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George W. Palmer
A True Alaskan Pioneer

1855-1930
by Coleen Mielke
 


 
coleen_mielke@hotmail.com

 
George  W. Palmer with Knik wife Pelageia Chanilkhiga

Step-son Nicolai (sitting), biological daughter Annie (on lap)
and step-daughter Mary (far right)

Photo taken in Knik, Alaska 1898 by Capt. Edwin F. Glenn


I have been given permission (from UAA) to share this rare photo of the George W. Palmer family with you, it  is from the Edwin F. Glenn collection at the Consortium Library, at UAA.

**The above photo is privately owned and can not be used without the
written permission of the Consortium Library at the University of Alaska

 





For an "in depth conversation" about the (above) rare photo,
go to the bottom of this page.

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GEORGE W. PALMER
1855-1930
 
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The small town of Palmer, Alaska is well known for being the home of the Matanuska Colonists; 200+ hearty, blue collar families that were part of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration project of 1935. What is not as well known is the history behind the name of the town of Palmer.

Palmer, Alaska was named after George W. Palmer,  a rugged, pre-Klondike, Alaskan pioneer. He was the first private entrepreneur in the Matanuska Valley; he built the first commercial warehouse at Ship Creek (long before Anchorage was built); he was one of the first people to commercially grow vegetables in the Matanuska Valley; he was the first U. S. Postmaster in the Valley and he owned a trading post in Knik from 1901 until 1918.

George W. Palmer (b. 1855) was the youngest son of Amos and Lavina Palmer of Amity, Erie County, Pennsylvania. He moved from Seattle, where he was working as a logger, to Alaska in May of 1893.
Don Irwin's book, The Colorful Matanuska Valley, suggested that Palmer was in Alaska as early as 1875, however, there is no evidence that supports that date. In 1900, George Palmer told the U.S. Census taker, at Knik, that he came to Alaska in 1893. Another source that supports the 1893 date was an 1978 letter (from Stanley Herning to Jim Fox), in which Stanley said his father (Orville Herning, who knew Palmer well) said George Palmer came to Alaska about 1893. What brought George Palmer to Alaska? I'm guessing that it was a combination of gold fever and the stateside "Panic Depression of 1893".

During Palmer's first summer in Alaska, he was part of a small group of men who discovered gold on the Kenai Peninsula. His claim was on a small tributary of Resurrection Creek (today the tributary is called Palmer Creek). He also worked at a variety of trades those first years, such as harvesting beach coal at Point Campbell and Tyonek (which he sold at Knik); he hauled freight by horse, into the Willow Creek Mining District for the hundreds of prospectors that poured into the area in 1898 and he lightered commercial freight from the big steamers anchored in  the deeper waters of Knik Harbor.

Ever the entrepreneur, Palmer built the first privately owned store in the Matanuska Valley (built pre-1898). It stood on the east side of the Matanuska River near the present day George Palmer Memorial Bridge (the first bridge on the OLD Glenn Highway exiting the town of Palmer). Some historians suggest that Palmer chose that particular location so he could intercept the Copper River Ahtna trade before it reached the ACC store at Knik.

I have read several publications that suggest George Palmer's first store wasn't in  business very long because it was washed away by the Lake George Flood of 1898, however that is not correct. I have found two reliable sources that confirm Palmer's store was still operating after the flood.  The first source is a letter, that Orville G. Herning wrote to his employer, describing his exploration in Alaska during the summer of 1898. In the letter, he said that he and his team found the ACC store building (not the Palmer store) that had washed up on the beach (completely intact) between the mouth of the Little Susitna River and the Big Susitna River. In that same letter, Herning told his employer that he stayed overnight at Palmer's Matanuska River store, so clearly, it was not Palmer's store that washed away.

Another confirming source is the Tyone family who frequented Palmer's Matanuska River store as late as 1910. Colonist historian Jim Fox told me that Jack Tyone described Palmer's Matanuska River store as a small un-manned log cabin that had food and clothing (packed into tin boxes) for sale.  Other sources described Palmer's store as being equipped with scales, wrapping paper and twine. By all accounts, Palmer operated the store on the honor system and customers left money in a can.

Palmer was the Alaska Commercial Company agent at Knik by 1900. When the ACC closed its stores at Knik, Susitna, Kenai, Kasilof and Seldovia in 1901, it left a huge area of south central Alaska without local access to groceries and supplies. Palmer recognized the opportunity and decided to open his own store (using the old ACC building). Since the ACC store was practically empty when they pulled out of Knik, Palmer had to start from scratch and order an entire seasons worth of groceries, clothing, hardware, etc.; his store opened for business in the fall of 1901.

The discovery of gold at the end of the 19th century changed Knik from a sleepy trading post to a commercial and transportation hub for south central Alaska. Palmer’s Knik store was 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 by foot, dog team and pack horse. Palmer sold dried fish for the dogs, and locally harvested wild hay for the horses. To the prospectors, he sold perishable necessities like butter, lard, bacon and fresh moose meat. He also sold luxuries such as moccasins, tobacco, lantern globes, and coal oil. Mail service was another luxury for the homesick gold miners. Palmer was the unofficial postmaster in Knik as early as 1900 and was officially appointed first U. S. Postmaster there on October 29, 1904. Mail from “home” was almost as important to the trail weary prospectors as their gold which they entrusted Palmer to mail to the bank at Seward.

While Palmer made his living selling to the non-native population of Knik, his private time was spent with the Dena’ina. He purchased fox, wolf, otter, lynx pelts and berries from the them which he sold in Seattle. He bought fish, sheep skins, beaver skins, bear skins, smoked-tanned moose hides and caribou hides, from the Dena’ina and sold them to prospectors. He also operated a variety of remote mail contracts which he subcontracted to the Dena’ina.

Palmer was the financial intermediary for the town of Knik. Prospectors hired the Dena’ina to harvest logs, whipsaw lumber, break trail, haul freight and guide. Cash seldom exchanged hands for this work, instead, prospectors set up credit accounts at Palmer’s store which the Dena’ina could charge against. These accounts were reconciled when the prospectors came in from the mines.

In 1898, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) established an agricultural experimental station in Sitka with Dr. C. C. Georgeson in charge. Georgeson was interested in determining what crops could be grown in Alaska, so he sent vegetable seeds to a variety of settlements and roadhouses throughout south central Alaska; George Palmer participated in this program.  Palmer hired some Dena'ina friends to prepare a garden plot next to his store and they planted the seeds. Palmer reported his successes and failures from 1900-1903, in a series of letters, which were published in the USDA Alaska Annual Report. His prolific gardens grew potatoes, lettuce, rutabagas, kale, radishes, cabbage, carrots, parsnips, and turnips, which he sold to eager, vitamin starved prospectors. In his letters to the USDA, Palmer wrote, that, in spite of his inexperience and lack of fertilizer, he was able to grow enough vegetables to last a winter season. He also reported that he had shared the extra seeds with local Natives and suggested that the program should provide additional seeds and growing instructions so the Natives could further supplement their diet of wild game.  In 1911, Palmer brought the first hay reaper (for re-sale) into the district; he also sold plows and other farming equipment to the rapidly growing number of homesteaders/farmers in the valley.

By 1901, freight destined for south central Alaska was transported by large ships that anchored offshore near present day Ship Creek, in an area then known as Knik Harbor (later referred to as Knik Anchorage). Once anchored, smaller local boats would transfer freight from the large ships to various settlements.  If local boats were not available or if there was inclement weather, freight was  dumped off on the nearest beach or left at the most convenient dock (Seldovia, Tyonek, or Sunrise). This meant long dangerous sailing voyages for people trying to find and retrieve their merchandise. It was common for freight to sit on a dock for weeks before it was located by its rightful owner.  To alleviate this freighting and storage problem, Palmer built the first warehouse at the mouth of Ship Creek in 1901. In 1907, he built the first wharf at Knik, which allowed freight and passengers to be loaded and unloaded more efficiently.

Palmer’s first schooner, the two masted "C. T. Hill", arrived at Knik Harbor June 7, 1913. Leaving his store in the hands of a clerk, Palmer and crew sailed the schooner from Goose Bay to San Francisco, two or three times a summer and brought back merchandise for his store. These buying trips generally took place in May, July and October. In the spring of 1915, Palmer traveled to Seward, by dog sled, where he boarded a steamer to San Francisco to purchase a newer schooner named "The Lucy". Palmer and "The Lucy" arrived at Goose Bay on May 3, 1915. Part of that trips cargo was a $2,000 printing press purchased for Knik’s first (but short lived) newspaper (Cook Inlet Pioneer), funded by Frank Cannon, Dr. Haus, Dr.  Leopold David, Orville Herning, Mr. Needham and George Palmer.

Palmer routinely anchored his schooner at Goose Bay while offloading his freight. Occasionally, he had the empty schooner towed to Knik, however, getting any large boat to the Knik wharf was complicated. Even coast-wise pilots with (nearly) flat bottomed boats, had to synchronize their route with high tide to avoid getting stuck in Knik Arm’s silty shallows. Anchoring at Goose Bay allowed Palmer to leisurely (and economically) lighter his freight to Knik using his own scow. A fearless boatman, Palmer made routine trips from Knik to Tyonek, Sunrise, Hope and Seldovia, bucking the relentless Turnagain Arm wind and tide, in a small open gas boat.

A hard working man, Palmer’s store always came first until 1906 when he built a saloon and started drinking heavily, a common problem in early Knik. During these multi-day drinking binges, he would physically abuse his wife and neglect his business. In 1908, his drinking problem was so bad that it resulted in the temporary closure of his store because he had not ordered merchandise.

Receipts kept by a Willow Creek miner, in 1901, show what kind of merchandise was in Palmer's store: tin ware 60¢, blanket 75¢, 52 lb. moose meat $5.20, stove $8, leather shirt $3.50, 10 lb. salmon 25¢, 15 gallons cranberries $1.10, 80 lb. potatoes $2.40, horse medicine 25¢, smoke-tanned gloves 50¢, and 85 lb. turnips $2.55.

By 1905, Palmer was using the Bank of Seward to finance the merchandise for his store. Loan application papers list Palmer’s collateral as: “My entire stock of merchandise, located at Knik, consisting primarily of dry goods, notions, boots, shoes, hats, caps, hardware, groceries, feed, flour, furs and any other articles kept by me, for sale, in my store and warehouse at Knik”. The interest charged on the loans was 1% per month. Palmer’s 1905 loan of $5,000 was repaid within two months, his 1906 loan of $8,000 was repaid within three months and his 1907 loan of $6,000 was repaid within three months. By 1911, Palmer was selling farming plows and equipment to local homesteaders.

Aleksandr Iaroshevich was the visiting Russian Orthodox priest at Knik in the winter of 1894. His journal mentions only two “Americans” living at Knik that winter, one was an ACC agent named A. Creason and the other was a gold miner named George Palmer. Palmer was living with a thirty-five year old, Russian-speaking Dena’ina widow who had three children (Mecda, Ishca and Nicolai). During confession, the woman told Father Iaroshevich she was living with Palmer which resulted in a stern reprimand about her “illicit life”. Upset by the priests intrusion, Palmer cornered the priest and asked him, “What right do you have to interfere in the life of American citizens?” He then punched the priest, twice, in the face. Fearing for his life, the priest immediately left Knik with his sick wife and young children and fled to Tyonek, taking five Dena’ina Indians along to protect his family during the 70+ mile journey. The priests journal showed that George Palmer took Pelageia Chanilkhiga as his “concubine” on December 19, 1894

George W. Palmer's wife
  Pelageia and step-daughter Mary and Palmer's biological daughter Annie (on lap)
Photo taken by Orville G. Herning.  Herning wrote G.W.P. on the photo.
(Photo privately owned, do not re-publish without written permission)

Pelageia gave birth to a daughter (not Palmer's child) shortly after moving in with Palmer. The mothers name for the baby girl was Bellia, however, Palmer later re-named the child Mary, most likely after his sister. He and Pelageia had two biological children together, Annie and John Bud.  Pelageia died in 1902 and was given a large funeral at Eska.

Palmer’s second wife is referred to only as “Palmer’s squaw” in  the Herning journals. She apparently bore Palmer no children and died at Knik in 1905. Two weeks after her death, Palmer sent his two biological children, as well as his step-daughter Mary, to the Women’s American Baptist Home Mission Society Orphanage on Wood Island near Kodiak. In a letter of introduction, dated February 22, 1905, Palmer wrote, “Of the three children now living with me, I am the father of two. The oldest, Mary by name, was born shortly after the mother came to live with me. She was born April 3, 1895 at 2 o’clock A.M. Annie was born September 11, 1897, 20 minutes past 9 P.M. John Bud was born September 12, 1900, 6 o’clock A.M.”

                        Mary Palmer b. 1895              Annie Palmer b. 1897                             

Little is known about the fate of George Palmer’s children. The Seward Gateway reported that his step-daughter, Mary, was near death after falling from a streetcar while visiting Palmer on one of his fur selling trips to Seattle in 1908. However, Mary eventually recovered and was at the Wood Island orphanage in 1912. Annie and John Bud left the Wood Island orphanage in 1910 and started school in Tacoma in 1911. Annie was married at least twice; her father listed her as Annie Dennis (in his 1930 will) and she was married  to Raymond Huffman of San Francisco when she died in 1948; her death certificate stated she had lived in California for 30 years. She is buried at Cypress Lawn Cemetery there. In 1918, John Bud registered for the World War I draft at Seldovia. It is not known whether he remained in Alaska., but most reports say he died young.
 
Palmer’s third wife was a young Dena’ina woman named Mary. On the 1910 census for Knik, she was listed as twenty years old and they had been married for two years (Palmer was fifty-five). There is no record of Palmer having children with Mary and I don't know what happened to her.


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By 1912, Knik was a thriving community with a post office, school, three hotels, four stores, pool hall, two saloons, church, two cafe’s, candy shop, barbershop, doctor, blacksmith, tin shop, boat shop, assay office, dog kennels, laundry and a jail.  However, Knik's boom was doomed to bust when the railroad tracks were built through south central Alaska in 1916-1917.

In 1916, the railroad built a construction camp where the tracks intersected mile 15 of the Carle Wagon Road; they called the construction camp Wasilla (named after local Dena'ina Chief Wasilla who died in 1907).

Wasilla instantly became transportation central for gold miners and homesteaders alike, while the town of Knik turned into a ghost town within one summer.

The majority of Knik residents dismantled their buildings and moved them to Wasilla or Anchorage. George W. Palmer was one of the few people that remained in Knik.

On May 15, 1918, fire destroyed Palmer’s general store and the ten attached buildings at Knik; only his home and two other buildings survived. 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 seasonal (Native) workers from Tyonek, Iliamna, Seldovia, Kodiak, Ninilchik and Kenai to harvest clams from the beach at Polly Creek and paid them $1.25 for each five gallon box. The business venture was fraught with problems and was not the financial success that Palmer hoped for. In 1921 he sold his half interest in the project to G. P. Halferty’s. Without Palmer’s backing, Elmer Hemrich lost the cannery to foreclosure that same year.

On the 1920 US Census for Ninilchik, Palmer is listed as a widower. That fall, he 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 store which he finally received in 1927.

Some time between the 1920 census and the 1930 census, George Palmer married his 4th wife. The 1930 Census lists her as Anistatia Palmer born in Kenai, age 46.

In 1929, Palmer's health was failing and he spent two weeks in an Anchorage hospital with heart problems; he was 74 years old and in a lot of pain. 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 alive but in excruciating pain. After a long
conversation, Palmer agreed to go back to the hospital the next day. As Parish walked away from Palmer's house, he heard a pistol shot; George Palmer 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.

George Palmer's probate papers list his wife as "Nestashia", also known as "Kid". Palmer described her as "mentally child like and unable to care for herself", and he left her (through an administrator) $100 a month for the rest of her life, but she received far less than that due to legal fees. She is listed as "Kit Palmer" on the 1940 US Census for Kenai Village; she had no education, spoke no English and no job (she was on relief). Kit died 11/5/1943 and her funeral was conducted by Russian Orthodox Reverend Paul Shadura.

George W. Palmer's adventurous spirit genuinely qualified him as a true and hardy Alaskan pioneer, ultimately worthy of being the namesake of the town of Palmer, Alaska.


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** The Resurrection Creek tributary, where Palmer discovered gold in 1893 was later named Palmer Creek. Today, if you drive to the town of Hope, you will pass PALMER CREEK ROAD that leads back to Palmer Creek.

*** Please respect the amount of research it took to write this article. Do not re-post or publish without my permission.
 

George Palmer's Parents:
Father: Amos C. Palmer born 1808 died 1886  Erie County, Pennsylvania
Mother: Lovina Bau (or Barr) born 1819 died 1873 Erie County, Pennsylvania

George Palmer's siblings:
David Palmer born born 1843-
Walter Palmer born  1844-1907 Civil War 8/8/1862-1030/1863 Army Co. K 83rd Reg. Penn. Infantry
Mary Palmer born 1849-
Helen Palmer born 1852-1928 Married Fred Carter, both buried in Anchorage, Alaska



A Discussion about the George W. Palmer
Photo at the Top of This Page


coleen_mielke@hotmail.com

 

While the above photo (taken by Edwin F. Glenn) had no writing on it, I am 100% convinced that it is a photo of George W. Palmer for the following reasons:

On pages 117-118 of Captain Glenn's "Report on Exploration in Alaska 1898 Expedition",  he wrote: [page 117] "About noon took a picture of Andrew and Naquita together. Also a picture of 'Long Shorty' and family. The light [page 118] was not specially good but the sun would cast a shadow and I hope for good results. Also took a snap at Palmer and family."

This report entry truly captured my attention, because photos of George W. Palmer are rare to say the least!! I combed through Glenn's photos and I believe that I found two of the three photos he mentions taking on 9/27/1898 (at Knik); one is of the George Palmer family and the other is of Andrew and Naquita.

If you compare the two photos, side by side, you can see they have the exact same animal fur backdrops, same fur covered bench the same white fur underfoot and the same lighting. None of the other Glenn photos have these striking similarities; this leads me to believe the two photos were taken in the same place and at the same time, just as the Glenn report suggests. Check out the following links and see if you agree.

Glenn said he took a photo of "Andrew and Naquita together" (two well known Knik men). It is my opinion that the Andrew and Naquita photo is in the Glenn Collection under
UAA-hmc-0116-series3a-22-2

Glenn also said he took a snap of "Palmer and family" and it is my personal opinion that the Palmer family photo is in the Glenn Collection under  UAA-hmc-0116-series3a-23-1

OTHER CORROBORATING CLUES

The two youngest children (in the Glenn photo of Palmer) look just like the two children in the O.G. Herning photo of Palmer's wife Pelageia (photo seen above). Pelageia died in 1902 after which Palmer sent the children to an orphanage on Wood Island (Kodiak). I have two letters of introduction that Palmer wrote to the orphanage; they read as follows:

2/22/1905 Knik, Alaska
Of the three children now living with me, I am father of only two. The oldest, Mary by name, was born shortly after the mother came to live with me. She was born April 3, 1895 at 6 o'clock AM.
Annie was born September 11th 1897 at 20 minutes past 9 PM.  Bud or John was born September 12th 1900 at 6 o'clock AM.        G.W. Palmer


4/26/1905  Kodiak, Alaska
I hereby place in the W.A.B.H.M.S. Orphanage at Wood Island my three children, Mary; Annie; and Bud or John and promise to pay for their board and clothing. I further promise to let the above said children remain in the above said orphanage three years.  G. W. Palmer

The two letters are pertinent to this discussion, because they provide the exact birth dates of Palmer's children, which I used to calculate how old they would have been in Glenn's 9/27/1898 photo (Palmer's children would have been 3½ and 1); Glenn's photo supports this. Side note: Palmer's youngest son, John Bud, is not in the Glenn photo because he wasn't born until 1900.

The (sitting) boy in the Glenn photo is Pelageia's son from a previous marriage (she was a widow when she came to live with Palmer in 1894). The boys name was Nicolai and according to the 1900 US Census for Knik, he was born in 1888, which would make him 10 years old in the Glenn photo (Glenn's photo supports this).

Side Note: Nicholai had a troubled life. In 1917, he beat Talkeetna Stephan to death in front of his wife and children. Nicholi received a 3 year sentence in Federal Prison for the crime and then in 1924, he killed Anchorage Police Officer Harry Cavanaugh. Nicolai was subsequently killed by Cavanaugh's deputy Charlie Watson (source: Anchorage Times 1/2/1924). Another confirmation of this is a Herning diary entry dated 1/3/1924: "...Nicholi Palmer shot Marshal Cavanaugh and deputy Watson killed the Indian at Anchorage...booze the cause."

IN CONCLUSION:

After adding up all of the clues, it is my opinion that photo UAA-hmc-0116-series3a-23-1 is indeed Glenn's photo of the George W. Palmer family.

George Palmer was in Alaska for 37 years, yet photos of him are very rare. As a matter of fact, there is only one other photo (that I am certain of) and that photo was taken very late in Palmer's life (probably in Seldovia). It is part of the Tousely Collection at the Anchorage Museum. There are a couple of other "maybe it's him" photos out there, but they have not been confirmed yet. That makes the (above) Glenn photo of George W. Palmer a very rare one and one that I was thrilled to detect.


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coleen_mielke@hotmail.com

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