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George W. Palmer
A True Alaskan Pioneer
1855-1930
by Coleen Mielke  
2017

 
George W. Palmer and Pelageia Chanilkhiga
Pelageia's son Nicolai (sitting) and Palmer's daughter Annie (on lap)
Pelageia's daughter Mary (far right)
Photo taken in Knik 1898
Permission to use this rare photograph granted by
Consortium Library at UAA
It is from the Edwin F. Glenn Collection


Protected by Copyscape

In the fall of 1916, an Anchorage newspaper held a contest to pick a name for the new railroad siding which was on a branch line to the Chickaloon coal fields. The winning entry was "Palmer", in honor of valley resident George W. Palmer. This is his story:

George Palmer came to Alaska in the spring of 1893. In November of that year, he filed a claim on (as the record books described it): "20 acres of placer mining ground, located on the first left hand tributary of Resurrection Creek in the Turn-Again Mining District." He named the tributary "Palmer Creek" and worked the claim, seasonally, for the next 4 years.

In the winter of 1894, Palmer, Al Creason (an ACC agent) and a Russian Orthodox priest named Aleksander Iaroshevich, were the only non-Native people living in Knik. The relationship between the 3 men was unfriendly at best and Palmer seldom passed up a chance to challenge Iaroshevich.

Also living in Knik that winter was a 35 year old Russian speaking Dena'ina widow, named Pelageia Chanilkhiga, who caught Palmer's eye. She had three young sons and was pregnant with a 4th child. During a church service, in late 1894, Pelagaeia confessed to Father Iaroshevich that she was living in sin with Palmer. The priest scolded her and pressured her to get married or end the relationship. This infuriated Palmer who immediately confronted the priest. A detailed description of this violent encounter comes from Iaroshevich's journal: "Palmer blocked my way and said 'What right do you have to interfere in the life of American citizens and what did you say to that woman yesterday?' He called me by the most disgusting words and grabbed me by the throat and using all his force, punched me in my left eye. What made it worse, he hit me with a ring he wears on his finger and it cut all along my left cheek. On 12/19/1894, Palmer took Pelageia Chanilkhiga, a local Kenaitze girl as his concubine."

~~~

On 6/9/1897, Palmer sold his mining claim on Palmer Creek to Charles McLellan and John C. Snyder for $250. I assume that the money from this sale financed Palmer's first store which was built (pre-1898) on the east side of the Matanuska River, near the (present day) George Palmer Memorial Bridge. It was the first privately owned store in the Matanuska Valley and was aimed at catching the trade of the Copper River Ahtna people before they went to Knik.
According to historian Jim Fox, Jack Tyone frequented the store as a youth and described it as a small un-manned log cabin that had food and clothing for sale. Merchandise was packed in tin boxes to keep it safe from animals and the store was equipped with scales, wrapping paper, twine and a money can for people to leave payment in. While this self service store basically "ran itself", Palmer worked as the ACC agent at Knik, where he lived with Pelageia.

Pelageia gave birth to a daughter (not Palmer's child) shortly after she moved in with him. Another daughter was born to them in 1897 and a son in 1900.


Pelageia Chanilkhiga and daughter Mary
with George Palmer's daughter Annie (on lap)
O.G.Herning Photo at Knik 1898


In 1901, the ACC closed its stores in Knik, Susitna, Kenai, Kasilof and Seldovia. This left a huge part of south central Alaska without access to merchandise. Palmer recognized the opportunity and ordered an entire seasons worth of groceries, clothing, hardware, etc. and "set up shop" in the old ACC building at Knik. His timing was good.

The discovery of gold in the Interior made Palmer's Knik store a critical re-supply stop for hundreds of prospectors traveling overland from Seward to the Willow Creek, Yentna, Chulitna, Gold Creek, McKinley and Iditarod gold strike areas. Prospectors arrived on foot, by dog team and pack horse; he sold them dried salmon for their dogs and locally harvested wild hay for their horses. He sold perishables like butter, lard, bacon, berries, fish and moose meat and hard goods like shovels, axes, cookware, guns, ammunition, boots, cold weather clothes, stoves and beach coal. He also sold a few "luxuries" like tobacco, medicines and sail cloth. Palmer set up an unofficial post office in his store and hired Dena'ina "runners" to retrieve mail from the nearest post office at Tyonek. On October 29, 1904, he became the first official U.S. Postmaster at Knik.

Palmer's common law wife, Pelageia died in October of 1902 and was given a large funeral at Eska. His second wife (name not known) died in 1905. Two weeks after her death, Palmer sent his 3 youngest children to the Women's American Baptist Home Mission Society Orphanage on Wood Island near Kodiak. In a letter of introduction, he told the orphanage: "Of the 3 children now living with me, I am the father of only two. The oldest, Mary by name, was born shortly after the mother came to live with me, she was born 4/3/1895 at 2 o'clock AM. Annie was born 9/11/1897, 20 minutes past 9 PM and John Bud was born 9/12/1900 at 6 o'clock AM."


                                                                                 Pelageia's daughter Mary b.1895   Palmer's daughter Annie b.1897


Palmer's daughter Annie in 1920

George Palmer was the first person, in the Matanuska Valley, to sell fresh vegetables commercially. The USDA established an Agricultural Experimental Station in Sitka in 1898, with Dr. Charles C. Georgeson in charge. Georgeson was interested in finding out what crops could be grown in Alaska, so he sent vegetable seeds to a variety of settlements and roadhouses throughout south central and asked the recipients to report back to him about their successes and failures.

Palmer decided to participate in the program and hired Dena'ina friends to prepare and plant a garden plot next to his store. As requested, he reported back to Georgeson from 1900 to 1903, in a series of letters, which were published in the USDA Alaska Annual Report. Palmer wrote, that in spite of his inexperience and lack of fertilizer, he was able to grow an abundance of potatoes, lettuce, rutabagas, kale, radishes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, and turnips. The project turned out to be quite profitable for Palmer because he was able to sell the vegetables to the vitamin starved prospectors in the Willow Creek Mining District. In addition, he asked Georgeson to send extra seeds for the Natives of Knik so they could supplement their diet of wild game.  

In 1900, freight destined for south central Alaska was brought in by large ships that anchored offshore at Knik Harbor (later called Knik Anchorage). Once anchored, local scows transferred the freight to remote locations for a fee. If the scheduling was off and the scows did not connect with the larger boats, freight was routinely left at the Seldovia, Tyonek or Sunrise docks. This required long and dangerous sailing voyages for people trying to find and retrieve their merchandise. Sometimes freight would sit on the dock for days before it was located by its rightful owner (or waylaid by someone).  To alleviate this problem, Palmer built the first commercial warehouse just north of Ship Creek in 1901. From this warehouse, he lightered freight (by the pound) to its rightful owner.

Palmer’s first schooner, the two masted "C. T. Hill", was towed into Knik, by the "Traveler" on 6/8/1913. Leaving his store in the hands of a clerk, Palmer and crew sailed the schooner to San Francisco two or three times a summer to buy merchandise for his store. These buying trips generally took place in May, July and October.


"C. T. Hill" at Knik Wharf 7/28/1914  Photo by O.G. Herning

In the spring of 1915, Palmer bought a schooner named "Lucy" which arrived at Goose Bay with a $2,000 printing press for the (proposed) "Cook Inlet Pioneer" newspaper, funded by Frank Cannon, George  Palmer, Dr. Haus, Leopold David, Orville Herning and Mr. Needham.

Hauling merchandise TO Alaska was not the only time Palmer made money with his schooner; he hauled merchandise OUT of Alaska as well. In August of 1916, a San Francisco newspaper article reported: "First of seasons salmon catch from Alaska waters arrived in San Francisco on the schooner "Lucy", owned by G.W. Palmer. On the voyage from Knik, Alaska, the schooner was buffeted in a heavy southeast gale and her sails were torn and several of the crew were hurt. The schooner was also carrying furs and empty oil drums". Alcohol was another thing that Palmer hauled. In 1917, Palmer's schooner was delayed on a return trip (from San Francisco) for 3+ weeks. When questioned, Palmer said that  "officers held her up on account of booze".

Palmer sailed with a full crew on his schooners, but he was also known as a fearless boatman himself. He often ferried Dena'ina passengers from Knik to Tyonek, Sunrise, Hope and Seldovia in his small gas launch. The following photo was taken on 4/16/1907 as he and 8 Dena'ina passengers were leaving Knik, headed for Seldovia.


Palmer's gas launch, heading out to Seldovia 1907
Photo by O.G. Herning

Palmer's store was very well stocked. A receipt, dated 1901, gives an example of his prices: tin ware 60¢, a blanket 75¢, 52 pounds of moose meat $5.20, a stove $8, a leather shirt $3.50, 10 pounds of salmon 25¢, 15 gallons of cranberries $1.10, 80 pounds of potatoes $2.40, horse medicine 25¢, smoke tanned gloves 50¢ and 85 pounds of turnips for $2.55.

Life changed for Palmer in 1906, when he built a saloon and started drinking heavily. He got into physical altercations with people and even tried to hire someone to sabotage a competitors scow. Worst of all, he ignored his store. By 1908, Palmer's drinking problem was so bad that his store was temporarily closed due to a lack of merchandise.

By 1912, Palmer had serious competition in Knik. There were 4 general stores, 3 hotels, a pool hall, 2 saloons, a church, a school, 2 cafe's, a candy shop, a barbershop, a doctor, a blacksmith, a tin shop, a boat shop, an assay office, dog kennels, a laundry and a jail, but the boom didn't last long.

In 1916, the railroad built a construction camp at mile 15 of the Carle Wagon Road; they called it Wasilla. It quickly replaced Knik, as "business central", because the railroad brought people and freight 15 miles closer to the Willow Creek Mining District. Knik buildings were dismantled and moved to Wasilla or Anchorage, turning Knik into a ghost town within one season. George Palmer was one of the few people that remained in Knik. Two years later, on 5/15/1918, his general store and warehouses burned down. He told reporters that he had plans to rebuild the store with insurance money, but he never did.

Shortly after the fire, Elmer Hemrich, a Washington businessman, convinced Palmer to be his partner in building the first major clam cannery in Cook Inlet. In the fall of 1919, they acquired financing from the Bank of Alaska and began construction at Snug Harbor on Chisik Island. The cannery hired Native men from Tyonek, Iliamna, Seldovia, Kodiak, Ninilchik and Kenai to harvest clams from the beach at Polly Creek and paid them $1.25 for each 5 gallon box. The business venture was fraught with problems from the start and was not the financial success that Palmer hoped for. In 1921, he sold his half interest in the project to G.P.Halferty. Without Palmer's financial backing, Hemrich lost the cannery to foreclosure that same year.

As for the fate of George Palmer’s children; his step-daughter Mary stayed at Wood Island and died of tuberculosis in 1912. Annie married at least twice and died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1948. John Bud, who was always a frail child, registered for the World War I draft at Seldovia in 1918, I assume he died young.

Palmer’s third wife was an 18 year old Dena’ina woman from Knik named Mary (Palmer was 55). There is no record of them having children together and I don't know what happened to her.

Palmer's 4th wife was a Dena'ina woman named Nestashia, although she went by the nickname "Kit". In Palmer's will, he described her as "mentally child like and unable to care for herself". According to her death certificate, she was born on 3/7/1894 at Knik and was a diminutive 4' 3" tall when she died on 11/5/1943 at the age of 49.

When Palmer died in 1930, he left "Kit" $100 a month for the rest of her life (through an administrator). Unfortunately, 10 years later, legal fees had consumed Palmer's estate and "Kit" was on relief.

As for Palmer's oldest step-sons, I only have information on Nicoli, the youngest. In 1917, after a day of drinking, he beat Talkeetna Stephan to death with a club and spent 3 years in prison for it. In 1924, he shot and killed Anchorage Police Chief Harry Kavanaugh during an arrest. In turn, Kavanaugh's deputy (Charlie Watson) shot and killed Nicoli. He is buried in the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.


~~

In 1921, Palmer and William N. Dawson opened the "Dawson and Palmer General Store" in Kenai. Dawson died one year later and Palmer spent the next five years in Probate Court trying to get full ownership of the business which he finally received in 1927.

In 1929, Palmer's health was failing and he spent two weeks in an Anchorage hospital with heart problems; he was 74 years old. On the morning of April 11, 1930, he left a note at the store for his new partner, Truman Parish, saying he was going to end his life. Parish rushed to Palmer’s home where he found him in excruciating pain. After a long conversation, Palmer agreed to go back to the hospital the following day. As Parish walked away from Palmer's house, he heard a pistol shot; George Palmer had shot himself in the heart. Many attended the funeral which was sponsored by he B.P.O.E. and was held at the Elks Hall in Anchorage. He is buried in the Pioneer Section of the Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.


Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery



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George W. Palmer   1920



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GEORGE W. PALMER FAMILY TREE


George W. Palmer's Parents


Father:    AMOS  PALMER  was born on 27 May 1807 in CHENANGO, NEW YORK. He died on 3 Jul 1890 in CHENANGO, NEW YORK. He married LAVINA P. BARR.

Mother:    LAVINA P. BARR  was born in 1819 in NEW YORK. She died in 1873.


George W. Palmer's Paternal Grandparents


Grandfather:    JONATHAN PALMER  was born on 27 Jul 1780 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He died on 22 May 1854 in BUSTI, CHAUTAQUA CO., NEW YORK. He married RUTH WILCOX in 1800 in NORWICH, CHENANGO, NEW YORK.
Grandmother:    RUTH WILCOX  was born on 22 Feb 1788 in EXETER, WASHINGTON CO., RHODE ISLAND. She died on 24 Oct 1855 in NORWICH, NEW YORK.

George W. Palmer's Paternal Great Grandparents


Great Grandfather: CAPTAIN JONATHAN WYATT PALMER  was born on 11 Nov 1739 in CONNECTICUT. He died in 1782 in CONNECTICUT. He married JEMIMA SATTERLEE on 21 May 1761 in CONNECTICUT.

 Enlisted as Sgt. 3rd Co. 6th Regt. 5/5/1775; discharged 12/10/1775. Re-enlisted as Sgt 1st Reg. Connecticut Line. Regt. raised from and after 1/1/1777 for new Continental Army to continue during the war.


Great Grandmother:    JEMIMA SATTERLEE  was born in 1737. She died in 1812.

George W. Palmer's Paternal GG Grandparents

GG Grandfather:   WILLIAM PALMER  was born on 1 Mar 1705 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He died in 1781 in NORTH STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He married ABIGAIL WYATT on 15 Dec 1728 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.

GG Grandmother: ABIGAIL WYATT  was born in 1705 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. She died in 1781 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.


George W. Palmer's Paternal GGG Grandparents

GGG Grandfather: WILLIAM PALMER  was born in 1678 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He died in 1728 in NORTH STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He married GRACE MINOR on 10 Jan 1701 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.
GGG Grandmother: GRACE MINOR  was born in 1683 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. She died in 1728 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.

George W. Palmer's Paternal GGGG Grandparents

GGGG Grandfather:    GERSHON PALMER  was born on 16 Jun 1644 in REHOBOTH, BRISTOL CO., MASSACHUSETTS. He died on 27 Sep 1718 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He married ANN DENISON on 28 Nov 1667 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.

GGGG Grandmother:    ANN DENISON  was born on 20 May 1649 in ROXBURY, SUFFOLK CO., MASSACHUSETTS. She died on 17 Nov 1706 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.

George W.  Palmer's Paternal GGGGG Grandparents


GGGGG Grandfather:    WALTER PALMER  was born in 1585 in SOMERSET COUNTY, ENGLAND. He died on 10 Nov 1661 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT. He married REBECCA SHORT.

Arrived at Salem, Massachusetts 1629. Source: Emigrants from Europe 1607-1657 page 213.  First residence was Charlestown, Mass; removed to Rehoboth, Mass. in 1644; Removed to Stonington, Connecticut 1653.  Joined Charlestown Church 6/1/1633 as Walter "Pamer", and wife Rebeckah and daughter Grace.

Offices held: Charlestown Selectman 2/10/1634 to 10/2/1637. Constable to set wages 11/28/1636. Deputy to Plymouth General Court from Rehoboth 10/28/1645 and 6/1/1647. Rehoboth surveyor of highways 6/4/1650.

Grand Jury fined him for non-appearance 10/7/1651.   Non-appearance was due to Mr. Palmer avoiding Manslaughter trial.  He killed one of his laborers while whipping him as punishment.  Mr. Palmer later stood trial and was found not guilty by a jury that was made up of several friends and relatives.


GGGGG Grandmother:  Rebecca Short  was born in 1607 in CHARLESTOWN, SUFFOLK CO., MASSACHUSETTS. She died in 1671 in STONINGTON, NEW LONDON, CONNECTICUT.


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