(June 30, 1887-October 15, 1972)
(January 15, 1904-April 22, 1982)
Walter Smith circa 1960
Photo from Marshall and Lois Lind Collection
Photo from John and Charlene Wuya Collection
Yupik Eskimo Walter Smith was born in a coastal village of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region on June 30, 1887. He began prospecting when he was just 14 years old, under the influence of early day prospectors like Gordon Bettles, who prospected the Russian and Kilbuck Mountains east of Bethel during the turn of the 20th Century. Walter spent nearly 15 years prospecting in these areas as well as in isolated mountains to the south of Bethel in the Wattamuse and Goodnews River areas. In about 1920, he began to mentor a younger but equally enthusiastic Eskimo prospector, Henry Wuya.
Henry Wuya (sometimes spelled Whuya) was born on January 15th, 1904 to Yupik Eskimo parents in the village of Eek on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. At an early age, Henry was also influenced by the activities of the early 20th Century prospectors, and, as a result, spent his teen-to-early manhood years prospecting throughout the Kuskokwim and Kilbuck Mountains of southwest Alaska. A special skill that Henry learned early in his life was proficiency in the English language. In the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, at a time when very few Yupik Eskimos knew the English language, Henry Wuya was sought out by early explorers and prospectors to guide them in their ventures. For example, traders used Henry's bi-lingual skills in negotiating commercial sites with village elders.
Henry Wuya was also a very capable boatman at a very young age, and he built and operated boats for use during his many prospecting ventures. Henry's boats provided relatively easy access to many upland areas whose rivers drained into the Bristol Bay and Norton Sound regions of western Alaska. Besides Walter, another of Henry&s early partners was Gilbert McIntyre, who held claims in the Kilbuck Mountains south of the newly discovered NYAC district. McIntyre served not only as partner but also helped grubstake several of the young Wuya's expeditions throughout southwest Alaska.
In the early summer of 1926, Walter Smith and Henry Wuya embarked upon a trip up the south-flowing Salmon River, which empties into Norton Sound north of Chagvan Bay. This trip would secure both Yupik Eskimo prospectors a place in Alaska mining history as co-discoverers of Alaska's largest commercial platinum deposit. Sphinx Creek just north of the Salmon River had supported a small, two-man pick-and-shovel placer gold mining operation from 1910 to 1925 until both miners died, but very little activity besides desultory prospecting had taken place. Near the head of the Salmon River were several second order streams that drained the south slopes of a distinct promontory known as Red Mountain.
Red Mountain is largely composed of the rock type dunite.1 When Territorial Mine Inspector and geologist Irving Reed investigated Red Mountain in 1931 to inspect the small surface placer platinum mines in operation, he published the following observation:
";various types of ultrabasic rocks have a rough zonal arrangement around Red Mountain, in which a gradational contact occurs between diorite, gabbro and darker, more ultrabasic rocks.........The theory is advanced that this arrangement is zonal, that, originally the less basic rocks lay next to the contact with sedimentary rocks and the more basic rocks lie towards the interior of the intrusion due to magmatic differentiation."This remarkably accurate description would predate modern petrologic classification of the Goodnews Bay complex as a Ural-Alaska zoned intrusion by nearly 50 years. The name Ural-Alaska is derived from type localities first studied in southeast Alaska and in the Ural Mountains of Russia. Platinum deposits associated with Ural-Alaska zoned intrusions, which have now been identified on all seven continents, have been the world's largest hardrock source of placer platinum for almost two centuries.
While Henry Wuya systematically prospected areas to the south and east of Red Mountain, Walter Smith methodically panned several gulches right on the south slopes of Red Mountain, concentrating on a 1.5 mile long tributary which he named Fox Gulch. What Walter found there initially mystified him, for the bottom of his gold pan contained abundant grains of what he first described as white gold. But it wasn't shiny like gold; instead, Walter initially believed that the abundant angular grains must be silver. But Walter knew that silver was lighter than gold, and the grains in Fox Gulch were about as heavy as gold. Smith also determined that the grains were magnetic, and this in particular puzzled him since he was not aware of any precious metal that was magnetic. Although disappointed that he did not find an economically viable gold placer, his prospectors' curiosity was aroused, so he sought additional advice and consultation from his partner Henry Wuya.
Walter returned to Fox Gulch with Henry where they both confirmed that the gray metal grains originally examined by Walter during panning were malleable like a native precious metal. In addition, Henry confirmed that the gray metal was about as heavy or heavier than gold. This meant that the gray metal could not be silver. Smith also brought in Charles Thorson, an experienced prospector to confirm their find. Thorson was an old miner that was familiar with small beads of platinum found in the Arolik River basin north of Red Mountain. Although Thorson suspected the nuggets were placer platinum, he had never seen rough and dendrite forms observed in platinum like those in the specimens provided by Smith and Wuya. The placer platinum identified from the Arolik River was worn down by water abrasion as it traveled away from the lode source; hence the platinum grains were quite rounded. In contrast, the platinum nuggets in Fox Gulch were practically lying on the bedrock that the platinum eroded out of, and appeared as rough and angular grains and nuggets that contained inclusions of country rock.
Upon returning again to the coast, the threesome showed small nuggets of the native gray metal to prospector-trader-miner, Joe Jean, who lived in the nearby Yupik village of Mumtrak, later to be known as Goodnews Bay. Joe Jean was a French Canadian who came into the North Country during the Cape Nome Gold Rush of 1898-1900. Jean would spend a long career placer mining on Wattamuse Creek northeast of Goodnews Bay, and had panned some placer gold in the general Salmon River basin. Jean was a highly respected trader, and Eskimo prospectors like Walter and Henry would frequently consult with Jean because they trusted Jean just like they trusted Gil McIntyre - a character trait that unfortunately did not exist in all traders of the day. Like Charles Thorson, Joe Jean also suspected that the gray metal submitted to him by Walter Smith and Henry Wuya might be platinum but could not be certain unless it was tested by a qualified assayer. At both Jean's and Thorson's urging, Smith and Wuya mailed samples to Paul Hopkins of the U.S. Bureau of Mines, stationed at the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in Fairbanks. In the winter of 1927, nearly one year later, Hopkins contacted Smith and Wuya, and told them that they had discovered a good grade of platinum at Fox Gulch in the form of isoferroplatinum (Pt3Fe). At the time platinum was selling on world markets for about $115/ounce.
There was no immediate stampede into the region. In 1928, Edward St. Clair discovered platinum on Squirrel Creek and Thorson made a platinum discovery on Clara Creek. By 1929, eight to ten prospectors made additional economically viable placer discoveries on Clara, Dry, Platinum, and Squirrel Creeks. A distinct promontory at the head of Platinum Creek was named Whuya Mountain by the early miners after the district co-discoverer Henry Wuya. Whuya Mountain is identified on photographs and maps issued by the Alaska Territorial Department of Mines throughout the 1930's. Unfortunately, Whuya Mountain does not appear on US Geological Survey topographic maps that were issued later in the 20th Century.
From 1927-1933, production from these Goodnews Bay placers yielded about 3,000 ounces of isoferroplatinum, all from shallow, hand-dug operations mined in the absence of mechanization. The early hand-mined ground yielded up to 0.085 oz/platinum per cubic yard, which was a good grade considering that platinum in the late 1920's was worth 4-5 times as much as gold. However, during the early years of the depression, platinum prices plummeted to only about $35/ounce or about the same price per ounce as gold. In 1933, Walter Culver and Andrew Olson entered the district and began to acquire the claims from smaller-scale operators (who by that time were willing sellers) and staked additional claims of their own. Culver, Olson, and others would form the Goodnews Bay Mining Company and introduce modern, systematic, mechanized placer mining methods into what became a nationally significant platinum producer in the newly recognized Goodnews Bay Mining district.
Walter Smith continued to prospect for platinum in the general Goodnews Bay area. His persistence was rewarded by purchase of his discovery claims on Fox Gulch by Andrew and Ed Olson in 1934. The compensation that he received allowed Smith and his familyar to move and spend time in others areas of southwest Alaska. He resumed the search for new mineral deposits, albeit at a reduced level, until age prevented the demanding life style required of a prospector. Another career evolved as Walter Smith became an accomplished wood and bone carver. His artistic skills were specifically applied to stylized Yupik Eskimo masks that were successfully distributed through commercial outlets in Alaska.
Beginning in the 1960s, archeologists from Washington State University (WSU) in Pullman Washington, under the direction of Dr. Robert Ackerman, initiated a comprehensive survey of early man and abandoned Yupik village sites in the general Goodnews Bay Region of southwest Alaska. Because of his extensive knowledge of the area, Ackerman asked Walter Smith to assist in the archeological and ethnological studies of the region. The elderly Walter Smith, whospoke fluent Yupik but still knew little English, was frequently accompanied during his time with the WSU researchers by Betty Huffmon, who taught school at Goodnews. The bilingual Huffmon served as Walter's translator to provide ethnological background information of the general Goodnews Bay region for Ackerman's project. This not only involved the transcribing of much oral history related to Ackerman's team by Walter but also field visits to sites of Yupik ancestry. Walter was frequently consulted by other scientific expeditions that needed assistance understanding the geography, ethnology, and history of the area.
Betty Huffmon, who is Joe Jeans' daughter, expressed to the writer the view commonly held about Walter Smith:
"Walter was everybody's friend. He never said a bad thing about anybody, and was a very special and unique individual".Walter Smith died in Goodnews, Alaska, on October 15, 1972 at the age of 85.
Henry Wuya continued to live in the general Goodnews Bay area. His skills with the English language continued to be invaluable to traders, store owners, geologists, and scientists who needed bilingual expertise in an area where most people only spoke in the Yupik Eskimo language practically until Statehood. Henry Wuya died in Eek, Alaska on April 22, 1982 at the age of 78.
Photo from the John and Charlene Wuya Collection
Written by Thomas K. Bundtzen
References in bibliography and invaluable information provided by the following individuals:
- Marshall and Lois Lind, of Juneau, Alaska
- James H. and Robin Barker of Fairbanks Alaska
- Betty Huffmon of Redmond, Washington
- Lynda Nicholson of Chugiak, Alaska
- John and Charlene Wuya of Bethel, Alaska
- Robert Ackerman of Pullman, Washington
- Chuna McIntyre of Rohnert Park, California
1 Named after the type locality at Dun Mountain, New Zealand. The name dunite is derived from the dun color produced by the weathering of the altered grains of olivine, which make up more than 90 percent of dunite. Vegetation rarely grows in areas underlain by dunite, and most of Red Mountain exhibits the classic dun color seen on dunite massifs all over the world. Dunite is also a common bedrock source terrane for such elements as nickel, cobalt, chromium, and platinum group elements.