Fur Warden Sketches Map of Fortymile River Basin in Alaska

Today’s post was written by Laurie Moyer, who volunteers on education and archival projects at the National Archives at College Park.

Throughout December of 1917, the thermometer in Chicken, Alaska, a village about 40 miles west of the Canadian border, repeatedly plunged to 56 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. All activities were “practically at a standstill,” Christian L. Larson, Special Fur Warden with the Commission of Fisheries, reported from his headquarters in that village (now part of the series Records Concerning Fox Farming and the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, 1911-1928 (NAID 6109988)).

During one of these frigid nights, Larson spent about two hours, according to his estimate, sketching a highly detailed map of the approximately 190 mile swath of the Fortymile River Basin.

pencil sketch of fortymile river basin, showing bodies of water

Fortymile River Basin Map, sketched by C. L. Larson (NAID 26053347)

The 2-foot by 1-foot map, which documents the courses of more than 30 creeks and locations of Native American encampments, dozens of trappers’ cabins and beaver dams, is a testimony to Larson’s remarkable memory. The warden had traversed the basin, he wrote, “numerous times, traveling in summertime with a pack on my back and a dog or 2 following.” During winter months he explored the territory with “Dogteam, Snowshoes, Sleigh or Toboggan.”

In June, after surviving one of the coldest winters on record, Larson sent his sketch off to H. F. Moore, acting Commissioner of Fisheries, along with a letter. In Larson’s letter, he noted that his hurried pencil drawing was made without use of a ruler or compass which, he added, “I would not have understood how to use if I had tried.” Still, Larson believed that “it is more correct than any map from this part of Alaska seen so far.”

Larson letter to Commissioner

Letter from Christian L. Larson to the Commissioner of Fisheries, June 25, 1918 (NAID 26053347)

Larson transcription of letter

The United States Commission of Fish and Fisheries was formed in 1871 to investigate diminishing fish populations, regulate the fishing industry, and advance the science of fish breeding.  By 1917, the Commission was overseen by the Department of Commerce and its responsibilities included the oversight of fur-bearing animals. Wardens, stationed in field locations, were primarily charged with enforcing laws and regulations.

Chicken, Alaska, was first populated in 1886 when gold was discovered and later, in its heyday from 1910-20, was home to 100 people.  Larson had worked as a game warden in Chicken, Alaska, since July 11, 1911. His appointment was noted in the Report of the Governor of Alaska to the Secretary of the Interior of that year.

While we do not know exactly from Larson what his daily work routine was, the box of records also included 1921 correspondence from another fur warden, M. J. O’Connor, detailing his investigation into illegal muskrat trapping. Larson’s experiences may very well have included this type of inquiry.

Letter from MB in response to report sent by Ernest Walker from Warden O'Connor

Letter from MB to Ernest Walker, in response to report on illegal trapping of muskrats

O’Connor, in a report to his supervisor, Ernest P. Walker, Chief Fur and U.S. Game Warden in Juneau, describes a visitor who arrived at his house at 11 p.m. one May evening and carrying a trap bearing a dead muskrat. The visitor, Arthur Jennings, had traveled 16 miles to accuse Charles Hanley of illegally trapping muskrats and had brought the dead animal as evidence.

Three days later, the fur warden and the accuser traveled by boat to the site and found “evidences of trapping and skinning.” O’Connor reported that he “also found four or five stakes freshly cut to which evidently muskrat traps had been tied….We also found 52 stretching boards for muskrat skins, and found the carcass of a land otter…”

As a result of the investigation, Hanley was arrested. Before the trial, O’Connor reported that “a number of Indians … had spoken to me about the case and they seemed to be very angry because a white man was allowed to trap and nothing had been done to him. I told those at Klukwan that the man was going to be tried… and that seemed to satisfy them to think that a white man would not be allowed to trap any more than they were.”

Hanley was tried but found not guilty. In his report, O’Connor concluded that even though the verdict was not as hoped, “it has had a very good effect on the community for they know that violators of the law will be promptly taken up.”

Wardens like O’Connor and Larson, whose duties included enforcing laws against illegal trapping, may have felt they were fighting an uphill battle. As Larson concluded in his letter to his boss, he noted:

“The Fortymile basin, that is from within 16 mile of the Tanana to the boundary on the Fortymile river with all its tributaries comprises at least 25,000 square miles and is an ideal country for all fur animals but the few that is now left will not long survive as the prices is higher than ever before. Marten [a weasel-like mammal] is on the increase in the outlying parts where there has been no trappers in the last 2-3 years, but as the Marten gets more numerous more of them will be caught in traps set for mink, weasel, foxes and lynx, and Wardens will not be able to save them, at least not in this part along the boundary.”


 

Many thanks to the NARA volunteers who were involved in the process for this post. Renee Jaussaud discovered the records during a volunteer processing project; Harry Kidd scanned the textual records; and Roger Walke collaborated with Renee in transcribing Larson’s letter. Much appreciation to NARA staff Andrew Knight who scanned the sketch map, Judy Luis-Watson for collaborating on this post, and Patrick Osborn and Suzanne Isaacs who ensured the items are described correctly and now available in NARA’s online catalog.

 Sources

Records Concerning Fox Farming and the Protection of Fur-Bearing Animals, 1911-1928 (NAID 6109988); File: Larson, C. L. – Special Fur Warden, General Correspondence (NAID 6167414), Record Group 22, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Smith, Hugh.  “Report of the United States Commissioner of Fisheries Fiscal Year 1916.” Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. 1912.

“Reports of the Department of the Interior for the Fiscal Year Ended June 30, 1912, Volume II.” Government Printing Office: Washington, D.C. 1913.

 

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