Historic Alaskan Names Along The Koyukuk

Rich Names Along The KoyukukIt seems fitting to devote this May blog to the woolly mammoths that roamed the earth 10,000-15,000 years ago. Scientists in Russia have discovered viable blood and tissue from the ancient creatures in ice along the Arctic Ocean and today are attempting to clone the animals back into existence, according to a recent article in the Alaska Dispatch.

Early explorers in Alaska found tusks of the mighty mammoths, like those pictured above, embedded in the banks of the Koyukuk River.

The Koyukuk also was a land of turbulence, gold and mighty men of magic. And there is evidence of a rich heritage in the names of historic Alaskan villages along that river – names such as Batzna, Moses Village, Allakaket, Nok, Kakliaklia, Wiseman, Bergman, Hughes, Bettles – Native villages and gold rush towns.

The Koyukuk villages are notable for having given Alaska some of our greatest dog mushers, men who have won many championship races. David David and Leo Kriska of Allakaket, Warner and Bobby Vent, Cue Bifelt, Jimmie Huntington and George Attla of Huslia brought this section of Alaska to the attention of the rest of the state.

The gold rush period of Koyukuk history was a turbulent and interesting one. Gold was discovered on Evans Bar, Tramway Bar and on Hughes Bar in 1890, according to Gordon Bettles, pioneer of the Koyukuk country. In an article in a 1941 issue of “Alaska Life,” Bettles told how he started his “bean shops,” as he called his trading posts. The first he established at Arctic City in 1894 and the next one at Bergman, which flooded out. Bettles then opened another post and named it Bettles, after himself.

In the article, he said a constant procession of river steamers chuffed up the Yukon and then headed up the Koyukuk, all loaded down with stampeders and their supplies. Once 68 steamers were frozen in solid for the long, cold winter when a sudden cold spell took them unaware. There were 900 people on those ships, and when the adventurers realized they would have to remain a whole year in this desolate part of Alaska, 550 of them took emergency rations and mushed out to the Yukon.

A good many went downstream to St. Michael, vowing never again to visit such an inhospitable country, and 350 stampeders stayed in and around Bettles.

“We had quite an interesting winter with such a varied assortment,” Bettles said.

The first streams on the Koyukuk to yield gold in large quantities were Myrtle, Emma and Gold creeks. As early as 1899, the town of Slate Creek was started. In the summer of 1900, one of the waves of green stampeders got as far as this point, then got cold feet, turned back and left – reason enough to change the name of the settlement to Coldfoot. Wiseman was named after a transient prospector who stopped a few minutes to pan gold at the mouth of Wiseman Creek and perpetuated his name. Bergman was named for a steamboat captain.

By Laurel Bill


Alaska history