Early Copper River Country & The Native Alaskan

Suacit – The People From The Place That Rises Into View

The Native Alaskan presence in the Valdez area had never been recorded before the arrival of enterprising non-native pioneers in 1792. However, it is likely that Tl’adets, known my many prospectors as “Indian Charlie”, was from one of the three migratory main cultural descendants of aboriginal Native Alaskan tribal peoples. For thousands of years these tribes consistently used the Prince William Sound and the Copper River Basin for hunting and fishing:

The Ahtna are an Athabascan tribe, also known as “Copper River Natives.” Their homeland is located in the Copper River area of southern Alaska.

The Sugpiaq or Chugach, now known as “Alutiiq.” These were the maritime people who live around Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula and share some cultural traits with both the Aleut and Yup’ik peoples, and The Eyak people who live in the Copper River Delta, and whose territory has changed over time, moving southward from the Alaskan interior. They have often been associated with Northwest Coast tribes such as the Tlingit, and Haida, but they retain their own distinct language and culture.

Hazelet and Meals repeatedly acknowledged their reliance on Tl’adets to help them successfully explore the region. It is certain that the survival and enterprising efforts of many other prospectors would have been impossible, had they not relied on the early guidance of Native Alaskans, whose inherent knowledge of the area was profound.


The Partnership

“George Cheever Hazelet and Andrew Jackson Meals, two uncommon entrepreneurs whose lives show that the test of a man’s character is in how much he’ll risk to keep it intact.” ­­–Hazelet’s Journal by G. C. Hazelet

Hazelet’s Journal is a timeless story about a restless nation and the great American spirit that our country was founded upon. It’s a true American story un-edited—told in the journalist’s original voice—now captured for generations to come. It expresses the spirit and resilience of the many partnerships and adventures that make up the Community of Valdez and the State of Alaska today.

George Cheever Hazelet was inspired by the great tycoons at the dawn of the Industrial Age and became one himself in the chicory-coffee market.  But then the markets crashed and coffee became as cheap as the dirt the farmers were trying to cultivate. In this calamitous financial crisis of the late 1890’s, he turned to the one opportunity that played no favorites—the Klondike Gold Rush.

Hazelet was one of those adventurous souls who went to Alaska with his close friend and business associate Andrew Jackson “Jack” Meals in 1898 to seek their fortune.  They carved their own path across frozen tundra and snow-covered glaciers to a valley in Alaska scarcely seen before by a white man.  Here they found not just gold but coal and oil and rich shafts of copper the size of which promised breathtaking fortunes. 

It would also be a valley that would become a symbol of hope for some, despair for others and lost opportunity for powerful men who did not like to lose. This last frontier was known as the Copper River Country, and it was here that Hazelet and Meals set their sights on a new beginning in Alaska. They carried with them the hopes of family and friends back home in Nebraska as they set out to stake their claim to the gold that seemed to be as plentiful as rain. 

Hazelet remained in Alaska to become one of the most prominent figures of the last frontier. With his close friend and partner Andrew Jackson Meals they would figure prominently in the development of both Valdez and Cordova, Alaska. Hazelet would meet the titans of industry, two sitting U.S. Presidents, become a candidate for the US Senate, run for the governorship of Alaska and become the first mayor of Cordova in 1909.

Jack Meals was a man 9 years the senior of George Hazelet, born November 18, 1852. He was a Nebraska bullwacker/farmer/rancher/stage coach driver/wagon train scout/bronco rider—a man with no formal education, although endowed with many admirable characteristics and talents, one most noticeably curious for a man of his background being a natural genius for mathematics. In Nebraska he held the office of Treasurer for Holt County [As did Hazelet]. In later years during his residence in Valdez, Meals became a successful and highly respected land surveyor and construction engineer.

Together George Cheever Hazelet and Andrew Jackson Meals left Omaha, Nebraska February 17, 1898 by rail on an adventure and journey that most men and women today only dream about. George Hazelet and Jack Meals, neighbors in Atkinson (O’Neill County) Nebraska, traveled to Alaska to try their hands at prospecting.

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“Courage, endurance fill Alaska journal. An unvarnished look at the challenges prospectors faced in [1898] Alaska” —Orm Wilson, past president of The Filson Historical Society, Special to The Courier-Journal, Louisville, KY

ICEBOUND EMPIRE is the story of three men who were prime movers in the most ambitious of the early twentieth century Alaska development initiatives, the J. P. Morgan – Guggenheim Alaska Syndicate, which built the Kennecott Copper Company and the Copper River & Northwestern Railway.

“She [Tabitha Gregory] brings to the book both a deep knowledge of the town’s history and the perspective of someone who knows how the move affected the town’s identity.”

“As Gregory notes, the story is especially relevant today: An increasing number of communities are undergoing relocation because their old locations are being threatened by the impacts of climate change. Contemporary relevance aside, the story is one that’s worth knowing for anyone who loves Valdez.”

Alexander Deedy, Alaska Magazine, March 3, 2022

“Juneau is full of talk about Valdez. Townsite is talked, and if any knew I had the papers in my grip which told where the town would be, likewise the railroad, they would be excited sure.” ~ G.C. Hazelet, May 1901

Notes & Comments on Hazelet’s Journals [1964]

 By William L. Taylor, Alaska Historian

The Alaska Terrain of George Cheever Hazelet

Although the highly detailed maps of the Geological Survey which accompany this volume give a superb pictorial view of the country through which Hazelet travelled, and his own narrative gives the best description I have seen from any source, it may be of some interest to append a brief outline of the early examination of the country.

The Copper River region generally suffered in public notice in 1897 and the years following, and was far out-shone in effort and production by the Klondike, Nome and Fairbanks and even by a number of the lesser diggings. The Chistochina gold field however eventually produced handsome returns which in itself is a tribute to Hazelet’s unerring judgment and skill as a prospector, and in 1900 with the discovery of the Bonanza Copper fields by the McClellan party brought the area to national prominence. At the time this journal was written the country was known only through the cursory reconnaissance surveys of Abercrombie in 1884 and Allen in 1885, both for the U. S. Army, go accurate mapping of the area was accomplished until 1900 when the Geological Survey undertook that task, and the results of the survey were not published until a number of years later.

Valdez Arm had been first visited and named in 1790 by the Spaniard DeHaro, but it was not until the winter of 1897 that a settlement came into being there with the first trickle of prospectors attempting to enter the basin of the Copper River through the back country of Valdez. Before l898 was over, 3000 men had made the attempt, and the trail over the glacier is said to still show evidence of that trek by the debris left along the route. A post office was established at Valdez in July 1899, and the town was incorporated July 1st, 1900 with a recorded population of 315 souls.

The foot of the glacier at 500 feet elevation lies about five miles from tidewater and rises abruptly in successive glacial ledges or benches to the summit, 13 1/2 miles distant in a northerly direction. Beyond the summit the glacier, here named Klutina, slopes downward for another six miles where at 2500 feet it drains into the Klutina River and Lake. The Klutina was first reported by Allen in 1885, although he had seen only the issuance of this tributary into the Copper.

The Copper River was first noticed by the Russian, Nagaief, in 1781, and given the name on account of the reported existence of that metal in its vicinity. Its native name was Atna or Aetna; the Spaniards had called it Rio de los Perdidos. No whites had travelled it until the summer of 1884 when Captain William R. Abercrombie, 2nd Inf., USA ascended the stream from its mouth to latitude 60 o, 41′, a mere 17 miles to the vicinity of Miles Glacier where he was halted by the rapids. To clarify and extend Abercrombie’ s observations, the Army in the following summer sent Lieut. Henry T. Allen with two enlisted men to follow the river to its source. Leaving Nuchek on Hinchinbrook Island on March 20, 1885 in native skin boats, and accompanied by the trader Peder Johnson who acted as interpreter, the party took two months to negotiate the 160 miles which brought them to the confluence with the Klutina where Hazelet entered the Cooper.  Allen’s account of this passage recounts difficulties similar to those of

Hazelet, if less vividly told, and confirmed the nature of the Copper’s watercourse in an exceptionally rapid fall for its entire length.  Between Allen’s Camps 8 and 9, which were ten miles apart, the observed fall was 110 feet.  Allen’s sketch map is the basis for the modern nomenclature of the principal tributary streams, and for many of the mountains seen and triangulated from the river.  Except in the case of the mountains, Allen retained in essential form the native names.  He found the natives, the Atnatanas, almost as hungry and ill provided a lot as his own party.  His report was published in 1887 as Senate Ex. Doc. No. 125, Forty Ninth Congress, Second Session.     

In 1898, Captain Abercrombie was again sent into this region with a detachment of thirteen men to open a military road from Valdez to the interior.  This party, after a futile attempt to make a stable trail over the glacier, surveyed the Keystone Canyon and Thompson Pass now followed by the Richardson Highway and with hand tools cleared a trail and built wooden bridges to form a passable pack and dog team trail. At the time, Hazelet entered the country the sole extant map of it was Allen’s, and this delineated only the Copper River itself and what could be seen from the river, i.e., the tributaries as they entered the Copper River Country and the high mountains to the east. The glaciers, lakes and rivers between Valdez and Copper Center were only known from the Indians and the few whites who had gone over the glacier in 1897. In the entry for May 22, 1898, Haze1et informs us of his surprise at learning the Indian name of K1utina for the lake they were camped upon, he and others there having been under the impression they were on the Tonsina. Nowhere in the journal does Hazelet speak of a map, a surprising fact for one of his intelligence and orderly mind. Yet I feel he must have had one, and if so probably a copy of Allen’s, since he unerringly identifies the tributaries as he works up the Copper. That he gives these streams the Indian names as had Allen, is no clear indication that he got them direct from the natives, although he appears to have cultivated certain of these friendly people, for the high peaks of Drum, Sanford and Wrangell are assigned correct names and bearings from his points of observation. There are, however, two curious exceptions to indicate that his Indian contacts were not ignored. The first is the Klawosinak River of Hazelet which Allen renders as Klawasi. If the common native “na” ending, meaning river be added, the variation is reduced to Hazelet’s providing the final hard “k” an easily understandable rendering of the gutterals that he encountered among them. The second variation is Hazelet’s rendering of the Tsina River as Chena, which although phonetically reasonable, anticipates the name of that famous stream in the Fairbanks area by several years.

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