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) on 5/31/1898
with the SS Jessie and the Minerva lashed to her deck.
She was carried hundreds of other "hopeful prospectors" destined for the
Alaska Gold Rush, including the 13 men contracted by the Columbia Exploration
After 3 weeks at sea, the Lakme docked in Unalaska, a
routine resupply stop for most commercial vessels headed for the Bering
Sea. While there, the captain of the smaller 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 written 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 just outside
of the 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 sunk; others
say the people 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.
THE SS JESSIE and the
Jessie was a 65 ton, 50' long freight steamer with a 14¼' beam.
Newspaper reports said that the previous owners of the Jessie
had sold the ships lead ballast and tried to replace it with cheaper scrap
metal, making her unstable, but I've never been able to confirm that story.
The Minerva, was a tow behind scow that was loaded with a
years worth of provisions and supplies for the exploration team.
THE JESSIE's CREW AND PASSENGERS
The 13 men who signed
up with the Columbia Exploration Company for a two year prospecting
Murphy from Bowling Green Kentucky (signed up
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 and
12. O.E. Aurud formerly owned a jewelry store in Seattle
13. Clifford H. Hart from Tennessee (very wealthy)
Additional crew hired in Unalaska were:
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
to be a relatively short and safe voyage to Kuskokwim Bay.
The safety of Kuskokwim Bay 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, make for dangerous travel.
To add to 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 to hire one of the "locals" at Quinhagak Village
to pilot the Jesse through the mouth of the river, but he didn't
listen. Instead, he asked Ernst Weber, the Moravian interpreter (that he
hired in Unalaska) to be the pilot.
Ernst Weber had lived on the Kuskokwim River for nearly
a decade but he knew that he was not experienced enough to pilot the Jessie
up the river. Instead, Weber told the Captain to hire John Kilbuck,
a Moravian missionary (and full blooded Delaware Indian) that lived in the
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 success, it would be Kilbuck and 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
was not home, but his wife Edith assured Weber that her husband would be
back soon and adavised him 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 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. Nearby villagers told him
that the bodies must have come from a steamer that sunk in the Bay during
a recent storm. When pressed for more details, the villagers told Lind 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 said they considered
trying 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 told the authorities at St. Michael's that a steamer
had sunk in Kuskokwim Bay and that 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 an Yup'ik Eskimo woman(originally from Quinhagak
village). Every summer, she went back to Quinhagak 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 to
fight 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
Mrs. Marsten's grandmother told her that the items were taken from
some white people. When she pressed her grandmother for more information,
the old woman described how the entire village had watched a steamer (and
scow) begin to sink out in the Bay during a recent storm. She said that
villagers paddled out and cut the scow free and rescued 18 people that
were aboard the steamer.
The story didn't surprise Mrs. Marsten 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.
She was told, that after
the white men were on shore and had set up a camp, the villagers asked
to be paid for the rescue. The Captain made an offer that the villagers
were not happy with. They countered by saying they wanted everything that
was on the scow as payment. The Captain tried to explain to them that if
he gave them what they asked for, that he and his exploration team would
have no supplies for the upcoming winter.
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 (with 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.
It was early winter (1898) when
Richard 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 by
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 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 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 in
* 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