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A True Story

Coleen Mielke

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In late November of 1914, Tom Stephan (of the Nicoli Tribe), his wife Nagolia and 13 year old daughter Inga, left Knik and headed to their hunting grounds near the Nelchina District to set traps. When they got there, "Indian Jim" Nikita (of the general Eklutna vacinity) had already set out his own traps in Stephan's territory. A heated argument erupted and Indian Jim shot Tom Stephan to death while Nagolia and Inga watched.

To counter any future revenge from Stephan's people, Indian Jim did the honorable thing and took the dead man(and his widow and daughter) back to the safety of Chickaloon; it took them ten days to get there. He then continued, alone, to Knik where he confessed his crime to the authorities.

A week later, a band of Dena'ina men went to Chickaloon and brought Tom Stephan's body back to Knik. When they buried him,they rang the church bell for a full fifteen minutes in honor of the well respected man.

The U.S. Deputy Marshal arrested Indian Jim and took him to the Federal Jail in Valdez to wait for Grand Jury proceedings. Six months later, he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years at McNeil Island Penitentiary.

Prison records suggested that Indian Jim, prisoner 2622, had a rough life. He was born in 1870; was 5'+7/8" tall and 137 pounds. He had multiple scars on his head; he was missing part of his left earlobe where an earring had been cut out; he had a scar on his lower back and a 6" scar on his buttocks; he had 4 long angular scars above his left knee and 4 long angular scars above his right knee; his right wrist and fingers were deformed from previous fractures and he had multiple scars on both hands.

Indian Jim Nikita
Jim Nikita (also known as Indian Jim) was the namesake for
an area 7½ miles southeast of Palmer, Alaska known as
JIM CREEK. That general area was Jim Nikita's
stomping grounds and the USGS came up with the
Jim Creek name in about 1925.

When Indian Jim died in the fall of 1938, a huge potlatch was held in his honor at Eklutna and Dena'ina people from all over Cook Inlet attended.


In 1917, three years after Indian Jim killed Tom Stephan, records show that Tom Stephan's widow, Nagolia, was married to 50 year old Talkeetna Stephan (also of the Nicoli Tribe).

In March of that year, Stephan and Nagolia, along with Stephan's 11 year old son Bob and Nagolia's 16 year old daughter Inga, headed to their camp on Stephan Lake (near Talkeetna Lake). A friend named Knik Nicoli went with them (he was the biological son of Pelageia Chanilkhiga, a Russian speaking Knik woman and the step-son of Knik store merchant, George W. Palmer).

In route to Stephan Lake, the travelers stopped at Old Chief Nicoli's camp which was a mile below Talkeetna. According to later court testimony, they spent the next week drinking before continuing the final 90 miles to Stephan Lake.

At Stephan Lake, the group set up camp and began to make more "hooch". They mixed batches of flour, sugar and water in two small (1'x 2') barrels and allowed it to ferment. As the mixture fermented, an alcoholic liquid would rise to the top of the barrel and the adults drank it.

In early June, after a day of drinking, Talkeetna Stephan and Knik Nicoli started to quarrel. Young Inga said they were "crazy drunk and fighting with words", so she and her brother Bob got out of the tent and hid several feet away while the argument escalated.

At one point, Stephan tried to leave the tent and stumbled against the ridge pole which then fell and hit Nicoli on the head. Nicoli was so furious that he climbed out of the tent and picked up a 4' long by 2" wide piece of firewood and used it to repeatedly strike the Stephan's who were still under the collapsed tent. When Talkeetna Stephan became motionless, his wife Nagolia tried to raise the tent canvas, but Nicoli continued to hit her across the back and head. After the attack, he laid down and went to sleep for several hours.

At daylight, the young girl (Inga) said that Nicoli "got well" and pulled the tent off of his friends. Talkeetna Stephan was dead; both sides of his face were crushed and bloodied.  Nagolia sat crying near her dead husband; her nose flattened against her face, her arm broken and her head badly cut. She told Inga that she and Bob would have to go back to the safety of Knik alone since she was too injured to go with them. She also asked Inga to tell the people of Knik the truth about what happened at the camp the night before.

While Nicoli, Inga and Bob were digging a grave for Stephan, they heard a gunshot and Nagolia was dead. Because her arm was broken and she couldn't lift the gun, she tied a string around the trigger of her husbands .22 rifle and pulled on the string with her good arm; shooting herself in the stomach.

Nicoli wrapped both bodies with canvas and laid them side by side in the 4' deep grave. He put poles over the bodies and more canvas over the poles; then he covered everything with 3' of dirt. He then burned the Stephan's bloody clothes and tent before he and the children left camp.

Once out on the trail, Nicoli told the children they should go to Eric Larson's cabin on Fish Creek. This gave Nicoli time to make a run for it before the authorities were alerted.

At Fish Creek, Inga and Bob told Larson about the death of their parents and he took them to Talkeetna to talk to Marshal Healy. On July 7th, the Marshal, along with young Bob Stephan, a packer named G. L. Kennedy and an Indian guide named Pedro, left Talkeetna and walked the 90 miles back to Stephan's camp; they arrived there on July 14th.

At the campsite, the Marshal found the fire pit where Nicoli had burned Stephan's tent; in the center of the ashes, he found Stephan's watch; at the edge of the fire pit was Nagolia's dress and sewing basket as well as Stephan's glasses and moccasins. Eighteen feet from the pit the Marshal found the grave, which he dug up. He examined the bodies for injuries and identification and reburied the Stephan's in the same grave. He estimated that they had been dead almost a month.

Knik Nicoli was captured near Susitna Station on 7/31/1917 and brought back to Talkeetna.
The official wording of the charge against him was:  "Knik Nicoli, on the 10th of June 1917, near Talkeetna Lake, willfully, unlawfully, feloniously and voluntarily killed Talkeetna Stephan, by beating and striking him, violently and repeatedly with a certain large club." 
Nicoli was taken to the Federal Jail in Valdez to stand trial.

Sixteen year old Inga Stephan was one of the main witnesses at Knik Nicoli's trial. In court, she appeared mature beyond her years, having witnessed the murder of her father, Tom Stephan; the murder of her step-father, Talkeetna Stephan and the suicide of her mother Nagolia; all within a three year period.

Undaunted by the "big city" of Valdez and a courtroom full of strangers, Inga, who had no formal education, unhesitatingly answered all questions asked of her; describing the death of her family in perfect English.

Also questioned during the trial was Inga's eleven year old brother Bob, who testified with the help of an interpreter, since he spoke no English. Bob said that he ran outside of the tent when the ridge pole fell down because he was afraid and the adults were trying to "talk fight with hooch all around". He said that once he was outside, he watched Nicoli club his parents who were still under the tent. After recounting the story, the young boy became afraid and would not answer further questions.

Knik Nicoli was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to three years in Federal Jail on 11/2/1917.


Knik Nicoli got out of prison (for killing Talkeetna Stephan) in late 1920 and by 1923 he had moved to Anchorage. He was living in a cabin at 8th and B Street and was well known in the area for being violent while drinking.

On 1/2/1924, Nicoli's roommate, Polly Rufe, told police that he was "crazy drunk" and terrorizing her, so Anchorage Police Chief, Harry Kavanaugh, and his deputy Charlie Watson set out to arrest him.

When Nicoli did not answer the police chief's knock at his cabin door, Kavanaugh went to the rear of the building and climbed a ladder (to the loft where Nicoli was known to sleep) and called for him to come out. A shot was fired and Police Chief Kavanaugh yelled to his deputy, "Look out Charlie, he's got a gun". Kavanaugh then took off running towards 8th Street in search of cover.

Deputy Charlie Watson ran to the front of the cabin just in time to see Nicoli shoot twice at Kavanaugh with a 30-30 Winchester rifle; one bullet hit the Chief in the back; passing through his body and exiting his stomach.

With Kavanaugh mortally wounded, Charlie waited for a safe shot at Nicoli through the window on the east side of the cabin. When there was no sight of the Indian, Charlie opened the front door and immediately found himself face to face with Nicoli who was holding a rifle; he instinctively fired two shots with his revolver, killing Nicoli instantly.

Chief Kavanaugh was rushed to the Anchorage Railroad Hospital and treated by Harry Abercrombie, Dr. C.H. Turpin and Dr. J.H. Romig, however he died about 16 hours after surgery.

On 1/5/1924, Chief Harry Clinch Kavanaugh's casket was accompanied to the railroad station by his wife Stella; Mayor Conroy of Anchorage; the City Council members and members of the Odd Fellows Lodge. Anchorage citizens lined the route from the city morgue to the train depot, removing their hats (in respect) as the 44 year old officers coffin passed by. Kavanaugh's remains were sent to San Pedro, California for burial; he had only been an Anchorage police officer for 8 months.

In contrast, Knik Nicoli, the man who murdered Talkeetna Stephan AND Chief Kavanaugh, was laid to rest in an Anchorage Cemetery the same day as Kavanaugh's funeral procession. The only people in attendance for Nicoli's burial were cemetery employees.

O. G. Herning Diary 12/7/1914
O. G. Herning Diary 12/13/1914
New York Times 9/13/1915
Anchorage Times 7/31/1917
Anchorage Times 8/2/1917
Anchorage Times 1/2/1924
O. G. Herning Diary  8/14/1938
Alaska Miner  8/23/1938
Alaska Miner 9/6/1938
USA vs. Knik Nicoli Indictment No. 644
McNeil Island Penitentiary Records Prisoner No. 2622

NOTE:  Court records spell the last name Stepan; other sources spell it Stephan.


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