Essay: No, Alaska Isn't Safe From Disease Due To Our Isolation

Alaska Has A Grim & Brutal History Of Disease. But Still, Life Goes On Alaska's modern history isn't that lengthy. But epide...

Alaska Has A Grim & Brutal History Of Disease. But Still, Life Goes On

Alaska's modern history isn't that lengthy. But epidemics of all kinds have struck the Copper Valley and the rest of Alaska for hundreds of years. Disease has led to disruption, starvation and death. And the tragedies have repeated themselves, year after year, and place after place in the wilds of Alaska – for centuries. If there's one "take-away" from this sad part of Alaska's history it's that it's repeated and awful. If there's a positive side to it... people do survive and head into the future. 

Three New Graves
During the days of the Gold Rush in the Copper Valley, incoming western adventurers could clearly see that something terrible had already happened here before their arrival. For example, Addison Powell, a chronicler who wrote a book called Trailing & Camping in Alaska in 1909, noted that it was obvious that there were far fewer Native people in the Copper Valley than had been here before:

"There were signs that many Indians once had made this country their home. An old trail leads up the creek and over the rolling hills beyond. There can be seen old 'high-signs,' which may be found in all Indian countries. Old dead bushes bore knife marks that were made before we were born…"  
Powell's comments were about long-gone times before he arrived –  about the days when disease had launched across Alaska, brought silently to the coast by Russian explorers and trading posts, and from whaling ships that skimmed along Alaska's shores. Deadly illnesses traveled across the countryside before outsiders even showed up in person.

A century later, Jim McKinley of Copper Center was still able to recount and itemize long-lost local places.

Jim Kari, a linguist at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, catalogued place names in the Ahtna region, and wrote admiringly about Jim McKinley’s vast knowledge in a Bureau of Land Management report on culturally important Alaska Native places noted in 2005:

Jim McKinley At His Copper Center Cabin. (Photo, Country Journal)


"In 1981, Jim McKinley gave a beautifully-paced 32-minute lecture on the major Ahtna villages that were located along the Copper River. McKinley listed and explained 70 places, most of which are village sites in an upstream succession, from below Taral to Mentasta, a distance of about 160 river miles. For each name McKinley mentions what the name means or where a site was located. The narrative is a bird’s eye view of the sequence of Ahtna settlements as of approximately 1875."                 

(McKinley, 2000; Kari, 2005)

During the 1898 Gold Rush and beyond, there remained a constant drumbeat of incidental deaths due to disease carried in by the miners and new settlers from Outside. In one Native camp that he returned to after the winter, Powell came across a large fresh burial ground:

"There were three new graves," he noted. "Kulkena John informed me that all the male members of the family who once lived there had died during the last winter and that the three women were being cared for by the Gakona Indians."

Prospectors Returning To Valdez Over The Glacier After An Unsuccessful Year, 1899. (Photo, Neil Benedict)

Alaska Is Not Safe From Epidemics

The modern written history of Alaska goes back only a few hundred years. And epidemics have played a large role in the tragedies of the Northland during that time. 

Long, Long List 
At the bottom of this paragraph is a brief look at some of the various known epidemics that occurred after the mid 1750's in Alaska. It's a link to a scholarly document written by an Alaska Historian named Jane Haigh. It is obviously by no means complete, since it seems to come from western written records and not oral Native American  history.  In analyzing this report, take note that the first English language records in the Copper Valley didn't start until the military reports of 1885, and then they resumed in 1898 with diaries by private people during the Valdez Gold Rush. Coastal areas of Alaska had a far longer accounting in western and Russian written records than the Copper Valley did. Our valley was the last part of Alaska to be explored by westerners.

Patterns of Epidemics
Epidemics that hit Alaska followed a number of predictable patterns that you can still see today. Large, rowdy, unwashed groups of miners (in those days thousands of prospectors in tent cities) encouraged disease in raw, unbuilt places like Valdez, where they contaminated the water and lived closely together on soggy snowbanks. Other dense clusters of miners, in log cabin towns, or in camps at the tops of glaciers, had little sanitation. Whaling and trading ships brought disease, too – much as cruise ships, military vessels and fishing boats do today. Enormous numbers of incoming prospectors and adventurers – by the thousands – tracked in disease to the smallest Native villages and camps. Travel back and forth to another Native village for social reasons was common, and that spread disease too.

There were other parallels. Disruption of fishing and hunting patterns led to hardships that are very similar to today's economic problems due to not being able to work for money. As happens today, the disease patterns moved from place to place, striking one village and then another, and then circling back to hit the first village again. In one case, a community gathering – just as today's Memorial Day or 4th of July celebrations, but for a big whaling celebration – led to a massive number of people dying.

Fish canneries and fish processing (then and now) also led to disease, with unsanitary conditions, crowding of workers, and poor sleeping and eating situations.  And finally, incarceration (as in today's prisons, detention centers and even nursing homes) led to deaths due to epidemics. A well known example of incarceration deaths involves Native people from the Aleutian Chain who were removed from their homes by U.S. military personnel in World War II, and put in camps in Southeast Alaska, where they died in large numbers by disease.

The Rest Of America Wasn't Safe Either (And Neither Was The World) 

When gold miners came to the Copper River Valley in 1898, they met with disaster. One problem, of course, was that there was no gold in the valley. And that they were dragging a literal ton of pots, pans, guns, clothes, flour (and basically the kitchen sink) up over Valdez & Klutina glaciers to get here. Then they took the wild Klutina River down to Copper Center in boats they had made themselves from spruce trees. Boats that fell apart in the rough waters.

The Copper Valley, as any resident knows, is inherently dangerous.

After a year of this, traipsing up and down frozen rivers, falling under the ice, thrashing their way across trackless wilderness and just generally facing disaster at every turn, some of the 1898 miners who remained of the 3,000 to 4,000 who had survived the journey huddled in small cabins they had built along the shores of the Klutina and Copper Rivers at what is now Copper Center.
Captain Abercrombie. (National Archives)

How Old Is "Old?" 
Captain W.R. Abercrombie, Commanding Officer of the Second U.S. Infantry launched a rescue mission to try to help the Copper Center refugees. Abercrombie was scornful of their efforts. But he was also scornful of how old they were. He thought they were ancient – far too old for such an endeavor. He commented in his official report:

"...the cause of (their mining) failure was their advanced age, which averaged over 47 years..."

Today, we think of a 47 year old as being "young." When people talk about the coronavirus epidemic, and the supposed "young and healthy" people who are sometimes considered to be safe from serious effects, 47 year olds seem to fall into that robust category.

So what was the deal, back in 1899, when Abercrombie was busy criticizing the ages of those 47 year olds?  Why would he possibly think a 47 year old was of "advanced age?" The reason is because though some people have been able to live into their 80's throughout human history, in 1899 most people did not. The life expectancy for an American man was between 44 and 46. So, in actual indisputable fact, a 47 year old man on the Valdez Gold Rush trail was basically at the end of his life and living on borrowed time. He was "old."

It Wasn't Just Alaska
People just didn't live that long back then, whether they lived in Alaska or down in the United States. It wasn't until 1909 that an American man's life expectancy hit 50 years old, but not long after that, in 1918 during the great Spanish Flu epidemic and World War I, the expected life of a typical American man suddenly dropped. The average man's life expectancy in America in 1918 was only 36 years old.

Cabin in Copper Center. (Photo, Country Journal)
Those early years before modern medicine were hard times all round.

Of course, to bring a disease up north to Alaska – whether on a whaling ship, or as a military explorer, or as part of a crowd of miners – you had to have it yourself. And during this same time, America as a whole seems to have been a profoundly unhealthy country.

America – like Alaska, and everywhere else on earth – was plagued with disease and small-scale epidemics. Smallpox, measles, flu, typhus, yellow fever, cholera, malaria, bubonic plague, encephalitis, diptheria, tuberculosis and polio all swept through various parts of America. The entire world was cooking away, in a stew of disease.

In the United States, there were repeating cycles of epidemics, in cities and communities whose names we know well: Bubonic plague in San Francisco, from 1900 to 1904; yellow fever in the Mississippi Valley and New Orleans in 1876; smallpox on the Great Plains in 1837...

Epidemics. They keep washing up on the shores of daily life. But, for most of us today, this is the first time we have seen their power.


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