University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology

In the Alaskan Wilderness, 1907


By: Alessandro Pezzati

October 19, 2015

In 1907, George Byron Gordon (still as Curator of the General Ethnology Section; he would assume the Directorship of the Penn Museum in 1910) led a small ethnological reconnaissance to Alaska. He had been there in 1905, traveling along portions of the Yukon River. This time, accompanied by his brother, MacLaren Gordon, he traveled to the Kuskokwim River.

Gordon and canoe “Penn” on Lake Minchumina, Alaska, 1907. Penn Museum image no 11820
Gordon and canoe “Penn” on Lake Minchumina, Alaska, 1907. Penn Museum image no 11820

Gordon’s trip was published for a popular audience in 1917, as In the Alaskan Wilderness (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company). The book itself was written as a memorial for MacLaren, who was killed in action during the Battle of the Somme, October 21, 1916. The trip had been the last time the two brothers had spent a significant amount of time together.

Gordon's camp at Lake Minchumina in Alaska, 1907. Penn Museum image no 11812
Gordon’s camp at Lake Minchumina in Alaska, 1907. Penn Museum image no 11812

Gordon’s book contains many anecdotes, as well as some good illustrations. In light of the recent (August 30, 2015) restoration of Mt. Denali to its original name, I would like to point out Gordon’s observations on the mountain. The United States government had just made the Mt. McKinley name official in February of 1917.

“Still farther back the higher hills were covered with snow; back of that rose the Alaskan range and, lifted over all, the loom of Denali, shimmering white, lit up the Southern sky… We judged it to be about fifty miles away, but so great is its height and mass that it seemed much nearer. On so vast a scale are its scarps and ramps that they were clearly revealed even at that distance. We agreed that we had never seen anything so overpowering in its solitary grandeur.”

Mt. Denali from the North, Alaska, 1907. From a sketch by G. B. Gordon from a point on the Kantishna just below the fork. Charcoal drawing on board by M. Louise Baker, 1917. Penn Museum image no 171578
Mt. Denali from the North, Alaska, 1907. From a sketch by G. B. Gordon from a point on the Kantishna just below the fork. Charcoal drawing on board by M. Louise Baker, 1917. Penn Museum image no 171578

“I feel impelled to take this occasion to refer again to matters of geographical interest… The particular matter that I have in mind is the naming of natural features, such as mountains and rivers on this continent. I was impressed during all my intercourse with the few Indians in Alaska that their geographical knowledge is very considerable, they travel extensively, and they have names for every topographical feature of the country. These names have always certain attributes to recommend them; they have been spoken by untold generations of men and handed down in the native tongues of the land from unknown antiquity. They are, therefore, a part of the inheritance of the human race and especially of Americans.”

He ended with “Would not everyone interested in history and tradition like to see that name preserved!”

Gordon would definitely be pleased to know that the mountain is again officially known as Mt. Denali, “The High One.”


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