Archives: Mission Reports from Gold Rush Alaska (1898)

Panorama of Circle City, Alaska, in 1899 | Wikipedia
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This article was first published in the March 12, 1898 issue of The Living Church.

Some background: The Rev. Jules Louis Prevost (1863-1937) was a pioneering Episcopal missionary who served native and white communities across Alaska as a priest and medical doctor from 1890 until 1906. His mother-in-law, Anna Cécile Vaucher Demonet (1836-1922), and his wife, Anna Louise Demonet Prevost (1868-1919), worked closely with him. Julia Chester Emery (1852-1916), who sent a letter from each woman to The Living Church, was secretary of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Board of Missions of the Episcopal Church for 40 years. Note that one of the letters expresses a widespread attitude in those days toward the Indigenous population – an attitude for which the church has begun to repent.

Editor of The Living Church:

As so much about Alaska appears in these days in the secular press, we feel that the readers of our church papers may enjoy the glimpse into a missionary home and its surroundings, which these letters give. They are extracts from home letters written by the wife of our missionary priest at Circle City and her mother who joined her in Alaska last summer. Miss [Elizabeth] Deane, whom they mention, is missionary deaconess, serving as nurse and teacher under Bishop Rowe [the Rt. Rev. Peter Trimble Rowe, first Bishop of Alaska]. She is a graduate of the New York Deaconess Schoo1 and was ordered in Grace Church, New York by Bishop [Henry C.] Potter last spring.


LETTER FROM MRS. DEMONET [Prevost’s mother-in-law]

CIRCLE CITY, Alaska, Nov. 12, 1897.

A few lines only, to tell you that we are all well. There are numbers of letters in the mail bag at the company’s store, waiting for a mail carrier who is prospecting, being unwilling to face the many hungry men who are still coming to the mines. and with whom he would have to share his precious provisions; but tomorrow, an agent of the Alaska Commercial Company is starting for Juneau, and volunteers to take a few letters at $1 apiece [the equivalent of $36.25 today], and they will probably reach you this year.

Photo: Wikipedia

Mr. Prevost is not here yet. We have no news whatever, as he intended to visit the Tanana tribes this winter. Mrs. Prevost thinks he will come that way, and we cannot expect him before December. God be with him on this long journey.

We have had our coldest day today — 25 below zero — but we are quite comfortable, considering. We have three cords of wood in front of the house ($16 a cord), and a good miner, whom Mr. Prevost cured of ulcer of the stomach four years ago, comes to saw and cut it for us three or four times a week. We are living here on Mr. Prevost’s good credit, buying only the most necessary things, which means an extra stove, sheet iron, and four gallons of oil. We are burning the last drop to-night, and there is no more for sale in Circle City. We have three boxes of candles. Just imagine if you can, candles for our long nights! For the sun now rises at half past nine, and sets at four.

You may hear dreadful reports of the conditions here, the want of food and the great suffering there is among the newcomers. It is folly to come here till the transportation is better. Tell everybody so. Don’t let anyone leave a position, ever so small, to run the risk of prospecting for worthless claims.

For ourselves, we have plenty to eat, though we have been obliged to bring back to our cabin the provisions we had so nicely stored in a cabin next door. We have plenty yet, and will probably be able to help later on, when the hungry will rush to Circle City. At Fort Yukon in the mission house 25 poor half-clad, hungry fellows are sleeping until they have built a cabin to pass the cold winter in.

Don’t let anyone come! I feel so sorry for the hundreds that have come and are scattered all over the country in distressed condition. Two miners came here with frozen feet; one of them had his foot amputated. If the men in the States would work a quarter as hard and be willing to put up with a twentieth part of the privations these gold seekers endure, they would all have money and the pleasure of enjoying it, but here, with the gold in their pockets, they may not be able to buy more than to just keep alive. A 40-pound bag of flour cost $20 at Klondike, and a candle, $1.

We are all working; Mrs. Provost sews, I do a little cooking and care for our dear little Yukon prince, the tyrant of the household, with nine teeth and a big appetite (the Prevosts’ son, Horace). He goes out every day a little while to smell the fresh air.

We are very happy to have Miss Deane here with us. She teaches about 12 or 14 children every day, and the weeks fly like magic. Sunday we have service and Sunday school, so we are very busy. Miss Deane does the teaching, Mrs. Prevost does the playing, and I attend to the general peace and good behavior of the clergyman’s son. The ladies of Circle City have met to prepare a Christmas tree for the children. … The wives that have time will do their best to make the most of our limited means.

For service on Christmas Day we hope to have Mr. Prevost back. We shall be able to have very fine singing with the good voices here.  How we long for news from home! Perhaps we may receive some at the end of this month; a mail must start from Juneau soon, if it has not started, and it takes 30 days over the Divide.


We are greatly disappointed at not receiving United States mail. Letters we wrote two months ago are still in the post office, and will hardly reach you until late in the spring. What letters we are sending now are by private parties who are going to Dawson, where people are leaving the country daily, and where, we understand, a Canadian mail is regularly received. The days are very short, four hours daily at the most, and we are reduced to candlelight, not having received our oil, and being unable to get any more here or at Fort Yukon.

Mr. Prevost arrived last Wednesday, Dec. 7th. Needless to say we were overjoyed. Paul, one of his boys, was very ill with pneumonia, and Mr. Prevost had left him 40 miles below, where they camped for the night, and he walked alone all that distance, [and] therefore presented an icy and tired spectacle. Since his arrival we have been in a whirl. The rector is trying to make up for lost time here. Services, Bible study, Christmas rehearsals, and a men ‘s library and debating club are the order of the day, and our one room serves to meet the requirements of all purposes at present, but arrangements are being made to use the school room, so that we will soon be relieved in this regard.

There is another excitement rumored just below Klondike, but people are slow to move from here, for the creek is small and there are more than enough on hand to take up all claims. Let no one come into this country who is not willing to spend several thousands of dollars waiting for something to open up. Prospecting in winter is extremely hard; no one but a strong laboring man can stand the work of mining, and as for traveling in winter, it is more than severe. Furs from head to foot are a necessity, and they are frightfully high in this country, particularly up the river.

Miss Deane has held school, nursed and visited the sick, held prayers and Sunday school on Sunday, and done a quiet and faithful work during the rector’s absence. The population, at present, is a transient one. Every one’s sole idea is making money and waiting to proceed to Dawson, leave for the outside, or some other point. Among the Indians there is a great work to be done, but I fear it will be a very slow one, for they are in a very low condition morally, having received little or no instruction. They make money easily, and spend it on dress, finery, and food, depriving themselves of no luxury when they can obtain it.

Mr. Prevost got “The Northern Light” [a small steamship used for his missionary travels on the Yukon River] as far as Fort Hamlin, where he has wintered it in a creek; accidents to machinery and being without proper tools prevented his getting up with the boat. … These short days, I am sure, depress our dear mother sometimes, but I am thankful that she stands the climate so well. We have had 42 degrees below zero, but only for a few days, and each day she has gone out with her little grandson. So you see our climate does not compare unfavorably with New York; still the traveler here is to be pitied at such a  temperature.

Fr. Prevost established numerous churches, hospitals, and schools in Alaska, some of which continue in ministry. He also founded interior Alaska’s first newspaper, discovered the Black Diamond coal mine near Fairbanks, and managed large herds of domesticated reindeer.

Deaconess Elizabeth M. Deane (d. 1913) served as supervisor of the Episcopal hospital at Circle City until at least 1902. She died while still a young woman, after 14 years of ministry in Alaska and 16 months in Graniteville, South Carolina, where she served cotton workers.

Julia Emery traveled innumerable miles visiting missionaries in the field and founded the United Thank Offering, a crucial source of financial support for Episcopal missionaries, in 1889. She is commemorated on the Calendar of the Episcopal Church on January 9.

Circle City, a Yukon River port near the Canadian border, sprang up after the discovery of gold nearby in 1893, and at its height in 1896, was called “The Paris of Alaska,” and boasted a population of 1,200, as well as “a store, a few dance halls, an opera house, a library, a school, a hospital, an American Episcopal church, a newspaper, a mill, and several federal officials: United States commissioner, marshal, customs inspector, tax collector and a postmaster.”

Circle City declined precipitously after a much larger seam of gold was discovered 255 miles southeast in Canada on the Klondike River in 1897. Today, Circle, Alaska (formerly Circle City) is a census-designated place with a population of 104. The nearest Episcopal church today is 50 miles away, in Fort Yukon, but it can only be reached by dogsled, snowmobile, or airplane.

The photograph of the Prevosts is from a 427-page family biography posted as a PDF on Wikipedia.



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