Lieutenant explored uncharted land.
Lieutenant Henry Tureman Allen was tall, handsome and dashing, the product of upper-crust Kentucky society and an 1882 graduate of the Military Academy at West Point. But by 1884 his tour of duty had become the party circuit of Washington society. His fellow Army officers saw him as a playboy within the capital’s social circles who lacked the stern qualities that helped make good officers.
The 25-year-old native of Sharpsburg, Ky., was determined to prove the officers wrong and to prove his worth to a new woman in his life. His quest for respect would lead to months of torment and suffering and would result in one of the greatest expeditions of exploration ever conducted. Only that of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark covered and mapped more virgin territory, boasted Allen’s commanding officer, Brig. Gen. Nelson Miles.
Allen requested and received a transfer to Fort Vancouver in Washington state in 1884 and soon found himself in Sitka, Alaska, supervising the forwarding of supplies to Lieutenant William Abercrombie, whose mission was to begin exploring and mapping the vast Alaska Territory. Although Abercrombie was supposed to make his way up the mighty Copper River near Prince William Sound, he ran into some rapids and returned after pushing upriver fewer than 100 miles. Miles, commander of the Department of the Columbia, handed the job over to Allen, who ascended the Copper on March 19, 1885, with only three other men— Sergeant Cady Robertson, Private Frederick Fickett and guide Peder Johnson.
The small party abandoned half of its supplies but scaled the now-frozen rapids. Beyond were two massive glaciers, Childs and Miles, and then endless ice fields. At the Copper River’s Woods Canyon, the quartet climbed to the top of the canyon walls in hopes of finding food at High Chief Nicolai’s Ahtna Indian village of Taral. Instead, they only found Johnson’s half-starved business partner, John Bremner. At least Bremner agreed to guide them when the fed-up Johnson decided to return to the coast.
Bremner directed them up the Chitna River, a tributary of the Copper River, in search of the chief. On April 13, Allen’s 26th birthday, the men ate the carcass of a dead moose that their dogs only sniffed at with disdain. Soon thereafter, they reached Nicolai’s camp and were eating somewhat fresher meat with knives and forks made of copper. Nicolai even escorted them to his impressive copper mine in the Wrangell Mountains.
While Nicolai had a 27-foot boat constructed for the explorers, Allen trekked across the base of the Wrangells, the most northern active volcanoes in North America. Allen named them and put them on a map, although he became confused by an optical illusion and reported five peaks instead of the existing four.
When the boat was completed, a shore party of Nicolai’s followers used a 150-foot rope to pull it upriver. The current was fierce, and it took a month for the explorers to travel fewer than 100 miles. On May 27, at the junction of the Tazlina and Copper rivers (near present-day Copper Center), the natives departed. Farther upriver, Allen and company traded for bits of wormy meat and rotted goose eggs with a group of malnourished Tanana Indians. On May 30, the explorers abandoned the boat and, led by an elderly Indian, reached the Slana Valley, the source of the Copper. The next day, the river and feeder streams became choked with salmon swimming upstream to spawn. “One of the party ate three salmon including the heads of all and the roe from one,” Allen noted. All of the men gorged themselves; the salmon had saved the expedition and their lives.
In early June, Bremner reported finding the remains of Fort Batzulnetas, whose Russian garrison was slaughtered in 1848 by Athabascan Indians. In the 37 years since, no white people had been that far up country. On June 9, Allen reached a low pass among the peaks along the eastern edge of the Alaska Range. On one side he could see the Copper River basin, on the other the Tanana River basin. It was 1:30 a.m., but the light of the never-setting midnight sun made it seem like midday. “On this pass,” he reported, “I sat proud of the grand sight which no visitor save an Atnatana or Tanana had ever seen.”
The explorers proceeded down the Tetlin River to an Athabascan village, where they were warmly welcomed. The Rev. Vincent Sims had recently been there and had handed out some Bibles. By then Sergeant Robertson was suffering from scurvy, and Bremner had a badly sprained ankle. After constructing a boat from three caribou hides, the Americans pushed off down the Tanana River on June 15—intent on traveling the 200 miles to an outpost called Nuklukayet, operated by a Russian where the Tanana met the Yukon River.
On the way, the quartet was circled by a war chief with 30 men, but by handing out 2,500 brightly colored tablets to the natives, the explorers turned medicine men were allowed to proceed. Upon reaching the outpost on June 25, they found hardly any food but used machine oil to fry salmon caught in the Yukon River.
Two weeks later, the ailing Robertson was placed on a boat going downstream and ordered to take the expedition’s records to Fort Saint Michael, on the Bering Sea coast. Bremner chose to stay to do some prospecting. Allen and Fickett continued to explore, traveling north into the Koyukuk River country. Eventually, they crossed the Arctic Circle and took the John River, a Koyukuk tributary, to the previously unknown Brooks Range, reaching there on August 9. The two men then proceeded to Fort St. Michael, where they found Robertson in good health. On September 5, they arranged passage on a vessel bound for San Francisco.
Allen had cut a 1,500-mile trail through the heart of a mysterious land, mapped three major river systems, made first mention of what would be called Mount McKinley, discovered a valuable pass from coastal Alaska to the interior and located vast mineral wealth. The playboy turned explorer had more than proved himself. Back in the States, he married Dora Johnston, and they had three children. His military career turned out to be long and distinguished.
During World War I, Henry Allen commanded the 90th Infantry Division, earning the rank of major general, and then headed the American forces occupying Germany from 1919 to 1923. He died on August 30, 1930, in Buena Vista, Pa. He had never seen Alaska again, but the U.S. government and others were still using the maps he had made of the territory’s extraordinary interior.
Originally published in the December 2006 issue of Wild West. To subscribe, click here.