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 (about $33,000 in 2021).
The Kentucky company provided the team with a small steam ship (the SS
Jesse), a barge (the Minerva) and all the supplies and food they
would need for 2 years. In return for their investment, the Kentucky sponsors
would receive half of all gold found by the team between July 1898 and July
HEADED TO ALASKA
5/31/1898, the exploration team left Seattle aboard the Schooner
Lakme which was towing a barge called the Admiral. Lashed
to the deck of the Admiral was the SS Jesse and the Minerva.
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 at
that time. While there, the Captain of the Jesse hired a Japanese
cook, an Eskimo guide and a Moravian interpreter to help them on their Kuskokwim
voyage. Little did they know that 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 that
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 the storm.
Other reports say the crew and passengers were originally rescued by the
Yup'ik of Quinhagak village and later murdered by them. This report
will give you both sides of the debate so you can decide for yourself.
THE SS JESSE and the BARGE
SS 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
13 men who signed up with the Columbia Exploration
Company for a two year prospecting adventure were:
J.T. (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, 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
16. Ernest Ludwig Weber Moravian missionary from
Ougavik Village (interpreter)
17. Carrie Weber Moravian teacher and wife
of Ernest Weber
18. Freddie Weber Four year old son of Ernest
and Carrie Weber
SS JESSE HEADS FOR KUSKOKWIM BAY
the Kentucky exploration team and the SS Jesse were unloaded from
the Lakme at Goodnews Bay. From there, it would be a relatively short
(and safe) voyage to Kuskokwim Bay. The Bay itself, however was another story.
Kuskokwim Bay was famous for being "dangerous in
good weather and treacherous in stormy weather". In 1898, it was
not charted and the most treacherous section was the 10 mile approach to
the mouth of the Kuskokwim River which had high tides of +11' and low tides
of.5' At low tide, the Bay's extensive rocky shoals, ever shifting
sand banks and muddy water made for dangerous travel. On top of that, the
mouth of the river had fast currents and heavy breakers to contend with.
BEFORE THE STORM:
AGREE WITH THE FOLLOWING
While in route from Unalaska to Goodnews Bay, the veteran captain of the
Lakme tried to convince the crew of the Jesse to hire a "local"
at Quinhagak to pilot them through the mouth of the river but they didn't
listen to him. Instead, they asked Ernest Weber (the Moravian interpreter)
to pilot the boat because he lived on the Kuskokwim.
Weber told the crew that he had no experience navigating the Kuskokwim
and suggested they hire a man named John Kilbuck of Quinhagak. Kilbuck knew
the Kuskokwim waters very well and if anyone had a chance of sucessfully
piloting the Jesse, it would be him.
Weber piloted the Jesse over to the mouth of the Kanektok River. From there,
he rowed a kayak about one mile upriver to Quinhagak, where Kilbuck lived,
but he wasn't home. Kilbuck's wife urged Weber to wait-out the approaching
storm but he said he was going to "make the run for it" because he was in
a hurry to get to Bethel.
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. Word traveled quickly and Edward Lind, the Northern
Commercial Company agent at St. Michael's immediately went to Quinhagak
Lind unearthed the 2 bodies. One had employment papers in
his pocket that confirmed he was J.T.Murphy, Captain of the SS
Jesse. He also recognized the 2nd body as Ernest Weber, the Moravian
missionary. Soon two more bodies were found on the other side of the Bay
When questioned, the Quinhagak villagers suggested that the bodies were
probably from a boat that sunk in the Bay during the last big storm. They
described how the steamer struggled and tried to re-gain control by cutting
their barge free. They also said that they tried to row out to the boat, but
the storm was too strong and the steamer sunk. They later found the barge
Minerva on the north shore, still fully loaded.
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 woman who
grew up in Quinhagak.
In early July of 1898, about a week after
the big storm that sunk the SS Jesse, Marsten's wife 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.
"One fine day early in July, 1898, I was camped with
my wife and sister, Mrs. John Kilbuck, wife of the Rev. John Kilbuck,
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.
Mrs. Marsten asked her grandmother
where these new items came from. The grandmother said that the whole
village watched a steamer and barge struggle in a recent storm, so the 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
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, then they would not have enough supplies left for the upcoming
The old woman told her
granddaughter that the angry (and insulted) village council killed
the white men and took everything off of the barge. The next day, they took
the bodies out into the Bay, by kayak, and threw them overboard. Mrs. Marsten
was so alarmed by the story that she told her husband about it when she went
back to Kweegmute. Her husband wrote it all down in a letter and mailed it
to Richard Chilcotte, the owner of the SS Jesse.
LETTER WRITTEN BY DR.J. H. ROMIG
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 if Weber would
act as pilot on the Kuskokwim Bay.
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
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 that pilot.
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 board.
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 it, its cargo and its precious human
Chilcott (owner of the SS Jesse) forwarded Marsten's
letter about the deaths 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 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. Everyone
repeated 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 knew what 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.
Note from the Author:
I have never been able to determine if anyone was arrested for
of the people aboard the SS Jesse
THE FOLLOWING IS A BACKGROUND STORY ABOUT THE MORAVIAN
FAMILY WHO WAS
The story of how the Weber family came to be on the
SS Jesse, is a harrowing story itself. Ernest 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.
ABOARD THE SS JESSE 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. There was just enough time for the crew and passengers to
get into the lifeboats (in their pajamas) but there was no 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 year.
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
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 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
* 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 body was
discovered 3 years later on the coast between the Kuskokwim River and
the Yukon River by L.L.Bales an Alaskan explorer.
(Source: 10/16/1901 Birmingham News - Alabama).
SOURCES USED TO WRITE THIS ARTICLE
Archives Moravian Quarterly Report 1893
San Francisco Call
Boston Evening Transcript 8/10/1897
Sacramento Daily Union
The Wachovia Moravian
Report Salem, North Carolina August 1898
San Francisco Call
The Semi-Weekly Messenger
Wilmington, North Carolina 8/12/1898
Oregon City Courier
Hernhut, Germany (Minutes of the Provincial Elders
Duluth Evening Harold
Sacramento Daily Union
Lewiston Evening Journal
Lewiston, Maine 11/23/1898
Los Angeles Herald
Wichita Beacon Wichita,
Kansas City, Kansas 1/19/1899
Reno Evening Gazette
Reno, Nevada 3/1/1899
San Francisco Call
The Daily Mail and
Empire Toronto 4/4/1899
Sacramento Daily Union
The Anaconda Standard
Rome New York Daily
Chicago Tribune 7/10/1899
San Francisco Call
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
The Alaska Moravians
by Christian Arthur Weber 1935
The History of the
Moravian Church 1888-1985 by James Henkelman 1985