In the spring of 1898, the Columbia
Exploration Company of Kentucky bankrolled a team of 13
men in an effort to find gold on Alaska's Kuskokwim River. Most of
the would-be prospectors were from wealthy southern families and
each one paid $1,000 to join the expedition.
The Kentucky company provided the team
with a small steam ship (the SS Jesse), a barge (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.
HEADED TO ALASKA
the ocean schooner, Lakme, left Seattle, heading north, towing
a barge called the Admiral. Lashed to the deck of the Admiral,
was a little steamer called the SS Jesse and a barge called Minerva.
The Lakme also carried 130 hopeful prospectors, destined for Alaska's
gold fields; 13 of those men were sponsored by the Columbia Exploration
Company and a central part of this story.
After 3 weeks at sea, the Lakme
docked in Unalaska, a routine resupply stop for commercial vessels
headed to Fort St. Michael, the gateway to Alaska's Interior. While there,
the Captain of the Jesse hired extra help to aide them in their
Kuskokwim voyage: a Japanese cook, an Eskimo guide and a Moravian
missionary as interpreter. Little did they know what tragedy lay directly
ahead of them.
Historians have had different theories about the
demise of the SS Jesse for over a century. Everyone agrees
that she sunk just hours after she was unloaded from the Lakme,
but they disagree on the specifics of how she went down.
Some sources say the Jesse foundered at the
entrance of Goodnews Bay during a severe storm; others say she sunk
in the perilous 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 Jesse, everyone agrees that they perished. Some
reports say they drowned when the Jesse went down in a storm. Other
reports say the crew and passengers were originally 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
THE SS JESSE
the BARGE MINERVA
Jesse was a 65 ton, 50' long freight steamer with a 14' beam.
As far as her seaworthiness, some newspapers reported that she was
known to be unstable in rough seas because the former owners sold the
ships lead ballast and replaced it with cheaper scrap metal, but that
theory has not been proven. The Minerva, was a tow-behind barge
that was loaded with 2 years worth of provisions and supplies for
the Kentucky sponsored exploration team.
THE CREW AND PASSENGERS
OF THE SS JESSE
men who signed up with the Columbia Exploration Company
for a two year prospecting adventure were:
(or J.F.) 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,
6. Eli Knudsen from Genesee, Idaho
7. Dr. Richard Madison Allen from Dixon
8. George Smallhouse son of Capt.
C.G. Smallhouse, a very wealthy Kentucky banker
9. Harry C. Hedreen former clerk for
A.J. Prager and Sons
10. E.S. Lines formerly owned a pack saddlery
11. Archibald C. Stetson former clerk for
M. Seller and Co.
12. O.E. Aurud formerly owned a jewelry store
13. Clifford H. Hart from Tennessee (very
THE ADDITIONAL CREW HIRED
14. Ogawa the ships Japanese cook
15. One Eskimo guide (name not known)
16. Ernest Ludwig Weber Moravian missionary
from Ougavik Village on the Kuskokwim (interpreter)
17. Carrie Weber Moravian teacher
and wife of Ernest Weber
18. Freddie Weber Four year old
son of Ernest and Carrie Weber
IN UNALASKA WERE:
SS JESSE HEADS FOR
at 10 AM, Captain Carlson of the Lakme, unloaded
the SS Jesse and Minerva (the barge) at Goodnews Bay.
From there, it was a relatively short and safe voyage to Kuskokwim Bay.
The safety of Kuskokwim Bay itself, however, was
another story. It was known to be "dangerous in good weather
and treacherous in stormy weather". The most treacherous section
was the (uncharted) 10 mile approach to the
mouth of the Kuskokwim River, which had tides from +14' to -.7'
BEFORE THE STORM:
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 Captain
of the Jesse 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 Jesse asked passenger Ernest 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 Jesse through the
mouth of the river, so he suggested the Captain hire John Kilbuck, a Moravian
missionary that lived in the nearby Yup'ik Eskimo village of Quinhagak.
Kilbuck knew the Kuskokwim waters well and if anyone had a chance
of successfully piloting the Jesse through the mouth of the Kuskokwim,
it would be Kilbuck, so the Captain agreed.
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 the Kilbuck's lived, but John was not home. Kilbuck's wife, Edith
(nee Romig) urged Weber to wait-out the approaching storm, but he told her
that he was anxious to get underway and was going to try and "make the
run" himself. It would be a fatal mistake.
THE DEMISE OF THE SS JESSE
When the Kilbuck's didn't see the Jesse the
next morning, they assumed that Weber had safely piloted it upriver,
ahead of the storm. In fact, no one even suspected the Jesse
might be missing until almost a month later, when 2 bodies washed ashore
near Quinhagak Village. Word traveled quickly and Edward Lind, the
Northern Commercial Company agent at St. Michael's immediately went to
Quinhagak to investigate the deaths.
Lind unearthed the 2 bodies. One had employment papers in his pocket
that confirmed he was J.T.Murphy, Captain of the SS Jesse, and Lind
recognized the 2nd body as Ernest Weber, the Moravian missionary. Word
quickly arrived that two more bodies were found on the other side of the
The villagers told Lind that the bodies must be from a steamer
that sunk nearby. When pressed for more details, they described seeing
a steamer and barge struggling in the Bay during a huge storm about
a month earlier. They said that they tried to rescue the people, but
the storm was too strong. They also said that they watched the steamer
cut the barge free in an effort to re-gain control, but the steamer
sunk anyway. After the storm, the barge was found washed up on the north
shore of the Bay.
Lind asked the villagers to show him the barge,
which they did. It's sides were stove-in and there was no freight
on-board. The name on the side of the barge was Minerva.
THE DEMISE OF THE SS JESSE
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.
In early July of 1898, about a week after the big
storm that sunk the SS Jesse, Mrs. Marsten went to Quinhagak
to visit her grandmother. She attended a two day potlatch where
the villagers served food and drink that was unfamiliar to her. She
also noticed that many of them were wearing new clothes, gold watches,
neckties and had unexplained 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 grandmother where these new items came
from; the story her grandmother told her would eventually reach Washington
Mrs. Marsten's grandmother said that the whole village watched a steamer
and barge struggle in a recent big storm. Villagers paddled out and cut
the barge free and rescued 18 people that were aboard the doomed steamer.
The story didn't surprise Mrs. Marsten
too much because she remembered 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 village council asked them for everything that was on the
barge as payment for the rescue. The Captain counter-offered a percentage
of the goods on the barge, but explained that
if they gave the villagers everything, that they would not have enough
supplies left for the upcoming winter.
The old woman told her
granddaughter that the angry (and insulted) village council
decided to kill the white men so they could help themselves to the barge.
The next night, after the white men
were asleep, the council carried out their plan
and killed the white men and took the bodies out into the Bay (by
kayak) and threw them overboard.
Mrs. Marsten was so alarmed by 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 Jesse.
"One fine day early in July, 1898, I was camped with my
wife and sister, Mrs. John Kilbuck, wife of the Rev. John Kilbuck,
LETTER WRITTEN BY DR. J. H. ROMIG
one of our first missionaries to Alaska, at Quinhagak on the
Kuskokwim Bay in Alaska. Brother Kilbuck was out in the Bay with the
sailboat Swan and a native crew, hunting seal.
Late that afternoon a kayak arrived with the incoming tide. It
was the Rev. Ernest Weber, another of the pioneer missionaries. He
had come to take the Swan to Goodnews Bay, where he was to pick
up a deck load from a small steamer and a party of miners who were bound
for the Kuskokwim River. Brother Weber had met this party at Unalaska and
they had offered
him and his wife and child free passage to Bethel if Weber would
act as pilot on the Kuskokwim Bay and River up to Bethel.
As the tide was about to ebb, Brother Weber remained only long
enough for a little supper, for he wanted to return with the tide. We
promised to send the Swan to him when Brother Kilbuck returned
and waved farewell to him.
When Brother Kilbuck returned and heard that the Swan
was needed, he took fresh food and water and headed for Kuskokwim Bay.
Here he got stuck on a sand bar which held him fast until the late tide
the next day floated him off. The storm lasted three days, with heavy
waves which threw spray twenty or thirty feet above the banks of the bay.
Brother Kilbuck then set out for Goodnews Bay to pick up the
deck load which Brother Weber had asked him to get. While he was gone,
a native from across the bay came into camp. He had on new clothing
such as miners would have. The native reported that a barge had come
ashore after the storm; the tow line, which held it to the boat pulling
it had been cut, but all the contents of the barge were dry and safe.
The natives had taken the supplies off the barge.
When Brother Kilbuck reached Goodnews Bay, he learned that Brother
Weber had left the day before the storm with the party he was to pilot
and their barge. He had tried to hire two native pilots to go with
him, but one of them, watching the fleecy clouds form over the mountains,
had refused to go, knowing they meant a coming storm. The party left without
Kilbuck supposed that the little steamer had made shelter and
so he did not worry about it. He waited until he could pick up the deck
load for which he had come, then returned to the warehouse and unloaded
the boat. When this was finished, he headed up the river toward Bethel,
asking at every village if the small steamer and barge had passed. At each
place the answer was, 'no'.
Now he was beginning to fear for the safety of the little boat.
Surely if they had cut the barge adrift, they must have been in some
difficulty during the storm. From Bethel the Swan was dispatched
with native kayaks on board to go down the river and into the Bay to search
for the little steamer.
They did not find [it] nor did they find Brother Weber and his
wife and little boy. But they found the remains of one of the miners
and farther along, the remains of the captain of the party. There were
sufficient papers and jewelry to identify these two. Now there was no
question as to what had happened to the little boat and all who were on
Later that fall as some natives were seal hunting in the bay,
they found the little steamer bottom side up on a sand bar. The bottom
of the boat was sound - no holes or leaks. It must have foundered in the
storm, carrying down with its cargo and its precious human lives...."
Chilcott (the part owner of the SS Jesse) forwarded Marsten's
letter about the murders 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
people aboard the SS Jesse.
One of the first things
the investigators did, was to dig up the 3 bodies
that washed ashore the previous summer. Fortunately, the
permafrost had preserved the bodies well and Shoup was able to
recognize Ernest 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 Jesse.
Next, the team went to Quinhagak village
where they asked villagers about the fate of the SS Jesse.
their original 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 the story she had 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
Marshal Shoup then interviewed Capt. Carlson
of the ocean steamer Lakme. Carlson told Shoup that, when
he originally unloaded the SS Jesse at Goodnews Bay, he
thought they might be headed for trouble because "none of the crew
they were doing". He said the Captain of the Jesse had
NO experience on Alaska waters and that the engineer had no
marine experience at all, having only worked as an engineer
for the railroad.
I have never been able to determine
if anyone was arrested for the
of the people aboard the SS Jesse
THE FOLLOWING IS A BACKGROUND STORY ABOUT THE
The story of how the Weber family came to be on the SS
Jesse, is a harrowing story of its own. Ernest Ludwig Weber, the
MORAVIAN FAMILY WHO WAS ABOARD THE
SS JESSE THE DAY IT SUNK
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.
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. There
was just enough time for the crew and passengers to get into the lifeboats
(in their pajamas) but there was not time to save any
of their luggage, so the Weber families entire savings ($300) went
down with the boat.
The crew and passengers rowed the lifeboats to the small Indian
village of Metlakatla where Father Duncan and the villagers 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
After almost a year in Utica, New
York, Ernest 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.
Ernest, his wife 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.
While in Ohio, The Weber's 15 month
old son, Albert, became very ill. He was treated at a hospital, but
the illness grew worse and the baby died and was buried in Dover.
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 large number of gold rush prospectors
waiting for passage out of Unalaska. It was going to be a long wait,
so the Weber's found temporary housing in the Methodist Jessie Lee Orphanage.
After weeks of waiting, Ernest Weber heard that the SS Jesse
was offering free and immediate passage up the Kuskokwim
River in exchange for anyone who could work as an interpreter and
guide for them; Weber jumped at the chance (the whole family spoke Eskimo
fluently). They would all be dead two days later.
the 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 Jesse 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 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 was NOT charted in 1898.
The USGS charted the bay in 1914.
* I was not able to find a record of anyone ever
being arrested for the deaths of those aboard the SS Jesse. 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
*Ernest Weber's body was one of the 1st ones that
washed ashore after the sinking of the SS Jesse. His wife Caroline's
discovered 3 years later on the coast between the Kuskokwim River and
the Yukon River by L.L.Bales an Alaskan
(Source: 10/16/1901 Birmingham News - Alabama).
USED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE
Wachovia Archives Moravian
Quarterly Report 1893
San Francisco Call 9/7/1897
Boston Evening Transcript 8/10/1897
Sacramento Daily Union
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
Duluth Evening Harold 11/22/1898
Sacramento Daily Union
Lewiston Evening Journal
Lewiston, Maine 11/23/1898
Los Angeles Herald 11/23/1898
Wichita Beacon Wichita,
Arizona Republican 11/29/1898
Kansas City, Kansas 1/19/1899
Reno Evening Gazette
Reno, Nevada 3/1/1899
Arizona Republican 3/27/1899
San Francisco Call 4/1/1899
The Daily Mail and Empire
Sacramento Daily Union
The Anaconda Standard 6/30/1899
Rome New York Daily Sentinel
Chicago Tribune 7/10/1899
San Francisco Call 9/2/1899
Indianapolis Journal 9/2/1899
Columbia Herald 4/26/1901
Birmingham News 10/16/1901 Birmingham, Alabama
Federal Reporter Volume
113-114 Aetna Life Insurance vs. R.P. Frierson
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
Arthur Weber 1935
The History of the Moravian
Church 1888-1985 by James Henkelman 1985