Uncle Sam Got No Shoes: A Tale from Alaska

             “I’ll never regret a damned sin if I mush up to the gates, white and pearly, and they don’t let my malamute in.”  Poet Pat O. Cotter.

Juneau, Alaska

 

P.O.  Cotter’s lyrics in his poem “The Malamute” likely echoed the voices of thousands of gold seekers who fled the economic depression that had gripped the United States for many years and headed for the Klondike gold fields. Alaska was evolving into what we know today as the forty-ninth state of the Union.

Alaska Husky

A Descendent of Man’s Best Friend in the Klondike

 

Alaska is a harsh land where in 1871, temperatures reached -79 degrees Fahrenheit in Prospect Creek.  The author Geriut Snider, in his book 100 Stories of Alaska, described an article written in 1889, by Honest Abe White of the Dawson Times newspaper. Mr. White painted a vivid picture of how brutal the winters in the Klondike could actually be.
 
 “The unusually heavy snows had a blue color and the temperature dropped to 79 degrees below zero. The weight of the snow created heat under the frozen muck, with the result that thousands of ice worms which had been hibernating for millions of years began coming to the surface. Some say eating them tasted like eating smoked eel.”

 

Voluntourism in Alaska

I had been in Juneau for four months, serving as volunteer docent  for the Alaska State Parks. Like most late evenings in the House of Wickersham, I had once again settled down to watch the cruise ships.  The events of the day were gently drifting like clouds through my mind: the claws left by the black bear who wandered into town the previous night and attempted to empty the Wickersham trash container; the ninety-five stairs that I had to climb each time I returned from a trip downtown; and the steep hills that reminded me of San Francisco.

And as I watched the evening sky darken, I was  astonished at the beauty before me. Juneau sits like a jewel within a case lined with green velvet. Surrounded by the magnificent Mt. Juneau and Mt Roberts, the city is a paradise for hikers, with its twenty-six miles of hiking  trails within the city proper.  Only a short distance behind the House of Wickersham, one can hike more than three miles along Perseverance Trail, experiencing some of the most magnificent forests on the North American Continent. However, the sight of the cruise ships, which position themselves in the harbor for departure through Gustineau Channel when the dawn once again breaks, is the sight that I truly love. Like a million fireflies dancing, the ships lights twinkle, casting their soft glow on the waters of the Pacific.

To begin to understand Alaska, one  must look deeper than the shiny brochures that are provided to visitors. Judge Wickersham told this story in his book, Old Yukon: Trials, Trails and Tears, providing us with a glimpse into the reality of the Klondike era.

 Alaska Natives

 

Alaska’s Klondike Goldrush Era

“Footwear is much more necessary to comfort and the preservation of health in far northern Alaska than in a more genial climate. Its absence naturally attracts more attention here (Tenana Valley) and especially from the Koyukuk natives, who are never seen without such protection. A merchant from a northern camp, who had recently come to the Tanana stampede, told me this story to indicate the Indian idea of a shoeless man. These Indians are deeply interested in the large colored-picture advertisements coming to the stores and will examine them long and carefully and discuss them in the Indian tongue as they might a circus poster. They had so often heard about Uncle Sam as the big chief of the white people, that they seemed to believe him to be a venerable chieftain in the flesh and to reside in a great house in Washington. One of these large and flaming poster advertisements which caricatured Uncle Sam as a barefoot man particularly attracted these natives, who discussed it solemnly at great length. After long study, the chief of the Koyukuks said to the merchant, in sympathetic concern; “What’s matter, Uncle Sam got no shoes?”

“Oh,” the trader carelessly replied.“He is pretty poor this summer.”

“Too bad,” the Indian said as he walked away. “Uncle Sam got no shoes.”

Two weeks later the Koyukuk chief returned to the store and laid on the merchant’s counter two pairs of the finest moose-hide moccasins the Indian women could make, and said; “Too bad Uncle Sam got no shoes. My wife she make this shoes for Uncle Sam, you send ‘um, tell Uncle Sam Koyukuk chief his friend, send ‘um shoes, Uncle Sam.” The merchant had not expected this result of his careless statement, but accepted the moccasins and promised to send them to Uncle Sam for his winter use as a present from his friend the Koyukuk chief. What he did was to send them out with his summer shipment of furs and sell them to a trader in Seattle, but that winter when the old Koyukuk chieftain and his family were at the usual point of starvation, he was greatly please to be told by the merchant that he had just received a letter from Uncle Sam in Washington, thanking his brother the Koyukuk chief, for the moccasins and ordering the merchant to present to the chief a sack of flour and other provisions sufficient to keep him and him family in food until the time for the spring moose hunting arrived. The value of these supplies just about equaled the price received by the merchant for the moccasins. The old chief was greatly pleased with this exchange of presents with Uncle Sam, and told his people about it with much pride.”

Suggested Resources

Nonfiction

Berton, Pierre. Klondike: The Last Great Gold Rush, 1896 to 1899
Chvigny, Hector. Lord of Alaska: The Story of Baranov and the Russian Adventure
Ferrel, Ed.  Frontier Justice: Alaska 1898 – The Last American Frontier
Gates, Michael. Gold at Forty Mile Creek: Early Days in the Yukon
Kaniut, Larry. Some Bears Kill London, Jack. The Call of the Wild
Morgan, Leal.  Good Time Girls of the Alaska-Yukon Gold Rush: Secret History of the Far North
Murphy, Claire Rudolf. Gold Rush Women
Snyder, Gerrit Heinie. 100 Stories About Alaska
Treadwell, Timothy. Among Grizzlies: Living With Wild Bears in Alaska
Wickersham, James. Old Yukon: Trails, Tales, and Trials Icy Hell (Author

 

Fiction

Alaska (Author James A. Michener

 

Poetry

The Malamute  (Author Pat O. Cotter)
The Cremation of Sam McGee (Author Robert W. Service)
The Spell of the Yukon and Other Verses (Author Robert W. Service)
If (Author Pat O. Cotter)

 

Music

My Song (By Yukon Poet Laureate, PJ Johnson)
Alaska and Me (Sung by John Denver)
North to Alaska (Sung by Johnny Horton)
Springtime in Alaska (Sung by Johnny Horton)

Return to homepage