On this date in 1898, an ornery gold prospector became the victim of an Alaskan miner’s court … and a great gold rush scam.
This is a tragic sidelight of the great Klondike gold rush, a mania set off in summer of 1898.
As legions of America’s many unemployed set out in hopes of striking it rich in the frigid north, interest in the vast and underexplored interior of next-door Alaska naturally followed. After all, there had been gold finds in Alaska before.
The putative reasons justifying the spread of the Klondike fever to Copper River were some combination of these:
That the Copper River promised a shortcut into the Klondike easier than the route over Canadian soil;
That the Copper River itself had gold — and that it could be prospected under less extreme climate, and exempt from 20 percent royalties that Canada imposed on Klondike gold
Passenger steamers, whose operators were later suspected of flogging interest in this route as the “All-American trail,” brought several thousand bonanza-seekers from west coast cities to the tent-city port of Valdez, Alaska. From there, miners could tromp over a treacherous mountain-and-glacier path to the unspeakable riches of the Copper River.
“It was one of the greatest hoaxes in Alaska’s history,” write Jim and Nancy Lethcoe. “The prospectors arrived to find a glacier trail twice as long and steep as reported.”
An estimated two hundred people died, slipping off glaciers or frozen to death on the mountain or, as we’ll see, by acts of violence. By the summer of 1898, there was another rush — 3,000 or so busted prospectors pouring out of Copper River country back for Valdez. The U.S. government had to show up with provisions to avert mass starvation.
“Last winter papers of the country contained stories of the fabulous riches of the Copper river country, Alaska, the accessibility of the gold-laden land, cheapness of transportation, and in other ways lauded to the skies the country in which one had but to scrape the earth to secure a fortune,” ran a bitter report in the Aug. 27, 1898 Jackson (Mich.) Daily Citizen. The occasion was the empty-handed return of one of that city’s native sons, A.A. Jankowsky, from the Alaskan interior. “These stories, published in good faith, no doubt, had the effect of arousing in the minds of the more adventurous a desire to search for gold in the far-away land. Last spring there was a perfect exodus to the Copper river.”
Jankowsky, like many others, survived the treacherous journey into the interior only to find the Copper River region entirely destitute of gold. After supporting himself for a bit running a canteen, he joined a veritable stampede of thousands of duped prospectors fleeing back from the interior to Valdez. By his telling to the Citizen, “All along the trail were seen immense stores of provisions, representing in many instances, the savings of many years of prospectors, which were abandoned. Some of these contained cards marked, ‘Boys, help yourselves, I’ve gone home!’ Some of the men in their eagerness to get out had left their tents standing, containing clothing, bedding, stoves, firearms and everything else.”
Our date’s principal, Doc Tanner, at least had the comfort of never experiencing this disappointment ubiquitous to his fellow-adventurers.
The Kentucky native joined a party bound for Copper River that sailed from Seattle on November 20. Each had “grub-staked” $250 up-front with the understanding that they would be discharged from their ship with six months’ provisions … but when they were let out, they received only three months’ worth.
Oddly, Tanner seems to have been the only one incensed by this. When the leaders of the expedition refused to provide him an itemized account, Tanner turned into the cantankerous black sheep of the party as they drug their undersized packs over the dangerous Valdez glacier.
Matters came to such a pass that as dark fell on January 2, several of the other prospectors met in a tent to discuss turning Tanner out of the party full stop. Overhearing them, the enraged Tanner burst into the tent with the cool action hero words, “I’m here for business now,” then started firing. He killed two of the men; a third only owed his life to a lamp’s timely extinguishing during the affray. (1898 newspaper reporting also indicated that the tragedy redoubled for one of the victims, William Call: his wife upon hearing news of the murder fell into madness and was committed to an asylum, and lost the family’s indebted farm.)
Tanner immediately gave himself up to other miners of the camp and at dawn the next day faced an extra-legal drumhead tribunal that judged him guilty of murder and promptly hanged him.
As for Valdez, more orderly development of the trail from that port into the Alaskan interior ensued. Though cold comfort to men shot in their tents, hanged by miners, or fallen into glacial crevasses, that route eventually became part of the present-day Richardson Highway, and the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.