Construction of the trans-Atlantic telegraph cable pushed the limits of 19th Century technology. In the 1860s construction was begun on an alternative telegraph line to Europe - across Alaska, under the Bering Strait, and across Russia.
Capt. Daniel B. Libby was in charge of a telegraph construction team that wintered at Port Clarence on the Seward Peninsula in 1867. Libby was 25 or 26 at the time.
In March 1925 a roughly dressed man visited the Juneau law offices of James Wickersham. The man, Libby's son, needed money to get to Copper River where he understood he could find work as a welder. He had a packet of papers - his Dad's papers from the Port Clarence days: letters, records, pictures, and a five by seven inch brown notebook with a diary for 1867. Was Wickersham interested?
Apparently Wickersham was; the diary was in the Wickersham papers for many years, and is in the Alaska State Historical Library today.
On June 20 1867, Libby had taken a trip to King Island. The telegraph construction team that had spent the winter in Port Clarence was beginning to run low on food. The trip to King Island was evidently part of a larger effort to find food:
Wednesday June 19th 1867
7 A.m. 43° above zero. clear. calm. 2 P.m. 48° above zero. wind S.W. clear. 7 P.m. 46° Do. wind S.W. clear. all quiet today. I am getting ready for sea in the long boat. Am going out to see if I can see any ship in sight and to make purchases from indians.
Thursday, June 20th 1867
Very pleasant +warm I took boat and crew of 4 men and started out to sea. first 12 miles found some difficulty getting through the ice. This P.m. a breeze sprung up and we set sail. passed through much field ice, saw many seal on it. steered S.W. for Kings Island where we arrived at 10 P.m. 45 miles from the station. Went round to S.E. side where we found an indian village. We landed here on a steep rocky shore. This Island is 580 feet high and shore nearly perpendicular. The village is situated on the side hill one house above the other and difficult it is to get through it. The natives here number about 150 and are about the same as all the rest I have seen. Their houses are built of walrus skins etc. They live entirely on walrus and seal which they catch plenty of in the spring on the floating ice. We found only one place here so level we could pitch tent on it. This being a good lookout for vessels we intend to stop here a few days and keep a watch for one, and if we see one, board her for supplies.
Thermometer at station 7 A.m., 47° above 0, 2 P.m. 64° Do, 7 P.m. 50° Do
Friday June 21st 1867
Very pleasant + warm All going well. Smith and Dyer 2 of my party arrived today from the station. came off in a canoe. Whalers have been in here this season and traded whiskey to the natives. Tonight after we got to bed some of them were drunk and came to our tent and came tumbling in on us. one of my men struck one and he made a rush off for his gun to shoot him. He went for it but did not return. We fearing troubles with them got up and loaded our arms (we were all armed) but they came not back to trouble us. however one of them went to our boat and threw oars [??] overboard and cut it some with a sword but did not do much damage. We got our oars again + all got quiet until morning we came near having more trouble One of them came and drew a Knife and wanted to fight us but we evaded him. Natives here are rather bad and quarrelsome. We went up to the top of the island + looked off to sea but saw no vessel. Thermometer at station 7 A.m. 48° above 0. 2 P.m. 60° Do. 7 P.m. 50° Do.
Saturday June 22nd 1867
Very fine day all quiet. We are thinking of leaving here. I made a few purchases from natives such as walrus hearts + livers. small birds and clothing. Still no vessel in sight. Thermometer at Station. 7 A.m. 48° above 0. 2 P.m. 64° Do. 7 P.m. 60° Do
Sunday June 23rd 1867
Very pleasant. wind light S.W. started away at 10 A.m. for Cape Prince of Wales…
The first newspaper in Alaska - The Esquimaux - was published by and for the men working on the telegraph. The July 7, 1867 issue carried an account of Libby's visit:
King's Island. - This rocky place, called by the natives O-kee-buck, was visited by Capt. Libby on his late trip. While there, several Indians became drunk, and attacked the boat while moored at the landing, throwing everything overboard; but some sober ones interfered, and further trouble was prevented - they saving the articles from the water. The Esquimaux are like all other savages when they have whiskey in them; they are ready for all kinds of mischief. This island is very rocky, and presents nothing but precipitous bluffs along the coast. There are about two hundred and fifty inhabitants; they are smaller in stature than those on this side, and much more filthy in their habits. The houses are built of walrus hides; and, perched among the rocks, are difficult of access. No wood is found in the vicinity, and they use oil for what little cooking is necessary. Most of their food is, however, eaten raw.
Libby's son told Wickersham that his Dad was destitute in Seattle. Wickersham followed up by writing the president of the Western Union company, Newcomb Carlton, in New York, asking if he could find some job for Libby. Carlton had his Seattle Superintendent check on Libby, who was found at the King County Poor Farm, broken down in body and mind.
The diary and other Libby papers are in the Wickersham Papers (Box 73) in the Alaska State Historical Library in Juneau. The Library also has a copy of The Esquimaux. Dorothy Jean Ray used the version in The Equimaux when she wrote The Eskimos of Bering Strait, 1650-1898. She had heard about the diary and tried to look at a copy but was unable to (page 158). This has no real implications for her book, but the accounts are distinctly different.
Edits: note on Ray's book, Nov 26, 2009.