November 11, 2017

Artifact 53: Letter from Edwin Smith to Soapy Smith, March 27, 1898.

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etter from Ed Smith to Jeff R. Smith II.
Artifact #53

In order to better understand the possibilities and probabilities of the letter (artifact #53) we have to step back about one year previous. Communications to and from Alaska were slow, ships delivering mail between Seattle and Skagway in 1897-98 took at least five days, each way.
     In 1897 "Soapy" Smith’s cousin Edwin Bobo Smith was a reporter for the Washington Post. This position and his prior service in the US Congress gave him numerous influential contacts, and he used them to try to help his cousin Jeff make a respectable name for himself. In a 1920 interview for The Trail magazine, Edwin said that Jeff wanted a concession for a hotel site on the government reservation at St. Michael, Alaska. Edwin believed that his cousin's,
     "... intention seems to have been to seek an honorable fortune in the frozen north and then to return to Washington and establish himself in the respectable life of a hotel proprietor." Edwin made a vain effort to keep him out of Alaska, but he expressed the greatest confidence in the success of his schemes in that distant region and was intent upon going…. “This ... is my last opportunity to make a big haul. Alaska is the last West. I know the character of people I shall meet there and I know that I am bound to succeed with them.”
     Those connections along with Edwins’ faithful efforts secured Jeff something he very much wanted: permission to build at an American gateway to the Klondike. In October 1897, to help control the disorder created by the gold rush, the US government opened Fort St. Michael on St. Michael Island, District of Alaska. It was in a new place of abundant opportunity without competition, and at 2,000 miles from Seattle, surely it was far enough away that Jeff's alias ("Soapy") would not be there to greet him. Situated near the mouth of the Yukon River, it would be the transfer point from ocean-going vessels to flat-bottomed boats that would ply the Yukon River to and from Dawson City, the boomtown nearest the gold-laden creeks.
     Soapy had written to cousin Edwin in Washington, DC, to ask him to use his influence to secure permits to operate at Fort St. Michael in Alaska. This site at the head of the Yukon River looked early on to be a prime location for a major settlement. Edwin replied in a letter dated November 18, 1897.
Dear Jeff:
Your letters were gladly received. Always anxious to know how you are doing. You say you want me to send your permits. The letter to Col. Randall is all the permit the war department will give. That letter which I have already forwarded you grants you every concession you are after. I hope you will not get in any trouble with the minimums of the law.
Your brother
Ed. B. Smith
Edwin did the best he could in dealing with the slow-moving gears of the federal government. By the time his above response had reached Soapy, the latter had already established himself in the new camp of Skagway, Alaska. It, and neighboring Dyea held the best two trails to the Klondike gold fields and are over 2,000 miles closer to Seattle. Soapy had given up on his plans for St. Michael, but did he tell his cousin? The two had grown up together in Georgia, hunted together, calling each other, "brother." Soapy introduced Edwin into the bunco world in Texas. They had witnessed the shooting death of outlaw Sam Bass together, so it seems Soapy would have let his cousin know that there was no further need for his efforts for St. Michael.
     Nearly a half year later, in a letter dated March 27, 1898, on Washington Post stationary, Edwin wrote to Jeff to convey remembrances from Congressmen who still reminisced over his visit to the capitol.

Dear Brother Jeff:
Glad to get your letter. I am so busy you must excuse me for not writing sooner. I saw Senator Wolcott and he asked to be remembered to you. Ex-Congressman Bell of Colorado and Congressman Shafroth also ask me about you every time I see them. Baily of Texas wants to know when you are coming back here. He will be the next speaker if the House goes Democratic. I wish you would write and give me all the news. I want to print [it] in the Post.
Your brother Ed
On the same day Edwin wrote Soapy another letter (artifact #53). Below is the context of that letter.
March 27, 1898
Dear Jeff:
I have been assured time and again that you are O.K. on the permit and have been looking every day for it to come. I shall go to the war Dept. tomorrow and see Gen Brook [Brooke] who has just got back. I think his absence has been the cause of the delay. You need not have the slightest doubt that you have had your petition granted and I hope to send it to you in the next 48 hours.
Your brother Bo.
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It would appear that Edwin had written one letter to Soapy, and then received another letter From Soapy that same day, and immediately replied. By March 1898 Soapy had opened several businesses in Skagway, making it his permanent base of operations in Alaska. There seems to be no reason he would write to Edwin about continuing plans for St. Michael. There is another possibility but time is the one factor I have not figured out as of yet. Could Edwin have been offering his help in obtaining legitimacy for Soapy's volunteer Skagway Military Company?
     In March 1898 the Skagway vigilante committee of 101 began threatening the control Soapy held over the town. With the February 15 sinking of the Battleship Maine and the start of the Spanish-American War on April 21, 1898 Soapy saw a means of recruiting a sizeable body of men and of sealing his own stature as its leader. On March 18, 1898 he formed a private military company. Finally, there was the Warren bill. It authorized funds for such units as Soapy's volunteer militia the Skaguay Military Company. On “March 8, 1898, Secretary of War Russell A. Alger allocated $250,000 for organizational expenses, $197,000 for transportation and horses, $31,392 for equipment, and $15,000 for subsistence.” Surely Soapy would have wanted some of that money, but only 11 days span this allocation and the approximate date of Soapy's creation of a volunteer military company. However, the speed at which news could cross the country was ever increasing through organized cooperation among newspapers via telephone and telegraph. News from coast to coast could be in print within a day, and news from Seattle could easily have reached Soapy in time to lend impetus to his plans. The letter Edwin wrote from Washington D.C., on March 27th arrived in Skagway on April 7, 1898.
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Soapy went about forming the Skaguay Military Company by working people into a state of wanting and needing it. He called for and led patriotic assemblies to address war fears and the need for readiness. Wasting no time, he followed up by executing a plan to recruit, organize, have recognized, and administer an all-volunteer military force created, in theory, for use by the President of the United States. However, he also offered his services to Governor John G. Brady of the District of Alaska, for patrolling the trails and keeping law and order. Certainly this would have put a damper on all vigilante activity.
     In the letter Edwin wrote on March 27th (artifact #53) Edwin mentions General Brooke¹ and uses the term petition. Could the petition be in regards to the minutes and letter Soapy wrote to President McKinley offering the Skaguay Military Company for service? Only a few weeks prior, Soapy had been recognized by the war department when given authority to locate at Fort St. Michael. Now he sought recognition from the President of the United States.

General John R. Brooke
circa 1895

¹ General John Rutter Brooke: In 1897 he was promoted to major general in the Regular Army and assigned to command the I Corps during the Spanish-American War. In Puerto Rico, he landed in Arroyo with General Hains, and reached Guayama by the time the armistice was signed. When General Miles left the island in October 1898 to return to the United States, Brooke became military governor and head of the army of occupation in the U.S. military government. On the December 6, Brooke was replaced by General Guy Vernor Henry, and by December 13, was named to the same position in Cuba.

"I do not know that I will ever see you again on this earth, but I do know that one who has to my own knowledge so generously and so munificently helped the poor, relieved the distressed and encouraged the weak, will not be among the damned, whatever his short comings may be."
—Judge James B. Belford letter to Soapy, 10/16/1896
Alias Soapy Smith, p. 292.


1620: The Mayflower Compact is signed by the 41 men on the Mayflower when they landed in what is now Provincetown Harbor near Cape Cod. The compact calls for "just and equal laws."
1831: Nathaniel "Nat" Turner, a black slave, is hung for the August 21, 1831 slave uprising in Jerusalem, Virginia. The revolt results in at least 200 black deaths and 60 white deaths.
1843: Famed Texas and Dodge City, Kansas gambler Benjamin F. Thompson is born in Knottingly, England.
1851: Texas Ranger Dick Ware is born. He is best known for the shooting of outlaw Sam Bass in Round Rock, Texas in 1877 which Soapy Smith and his cousin Edwin witnessed.
1851: The telescope is patented by Alvan Clark.
1868: The first indoor amateur track and field meet is held by the New York Athletic Club.
1868: Vigilantes at Bear River City, Wyoming lynch three jail prisoners. A few nights later a mob of gamblers, led by Tom “Bear River” Smith, freed the remaining prisoners and burned down the jail.
1873: Telegraph lines are established between Prescott and Yuma, Arizona Territory.
1873: Bad man Edward “Red Beard” Beard dies from wounds he received in a gunfight with Joe “Rowdy” Lowe in Delano, Kansas on October 27. Beard, chased employee Jo DeMerritt into Lowe’s saloon, and shot Annie Franklin, thinking it was DeMerritt. Lowe exchanged shots with Beard, before the latter fled. Lowe followed after him on horseback. Lowe eventually caught up with Beard, shooting, then turned himself in to the sheriff. Beard clung to life for two weeks before dying.
1882: The Las Vegas Optic in New Mexico publishes a false death article on John O. “Texas Jack” Vermillion, who later becomes a member of the Soapy Smith gang in Denver, Colorado, becoming known as “Shoot-Your-Eye-Out-Jack.”
1887: Labor Activists are executed in Illinois after being found guilty of the murder of eight police officers.
1889: Washington becomes the 42nd state.
1896: Bascomb Smith is ordered to leave Denver. He leaves for a short time but returns.
1897: Soapy’s Cousin Edwin B. Smith interviews Soapy about his adventures in Alaska. Soapy is quoted, “I was at Skagway when there were 6,000 people there, and never saw a more orderly crowd. A move was made to get up a law and order society, something after the fashion of the California vigilantes, but the thing was so utterly uncalled for that its promoters were forced to abandon the project.”
1898: The Skaguay News tired of the problems the John D. Stewart robbery by the Soap Gang caused the city publishes that “it is to be hoped that after the robbers are fairly started on their way to San Quentin, Stewart will submit to a surgical operation and have some oatmeal mush or other equally soft substance injected into his brain cavity.”

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