An historical glimpse of frontier Alaska
January 16, 2007
Don’t bother Googling for information about “Empire’s Edge,” Preston Jones’ 2007 book on the early days of the Alaskan frontier, because you won’t find it.Most of what you’ll get will be either reviews of a documentary about two reporters who spent three harrowing weeks on the front lines in Iraq, or about a Yale University Press book about Rome’s frontier border with Egypt.
If you want to know what the enterprising gold-camp residents of Nome, Alaska, went through in their drive to create a typical American town out of the rough-and-tumble chaos of Alaska’s gold rush days, Jones’ book is for you.Currently a history professor at John Brown University in Arkansas, Jones chose the title because “Nome came into being at the same time the United States was becoming an imperial power,” as he wrote in the preface. He was curious “how this context influenced the way Nomeites saw and spoke of themselves.”He also wanted to know “how they dealt with isolation” and if they “tried to reproduce in the far north the culture they had known in what they would soon call The Outside [the continental states and territories].”Nome, for those who don’t know it, is perched on the southern edge of a beak of land known as the Seward Peninsula, which juts out from western Alaska and stares across the Bering Strait at Russia’s Chukotka Peninsula. At the end of the 19th century, it surely was on the top-100 list of the most isolated places on Earth.
Early Nomeites were 80 percent men, with an average age of 35, and most were miners, Jones reports. It grew rapidly from its beginnings as a tent camp in 1898, so that by 1900 there were 12,000 people there.Alaska was by then a relatively old territory, having been bought from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million (that would be roughly $1.7 billion in 2007 dollars, according to the Wikipedia online encyclopedia). Gold had been discovered in 1896 in the Alaskan panhandle, followed by additional strikes in other regions, including Nome, far to the north, in 1898. Jones’ 116-page book covers the town from 1898 through a devastating fire in 1934 that roared through the heart of town. The conflagration destroyed 65 businesses and 90 homes, and left 400 homeless.Jones follows the fortunes, so to speak, of the burgeoning population, relating everything from the smallest details of civic life to the initial stirrings of territorial government and everything in between. His focus, though, is on the attempts of the denizens of Nome to replicate the atmosphere of life back in their home states as closely as possible. Along the way he extols the virtues of the citizenry to such a degree that the reader is tempted to think Jones may have had relatives among Nome’s ruling elite.For history buffs, however, this is a moderately entertaining read. And for those who want to gather information about the day-to-day lives of Alaska’s earliest residents, it may well be a resource without parallel.