Here’s a letter written by one George A. Barrows to a Lewis ______ (perhaps Coleman) in Seattle, Washington, dated June 16, 1901. It’s from the James B. Frazier Papers Collection in the University of Tennessee Special Collections Library. James Beriah Frazier (1856-1937) was admitted to the Tennessee bar in 1881, and began his practice in Chattanooga. This partially explains the presence of this letter in Frazier’s possession: Barrows (1863-1909) got his law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1885, and during the next three years practiced law in Chattanooga. So they traveled in the same circles, and clearly were friends.
“[Barrows] was also largely interested in real estate matters in that city,” says his obituary, “but with the decline in prices in 1888 disaster overtook him and many others, and he returned to Philadelphia.”
Frazier & Barrows must have remained in contact after Barrows left Chattanooga in order for this letter to find its way back to Frazier after Barrows died. But we don’t know the identity of ‘Lewis,’ the letter’s recipient, and his connection to the other two men.
Why is this letter relevant to Appalachian history? It captures perfectly the gold fever that swept the region and the nation shortly after the yellow nuggets were discovered in Alaska’s Yukon. News reached the United States in July 1897 at the height of a significant series of financial recessions and bank failures, and held out hope for adventurers willing to try their luck.
Barrows first lit out for the gold fields in May, 1899 with a government expedition, under Captain E. F. Glenn, to Cook Inlet, Alaska. By that point in his life he’d left the law, gone back to school and become a doctor. The following November he sailed for Nome as a surgeon on the Laurada. The ship sprang a leak in Bering Sea and went to pieces on St. George Island, but everyone on board was rescued.
Dear Lewis: Many thanks for your long and very interesting letter. I am very glad the news personal to yourself is so good. A man of family, of position and of aldermanic proportions, you are certainly in luck. May all sorts of good fortune continue.
I hardly know how to start to tell you of my very eventful career during the last few years. I have not time now to write a book, so will send you my diaries of ’98 and ’99 wherein you will see among other things how I was twice wrecked at sea, on one occasion being cast away on an island in Behring [sic] Sea.
As soon as I stopped keeping a diary I stopped getting ship wrecked. Last summer I was Ship Surgeon on a large Steamship–the “Oregon”–running between Seattle and Cape Nome. A great deal happened then but I have no record of it and it would take too long to tell.
Since last Fall I have been teaching Obstetrics and Diagnosis of diseases in an Institute here; but this job is now over – for the summer vacation – and we are “up against it” again almost as badly as when we struck Seattle. I hoped to get the “Oregon” again this summer – but a doctor who is a great friend of the owner has thus far euchered [sic] me out of it.
You see I am as far off as ever from my “Four Million,” although the experience I have had may sometime help me to get it. I know Alaska pretty well and how they work the ropes there, very well. The country is full of gold and if we are ever so fixed that we could get there – with the means to stay a year or two – I believe the “Four” would be on the way.
One must winter there in order to get a chance at new diggings before news of them reaches the States. Before the rush of people to Nome got there every valuable claim had been taken up by men who had wintered up the Yukon.
People who are not Capitalists who go in for the summer, invariably, are sorry — others too, for that matter, who lack necessary knowledge and judgment. This is a great country out here. You ought to take a long vacation sometime and come out and see what God’s country really is like. Magnificent scenery and climate, living cheap, things civilized and a bracing move and get-up to affairs that would make the effete East hold its breath. Let me hear from you soon. No hurry about returning the diaries.
Your sincere friend Geo. A. Barrows. 16 June 1901.
Sources: James B. Frazier Papers / University of Tennessee Special Collections Library at http://idserver.utk.edu/?id=200800000003486
OBITUARY RECORD OF GRADUATES OF YALE UNIVERSITY DECEASED FROM JUNE, 1910, TO JULY, 1915, No. i of the Sixth Printed Series, and No. 70 of the whole Record at www.archive.org/stream/1910t15obituary00yaleuoft/1910t15obituary00yaleuoft_djvu.txt