Tragedy on the Kuskokwim in 1898 .


 A True Story

  by Coleen Mielke

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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 1900.


On 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 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 13 men who signed up with the Columbia Exploration Company for a two year prospecting adventure were:

1.  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, Tennessee
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 business
11. Archibald C. Stetson former clerk for M. Seller and Co.
12. O.E. Aurud formerly owned a jewelry store in Seattle
13. Clifford H. Hart from Tennessee  (very wealthy)


14. Ogawa the ships Japanese cook
15. One Eskimo guide (name not known)
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


On 6/27/1898, 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.



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.



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 to investigate.

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 as well.

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.



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.

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 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, then they would not have enough supplies left for the upcoming winter.

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.



"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.

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 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 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 lives...."


Richard 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, t
he 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 Capt
ain 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 murders.

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 the

deaths of the people aboard the SS Jesse



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.

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 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.


*Only 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 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).

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Wachovia Archives Moravian Quarterly Report 1893
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, Maine  11/23/1898
Los Angeles Herald 11/23/1898
Wichita Beacon  Wichita, Kansas  11/23/1898
Arizona Republican 11/29/1898
Wyandott Herald   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  Toronto  4/4/1899
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
Birmingham News 10/16/1901 Birmingham, Alabama
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 Arthur Weber 1935
The History of the Moravian Church 1888-1985 by James Henkelman 1985

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