This is the letterhead from Dawson & Berg General Merchandise, a short-lived business partnership between Bill Dawson and Emil Berg. (Photo courtesy of Henry Knackstedt)

This is the letterhead from Dawson & Berg General Merchandise, a short-lived business partnership between Bill Dawson and Emil Berg. (Photo courtesy of Henry Knackstedt)

Bill Dawson: The Price of Success, Part 5

Thus ended the sometimes tumultuous Alaska tenure of William N. Dawson.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: In the first four 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 for nearly a quarter-century.

In the early 1900s, the Native population of Kenai held a great disdain for many of the white men who, despite being in the clear minority, used their powers as citizens of the United States and their financial wherewithal to control village life for their own benefit.

In 1915, the Alaska Territorial Legislature passed the Native Citizenship Act, granting Alaska Natives the opportunity to become official citizens of their ancestral land. The Act did not make obtaining citizenship simple, however. Instead, it contained caveats and exacted a price.

Alaska Natives could apply for citizenship in the territory if they could obtain a certificate of endorsement from “at least 5 white citizens” and demonstrate that they had done the following: “sever[ed] all tribal relationships, [and performed] a total abandonment of any tribal customs or relationships.”

William N. (“Bill”) Dawson and his business partner Peter F. (“Frenchy”) Vian — like Alex Ryan before them, when he ran the Alaska Commercial Company store in the village — sold alcohol to the Natives, despite earnest requests from school officials and the local Russian Orthodox priests that they desist from doing so.

Regularly, Natives in Kenai were discriminated against, particularly in financial dealings. After generations of self-sufficiency and a cash-free economy, the Natives found themselves suddenly reliant on products from white trading posts and on the money earned from seasonal jobs in white-owned canneries and guiding operations.

Natives comprised the main population of parishioners of the Russian Orthodox Church in Kenai, and each resident priest there, such as Father John Bortnovsky, often found himself defending his flock in conflicts with village whites.

Dawson referred to Bortnovsky as “Father Buttonoffski” and demonstrated a general disdain for church practices and Native customs. Once — according to sisters Alice and Willietta Dolan, who taught school in Kenai from 1911 to 1914 — the Natives were having a potlatch when Dawson and some of his cronies stopped by, uninvited, to watch the performance.

The dancers, said the sisters, stopped immediately, and then everyone in attendance sat “stoically” for two hours, “perfectly composed and motionless,” until the white men departed.

The Final Years

By 1920, Frenchy Vian had left Alaska, and Dawson had both a new business partner, Emil Berg (brother of Andrew Berg), and a new name for his business, “Dawson & Berg General Merchandise.”

In mid-November of that year, Dawson, then 74, and the much younger Berg decided to take a boat ride to Anchorage to pick up some freight for their store. The trek nearly ended in disaster.

After they left Kenai in a small gas-powered boat on Nov. 11, carrying three days’ provisions, they encountered severe weather, lost their anchor and suffered engine trouble. Luckily, they were able to run ashore near Point Possession, where they beached their craft and decided to attempt to walk the beach all the way back to Kenai.

Besides missing all the toes on one foot, the hobbling Dawson had also been suffering from kidney disease since at least 1915.

When Kenai residents learned that Berg and Dawson had never reached Anchorage, they launched a search party. Several days later, the searchers discovered the two men about 12 miles from Kenai. Berg and Dawson were exhausted from over-exertion and exposure and were unable to travel any farther. Berg, at one point, had fallen and broken one of his arms.

They returned to Kenai on Nov. 22, without their new supplies.

Exactly two years later, Anchorage mortician Daniel H. Williams typed a letter to Dawson’s nephew, Lester Ischmael Mitchel, eldest son of Nancy, Dawson’s youngest sibling. Both Lester and Nancy were living in Holt County, Missouri, near where Dawson had been born.

Williams informed Lester Mitchel that William N. Dawson, who had been suffering from kidney disease for at least five years, had died of it on Oct. 30 in Anchorage and had been buried there. A wooden board marked his grave in what is now Anchorage Memorial Park Cemetery.

Furthermore, Williams said, Dawson had left behind an estate worth between $10,000 and $15,000 ($170,000-$260,000 in today’s money), and Williams intended to travel soon to Kenai to collect Dawson’s will and act as executor. After expenses, everything was supposed to go to Nancy and any other surviving siblings.

But things were not so straightforward.

The sorting out of Dawson’s estate was complicated by several factors: First, Emil Berg was no longer Dawson’s business partner at the time of Dawson’s death. A new man, George W. Palmer (namesake of the city in the Matanuska Valley and the creek near Hope), had become Dawson’s partner in 1921. The store had been renamed “Dawson and Palmer General Store.”

Second, the estate went into probate court. Berg appeared to be involved in the probate efforts early on, but, after a five-year effort, according to Wasilla historian Coleen Mielke, Palmer wrested control and gained full ownership of the business.

Third, Palmer had a drinking problem and heart problems. In 1930, he committed suicide. By this time, the last three of Dawson’s six siblings had all died. It is uncertain whether anyone in the Dawson family ever received any benefits from Bill Dawson’s estate.

Thus ended the sometimes tumultuous Alaska tenure of William N. Dawson.

What, then, to make of his life and temperament? Was he merely a product of his time and place? Was he, as portrayed by the Dolan sisters, an example of the worst humanity had to offer? Or can he be described simply as a hard-living man who refused to let regrets or failures get in the way of fun and profit?

Outside of the Dolans’ scathing assay of Dawson, few remembrances exist that paint the character of the man. Longtime Kenai resident Louis Nissen, who had been a fox farmer on Skilak Lake in the 1910s, recalled Dawson’s store, “where everybody came to chew the rag and play cards, tell a lie or two.” Dawson himself, said Nissen, was “quite a guy. He had a nick-name for everyone in Kenai.”

An Anchorage Daily Times notice in October 1918 referred to him as “a pioneer of Kenai” and lauded him because he “patriotically bought war savings stamps.”

Thomas Gilcrease, who entered Dawson’s store in 1919 to buy provisions, recalled Dawson’s reaction to two little kids and then a Native man who entered the store: “Two small boys came in while I was there and purchased 5 cents worth of candy. They stood around and ate and [then] asked for another 5 cents worth, and Bill remarked, ‘Why in H—— didn’t you get a dime’s worth at first?’

“[Then] an Indian came in and asked for some credit,” Gilcrease continued. “Bill answered, ‘You can’t have a d—— thing.’ As the Indian turned to walk out Bill asked, ‘What do you want?’ The Indian got it, as they always do from Bill, for his heart is big, kind and tender.”

The Dolan sisters never mentioned Bill’s kindness, his tenderness or his big heart. They never called him “quite a guy.” In fact, they categorized him among other bitter white men who had fled lives of misfortune in the Lower 48 for a new start up north.

“Whatever the cause,” the sisters wrote, “they sought refuge in Alaska. They [wreaked] their vengeance on society by petty meanness.”

George W. Palmer (left), the namesake for the city in the Matanuska Valley and the creek near Hope, poses here with his family in 1898 in the Knik area. Palmer became a business partner of Bill Dawson in Kenai in the last years of Dawson’s life. (Photo from the Alaska Digital Archives)

George W. Palmer (left), the namesake for the city in the Matanuska Valley and the creek near Hope, poses here with his family in 1898 in the Knik area. Palmer became a business partner of Bill Dawson in Kenai in the last years of Dawson’s life. (Photo from the Alaska Digital Archives)

Alaska Digital Archives
Bill Dawson butted heads with many of the Russian Orthodox priests of Kenai because the priests, such as Father John Bortnovsky (seen here), staunchly defended their parishioners, most of whom were Alaska Natives.

Alaska Digital Archives Bill Dawson butted heads with many of the Russian Orthodox priests of Kenai because the priests, such as Father John Bortnovsky (seen here), staunchly defended their parishioners, most of whom were Alaska Natives.

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