During the waning years of the western American Indian wars, the military posted Gen. Nelson A. Miles in the Pacific Northwest. Miles was a veteran of battles against Native Americans. He led a battalion in chase after Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce Indians and eventually contributed to Joseph's surrender. As Native American revolutions grew sparse, Miles turned to the expanse of another frontier: the vast and unexplored territory of Alaska.
General Miles sent two preliminary expeditions into the interior of Alaska, one of which could be deemed successful. In 1883, Lt. Fredrick Schwatka explored the Yukon River basin. However, the general's desire for knowledge of the territory was not satisfied. He commissioned Lt. William Abercrombie to follow the Copper River to its confluence with the Yukon. Abercrombie was unsuccessful, to say the least. He declared the river impassable and the Natives unhelpful. Yet while the success of Lt. Abercrombie's trek was still unknown, General Miles asked a staff member, an 1882 West Point graduate named Lt. Henry Tureman Allen, to make the journey as well.
Allen chose two soldiers to accompany him up the Copper River: Cavalry Sgt. Cady Robertson and Pvt. Frederick Wildon Fickett, a meteorologist with the Signal Corps, who had been stationed in Sitka and recently reassigned to Portland, Oregon, headquarters for the Army's Department of the Columbia. Also joining them were two civilians, John Bremner and Peder Johnson. While the soldiers' most obvious mission was to plot and map their journey and make scientific observations about the natural world, they also were expected to record the habits and nature of Native Alaskan tribes that they encountered. Long years of war with Native Americans in the States had created an apprehensive U.S. military. They were unnecessarily wary of the Alaskan Natives, but danger was still inherent in their mission.
"At least three groups of Russian explorers traveled into the Copper River country never to be seen again," Allen wrote later, "and several other armed parties were turned back."
Influenced in part by Abercrombie's reports, Lt. Allen carried with him the notion of ill-tempered Natives, but frequently observed the people with curiosity rather than disdain. Abercrombie had referred to the indigenous people as devious and manipulative. Allen, rather, wrote that the information supplied by the Natives "may not be prompted by maliciousness." Expecting resistance and hostility, the Lieutenant was instead surprised by their generosity and willingness to trade. He marveled that they did not seem to purposefully sabotage his voyage. Unbeknownst to Allen, the Natives were performing reconnaissance of their own from the moment the party first arrived, observing the white men and passing along messages to other Natives ahead of and behind the expedition's route. Ahtna oral histories report that the Natives believed the men were Russians, and their deaths were averted when Tyone Chief Nicolai learned that they were from the United States and prevented them from being killed. Chief Nicolai of Taral, near present-day Chitina, lent guides, who continued to deliver messages ahead to other tribes, cautiously observing and ensuring safety and protection as the men ascended the Copper, then the Tanana River to its confluence with the Yukon.
Nicolai also revealed to Allen the location of an untouched vein of nearly pure copper ore. Regrettably for the Athabascans of this area, this discovery, as well as other regional gold rushes, ultimately led to the arrival of many more white men -- miners, traders, railroad men, powerful capitalists -- to exploit what was one of the largest copper deposits on record. Within two decades, the land that the Natives had occupied for thousands of years was irreversibly changed.
Ultimately, the greatest threat to the expedition was hunger and illness. The men traveled lightly on shriveled stomachs, rarely having enough food to save. The starving explorers were so consistently exhausted and ravenous, they welcomed rotten meat rather than the idea of hunting at the end of a long day's journey. In his report, Allen quoted from Fickett's journal: "Rotten moose meat would be a delicacy now. So weak from hunger that we had to stop at noon to hunt. All so weak that we were dizzy and would stagger like drunken men." Allen confirmed Private Fickett's thoughts when he wrote, "The most difficult of all our endeavors, however, was the necessity of hunting supper at the expiration of such a day's march." All the men eventually contracted scurvy, also known as Barlow Disease, from an insufficient intake of Vitamin C. The men most likely suffered from symptoms such as spotted skin, spongy gums, and bleeding mucous membranes.
In his journal, Allen wrote of party member John Bremner and his ill health: ". . . I noticed that the severe hardships to which Bremner had so long been exposed were affecting both his mental and physical constitution. His ankle, sprained at Chittystone, had assumed an unusual size, which was due, as we found later, to scurvy. For two weeks Sergeant Robertson had been covered with black spots, which developed later into another form of scurvy."
Although food and other provisions from Natives had somewhat relieved the party, the soldiers disbanded when they reached Koyukuk River. "John Bremner and Peder Johnson chose to remain on the Yukon to continue prospecting during the remainder of the summer," Allen wrote. "Sgt. Robertson was to go to Saint Michael's on the return trip of the steamboat Yukon."
Accompanied by several Natives, Allen and Fickett continued northward and became the first white men to explore the Koyukuk River north of the Arctic Circle. They traveled to its headwaters overland and returned to the Yukon River by canoe, traveling until the end of August. Joining Robertson at St. Michael, the trio posed for a formal photograph, marking the end of their remarkable journey. Upon their return, the soldiers successfully mapped the Copper, Tanana, and Koyukuk Rivers. They had traveled more than 1,500 treacherous miles in fewer than 20 weeks.
A few years later, Private Frederick Fickett submitted his thesis, titled "Alaska," to Maine State College and received a Master of Science degree. He married and retired from the army in 1890, eventually moving to Arizona to combat the nagging health concerns he retained from his trek in Alaska. He studied law and managed mining operations before his death in 1928 at the age of 70.
Lt. Henry T. Allen retired from the Army in 1923 as a Major General after serving as a Brigadier General in World War I. He died on August 30, 1930, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
In June 1985, linguist James Kari of the Alaska Native Language Center, University of Alaska Fairbanks, organized a conference to commemorate the centennial of the Allen Expedition. The conference site was Mentasta, an Athabascan village between the Tanana and Copper Rivers. Speakers included descendants of Natives who had witnessed the Allen party's struggle up the Copper River Valley and beyond. They retold the oral histories of their ancestors, and were joined by scholars who presented the academic perspective of the historic expedition. Among the speakers were Walter Chorley, Katie John, Walya Hopson, Morgan Sherwood, Heath Twitchell and Joan Antonson.