AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first three parts, Missouri native William N. (“Bill”) Dawson — a trophy hunter and a spinner of yarns who came to the Kenai Peninsula in the 1890s — lost all the toes on one foot to frostbite. But he persevered, exercising his skills as a manipulator to control events and people in Kenai in the early 1900s. His most prominent run-ins involved Kenai bully Alex Ryan and a pair of sisters who taught school in Kenai from 1911 to 1914.
In 1912, about a year into Alice and Willietta Dolan’s three-year teaching contract in Kenai, Willietta got married. Young white female teachers often found themselves the object of white male attention in the small communities of the American West, but Willietta’s nuptials produced a particularly interesting ripple effect.
Her new husband was George W. Kuppler, a young U.S. Commissioner for the area and a mining partner of William N. (“Bill”) Dawson. Earlier that same year, Kuppler, Dawson and longtime Tustumena resident Andrew Berg had jointly recorded three placer-mining claims in the Anchor Point mining district.
The following year saw a fracturing of the Dawson-Kuppler connection.
The opening line of a Nov. 26, 1913, article in the Douglas Island News set the scene: “Judge John H. Brownlow, of Kenai, is having his troubles with the school teachers of that town, who desire to close up all places of business because of the scare over the measles epidemic.” One of those businesses was Frenchy Vian’s trading post, the manager of which was Bill Dawson.
The teachers (sisters Alice and Willietta) took it upon themselves to close up all public places of business, particularly those catering to Natives, who had been most hard hit by the disease.
The sisters said later that, at the peak of the epidemic, Kenai had 132 cases of measles and was running out of medicine. They also said that, in response to the medical crisis, they had quarantined nearly every Native home, but they were thwarted in their business-closure efforts by a familiar antagonist:
“We are sure that this large number of cases would not have occurred had some of the whites and ‘near whites’ kept the quarantine,” they wrote to the Educational Bureau of the Department of the Interior. “We have used up all our allowances … to relieve the sufferers and to give them the necessary food to live on. Nearly all of the natives are out of money, owing to the saloon having been open this fall.”
The saloon, owned and operated by Dawson and Vian, was part of the trading post.
Alice and Willietta posted closure notices throughout Kenai. Dawson promptly tore their notice off his store. In retaliation, the sisters promptly had George Kuppler arrest him.
Dawson never went to trial, however. He was quickly released and allowed to reopen his business. The teachers walked away frustrated and angry. And Dawson began plotting revenge.
When the school year and the teachers’ three-year contract ended in May 1914, George Kuppler, who had since resigned as commissioner, was arrested in Seward and charged with “misappropriating government money.” Along with Willietta and Alice, he had been on his way out of state to start a new life in the Pacific Northwest.
Although Dawson’s name is mentioned nowhere in the case, it certainly bears the hallmarks of his handiwork.
Two years earlier, Edward Edelmann, of Kenai, had been late for a court appearance — as a witness in a burglary case against Alex Ryan — and had been fined $25 for contempt by then-commissioner Kuppler. According to the charges when Kuppler was arrested, he had failed to account for Edelmann’s fine in his bookkeeping. He was accused of simply pocketing the money.
Kuppler was held in the Seward jail under a $1,000 bond as he awaited extradition to Valdez for a grand jury appearance. Three weeks later, the grand jury quickly exonerated him. He was released from custody and shortly thereafter was sailing south.
One man who never seemed to get on Dawson’s bad side was Peter F. (“Frenchy”) Vian.
Both men were profiteers. Both were opportunists. Both were successful. But Frenchy seemed to lack Dawson’s cruel streak.
In 1909 and 1910, when Kenai hunting guide William J. Hunter and a group of local petitioners sent a letter to the governor of Alaska urging him to fire Vian for ethical and legal lapses (including an implied discrimination against Natives) in his work as a Kenai Peninsula game warden, both Vian and Dawson responded in writing.
Dawson’s defense of his friend was more biting than Frenchy’s defense of himself.
Vian wrote the governor a mostly measured letter, accompanied by several affidavits attesting to his good work and character. “Mr. Vian,” he wrote, in third-person, “respectfully submits that his reputation as a law-abiding citizen is a full and complete answer to the false and unfounded charges.”
He concluded by suggesting that a subsequent investigation of Hunter, the complainant, might demonstrate “how [Hunter] is considered in the community … as a man of telling the truth and a law-abiding citizen.”
In his own writing, Dawson was less tactful: “I heard one of the petitioners say that he would kill cow moose when and wherever he could, and he is a licensed guide; his name is W.J. Hunter. He said this where there was others besides myself; such men should not be allowed to guide or have any voice in the matter.”
In a separate letter to the governor, he alleged that the petitioners were working against Kenai’s schools, had also plotted to shut down Kenai’s former agricultural station, and were actively attempting to have Alex Ryan released early from prison. Then he offered the governor a list of names of men who could vouch for his own character versus the character of those attacking Vian.
Vian and Dawson had likely known each other since at least 1900. In 1910, Vian formed and became president of the Interlocked Moose Horn Club, a mostly social organization comprised initially of only white men, including Dawson. The Dolan sisters were made members of the club during their stay, although they expressed no interest in taking advantage of their membership.
A circa 1911-12 photograph of Vian and Dawson standing on the front porch of their trading post in Kenai gives some idea at least how far back their business relationship went. Frenchy was buying and selling furs and other items for resale in Kenai as far back as the late 1890s; when he decided to leave Alaska in 1917, he sold his store in the village to Dawson, who had been his longtime manager.
Dawson, in his early 70s at the time, owned and ran the store until his death a few years later.