Frank Yasuda, undated
Photo: E. N. Wolff
By the late 1890's, Eskimos on Alaska's north coast had been decimated by white mans diseases from which they had little immunity, and by depletion of the marine mammals on which they lived. Commercial whalers had cut drastically into the stock of the huge marine mammals that were the base of both northern Eskimo culture and food supply. Praiseworthy efforts by men of the U.S. Revenue Service and a few missionaries were not adequate to maintain the dwindling Native population living along Alaska's north coast.
Three men, of widely disparate background, stepped forward to help the Inupiat Eskimos of Barrow. They were Charles Brower, a white Eskimo trader, Thomas G. Carter, a gold miner from Montana, and a youthful-appearing Japanese, Frank Yasuda. A fourth person critical to the enterprise was Nevelo who became Yasuda's wife.
Nevelo was the daughter of Amaoka, an Eskimo whaling leader at Nuvuk, an ancient village on Point Barrow. The Yasudas led an expedition of Eskimos through wild country from Barrow to the Yukon River.
Blanket toss in Point Barrow, Alaska, circa 1890's. The woman in the air is Nevelo Yasuda.
Photo from the UAF Polar Archive
When they reached the Yukon, they founded the village of Beaver that soon was settled by north coast Eskimos, Indians of the Yukon region, and a few miners and freighters. Backed by a tenuous supply chain that at first reached back to Charles Brower at Barrow, Thomas Carter and the Yasudas discovered rich gold deposits in the Chandalar region of the Brooks Range. Development of the rich deposits guaranteed Beaver's early success.
Frank Yasuda was born Kyosuke Yasuda in 1868 on Honshu, Japans main island, to Dr. Segio Yasuda and his wife Itsu. Segio was the 16th in a line of Japanese medical doctors. By the time Kyosuke Yasuda was fifteen year'Fs old both his parents were dead and the formerly wealthy Yasuda family was struggling economically. Because of these hardships, Kyosuke decided to earn a living in trade. He apprenticed to the Mitsubishi Shipping Company, and by 1887, Kyosuke had crossed the Pacific Ocean. He left the Mitsubishi Company in California where he encountered both prejudice and opportunity.
The US Revenue Cutter Bear
Yasuda made a critical contact in 1891, when he signed on as cabin boy to Captain Frank Healy of the famed Bear of the U.S. Revenue Service, a sturdy steam-sailing vessel patrolling northern waters. Yasuda soon assumed part of the pursers duties on the Bear and began making observations of the weather. In about 1893, with the Bear locked in the ice for the winter, Yasuda left the vessel and took up residence in Barrow where he continued his weather observations for the Revenue Service and then found employment with Charlie Brower. Yasuda, the little cook, helped big cook Fred Hopson for eighteen months before he undertook more complex trading assignments for Brower. By 1897 Yasuda had learned the Eskimo language and had established his own trading company, but continued to work closely with Brower.
Culture of the north coast Eskimo centered on the whale. A few dominant men, the umialiks, headed whaling parties. The umialiks were supported by their whaling crews during the whaling season who then took responsibility for the hunters and their families during the rest of the year. Village life of the men centered around the lodges of the whaling leaders. Charlie Brower had established a trading post in Barrow in the early 1880s. Brower adopted Eskimo ways, and soon established a symbiotic relation with his Eskimo trading partners similar to that of an umialik, alternately supporting and being supported by his trading families. Brower encouraged Yasuda to learn hunting skills and the Eskimo language. Yasuda, probably known as Frank by now, was accepted into the lodge family of Amaoka, an important whaling leader at Nuvuk at Point Barrow. Amaoka had a daughter named Nevalo of surprising intellect and independence, which soon was evident in the matter of arranged marriages and related Eskimo customs. The overwhelming need for hunters to supply their families in the harsh Arctic gradually was institutionalized into complex marriage relations popularized as wife-swapping. The practice, however, repelled Yasuda and independent Nevalo who lived a lifetime of monogamous marriage. Yasuda and Nevalo married when she was sixteen years old. Nevalo was small and lithe. By family tradition, she was the girl caught in a photograph at the top of her flight in a ceremonial blanket toss.
By the late 1890s, the scarcity of whales was critical. Although the U.S. government sent relief ships to the Arctic with emergency food supplies, the potatoes, onions, and flour that probably would have been adequate foodstuffs in more temperate climates were a poor substitute for the whale-based, high calorie protein-rich diet of the northern Eskimos. Gradually, oversight by the Revenue Service reduced whale harvest by commercial hunters, but Charles Brower believed that it would be at least ten years before the badly depleted whale population could be reestablished. One option for some of the northern people was to move inland and adopt a caribou culture, as had the Eskimo group near Anaktuvik Pass.
At about this time (1902), Thomas G. Carter and his partner, Samuel Marsh, came into the country. Carter had mined in Montana and had been part of an ill-fated expedition that left the Klondike (ca 1897) in the search for a rumored discovery of gold in Alaskas Brooks Mountain Range. The men did not find gold there and Carter proceeded to the stampede camp in the Cape Nome District, where he did find payable gold. He decided to use part of his newly acquired wealth to return to the Arctic. Carter believed that he could find rich gold deposits in the Endicott Mountains of the Brooks Range, perhaps the deposits that had eluded his earlier prospecting efforts.
Prospectors had come up the Koyukuk River into the central south flank of the Brooks Range very early in Alaskas mining history, but in general, a wide band of swampy and difficult land lay north of the Yukon River and south of the Brooks Range, and the range was wide open for prospecting. Carter believed that a successful prospecting venture into the remote range could be undertaken by self-sufficient parties up the coastal valleys, such as the Canning or Sagavanirktuk Rivers, into the north flank mountain range, then into the south flank range, Carter's gold-target area.
Carter had impressed Brower, who recommended hiring the Yasudas as guides. It took Carter nearly a year to find them; the Yasudas were trading to the east and up the coastal rivers. Frank Yasuda was skeptical initially but finally accepted Carters proposal. Carter pledged that half of any proceeds from a successful mining venture would go to Yasuda and his Eskimo families if Frank and Nevelo would lead an expedition into the range.
The 1903 expedition began with the exploration of the upper Canning River and subsequently the headwaters of the East Fork of the Chandalar River. When they reached the upper Canning River, with supplies running low, it was decided that Carter and Marsh would stay and prospect, and Frank and Nevelo would return to Barrow for ammunition and food supplies. The party would meet again in the fall of 1904 on Grayling Creek in the headwaters of the Sagavanirktok (colloquially the Sag) River.
In the fall of 1904, the Yasudas, accompanied by Edward Toorak and probably two other Eskimo hunters, left Barrow for the rendezvous at Grayling Creek. They arrived at the rendezvous point only to find that Carter had left earlier. Frank saw snowshoe tracks, which he took to be Carter's. Subsequently, the party found Carters snowshoes, rifle, and supplies nearby. They feared the worst but decided to stay near the rendezvous until Christmas while hunting caribou on the Anaktuvuk plateau. Carter rather miraculously did rendezvous and told Yasuda about good prospecting country in the North Fork of the Chandalar and his own adventures there and at Emma Creek in the Koyukuk region.
There were rumors in the Koyukuk-Wiseman District that Samuel Marsh, Carters former partner, had returned to the north coast with new backing for the prospecting effort. The small party again returned for supplies at Barrow. Marsh wasn't there, but Yasuda recouped the fortunes of the venture when he sold furs and polar bear skins to friendly traders. Re-supplied in the fall of 1905, the party which now consisted of the Yasudas, Carter, and four couples of Eskimos, made directly for the head of the Sag River. Carter, now more confident of a destination, wanted to hurry to the Chandalar River area, but Yasuda urged more preparation. They caught the last of the caribou migration, killed thirty-seven animals, put up the meat, and made their winter clothing. As they descended toward the Koyukuk River, more caribou were harvested and the party was well prepared for their wintertime prospecting venture.
Yasuda and the Eskimos made camp and Carter proceeded alone into the Chandalar River basin, where he found gold at Slate Creek and Little Squaw Creek named for Frank and Nevelo's new baby daughter. In the summer of 1906 Frank visited Carter and another prospector, McNett, at the Little Squaw location and stayed to help the men build their sluice boxes and begin to mine. The gold returns were spectacular. Frank returned to his camp to bring Nevelo and the Eskimos to the new discovery. The Yasudas built a camp on the shore of nearby Ogburn (Squaw) Lake. The following summer Nevelo, while picking berries with her infant daughter, found rich gold-quartz veins that were the source of the placer deposits - the Mother Lode.
In 1907 there was a rush to the Chandalar region, but Yasuda-Carter claims were secure. He honored his contract with Yasuda, and protected the Eskimo interest at the mines. The Northern Commercial Company established Caro, a trading post at the head of navigation on the Chandalar, to supply the new mines. But Caro itself needed a supply point on the Yukon, the main river of commerce. Yasuda selected a location on the Yukon River that had the nearest straight line access to the Chandalar camp. This site, called Beaver or Beaver City, was first occupied in 1910. Thanks to some of Samuel Marshe's contacts in the eastern United States, funds were found to build a seventy-five mile-long wagon road that connected Beaver with Caro and the Chandalar gold mines.
Over the next several years the population of Beaver grew. Frank and Nevelo returned to Barrow, which was still suffering the effects of disease and a depleted whale population, and brought other families across the Brooks Range to Beaver. The trek to their new home took almost two years. They went up the Colville and across the divide to the head of the Koyukuk River, then traversed the Dietrich and Bettles Rivers before turning down the Chandalar River to Beaver. Some of the older Eskimos died on the trek, but their numbers were compensated for by births. For his role in this long walk Yasuda was called the Japanese Moses." Frank was the intellectual leader and sometimes, calling on his memories of the family medical clinic in Japan, the doctor for the expedition. At times Nevelo guided the party towards its destination. According to Billy Neakok of Barrow, Nevelo's name is derived from the Eskimo word for thread and Nevelo was often the thread that held the expedition together.
Photo from the University of Alaska's Polar Archive
In April 1913 Frank Yasuda made his first trip Outside in twenty years. He mushed from Beaver to Fairbanks, a bustling town that had not existed when Yasuda first went to Barrow. Even by that date, Yasuda was a respected and almost legendary figure in the north. A reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, noted that: The history of Mr. Yasudas Alaskan experiences is one that, when told, can hardly be believed. Frank proceeded to Seattle where he met his partner, Carter, and purchased supplies for the 1913 trading season and posed for a photograph with his partner and friend.
By what now seems an amazing coincidence a few other Japanese were in the Alaska Arctic in the early twentieth century and were drawn to Yasuda. One unexpected visitor to the Chandalar camp was George Oshima. Oshima had been in the upper Yukon region for some time living with Athabascan Indians near Ft. Yukon. George had also learned the local native language. A third Japanese, respected by both Yasuda and Carter, was James Minano. Minano, who was fluent in English, had like Yasuda, married an Eskimo from the north coast region. Minano joined the Carter-Yasuda expedition at Anaktuvik Pass in 1903 or 1904 and remained a valued partner to the Yasudas for several years.
At Beaver families long in the whaling culture of the coastal Tareumiut adapted to the caribou culture of inland Eskimo, the Nunamiut. More surprisingly, Kutchin Indians from upriver and Koyukons from downriver also helped settle Beaver. In mixing the groups, two Japanese were catalysts. Yasuda by now was practically an Eskimo, and George Oshima, the Japanese who had lived with the Kutchin near Ft. Yukon, had also been assimilated into native culture. As UAFs historian and ethnologist William Schneider later described it, Beaver was a functioning multi-ethnic community by the teen years of the twentieth century.
Gradually, trapping supplanted mining in Beaver, but Yasuda continued in his role as community leader and trader. Moses Cruikshank, who came from the upriver Kutchin territory, described the Yasuda trading operation:
"We traded with Frank Yasuda and he used to have barge loads of supplies come there. He had a couple of big warehouses just loaded down. And then, when he outfit you, he see that you got the best. Anything that is a little bit spoiled or a little bit old hed throw away. Thats the kind of trader that Frank Yasuda was. He gives you nothing but the best and plenty of it. And Frank, he trusted ever body . . . but I think he trusted maybe too many guys . . . And that way he must of lost a few dollars. But he never turned a person down."
Yasudas legendary generosity may reflect an encounter with a trader in the Koyukuk country. A trader along the Koyukuk River had turned down Yasuda, practically starving. Since that event, Frank vowed never to refuse a man credit. Frank continued to grubstake and supply miners who often were as broke at the end of the season as at the start.
In the mid 1920s, miners hit rich placer gold under the Big River, by far the best placer discovery made to that date in the Chandalar. According to mining engineer Irving Reed, the miners did not forget their earlier grubstakes, and Yasuda was repaid for his years of support.
Yasuda's first partner, Thomas G. Carter, had lived up to his partnership agreement with Frank and Nevelo, sharing the wealth of the Chandalar discoveries. Carter left the country after a few successful years, but was never forgotten by Yasuda. Pioneer U.S. Geological Survey geologist John B. Mertie, Jr. remembered Yasuda in his biography, Thirty Summers and a Winter:
Frank was an unusual man for his great happiness seemed to come from helping others and he refused no one though he himself had little. . . . When Frank's partner[Carter], a well-educated man, became ill with cancer, Frank sent him to the Mayo Clinic where all his expenses were paid until he died. When I remarked on the heavy financial burden it must have been, Frank replied, Mr. Mertie, he was my partner.
In the late 1920s and 1930s, Beaver prospered as a trapping center. Frank and Nevelo proved to be good fur buyers, graders, and sellers. The couple traveled as far as California in their trading and buying expeditions. World War II changed everything. Even though Alaskans protested, Frank Yasuda, a true Alaskan for fifty years, was sent to an internment camp Outside and separated from his family. Jack Buckley, the U.S. Marshall responsible for northern Alaska, had known Frank for many years, and thought the least he could do was to accomplish the unpleasant task himself. Buckley flew into Beaver and found Yasuda waiting for him with a small suitcase in his hand. While being interred in Fairbanks before transport outside, the embarrassed jailer apologized to Frank for the injustice.
Once again management of the Yasuda's affairs was assumed by Nevelo, but now at times assisted by her college-educated daughters, Bernice and Hana. Continued intercession by prominent Alaskans, including John Mertie Jr., led to Frank's early release, and Frank returned to Beaver where he again assumed a leadership role. His greatest joys were his daughters Hana and Bernice and his granddaughter Chaille, who remembers Beaver as a wonderful place to grow up.
Frank had one more creek to prospect. In 1948, with the help of a young Ernest Wolff (who later became a well-known professor of mining at the University of Alaska), Yasuda made one attempt to get back into the Chandalar country, but the going was too tough for the by then octogenarian Yasuda. The young miners practically adopted Frank, and he repaid their kindness by volunteering to cook for them. In the evenings, Frank told them of his adventures throughout his life in the Brooks Range. Frank, already a legend in the north, earned their love and respect. Dr. Wolff has written that he knew only one great man in his own long life, and that man was Frank Yasuda.
Yasuda family: Hana, Nevelo, Chaille, Frank, and Bernice, undated
Photo from Yasuda Family Collection
Frank died in Beaver on February 12, 1958. He was outlived by his always-faithful holder of the thread, Nevelo, who died in January 1966. The Yasudas are survived by their daughters, who have distinguished themselves in their own careers, and who instilled in their children a respect for education and other cultures.
Japanese novelist Jiro Nitta, who wrote a best-selling novel about the life of Frank Yasuda, noted that the meeting of three Japanese, Yasuda, Minano, and Oshima, in the wilds of northern Alaska, was only possible because of the great American gold rush, a rush that attracted men and women from around the world. The young Japanese also needed the support of white men such as Thomas G. Carter and Charles Brower, men who were willing to look beyond the racial and ethnic barriers of the time. Critical also was the blending of American Indians with the Eskimos, who were traditionally wary of each other if not hostile. Eskimos and Indians lived harmoniously at Beaver.
The Alaska Natives quickly learned mining and freighting skills and used them to supplement their subsistence life style. Due to their remote settings, the Koyukuk and Chandalar mining Districts were not overrun by the neer-do-wells who mined the miners at Dawson City and Nome and overran Native gold discoveries at Circle and the Klondike. Only the strong survived in the high Arctic. Race and ethnicity were minor criteria to success in Alaskas northland in the years following Alaskas gold rush.
Compiled and written by Charles C. Hawley and Thomas K. Bundtzen
Brower, Charles, 1942, Fifty Years Below Zero: A Lifetime of Adventure in the Far North. Collab. Philip J. Farrelly and Lyman Anson. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company.
Cruikshank, Moses, 1986, The Life Ive Been Living. Recorded and compiled by William Schneider. Fairbanks: University of Alaska Press.
Ducker, James, 1982, Alaskas Upper Yukon Region: A History. U.S. Bureau of Land Management: Anchorage.
First Visit to Fairbanks, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 13 April 1913, 2. [This brief article is based on an interview with Yasuda who was on his way to Seattle to meet Thomas Carter for trading supplies. It was Yasudas first visit outside for twenty years. The article gives 1883 as Yasudas first year in America, and 1891 as the date that he signed up with the Revenue Service.
Kangas, Hana Yasuda, 1993, Beaver, in The Yukon River in Alaska. Alaska Historical Society, Annual Meeting of the Society, Fairbanks, October 7-9. [Hana spelled her mothers name as Nevelo. According to Hana, the first Eskimos to follow Frank were Itigraluk, a young abandoned girl taken in by Nevelo; Shushaluk, Auktoliq, and Nashoya. The location for Beaver was chosen by Yasuda and Tolokana. Auktoliq and Nashoya were the oldest couple in Beaver. Hana wrote: Frank succeeded in maintaining good relationships between and among peoples of different cultures. There were Athabascans from upriver and downriver . . . Eskimos from Barrow and Kobuk. Several French Canadians, Irish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, German, Portuguese, English, and Japaneseall living peacefully together.
Mertie, Evelyn, 1980, Thirty Summers and a Winter, Mineral Industry Research Laboratory, Caxton Printers, Ltd., Caldwell Idaho. Mertie, J. B. Jr., 1925, Geology and Gold Placers of the Chandalar District: U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 773, Washington, D.C.: GPO., p. 215-263. and other traders at Barrow. The trader supported a certain number of families during the year in exchange for services by the family, the principal one was whaling but, also important, was making summer trading trips along the coast. The trader supplied the equipment and the crews were paid, not in cash but in supplies. . . the similarities of this pattern to that of the umialik and his responsibilities to his crew were noted (268-269).
Neakok, Billy, 2003, Letter to Hawley, May 23, 2003 Fairbanks, Alaska: published by Ernest N. and JoAnne Wolff, 54 pages.
Nitta, Jiro, 1991, An Alaskan Tale. Translated by Motokuni Eto, Elissa Hendry, Nicholas Teele. New York: University Press of America.
Reed, Mrs. Irving McK, 1929, [Frank Yasuda] Alaska Adventure Stories, Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, 24 December 1929, 2-3.
Reed, Irving McK., 1963. Frank Yasuda: Pioneer in the Chandalar. Alaska Sportsman, June (1963). 14-15, 42-45. [The two articles by Irving and Mrs. Irving Reed were written thirty-four years apart. Irving corrects some names given in the earlier article and discusses the post 1929 years. The articles are fundamentally the same as they should be in a true story. Reed was active for many years in the Chandalar as a mining engineer and probably both Reeds knew Yasuda well after about 1925 when they moved from Nome to Fairbanks.
Schneider, William, 1976, Beaver, Alaska: The Story of a Multi-Ethnic Community. Ph. D. Dissertation. Bryn Mawr College. [Schneider points out the similarities between the role of umialiks and traders such as Brower and Yasuda. As to Yasuda's group of Eskimo families, Schneider wrote, "They worked for him in a pattern that had been established by Brower."
Schrader, F. C., 1900, Preliminary Report on a Reconnaissance along the Chandalar and Koyukuk Rivers, Alaska. 21st Annual Report, Pt. 2, U.S. Geological Survey. Washington, D.C., GPO
Stirling, Dale, 1984, A History of the Ft. Yukon-Beaver Trail. State of Alaska, Dept. of Natural Resources, Div. of Lands and Water Management, Report on State Interest Determinations
Wolff, Ernest N., ca 1998, Frank Yasuda and the Chandalar.