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1890: Teacher/missionaries William T. Lopp and Harrison Thornton arrive at Cape Prince of Wales to establish a school. Sheldon Jackson arrives on his first Arctic summer tour with Captain Michael A. Healy aboard the U.S. revenue cutter Bear. Alaska is divided into allotments, which are assigned to Protestant denominations. Among them are: Bethel (Moravian), Point Barrow (Presbyterian), Tanana (Episcopal), Unalakleet (Swedish Evangelical Covenant), Teller, Nome and Shishmaref (Norwegian Lutheran) and Cape Prince of Wales (Congregational). Other Christian missions are established during the next few years, some with reindeer.

Jackson promotes a plan to import reindeer from Russia to introduce reindeer husbandry to the Inupiaq as a solution to their loss of subsistence resources. Captain Healy, William T. Lopp, naturalist Charles Townsend and the Alaska Commercial Company have also been discussing this idea. Jackson believes that the Eskimos in northwest Alaska are starving and on the edge of calamity because of over-hunting by commercial Russian and American whalers and fishermen. He raises $2,156. in private donations to purchase the first reindeer and supplies.

Jackson also has ideas about changing the Inupiaq from hunters into herders, converting them to Christianity, and incorporating the introduction of reindeer into the mission school system. In addition, he sees unique possibilities for reindeer solving transportation, food, employment and other natural resource problems. He believes that the Sami would be central to solving these problems by teaching reindeer husbandry to Alaska Natives.

1891: Sixteen Chukchi reindeer are brought to Unalaska and Amaknak Islands in the Aleutians in the fall to see if they can survive the winter there. Fourteen survive and are taken to Teller, on the Seward Peninsula, where two calves are born. They are the first of 280 reindeer that will be used as breeding stock between 1891 and 1902.


Herders at Teller

1892: Teller Reindeer Station is established at Port Clarence. Four Chukchi herders arrive with another 171 reindeer to teach the Inupiaq about reindeer herding. For a long time they have been trading reindeer furs with the Inupiaq who use them to make clothing. The Chukchi are not excited about the Inupiaq owning their own reindeer and having their own source of furs. The two Peoples have fought each other in the past and problems occur at Teller, The Chukchi treat the reindeer roughly and are sent home. Also during this year, Harrison Thornton, a hated missionary, is killed by Natives in Wales.

1893: Jackson advertises in North American Scandinavian newspapers for skilled reindeer herders and receives 250 responses. One of them, William Kjellmann, is hired as superintendent of the Teller Reindeer Station. He is a Norwegian from Madison, Wisconsin. He has grown up working with reindeer in Finnmark and speaks the Sami language. Tollef Brevig, a Norwegian-speaking teacher and Lutheran missionary from Crookston, Minnesota, is hired as assistant superintendent.

William T. Lopp is hired as superintendent of the Cape Prince of Wales Reindeer Station and Mission.

There are now 180 reindeer on Bering Island, but the Alaska Commercial Company abandons its lease there because it is too far from the mainland.


Teller Station, 1894. Photograph by Lt. Howard Emery, USRCS.

1894: Jackson receives $6,000 from Congress to fund what is called “The Reindeer Project.” It is the first of the $207,500 he will receive between 1894 and 1904.

In February Jackson sends Kjellmann to Kautokeino, Norway to recruit herders, stipulating that only Christians are to be hired. Thirteen men and women sign three-year contracts for $27.50 per month plus food, clothing and shelter. The group is called “The Kjellmann Expedition.” They leave Finnmark April 10th on the steam ship Island with four children, some herding dogs and some pulkas [Sami sledges]. On May 12th the Kjellmann Expedition arrives in New York, and continues on to Seattle by train, with stops at Madison, Wisconsin and St. Paul, Minnesota. They are considered “exotic” by the American public and press.

The herders board the steamer Umatilla in Seattle and head for San Francisco, arriving June 4th. They explore the city for thirteen days and stay at the Norwegian Seamen’s Home. Finally they board the whaler W.H. Meyers for the trip to Teller Reindeer Station.

The Kjellman Expedition arrives at Teller Station sometime between July 29th and July 31st. The Sami are nicknamed “The Card People” by the Inupiaq because their curled toe boots and men’s Four Winds hats resemble the jokers on playing cards. Tollef Brevig and his family arrive to establish a school and mission at Point Clarence. 118 reindeer are sent from Port Clarence to the mission school at Wales to expand the Reindeer Project.

Small herds of Chukchi reindeer are distributed to more missions in the area. The Sami begin to teach herding techniques. This includes how to milk, lasso and tame reindeer and how to make cheese, glue, sleds, fur boots, harnesses and other items. Each person who participates in the Reindeer Project is to receive one female reindeer and its offspring per year. Applications for apprenticeships come in from all over Alaska, but tribal Elders are concerned that this will keep the young men from learning the subsistence skills related to hunting and fishing.

1895: Charlie Antisarlook of Cape Rodney receives his first 100 reindeer to use for work with other Natives.

1896: There are now 1,175 reindeer in Alaska. Gold is discovered in southeast Alaska and steamers and launches carry miners and supplies up the Yukon River. The “Klondike Gold Rush” lasts three years.

1897: Mikkel Nakkala, Per Rist, and William Kjellmann undertake a 1,240-mile reindeer-drawn sled expedition that begins and ends at Teller Station, proving the value of reindeer as transport animals. It is considered to be one of the longest trips ever made by reindeer and sleds. From Teller they go around Norton Sound via Golovin, Unalakleet and St. Michael to Ikogmure, a Russian mission in the Yukon River Valley. They then head south to Bethel on the Kuskokwim River and return to Teller by reverse route.

Upper Yukon snow levels block the passage of miners through the Yukon Mountains. Ships are also having trouble navigating upstream and miners fear they will not receive supplies before freeze up. The chances of a possible disaster give Jackson a reason to successfully lobby Congress to authorize additional funds to import more reindeer and hire more Sami herders to transport supplies to the miners.

Jackson envisions a permanent Sami colony in Alaska and receives funding from the War Department to bring over a larger group of herders and to purchase 500 reindeer for use as draft animals. Per Rist, Karl Suhr and Samuel Kemi return to Finnmark with Kjellmann to hire herders, buy reindeer, and obtain supplies for what is at first called “The Lapland-Yukon Relief Expedition” to save the starving miners. Kjellmann buys 500 tons of lichen in Røros in central Norway, and heads north to Finnmark. The Sami are told that in Alaska they will be treated as if they were white people.

The first Kjellman Expedition Reindeer Project contracts end. Mikkel Nakkala asks that his dog be paid as well. Three families return to Finnmark, Norway, but Fredrik Larsen, and the Johan Tornensis and Nakkala families stay. Berit Eira, wife of Mathis Eira, dies before she and her husband can return to Norway.

1898: By January, 72 adults have signed two-year contracts to be reindeer herding instructors in Alaska. They are guaranteed food, shelter and health benefits. At the completion of their tours of duty they are to be paid either in reindeer or money. As an inducement to stay in Alaska, they are given the three- to five-year option of a U.S. government loan of one hundred reindeer to start their own herds.

William Basi, a Kven cook, begins a journal in Finnish and Norwegian about the trip to Alaska. His cousin, Carl Johan Sakariassen, another Kven cook, also begins a journal. Both will later be translated into English and published.

The herders brave blizzards to report to the Manitoba. The ship is loaded and leaves Bosekop, Norway on February 2nd. A number of herders are drunk and cause a disturbance and the remaining liquor is confiscated.

On February 28th, a total of 113 men, women and children, 539 draft reindeer, 418 sleds, a number of herd dogs and a supply of lichen arrive in New York after a very rough ocean crossing. The Lapland-Yukon Relief Expedition now becomes known as “The Manitoba Expedition.” (See Manitoba Expedition 1898 Saami Family Reunion)

The herders and reindeer cross the U.S. by train and arrive in Seattle on March 7th to find out that the expedition might be cancelled. The Alaska miners are no longer starving and the ship that was to transport them has gone to the Philippines to pick up troops for the Spanish-American War. During a nine-day delay a five-year-old boy dies, the lichen supply is mistaken for packing material and thrown away, the reindeer are taken to Woodland Park Zoo to graze. The Sami families camp there for two weeks. 10,000 people turn out to look at them. Twelve reindeer starve to death.


Woodland Park, Seattle, 1898

Jackson convinces the government that the Sami and reindeer can be helpful in the missions in Alaska. Kjellmann’s cousin Hedley Redmyer, a Norwegian Sami living in Cook County, Minnesota, joins the expedition in Seattle as a supervisor and interpreter.

The women and children move on to Fort Townsend, Washington, while 57 men and the 527 starving reindeer continue on to Haines on board an old sailing ship, The Seminole. They leave Fort Townsend March 6th... When they arrive in Haines March 27th there is no shelter for the men or lichen for the reindeer. Lead by Redmyer, seven men and the starving, weakened reindeer begin a 1,500-kilometer trip across the mountains to Circle City in the Yukon Valley. Their makeshift shelters along the way become the first Sami lavvu (Sami tents) to be constructed in North America. By the time lichen is found in the mountains, many reindeer can no longer digest food and 311 starve to death or are killed by wolves.

Kjellmann returns to Fort Townsend with 43 of the men, arriving on May 18th.

A new reindeer station, Eaton Station, is established at Unalakleet and the main herd from the Seward Peninsula is taken there.

On June 22nd, the remaining group of nearly 100 Sami leave Fort Townsend in two ships bound for Eaton Station. One ship arrives July 29th and the other the next day. They begin to move supplies and build a new permanent reindeer station. They construct a number of wooden buildings with timber from the forest.

On July 31st Jafet Lindberg has an argument with Sheldon Jackson on the beach at Unalakleet and he is released from his Reindeer Project contract.


(left to right) Herders Marit Persdatter Biti Balto, Anders Johannesen Balto and their daughter Maria
photographed at Eaton Reindeer Station in 1898. Photo by Dobbs from the collection of May Balto Huntington.

Under the direction of W. T. Lopp, herders are dispatched from Teller to Point Barrow with 400 reindeer to rescue the crews of eight iced-in whaling ships. The rescue team arrives to discover that the Inupiaq and other local residents have already saved the crews. The reindeer stay on and the Point Barrow Reindeer Station is established.

Two Swedes, Erik Lindblom and John Brynteson, and the Norwegian Kven, Jafet Lindeberg, who has left the Reindeer Project, “discover” gold at Anvil Creek late in the year; Inupiaq in the area say they have always known of its presence. The men become known as “The Three Lucky Swedes” and earn fortunes. Lindeberg stakes his claim at a place he first calls “no name.” It becomes the town of “Nome.”

December 24th, Klemet Nilsen passes away at Eaton Station and becomes the first adult herder of the expedition to die.

1899: On February 28th, Redmyer and the seven herders arrive at Circle City. Of the original 527 reindeer only 114 have survived. The U.S. Army buys some of them to use to haul equipment.

Since the herders and reindeer are not needed for War Department rescue work, the Reindeer Project is placed under the command of the U.S. Department of the Interior.

Between February and April, over half of the Sami who arrived in 1898 are released from their contracts and leave the Reindeer Project to search for gold. Many apply for U.S. citizenship. Samuel Balto stakes three claims. He is offered $1000 for his claim at “Balto Creek” but refuses. Twenty of the Sami become very wealthy.

A number of herders and reindeer are sent from Eaton Station to St. Michael to help transport U.S. government troops, tents and equipment to Golovin Bay where the army has been sent to keep order in the mining area. After a short stay, they transport the troops back to St. Michael.

Measles and pneumonia epidemics break out on the Seward Peninsula. Half of the Inupiaq and some of the Reindeer Project herders on the Seward Peninsula are infected by the gold miners and die.

On July 30th 42 deer are taken by ship to the St. Lawrence Island Yup’iks near Gambell. Nils Persen Sara, his wife Inger, their two sons Klemet (Clement) and Morten, and Ole Krogh are in charge of the herd.

The Storting [Norwegian Parliament] bans the future export of reindeer moss from Norway. This means that reindeer cannot be exported from the area, because they need food for any journey.

Reindeer are used to deliver mail for the U.S. postal service. Many Sami and Natives become mail carriers. The first postal route from St. Michael to Kotzebue is established by Jackson. Another route from Eaton Station to Nome is managed by Kjellmann. Reindeer revolutionizes mail delivery. Stations are set up and reindeer carrying 200-300 pounds of mail run relays of 30-50 miles. The distance between Circle City and Juneau that had taken sixty days, now takes six with pulka [Sami sleds] pulled by reindeer. And while the dog teams have previously needed an expensive food supply, reindeer can eat lichen along the way at no cost. Some reindeer also haul freight and food for the army and for gold miners. (Some historians debate the actual success of the use of reindeer as freight and mail carriers in Alaska history, noting that the reindeer carrier era was brief.)

Sakariassen and William Basi, the Kven cooks with the 1898 expedition who have kept journals, buy land near Astoria, Oregon.

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