June 9, 2010

Artifact #11: 1896 letter from Soapy Smith (Alaska) to his wife (St. Louis).

The above letter from Soapy to his wife Mary is pictured in my book. It is one of the artifacts I loaned the Washington State Museum in Tacoma for the centennial celebration of the Klondike gold rush. The story of my involvement can be seen here

Soapy writes his letter aboard the General Canby near Coal Bay “on the northern shore of Kachemak bay inside the Homer spit.” The stationary he uses comes from a Seattle merchant, tailor. Using business stationary, even from a business Soapy never visited, was common. I believe the merchants of the west did not mind people using their stationary as it was a form of advertising. The contents of the letter are as follows.

May 10, 1896
Cooks Inlett near Coal Bay, 600 miles from Juneau on board the Gen. Canby 2500 miles north of San Francisco.

Dear Mollie

Am well, will be to my destination tomorrow if nothing goes wrong. Have had a hell of a trip. You can write to Resurection [sic] Creek, Cooks Inlett, Alaska. Have no time to write now as we hail a steamer bound for San Francisco to mail this. Have heard no word from you since I left Denver.

Yours Jeff— Love to all

After leaving Denver for the last time Soapy sought a new location to construct an empire. News of gold in Alaska interested him and he no doubt mistakenly thought that his past would not follow him. A mere sixteen days previous of writing this letter he had been arrested (April 24, 1896) in Juneau, Alaska for operating the prize package soap racket. It is the last recorded time that Soapy performed it. He was arrested under the name of "John Randolph" (the name later given to my father at birth). However someone recognized Soapy and reported same to the newspapers in Denver.

Soapy quickly left Juneau for the gold camps of Resurrection Creek, a tributary to Turnagain Arm, Cook Inlet. Jeff was likely given this location as a place where mail could be sent; “the camp” so named at that time lay about 2 miles from tide water up the creek valley between mountains rising to about 1500 feet. Early on, prospectors call the location Hope City (Geographic). 600 miles from Juneau: a modern map shows the distance to be on the order of 825 miles; the distance north from San Francisco, depending on the route, is about 2500 miles.

Jeff had spent the last ten days aboard the General Canby, and it could well have been “a hell of a trip” as crossing the Gulf of Alaska can be notoriously rough. The only way he could get a letter to his wife was to include it with mail handed off to a south-bound steamer or packet ship like the Dora, either in a port or, less likely, while underway in usually heavy seas.

Jeff made one more entry on this letter to Mary. Turning the letter sideways, he scrawled, “Gold here in big quantities — all country talking up here-” Indeed, in the relatively immediate vicinity had been 3 large strikes in 1894-95 (Prince William Sound, Girdwood, and Nelchina). Gold had already been discovered in 1890 in Hope (up Resurrection Creek 2 miles) and Sunrise, up the coast about 12 miles and then up Six-Mile Creek about 2 miles, and those areas had not yet been fully prospected. Further up the Resurrection Creek valley, extending some 24 miles to interior creeks, showed promise. Finds here would not match the immensity of George Carmack’s that summer (August 16, 1896), 400 miles (as the crow flies) to the east in Canada, but they were all substantial. In such an immense country, with 18 substantial and some large finds since 1880, it naturally followed that the country would be talking up gold. Three months after writing his letter George Carmack made the biggest gold discovery in the history of Canada’s Klondike region. This created one of histories largest gold rushes and exodus' towards it, the Klondike gold rush.

Soapy was in the wrong location. Where he would eventually end up living and dying was 1,600 miles from Jeff’s location, back to Skagway in Southeast Alaska, over the Chilkoot trail, and 600 miles down lakes and the Yukon River to the Klondike River and then into the adjacent interior creeks.

The letter: p. 411, 512,
Arrest in Juneau: p. 410.

On going research:
  • Can anyone locate a photograph of the steamship General Canby?


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