AHS Blog

Interview with Mary Ehrlander, editor of “Seventeen Years in Alaska”

Date Posted: June 15, 2014       Categories: 49 History

Editor’s note: Seventeen Years in Alaska: A Depiction of Life Among the Indians of Yakutat, a new book by Albin Johnson and edited and translated by Mary Ehrlander, is Johnson’s account of his service as a missionary among the Tlingit at the turn of the twentieth century. The Swedish missionary arrived at a time when Alaska and its Native peoples were undergoing remarkable changes. The book is published by University of Alaska Press. Ordering info available here. Ehrlander is professor of history and director of the Northern Studies Department at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The following interview was conducted by e-mail.

1) Tell us briefly about the book and how you arrived at this particular topic.

Seventeen Years in Alaska is a memoir of a Swedish Evangelical Covenant missionary who spent 17 years among the Tlingit at Yakutat from 1889 to 1905. It was published in 1924 in Swedish (for Swedish-American and Swedish audiences) and had never been translated. I used it in other research that I did on Edward Anton and Jenny Olson Rasmuson, parents of Elmer Rasmuson, who were missionaries at Yakutat toward the end of the Johnsons’ stay there and afterwards.

I thought it was a great primary resource on the tremendous socio-economic and cultural change that was taking place at that time. The Tlingit still maintained many traditional ways at the same time that so much was changing around them, and they wanted to be a part of some of those changes. So I wanted this resource to be available to those interested in Alaska history who do not read Swedish.

2) What brought Albin Johnson to Alaska?

Albin Johnson was a newly ordained Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant pastor. He was sent on this mission by the Covenant in Sweden, which was interested in bringing Christianity to “pagan” peoples of the world. It’s believed that the Swedish-Finnish explorer Adolf Erik Nordenskiold had notified leaders in the Covenant in Sweden of the great needs among Alaska’s Native peoples. They also may have read some of Sheldon Jackson’s writing.
3) You write that Johnson arrived to work among the Tlingit tribes of Yakutat but that waves of foreign immigrants were pouring into the region and bringing tumultuous social and economic changes. What was life like in Yakutat in the early twentieth century and what sorts of challenges did Johnson and the Tlingit face?

Challenges the Tlingit faced related to their being inundated by western influences, including Christianity, employment opportunities (in particular canneries at Yakutat), alcohol, and various diseases. The Covenanters did not aim to change the Tlingit into white people. However, they strongly urged them to denounce their shamans, dispense with the potlatch, give up dancing and abstain from alcohol. And of course they worked hard to change their worldview to a Christian one. While there were many benefits to being associated with the mission, many of the missionaries’ rules did not make sense to them. For instance why was drinking forbidden when it was white men who had brought alcohol to the Tlingit.
From the missionaries’ perspective, I think the greatest challenges were to convince the Tlingit of the truth of Christianity and to guide them into accepting the best of western civilization and rejecting its “evil” aspects. The Tlingit found alcohol very enticing, and even the most faithful in the congregation would sometimes “backslide.”

Missionaries were also very frustrated that the American government did so little to protect Alaska Natives from exploitation by white people of bad character and from the diseases that migrants inadvertently brought in. The needs of the people were so great and the missionaries’ means were so small in comparison.
4) Tell us about the process of translating Johnson’s journals. Where are the original journals located? What considerations go into producing a faithful translation?

Rasmuson Library at UAF has the book in Swedish — Sjutton Ar i Alaska — (the A in the second word should have a little circle over it) — Seventeen Years in Alaska. I did significant research to contextualize the book and make it understandable (in English) to 21st century readers. The Covenant’s archives are at North Park University, which was established as the Covenant Seminary in the late 1800s. Fortunately, many of their documents, including the yearly reports of the missionaries, are available online. These early docs are all in Swedish. They were great resources for me, because they helped me to flesh out Johnson’s story.
The main challenges I encountered in translating the book itself were 1) the many Biblical allusions (I’m not a Biblical scholar!) and the old Swedish. The Swedish language has changed significantly in the past 130 or so years.

Also, it was difficult to know how much liberty I should allow myself to translate Johnson’s meaning, versus his words. As time went by I felt increasingly comfortable taking liberties, and I know in the end this was the right thing to do. Doing so helped me achieve a more pleasing and readable narrative in English. David Bellos’ book Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything was really helpful in that regard.
5) You get the last word—what else do you want folks to know about your book?

I think people will find this missionary’s perspective on life at Yakutat in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries very interesting. It certainly “complicates the narrative” of missionary history in Alaska. I think that many people assume that missionaries were all of one stripe and that they merely were self-serving, ethnocentric and paternalistic do-gooders who did much harm, especially to Alaska Native languages and that Alaska Natives would have been better off if missionaries had never come to Alaska. Having done fairly extensive research on some missionaries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is entirely obvious to me that without the missionaries, the impacts of western migrants and culture on Alaska Natives would have been much more devastating.

Ryan Jones lectures in Juneau (6/12) and Anchorage (6/16)

Date Posted: June 8, 2014       Categories: 49 History
Folks in Juneau and Anchorage won’t want to miss upcoming lectures by one of the best historians working in the field of Alaska-Russia-North Pacific studies today. Ryan Tucker Jones of the University of Queensland will present, “Empire of Extinction: Russians and the North Pacific’s Strange Beasts of the Sea, 1741-1867.”

Thursday, June 12
12:00 p.m.
Alaska State Library Historical Collections
8th floor Atrium, State Office Building

Monday, June 16
7:00 p.m.
Anchorage Museum

Based on his new book of the same title, Jones’s lecture will explore how the extinction of the sea cow and the near extinction of sea otters and fur seals provoked natural historians to claim, for the first time in European history, that animals could disappear entirely from the face of the earth. In an attempt to reverse ecological destruction, Russians began long-term management of marine mammals and instituted some of the colonial world’s most forward-thinking conservationist policies.

Andrew P. Kashevaroff papers digitized at ASL

Date Posted: June 5, 2014       Categories: 49 History
From the Alaska State Library comes news of another collection digitized and added to Alaska’s Digital Archives. The Andrew P. Kashevaroff papers (ca. 1923-1935) contain a diary kept for three months in 1923 during a lecture tour in Alaska and correspondence with Professor E.O. Essig (Berkeley), Peter Kostrometinoff, and Archie Shiels. Kashevaroff’s writings cover various Alaska subjects, including Archimandrite Joasaph, Russian American Fur Company activities, and a version of the Tlingit war from manuscripts and personal contact with Indian elders. Most of the writings are typewritten as is the correspondence. A watercolor by Xenia Kashevaroff, his daughter (married to composer John Cage), is included with the Fort Ross materials. Many of the items are undated but were probably written between 1923 and 1935. Certificates relating to Kashevaroff were added in 2001 as Folder 11.
Digitized items from this collection can be viewed at:

History in a Can

Date Posted: June 1, 2014       Categories: Alaska's Historic Canneries

By: Steve Henrikson, Curator of Collections at the Alaska State Museum
(Note: This article was republished from the Alaska State Museum’s Bulletin 41 with the permission of the author.)

Though famous for our isolation and uniqueness, the scattering of Alaskan material culture around the globe shows the extent of our engagement in the world economy. Years ago I was in Manhattan, on the “museum crawl,” and took a few minutes to browse an antique mall in the Garment District. The bottom floor was reserved for the glitziest of furnishings and decorative arts, and there, amidst the Deco and the Louis XIV, I glimpsed something so incongruous I thought I must be hallucinating. In the middle of a fashionably lit kiosk of fine porcelain and crystal was a century-old Alaskan salmon tin. I couldn’t have been happier.

The label read “Red Brand Spring Salmon, Arctic Packing Company, Alaska,” and the can itself looked early. It was hand-soldered, with a small vent hole that was plugged with solder after the cooking process. The label appeared to be an 1890s chromolithograph, an expensive process by which master printers hand stippled designs on stone plates to produce complex designs with naturalistic shading in over a dozen colors—each color requiring its own stone plate. The Arctic Packing Company operated canneries at Larsen Bay, Olga Bay and Nushagak Bay in the 1880s and 90s. However, the latter site was in operation beginning in 1878. One of only three canneries that began operations that year, listed as Alaska’s first.

I later heard that when my procurement documents hit the street in Juneau, my recommendation to spend $70 on an old can—empty no less—met with surprise and consternation. Such unusual requests from the museum have long ago entered state procurement lore, and today generate little controversy.

Though the can was (happily) empty of its original contents, it was full of potential for the interpretation of Alaska history in the museum. When we consider objects for acquisition by the museum, we always think about the end use—can it become a primary source for future research, or something useful in educational programming, or in exhibitions? And what interpretive subjects are suggested by the object? Sometimes the lowliest object turns out to be most useful in making a variety of interpretive points.

Salmon cans are incredibly versatile artifacts that support the telling of many Alaskan stories. Early industry, industrial revolution, labor history, and racial strife; Alaska as America’s colony, and as part of the global food chain; environmental degradation; the history of advertising, marketing and branding; and even printing technology are all themes supported by salmon tins. The subject matter printed on the labels, such as “Seward Brand” (Seward’s role in the Alaska Purchase Treaty), and “Wigwam Brand” (depiction of Alaska Natives in advertising), may be subjects worthy of exploration in our museums.

The canning of salmon in Alaska was only possible due to advances in science and technology that allowed for processing on an industrial scale. Canning in crocks, glass, and tinned iron, was developed in Europe during the 18th century, primarily for military consumption. In New York, salmon packed in glass jars were among the first vacuum packed foods available in the United States. After the Civil War, with improvements in the production of tinned iron, and the invention of new canning equipment, canned food became increasingly available to civilians in the United States. In Alaska, the invention of canning line machinery and processes conveniently coincided with efforts to develop its vast fishery resources, early in the American period.

By the early 20th century, much of the canning process became mechanized, but tin can construction in Alaska remained a hand operation due in part to the cost of shipping: it was cheaper to ship the tin sheets to Alaska flat. The tin itself was expensive, and a large quantity was required. In 1882, for example, the tin plate used by Alaska canneries in 1892 amounted to 49,239 boxes—each 108 pounds, with each box containing 112 14×20 inch sheets, which made 448 cans. To ship the packed cans south, crates were constructed from lumber supplied by Alaskan mills. These early cannery contracts came about at a critical time for Alaska’s fledgling lumber industry.

Once the cut salmon pieces were inserted in the can, the top was soldered on, but a small vent hole was left open. The food was cooked in the cans, and the vent hole was soldered closed when the food was steaming, creating a vacuum. Between 1908 and 1910, the American can company invented the sanitary can, featuring pre-soldered can bodies that were flattened for shipping, and once in Alaska, they were reconstituted and fitted with crimped ends. This eventually brought an end to hand manufacturing of cans in Alaska.

Prior to crating, the full cans were varnished (to inhibit rust) and a colorful paper label glued around the circumference. Early on, salmon cans in northern California were painted red, and consumers became so accustomed to the color that they reportedly refused to purchase anything painted another color. Habits die hard, and later paper labels in Alaska usually had bright red backgrounds—which also helped conceal spots of rust bleeding through the paper.

The labels’ designs themselves chart the birth of modern marketing techniques and branding. Competition was fierce, and consumer impressions of quality and cleanliness where based in part on the outward appearance of the can. Companies spared no expense designing their labels with colorful brand names and interesting graphics to make them stand out when displayed on shelves behind the counter of old-fashioned general stores. Consumers were loyal to brands that experience showed met their expectations of quality and purity. Over time, some brands lasted decades and became valuable assets, surviving as the company changed ownership.

Salmon cans symbolize the development of Alaska and its participation in the world economy.

In 1883, Alaskan canneries shipped 36,000 cases of 48 one pound cans. Just eight years later, the annual pack had increased to 789,347 cases—a rate of growth that some at the time considered alarming. Special Agent Paul S. Luttrell, Special Agent for the Salmon Fisheries in Alaska in 1895, reported that “the salmon-packing industry… has attained the limit beyond which it is dangerous to pass; and that, if we would perpetuate the salmon industry and keep it up to its present grand proportions, measures of protection must be taken…. it should never be forgotten that there is a limit beyond which it is not safe to go, and that if we would reap an annual golden harvest we must also guard the source of supply, and see that nothing is done to either fish or stream that will change the natural order under which the fish have grown to such numbers and by which they may be perpetuated without abatement forever. Paradoxical though it may appear, it is nevertheless true, that none are more anxious to save and perpetuate the salmon than the canners themselves, and yet their methods are such as, if continued, will very soon destroy them.”

In 1936, production in Alaska had increased astronomically to eight million cases to meet the global demand (one salmon tin recently acquired by the Alaska State Museum, a “Meteor Brand” can from the early 1900s, was recently excavated from an old garbage dump in Chile).

In terms of significance, canned salmon played a key role in Alaska’s development; between 1880 and 1937, the value of canned salmon produced in Alaska exceeded the value of minerals extracted from Alaska during the same period. Luttrell contined: “Let it be borne in mind that all the canning factories in Alaska are owned by three or four corporations in San Francisco, who have millions invested in the salmon-canning industry, but who have no interest in the development of Alaska, and who, as a matter of fact, do not add one dollar to the wealth of the young Territory from which they take millions of dollars annually. These corporations are rivals in the salmon-canning business, and their rivalry is carried to such extremes betimes that bloodshed at any moment will not surprise those who know the real conditions existing there. Now, this bitter rivalry of great and rich corporations, if allowed to continue, will eventually destroy the salmon…”

The role of museums is not necessarily to celebrate history. Resource development remains a mainstay of life in Alaska and makes available to society many important and positive things. Yet we may not overlook the suffering and ruin that resulted. Such production levels were possible in Alaska, where civil government and resource regulation was virtually nonexistent. The harvest exploited a vast biomass that had evolved in place for thousands of years. That abundance, the lifeblood of the rainforest and of Alaska Native cultures, was the target of canning companies as they expanded up the Northwest Coast, moving northward as California, Oregon, and Washington were overfished. The vastness of Alaska’s runs, and its relatively high operating costs and isolation, spared it the decimation seen in areas south. The lessons of overharvest and colonization were learned late. Fish traps—the device that led to such rapid increase in productivity—were eventually outlawed, and Alaska’s constitution became unique with its mention of the sustained yield principal.

Too, we must not overlook the human cost of the industry—Alaskans overlooked poor and dangerous working conditions in order to have a chance to make a cash income, which enabled them to participate in the introduced economy where some cash was a necessity. Cultures clashed when cannery management played one group against the other to lower labor costs, or to circumvent strikes (a technique that one writer noted had been taught “by the more irresponsible European laborers”). In Klawock, Tlingit and Haida cannery workers fought each other for access to employment. In Sitka, clans staged an organized protest when Chinese workers were imported. Violence was averted when officials explained that the Chinese were there only to make cans, and if the Natives would learn to make them, the Chinese would be sent away. That explanation, and a threat of calling the “man-of-war” for “a little gunnery practice,” helped quell the dispute. Canneries heavily reliant on Native labor worked in cahoots with the government to ensure that strikes and ceremonial activities would not interfere with production.

Collecting Salmon Tins:

Alaska cans may appear at any time for sale the internet auction sites, or through antique dealers, usually from outside Alaska, where the vast majority of the cans were originally sold. Many cans sell for under $75, and dozens are offered annually. Currently, a rare and early “Zenith Brand” can, packed by the Yakutat and Southern Railway Company of Yakutat, is offered for $1,500—the most I’ve even seen for an Alaskan can. It is from a small cannery, with an early type label, and in nearly perfect shape. Labels are more common still, and rare examples may sell for several hundred dollars. These are mostly leftovers that were never affixed to cans, found by the bundle in old canneries and printing plants.

Condition can be an issue, given that most of them spent at least part of their existence in the garbage. Luckily, some cans survive a half century or more in the trash in a remarkably good state of preservation. One can we collected had been found in the wall of a house in upstate New York, having been deposited there by lunching carpenters—it was in great shape, and was opened from the bottom, which is nice for display purposes. Early cans were generally opened with a knife, which often chewed up the metal and sometimes even part of the label.

Online Resources:

Canneries, Canning Technology, History of Canned Salmon Industry:
Cobb, John N.
1917 Pacific Salmon Fisheries. Appendix II to the report of U.S. Commissioner of Fisheries for 1916. Bureau of Fisheries Document No. 839. Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
Friday, Chris
1999 “Competing Communities at Work:
Asian Americans, European Americans, and Native Alaskans in the Pacific Northwest, 1938-1947. Over the Edge: Remapping the American West. Edited by
Valerie J. Matsumoto and Blake Allmendinger. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Jordan, David Starr
1898 Reports on Seal and Salmon Fisheries by Officers of the Treasury Department, and Correspondence Between the State and Treasury Departments on the Bering Sea Question From January 1, 1895, to June 20, 1986, with Comments on that Portion Thereof Which Relates to Pelagic Sealing (four volumes). Washington DC: Government Printing Office.
Moser, Jefferson F.
1902 “Salmon Investigations of the Steamer Albatross in the Summer of 1901.” Bulletin of the United States Fish Commission, Vol. XXI, 1901, 57th Cong. 1st sess., Ho. Doc. No. 706. Washington DC: Government Printing Office, 374-376.
Label History:
The History of Fruit Crate Labels and Can Labels
Label Collecting Tips (including identification of printing techniques and dating)
Label Collecting:
Schmidt Label and Lithography Company (the printer of many salmon can labels):
Finding Aid, Schmidt Lithography Company Papers, Bancroft Library:
The Schmidt Lithography Company: Oral History Transcripts, 1967-69

Finding Aids:

Alaska Packers Association
Alaska State Library:
Western Washington University:
Pacific American Fisheries
Southwestern Alaska Cannery Logbooks:
Cannery Workers and Farm Laborers Union Local 7 Records 1915-1985
North Pacific Cannery National Historical Site Finding Aids


Boettcher, Graham C.
1997 Canned Culture: Pacific Salmon Fisheries and the Image of the American Indian. Unpublished Manuscript in the Alaska State Museum files.
Clark, Hyla M.
1977 The Tin Can: The Can as Collectible Art, Advertising Art & High Art. New York: New American Library
Dunbar, Kurt, and Chris Friday
1994 “Salmon, Seals, and Science: The Albatross and Conservation in Alaska, 1888-1914.” Journal of the West 33 (October 1994): 6-13.
Edwards, Jack
2006 How Old Is That Label: A Celebration of Pacific Northwest Salmon Labels & Dating Guide. Long Beach, Washington: Chinook Observer Publications.
Friday, Chris
1994 Organizing Asian American Labor: The Pacific Coast Canned-Salmon Industry, 1870-1942.
Freeburn, Laurence
1976 “The Silver Years of the Alaska Canned Salmon Industry.” Alaska Geographic3(4). Anchorge: Alaska Geographic Society.
Lorenz, Claudia, Kathryn McKay, et al
2002 Trademarks and Salmon Art: A Brand New Perspective. Vancouver BC: Gulf Of Georgia Cannery Society.

Notice regarding digitization of NARA Alaska records

Date Posted: May 31, 2014       Categories: 49 History
The closure of NARA’s Anchorage office has received a great deal of attention lately – see this article by Dermot Cole about the transfer of records and the decision to move some to the Alaska State Archives in Juneau.

Regarding the proposed digitization of Alaska records, the National Archives is inviting feedback from the public on which records should be prioritized for this action.
According to NARA,
“After we receive your feedback, NARA will also take into consideration access and use restrictions, preservation issues, series size, and ease of digitization when determining the final prioritization. Your participation will also help NARA better understand the interests and needs of researchers and stakeholders, as well as further participation and transparency in an open government.”

Read the full statement and make your comments here.