7/10/1899
San Francisco Call 9/2/1899
Indianapolis Journal 9/2/1899
Seattle Post-Intellingencer 12/26/1900
Columbia Herald 4/26/1901
Federal Reporter Volume 113-114 Aetna
Life Insurance vs. R.P. Frierson 1902
United States Circuit Court of Appeals
Reports Volume 51 1902
The Paducah Sun 9/16/1905
Alaska Coast Pilot Notes for Kuskokwim
River and Kuskokwim Bay by USGS 1915
The Alaska Moravians by Christian Otto Weber
The History of the Moravian Church 1888-1985
by James Henkelman 1985