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Collection Meeting of Frontiers

Pioneer Women

This essay was published in 2000 as part of the original Meeting of Frontiers website.

The Russians who ventured to the new colony of Alaska in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were almost entirely men—hunters, traders, and administrators. Some Russian women accompanied their husbands, among them Baroness Elizabeth von Wrangell and Princess Maksutova, the wives of Russian-American Company chief managers. Many of these women were educated, talented, and industrious, and made important contributions to the colony. For example, Margaretha Etholen, whose husband was also a company chief manager, among other activities founded a school for girls.

But Russians of all stations typically married native women, who had long played important roles in the health and survival of their families and clans. Their Euro-American descendants, known as Creoles, became a significant factor in the life of the Russian colony. Creole children, girls as well as boys, were educated according to the Russian system at schools in Sitka, Kodiak, Unalaska, and on the Yukon River as far inland as Russian Mission. After obtaining an education, the men rose to responsible positions as navigators, priests, traders, and skilled workers, and eventually provided much of the work force for the Russian-American Company.

Women continued to play important roles after the American period began in 1867. One memorable episode in this history involved the gold rush to the Yukon River basin, which attracted to Alaska people from all over the world, including many women. Residents of Juneau, which itself had grown out of a gold boom in the 1880s, were the first to receive news of the major discoveries on the Yukon and were among the first to participate in the rush. Irish-American Belinda Mulrooney was twenty-seven years old and living in Juneau when she heard news of the Klondike discoveries of 1896. She soon set off over the Chilkoot Pass for the Klondike. In early 1897 she established the Grand Forks Hotel, a future town center, at the confluence of Bonanza and Eldorado Creeks. The next year she built the Fairview Hotel in Dawson City. Eventually she became one of the wealthiest women in the Yukon. After the decline of opportunities in the Yukon, she moved to the Fairbanks area and made another fortune with her Dome City Bank. She also brought up members of her family, including sister Nellie, who married the famous Fairbanks editor, W.F. Thompson.

From the time of the gold rush, working women were the norm in Alaska. Although few were as successful as Belinda Mulroney, all over the territory women ran boardinghouses and restaurants as well as banks and mining companies. Wherever a settlement or new boom town developed, women were an important force in establishing community facilities and services, sometimes starting telephone and water companies themselves where none were available. They also worked as nurses, teachers, cooks, and waitresses. While many left the north after a short time, others stayed to create a better life for themselves and their families and to help develop the new frontier.

In later years, many Alaskan women valued learning and were in the forefront of support for a high-quality education system that culminated in the creation of a state university. Many women also participated in the Alaska campaigns of World War II as vital support in government administration and local business. In the post-war years, they took part as well in the struggle for civil rights, rural education, universal legal norms, the realization of statehood, and efforts to secure native land claims.

The Yukon Gold Rush

Native and Creole women played prominent roles in the Yukon gold rush. Ivan Pavloff, a Creole trader stationed at Nulato, married a local woman, Malanka. Their children all figured prominently in the development of gold mining on the Yukon River. One of their daughters, Erinia Pavloff Cherosky Callahan, worked with her husband as a translator for the traders. Their other daughter, Kate Pavloff Sonnickson, married one of the early prospectors and eventually moved to California. Their son, John Minook, discovered gold at Rampart, while son Pitka Pavloff and son-in-law Sergei Cherosky discovered gold at Birch Creek, leading to the development of Circle City.

LeRoy Napoleon "Jack" McQuesten, Arthur Harper, and Al Mayo were early American traders who arrived on the Yukon in the 1870s. They all married native Athabaskan women. Kate McQuesten, Jennie Harper and Margaret Mayo thus were among the first native women to adapt to the changes that American culture brought to the Yukon. Kate McQuesten was herself the daughter of a Russian father and an Athabaskan woman and had been educated at Russian Mission. Native wives helped the traders survive the harsh winters by providing subsistence foods, making appropriate clothing, and facilitating all-important familial and clan trade relationships. The children of the traders and their wives were educated in American schools and became an important part of the population of the Yukon River towns and villages.