Bill Dawson: The Price of Success, Part 1

Photo from J.T. Studley’s 1912 hunting memoir 
William N. (“Bill”) Dawson poses in either Kenai or Kasilof in 1898 with a collection of moose antlers and sheep horns — trophies from kills he had made in the Skilak Lake area.

Photo from J.T. Studley’s 1912 hunting memoir William N. (“Bill”) Dawson poses in either Kenai or Kasilof in 1898 with a collection of moose antlers and sheep horns — trophies from kills he had made in the Skilak Lake area.

Toeing the Line

Bill Dawson, a well-known Kenai trading post manager in the early 1900s, loved to tell stories. Some of them were even true.

It seemed as though the further removed in time Dawson was from the event he was describing, the more he embellished. Take, for example, his encounter with frozen feet in the winter of 1897-98….

When British big-game hunter John Tatchell (“J.T.”) Studley met Dawson in Sitka in 1898, the two men struck up a conversation while Studley was waiting to sail on the S.S. Bertha for the Kenai Peninsula. Dawson, wrote Studley in a 1912 memoir, was lucky to be alive.

He “had been very ill from frostbite,” Studley wrote. “He had lost all the toes from one foot; gangrene had then attacked the place, and [he] only saved his leg and possibly his life by his return to civilization, doctors and good nursing.”

By 1911, when sisters Alice and Willietta Dolan came to Kenai to teach school, Dawson had added some spice to his tale of loss. In their 1948 memoir, they recounted his explanation for appearing like “a man walking on peg-legs.”

“‘You know I walk like this because one winter day I was making the rounds of my trap lines,’” they quoted him as saying. “‘My toes got froze. They froze bad. Then they began to fester. I was alone in my cabin. I amputated them with a cold chisel. Would you like to see the job I done?’” They declined.

Six years later, in the fall of 1919, Dawson was still spinning his tale, with significantly more elaborate embellishments, as recounted in a 1924 Outdoor Life article by Thomas Gilcrease, who had gone into Dawson’s store in Kenai to purchase some provisions. A Missouri native, Dawson claimed to have known the outlaws Frank and Jesse James, members of the Dalton Gang and Buffalo Bill. Then he told the frostbite story.

“Some years ago,” wrote Gilcrease, “Dawson [said he] went into his little store with both feet frozen … climbed upon the counter and asked for a hammer and chisel. Taking off his shoes he remarked that a man was a fool to freeze his feet and should not have any toes, so he set the chisel on one. Down went the hammer and off went the toe, and so on until all were off. Then he took his razor and trimmed down to the live flesh. He has no ingrown nails to bother [him now].”

Even if he suspected he was listening to gross exaggeration, there was no way for Gilcrease to know all the facts: Dawson had had no store of his own at the time he froze his feet; he wasn’t even living in Kenai yet. Also, he had not lost the toes on both feet, and it is even possible that he never performed any digital amputations on his own.

In 1897, medical practitioners on the Kenai were nearly nonexistent, particularly in winter. Seldovia and Kenai may have had cannery doctors during the summer months, but during the rest of the year there was almost nothing else. Seward did not yet exist, and neither did Soldotna or Nikiski. Hope and Sunrise, Homer and Kasilof, Cooper Landing and Moose Pass were all in their infancy.

When Tustumena Lake resident Andrew Berg accidentally shot himself in the left hand at about this same time, a friend rowed and sailed him in a dory all the way to Kodiak for medical attention. It is possible that Studley found Dawson in Sitka for the same reason: He had almost nowhere else to go for help with an injury that serious.

At least Dawson’s injuries weren’t as severe as those indicated in the Holt County (Missouri) Sentinel: “William Dawson, formerly of Craig [a small community in Holt County] is said to have had his hands and feet frozen off, while in the Klondike region.”

Leaving His Mark

J.T. Studley, in 1898, sailed to the Kenai because he wanted to hunt moose and Dall sheep. Dawson was an authority on the subject.

“This man was a prospector and big-game hunter,” wrote Studley. “It was from him that I obtained the first authentic news of what likelihood of success I might expect. He had spent months after moose and sheep, bringing out the trophies for the sake of the money he could make by selling them.”

As proof of Dawson’s prior hunting prowess, Studley published a photo he took of Dawson in either Kasilof or Kenai, posing with many of the sheep horns and moose antlers he had hauled out of the woods and mountains near Skilak Lake.

Out of kindness and perhaps some gratitude, Studley agreed to pay for Dawson’s passage on the Bertha—“as he seemed to have next to no money for that purpose.”

Studley also claimed that he had “half promised” Dawson that he would take him hunting “if he were well enough to accompany me. This, however, proved to be completely out of the question, as it was a matter of sheer impossibility for him to walk any distance, and I doubted the advisability of his returning to the rough life of the country at all.”

When Studley himself hunted from Skilak Lake, he traveled up the Kenai River and then rowed with a guide and some packers across the lower lake for about three miles to stay in “a shack that Dawson had built the year before in a small bay” on the southern shore.

If Dawson’s small cabin and the landmarks later known by his name are any indication of the time he spent on the lake, he left a lasting impression and covered considerable ground over a period of a few years.

It is difficult to know precisely when Dawson first came to the Kenai—Studley implied that Dawson was familiar with the Tustumena as well as Skilak basins—but some contemporaneous newspaper articles indicate that he may have visited the Cook Inlet in search of gold at least as early as 1894. By 1900 he was in the Kasilof area and shortly thereafter living in Kenai.

When homesteader Hjalmar (“Andy”) Anderson drew an annotated map depicting the life of his family and neighbors on Skilak Lake from 1922 to 1937, he included two clear references to an individual named Dawson—almost certainly Bill Dawson.

On Skilak’s southern shore, about halfway between King County Creek and Cottonwood Creek, lay Dawson Bay and the Dawson Peninsula. Anderson showed no cabin or even cabin ruins in the location mentioned by Studley; perhaps, in the decades between Dawson’s and Anderson’s time on the lake, Dawson’s rough shelter had returned completely to the soil.

In 1939, when Jack and Ada Sharples located a homesite on what Anderson called the Dawson Peninsula, they referred to its tip in a Seward Recording Office document as Dawson Point. Other writings from this time period also referred to the bay as Dawson Cove.

A 1912 map of the Kenai River depicts a Dawson Bar, a reference to a sand or gravel bar in the river itself somewhere between the Skilak outlet and the mouth of the Killey River.

Finally, Bob Beach, in an addendum to a 1913 hunting memoir by Morris L. Parrish, wrote of a Dawson Creek somewhere between King County and Cottonwood creeks on Skilak Lake.

Dawson’s name also shows up in connection with Tustumena Lake and Andrew Berg. In 1911, Dawson, Berg and a half-dozen other men filed seven claims for placer-mining ground along Indian Creek, which flows into lower Tustumena. At some time—probably before his frostbite mishap—Dawson also had what appeared to be a trapping cabin on the flats below the Tustumena Glacier.

In a diary entry on Dec. 8, 1924, Berg, a native of Finland who often neglected proper English spelling and grammar in his diary, made a direct reference to Dawson’s place: “Was up on the glaser flats got a lot of porcupine … but only one mink it being partly destroyed set out one trap at Dowson’s old cabbin got back early washed clotches snowing for first time this winter.”

Almost certainly that cabin, if it was located on the glacier flats, was eventually washed away in one of the area’s periodic floods.


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