A Wild, New Land – Alaska

by Frances Dingmann –

his July, Alaskans mark the Centenary of the Gold Rush, which changed the face of a new and wild land.

In the days before the outsiders came, a confederation of Indians known as the Tlingit occupied a large portion of the Alaska coastline. Though the Tlingit had a well defined culture, with standards of morality, civil government and worth, their warriors roamed the northwest Pacific looking for booty and slaves.

In the mid-1700s, a ruthless band of professional fur hunters sailed from Siberia across the straits in search of sea otter pelts. After brutally subjugating natives of the Aleutian Archipelago, they established a toehold on Kodiak Island in 1784. More and more Russians came, with bloody battles at Sitka, Yakutat, and other Tlingit strongholds until the Russians and Tlingit were finally resigned to each other by 1818.

In 1867, Alaska was purchased by the United States for the sum of two cents an acre, with all its treasures of gold, oil, timber, fish and wild life. The Treaty of Cession, May 28, 1867, gave the people living in the ceded territory, with the exception of the uncivilized tribes, the rights and immunities of citizens of the United States. The native people were touched only by the corruption and evil that happens to defenseless people when they are neglected.

What was left of the demoralized Indian tribes was a rough, raw and fertile field for religious work. The Salvation Army early began to play an important part in the religious and social life of the land.


Missionaries ComeThe missionaries arrived late, after the natives had been debauched by the outsiders. Soldiers of the occupying army taught the natives the art of making a very strong liquor known as hoochinoo. Diseases such as tuberculosis, smallpox and measles swept through the villages with devastating effects.

While the Russian occupation had brought the Christian religion to Alaska, their Orthodox church had done little to reclaim the natives from the lives they were leading. Protestant services began with the Americans, though at first only for white people. In 1878 the Presbyterian church was established at Sitka.

“William Booth”–arrives at Wrangell for 1950 Alaskan Congress. For many years, the vessel played a vital part in the life of corps along the southeastern coast. Today, air travel takes its place.

The Quakers were the first to conduct religious services in a number of the native villages. They later turned their work over to the Presbyterians, who started schools for the natives and helped bring improvements in standards and living conditions. The Swedish Covenant Church established a mission and school in the Tlingit village of Yakutat in 1888.

The Gold Rush

In July 1897, the steamship Excelsior steamed into San Francisco with $400,000 in Klondike gold, starting the stampede of gold diggers into the Klondike. Canadian National Commander Evangeline Booth, after a trip to the Northwest, described in a letter to her sister Kate, “The teeming multitudes, the lust for gold…are indelibly branded in all their unsatisfied craving on my very soul.”

Skagway became the gateway to the Yukon, a mushroom boom camp with saloons and gambling halls open around the clock. It was ruled by a bandit named Soapy Smith and his gang. Vice took over, and hunger and despair prevailed.

Booth immediately began getting permission and funds to begin the work. On April 15, 1898, there was a great farewell for the group in Toronto. Enthusiastic meetings were held all along the way, some in northern corps of the U.S., which were at that time administered from Canada.

True pioneers and trailblazers, the party was composed of six men and two women, led by Adjutant George Dowell. The group endured unbelievable hardships after leaving Skagway, climbing 35 miles over steep, icy hills along with the stampeders and being among the first to reach the summit.

On their arrival in Dawson, their first task was building. They had to cut their own logs and build a raft to send them down the river to Dawson. They erected a barracks (meeting house) with living quarters in the rear, and a second building for a food and shelter house. For fuel they journeyed up the Yukon in 40 and 50 below zero weather and cut wood.

Seekers Come

The building held 150 people and the corps became a haven for the miners. The offerings were in gold dust and nuggets. Soon they had more than paid their way.

The shelter, an important part of their mission, was filled to capacity. Men who were able cut wood for their bed and meals. Captains Lillie Aiken and Rebecca Ellerly, who had carried their own heavy packs on the trail, were angels of mercy to the sick, caring for anyone who was ill. They made the red-light district their special parish.

A year later, Adjutant Thomas McGill and Ensign Fred Bloss were ordered to leave Dawson and begin a corps in Skagway. McGill and his wife Laura dedicated themselves to serving the Indian people. God blessed their efforts–a revival came, and many were converted and enrolled as soldiers.

Commander Booth decided to take the boat and visit Skagway, attending native meetings along the way. She liked what she saw, saying, “These people would make wonderful Salvationists.” Among those who attended her meetings were Soapy Smith and his gang. It is said that he promised her he would be a Christian, but he was killed two weeks later by a citizens’ committee.


NATIVE SALVATIONISTS–in the early 1920s. The baby is Mrs. Lillian Hammond.
Benson Takes MessageAmong the early converts were some of the Indian packers who had been hired to carry goods over the Chilkoot Pass. The leader among these was William Benson. Benson attended Commander Booth’s meetings while she was in Skagway, and asked her to send officers to his people in southeastern Alaska. Booth replied, “Benson, you take the message to your people.” From that commission there began a great revival, touching thousands of lives, and Salvation Army work spread from village to village. Benson’s uniform and red guernsey made a great impression in the villages he visited on the way back to his home, Klawock, resulting in many conversions.

He and his wife started Army work in Klawock, and in 1902 Benson began Gospel trips, going to Wrangell and returning by way of Kake. Army work began in Wrangell, headed by Chester Worthington, a native chief and trusted leader who had met the Army in Dawson City.


The first missionary in Kake, Charles Richards, was of the Friends church. When he joined with the town council to prevent the unloading of a shipment of liquor, the captain of the rum runner shot and mortally wounded him. A small boy, Charles Newton, witnessed this incident. Later the Quakers turned the ministry in Kake over to the Presbyterians.

When Benson held gospel meetings in Kake, Timothy Newton and his wife were among his converts. Benson appointed Newton to care for the converts and start a corps there. Since he could neither read nor write, Newton did not feel he could be a leader. They made it a matter of family prayer, and the answer came through their son Charles. Charles was sent to the Chemewa Indian School in Salem, Oregon, to learn reading and writing in order to be his father’s hands and eyes. Upon his return, the family went to see the divisional commander, who appointed him a sergeant, to be the Kake commanding officer.

A great welcome was given the family on their return to Kake, and the town council decided to build a Salvation Army hall. The men cut the logs themselves and sent them on scows to the sawmill in Petersburg. Then they worked in the mill to earn money for the sawing. The women, dressed in uniforms and bonnets, kept food on the table for the builders.

When the day of dedication came, native comrades from Wrangell and Klawock arrived for a series of meetings in the new building. Charles had been raised to be a chief, and his people recognized him as their true leader. He was described as an “ardent speaker, a wise and able leader, and led the purest life. He was the best of the Army leaders.”

Belle Joins Charles

Charles married Belle Orr, the daughter of a pioneer Danish sea captain who had married a native princess and founded one of the first salmon salteries in Alaska. She was “beautiful in feature and in spirit,” standing by her husband and encouraging him when even his spirits flagged.

When he first took charge, the Army corps was down and a number of the converts had gone back to drinking and observing their old tribal customs. Charles and Belle met with the new Presbyterian minister to try to correct some of the new problems that had arisen. There was no doctor, and no law enforcement nearer than Sitka. The Indians did not have the protection of the law because they were not citizens. The old chiefs had to be persuaded to be a part of the new town council because they feared losing their power. Eventually, Newton’s tact prevailed.

Changes were made in Kake. Houses were built, roads were graded, and “Kake Day” was held to celebrate the changes that had been made in the people as well as in the town. Belle Newton was given the honor of driving a silver spike, symbolizing the “closing of the box containing all the old witchcraft and superstitions.”

From then on, the town was changed. Sadly, even the totem poles were burned in the zeal of Christian rebirth. The Kake Corps thrived under Newton’s leadership, and its band was featured at Congresses and councils.

Corps all around Alaska’s southeast coast brought a new way of life to the native population, who by Newton’s efforts were declared citizens at last. Native field captains, who supported themselves by hunting and fishing, were the backbone of the Alaskan Salvation Army.

Leshers Earn Respect

Among the officers giving outstanding service were Captain and Mrs. Robert (Bruce) Lesher, who were in Alaska from 1930-36, when there were only two other white officers in the territory. In addition to language, the Leshers faced the challenge of the Great Depression, when many men flooded to Juneau hoping to find work. Using ingenuity, the Leshers provided work, shelter and food for the men. Many showed undying gratitude for this Salvation Army service.


Life in Alaska changed after the U.S. declared war on Japan, resulting in the freezing of all Canadian funds. Thousands of U.S. troops and construction workers rushed to Alaska, whose Canadian divisional commander appealed for help to fund Red Shield clubs, mobile canteens, and welfare needs. All four American territories sent funds and mobile canteens.

The war had created Anchorage, a boom town not unlike those of the Gold Rush. Adjutant Coralee McKinnell, a divisional officer, launched a one-woman campaign to collect money and establish a Red Shield Club for the servicemen. Money began coming in from headquarters to improve the club, and the warmth and hospitality of the Christian volunteers made it a tremendous success. Today the city, which houses divisional headquarters, is the hub of Alaska’s outstanding social services.

On June 1, 1944, much to the delight of Salvationists, Alaska came under the administration of the Western Territory. The work had become firmly rooted among the native population. There were 15 corps, principally dedicated to native people. Though no social institutions existed as yet, there was a need for homes for delinquent children, old people and unwed mothers. The new divisional commander, Brigadier Chester O. Taylor, was well acquainted with the area, having lived there for nine years during pioneer days.

Canadian officers remained at their posts until replacements could be provided. Several transferred to the U.S. Western Territory. Headquarters was moved from Wrangell to Juneau, where there was a better financial base. At the first Divisional Congress, Field Captain Charles Newton was the second Western Salvationist to be admitted to the Order of the Founder.

“Circuit Riders”

There was a pressing need for better transportation to carry people to various meetings, as well as to provide supervision by divisional officers to corps along the southeast coast. Officers visited corps in the U.S. on fund-raising trips, and the Sunday schools joined in on the campaign to raise funds for a boat. Dreams of many years were answered when the charter boat, the Taku (later named the William Booth), was put into service in 1947. It was later replaced by a smaller, more manageable craft. Senior Major Eric Newbould, the new divisional commander, served as skipper on its successful maiden voyage. Sr. Captain Henry Lorenzen took over as captain until 1950, followed by Captain Richard Newton, Charles’ nephew. The outstanding victories that followed across the Alaskan coast owed much to the faithful service of these “circuit riders of the sea.” The sturdy vessel lived up to the fond hopes of its sponsors until it was replaced when air travel became more convenient and available.

So began the story of the West’s Alaska Division. Though unbelievable progress has marked the succeeding years, service in Alaska still requires some of the original spirit of its pioneers.

Photos courtesy of Western Territorial Museum
Sources: VFW Magazine, May 1993; God and the Gold Rush by C.O.Taylor; Salvation Comes to the Last Frontier, by Evan Dowling; The War Cry.



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