The following was found at www.newsminer.com in 1998. It is now printed in a modified form on this site as it has disappeared from the Newsminer site.
Native Women of the Gold Rush
Editor’s note: The following story is excerpted from the new book “Gold Rush Women” by Claire Rudolf Murphy and Jane Haigh. The story of this Native woman is only a part of “Gold Rush Women,” a collection of profiles selected to reveal the depth and variety of women’s roles in the North during this consequential era.
Of all the women who participated in the Northern gold rushes, none have been more persistently overlooked than the Native women. While the gold rush contributions of traders Arthur Harper, Al Mayo, and Jack McQuesten, who established posts along the
Yukon River, are acknowledged, the very existence of their Athabaskan wives is rarely mentioned in historical accounts. The stories of these women have been preserved only in family records and lore.
Jennie Bosco Harper Alexander (1860-1921)
Seentahna, whose Western name was Jennie Bosco, was living at Koyukuk Station during the summer of 1874. Her Koyukon River people, who had been suffering from famine, were encamped on the banks of the Yukon River to fish when 14-year-old Jennie met and married 39-year-old trader Arthur Harper.
Jennie and Arthur joined her cousin Margaret, and Margaret’s husband Al Mayo in establishing the post at
Tanana, near the traditional trading site of Nuklukayet. Though married to a white trader, Jennie never abandoned her Native traditions, perhaps because she hadn’t been educated at Russian Mission or experienced life at Kokrine’s. She continued to speak her Koyukon language and to rely on her skills gathering berries, snaring rabbits and drying fish.
While Harper’s trading activities supported their growing family, at heart he was still a prospector. He made frequent prospecting trips and was the first to explore many of the creeks and rivers of the
UpperYukon Basin. Harper frequently left Jennie alone while he searched for gold, and his absences could last for two years.
Although Jennie objected, Arthur insisted their first seven children be sent Outside to be educated. Their last child, Walter, was born in 1893. Jennie and Arthur separated permanently in 1895 and Jennie moved back to Tanana with Walter, who was raised in the traditional way, learning to hunt and fish. Arthur went on to
Dawsonand remarried; he died in Arizonain 1897.
At 16 Walter attended St. Mark’s Mission in Nenana, where his outdoor skills and pleasant personality attracted the attention of the explorer, Episcopal missionary and (later) Archdeacon of Alaska, Hudson Stuck, who adopted him as his travel companion and camp assistant. In 1913, Walter accompanied Stuck on one of the explorer’s greatest expeditions; Jennie’s Athabaskan son became the first person to set foot on the summit of Mount McKinley.
Jennie later married Nenana Native Robert Alexander. She is remembered as a respected elder and potlatch orator, speaking only Athabaskan in that phase of her life. Few people knew the part she had played in the opening of the gold rush. The Native family values that she instilled in all of her children inspired them all to return to
Alaska’s Interior, where the Harper family continues to thrive today. Jennie died in Tanana in 1921.
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