Chitina's Enterprising Ferryman, Doc Billum, Died Of The Flu in 1919

Library of Congress  In the wire received from Copper Center yesterday by the Citizen the death of the Indian chief known as "Doctor Bi...

Library of Congress 

In the wire received from Copper Center yesterday by the Citizen the death of the Indian chief known as "Doctor Billum" was announced, the aged chief passing away a victim of the influenza.

(Historic photo) 
To the old timers who have been on the Copper River Chief Billum was well known...when the stampede was at its height he put in a ferry at Tonsina for the accommodation of the travelers and reaped many dollars thereby. His usual rate of toll was fifty cents, with the leader of the party getting a fifty per cent reduction.

The title of "doctor" was bestowed upon him by the whites owing to the skillful manner in which he looked after the ill members of his tribe....

With the passing of "Doctor Billum" the Copper River district loses one of its oldest landmarks. 

--The weekly Alaska citizen, Fairbanks, January 27, 1919 

 Honored Elders Doc Billum & Tanana Jack Both Died Of Influenza In The Winter of 1919 

When the Flu Pandemic of 1918 and 1919 swept through the Copper Valley, it killed some of the most honored Ahtna people living in the region at the time. This included Doc Billum, the well-known ferryman. And another  respected elder named Tanana Jack, a chief's father. Their tragic deaths closely followed that of the famed young Chief Goodlataw a few months before. During the time of the last great pandemic, U.S. government officials tried to help by making sure that families had wood, and medical help. But it wasn’t enough. 

A story in the Cordova paper at the time chronicled the loss of the two men that winter.  It was told to the Cordova Daily Times by Arthur H. Miller, superintendent of the BIA, after he paid a visit to the Copper Valley. 

Adapted from the Wednesday, February 12th, 1919 Cordova Daily Times 

“During the recent epidemic of influenza among the natives of the Copper river…two well-known figures among the Copper River Indians, Doc Billum and Tanana Jack, died before the doctor and nurses arrived.

“The government’s representative in charge of the native school was cautioned by the district superintendent long before the disease reached there to take every precaution against it. He was instructed to see that all native homes were provided with plenty of fuel, so necessary in such an emergency, and warn the natives against the danger of visiting each other’s homes, and use such other precautionary measures as were possible. These instructions were followed, but having no streptococcus vaccine with which to load his hypodermic gun to fire at the deadly germ, he could not inoculate the natives until the doctor arrived.

“During this time two picturesque characters among the Copper River Indians, Doc Billum and Tanana Jack, aged chieftains of the tribe, were stricken with influenza, and in a few hours passed on…to where cannery fishing and the white man’s game laws are unknown.

Doc Billum 
Doc Billum was one of the most recognizable people of that era living in Alaska. Said the Cordova Daily Times:

“Doc Billum, the medicine man of the tribe, had been well known since the days of ’98 throughout all of South Central Alaska… He was a kindly Indian of pronounced Copper River Indian type, of rather dignified bearing, straightforward and honest. Many who knew him, both whites and natives, sincerely mourn his death. 

Tanana Jack
“Tanana Jack, the other victim of influenza (had a) face corrugated by the furrows of time… His thick, gray hair suggested great age. He was born on the Tanana River… He was the father of one of the present Copper River chiefs, Big Jack. 

“Tanana Jack was a sincere Christian of the Greek Catholic faith, scrupulously honest… He was respected and affectionately regarded by the government representatives…”

Mortality Rate
“The Copper River Indians, more than three hundred in number are above average…in health and physique. For years they have led a nomadic outdoor life in the pure ozone of the Copper River valley, and this no doubt accounts in part for the low rate of mortality among them during the recent epidemic of influenza. 

“The chief reason for this, however, is attributable to the fact that good roads and telegraphic communication through the Copper River region made possible the extension of medical relief at the proper time. 

Village Council 
“Since the death of Doc Billum and of Chief Goodlataw of the Chitina Indians, whose death occurred several months ago, the Indians of these villages, instead of choosing a new chief, have elected an Indian council from among their people as their governing head.” 

This is a story by the Copper River Country Journal celebrating Native Heritage Month, 2021. It's for everyone in the Copper Valley, but especially for the Billums who live here today. 

About Names: It's highly unlikely that Doc Billum ever promoted himself as a chief. Westerners, faced with his strong presence and ability to help them across the river, jumped to the conclusion that he was a chief. The nickname "Doc" was a common one in the Gold Rush. When a group of miners decided to name somebody "Doc" it was just like today; often a sign of respect which acknowledged practicality, helpfulness – and manliness. On the Chitina Census for Taral Village in 1910 the Ahtna heads of household were listed with western first names.  These were mainly men, and presumably had more contact with westerners. They probably adopted short, western names because they were easier for non-Natives to remember.  In the 1910 census, Chief Goodlataw, Captain Goodlataw, Charlie Goodlataw, Johnny Goodlataw and Tony Pete were all listed as heads of their houses. On the same census, their wives and children retained their original and more complex Ahtna names, such as Tatazline, Watsakau, and Sesetla. By 1938, almost 100% of the first names of Native people shown on local censuses had turned western. 


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