This is the second in a series of occasional posts exploring the context behind an unexpected collection of correspondence at the Edward Bellamy House. In The Warners of Chicopee Falls: John, Part 1, we met John Warner and learned about his time farming in the Dakota Territory in the 1880s. Read on to find out where he went next, and if he ever returned to Massachusetts.
In the letter of transmittal to the Secretary of the Interior that accompanied his report on the 1890 census in Alaska, Superintendent of Census Robert P. Porter wrote:
On an estimated area greater than that of all the states north of Tennessee and east of the Mississippi there is a population less than in most single counties of the populous east. Let one imagine that all railroads and wagon roads, all vehicles and horses, were here wanting; let him imagine that enumerators could only reach this eastern section by a coasting vessel or pierce its interior by the Ohio river; let him imagine this section pushed north till its upper portion was in almost perpetual frost and its one navigable river was open but a few weeks in a year, and he can begin to measure the obstacles met in mountainous Alaska.1
This sparsely populated territory was where John Warner found himself in 1889. While it is unclear exactly when he traveled to Alaska, or why, the surviving letter to his father offers some clues.
Writing in June of 1889, Warner describes a seven-week-long journey from Juneau through the Canadian wilderness to a place called Forty Mile Creek2. Whether he was looking for gold is not known for sure, but the route that he describes taking to the Yukon matches one that was commonly used by prospectors.3 After a 90-mile trip by boat to “the head of salt water,” he and his companions carried their supplies another 28 miles over mountains to “the Lakes.” From there, they again went by boat, crossing six lakes and traveling two rivers to reach the Yukon.
Rather than talking about his activities, as he does in his earlier surviving letters, Warner instead paints an awe-inspiring picture of his surroundings. He may have known that his family would be interested in hearing about the forests and mountains that were so far removed from the factories and farms of Chicopee Falls. Alternatively, he may also have been directing their attention away from the dangers posed by avalanches, wildlife, and weather in this area.
Although he “had some bad climbing to do” on a mountain he describes as “half a mile” high, for example, he writes not about the challenges of his journey but that “[t]he snow on the sumit then was in some places over a hundred feet deep, and glasers thousands of years old.” On the next leg of his journey, he “had a verry nice trip down the river” on which he saw three moose, a bear, a wolf, and “lots of wild winged fowl.” Finally, after reaching his destination, he talks about the “fine weather, with lots of swamp angles to lull us to sleep at bed time.”4 This hardly sounds like the hard journey and difficult conditions described in the report on the 1890 census.5
Warner closed his letter by saying that he was thinking of coming back to Chicopee Falls in the fall of 1890, and that his family would probably have to wait until then to hear the details of his travels.6 He may or may not have visited at this time, but does not appear to have permanently returned to Chicopee Falls for several more years, as he is not listed in a city directory again until 1894.7 Returning to working at Lamb Manufacturing Company, this time as a machinist, Warner married Florence Harrison in the fall of 1895. While he survived the dangers posed by his travels, however, he became ill with typhoid fever and died at home in April of 1896. Just 29 years old, he was survived by his father, Julius; brother, Frank; and sister, Carrie, as well as “a large circle of friends.”8
- United States Census Bureau, Report on Population and Resources of Alaska at the Eleventh Census: 1890 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1893), vii.
- While he states his location as Alaska, it is unclear whether Warner was writing from Alaska or Canada. The post called Forty Mile, which was located where the Fortymile River meets the Yukon River, is several miles over the Canadian border. However, the river itself extends into Alaska, and in 1889 the exact location of the border was still being worked out. (Eliza Ruhamah Scidmore, Appletons’ Guide-Book to Alaska and the Northwest Coast: Including the Shores of Washington, British Columbia, Southeastern Alaska, the Aleutian and the Seal Islands, the Bering and the Arctic Coasts (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1893),97.)
- U.S. Geological Survey, The gold and coal fields of Alaska: together with the principal steamer routes and trails (Washington, D.C.: U.S.Geological Survey, 1898), Map. https://www.loc.gov/item/2006629762/ (accessed December 11, 2020).
- John Warner, Forty Mile Creek, Alaska, to Julius Warner, Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts, June 14, 1889.
- United States Census Bureau, 120.
- John Warner to Julius Warner, June 14, 1889.
- Springfield Directory, including Chicopee and West Springfield, 1892, The Price and Lee Co. (Springfield, Massachusetts), 668; Springfield Directory, including Chicopee and West Springfield, 1893, The Price and Lee Co. (Springfield, Massachusetts), 682; Springfield Directory, including Chicopee and West Springfield, 1894, The Price and Lee Co. (Springfield, Massachusetts), 704.
- Springfield Directory, including Chicopee and West Springfield, 1894, 704; “Chicopee,” Springfield Republican (Massachusetts), April 11, 1896, 8.