Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
Frenchy Vian, who posed for many photographs of himself, was acknowledged as a skilled hunter.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Frenchy Vian, who posed for many photographs of himself, was acknowledged as a skilled hunter.

Unraveling the story of Frenchy, Part 2

In fact, Frenchy’s last name wasn’t even Vian; it was Viani, and he and the rest of his immediate family were pure Italian

By Clark Fair and Rinantonio Viani

For the Peninsula Clarion

AUTHORIAL NOTE: Part One introduced a man named Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian, and the attempt to tell his story by Clark Fair in Alaska and Rinantonio Viani, now living in Lausanne, Switzerland. Their early search was enlightening, but questions persisted.

Arrival in Kenai

Almost certainly, Peter F. Vian’s initial appearance in Kenai came in the winter of 1897-88. Eugene R. Bogart, the manager of the Kenai Station for the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) mentioned Vian in a letter to his superiors in Kodiak on Dec. 2, 1899: “Mr. P.F. Vian (commonly called Frenchy in these parts) who has wintered here for the past two years … has bought fur from the natives and sold to [Kasilof cannery owner and California entrepreneur C. D.] Ladd and others.”

Frenchy, he said, had come into the village with “trading stock” and should be seen as competing directly with ACC.

In his Jan. 14, 1900, report to Kodiak, Bogart wrote, “[T]here has been a good black fox caught by the Wilson boys, who are hunting up at Kussiloff [Tustumena] Lake—and they have been offered $90.00 for it by P.F. Vian who is trading here. It is not sold yet—and as they have other fur and intend to sell all in a lot in the spring—I may be able to get it.”

By April, Bogart’s reports made it clear that Vian was serious competition: “As Mr. P.F. Vian who has been trading here this winter offered me so much in advance of what our price calls for, and having paid excess of that price for the sake of selling the merchandise—I sold it…. Amongst the lots was some moose horns and Indian curios I had taken in trade, and he took everything there was.”

Frenchy was borrowing money to make investments in goods, planning to sell those goods for a better price, and to end up with a profit. And he succeeded in the fur business and elsewhere.

With other area residents, he made placer-mining claims in places such as Indian Creek on Tustumena Lake and sold those claims to large mining companies hoping to monopolize certain drainages and maximize their money-making potential.

In the years before a license was required to guide nonresident hunters on big game hunts in Alaska, Frenchy also dabbled quite profitably. On Aug. 7, 1900, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that a disgruntled German baron returning from an unsuccessful hunt in the Copper River area encountered Frenchy on a steamship ride and became convinced to return the following year, to hunt in the Cook Inlet region, instead, and to be guided by Vian.

Frenchy, said the newspaper, had regaled the wealthy baron with “stories and splendid sport to be had on Cook Inlet [and] had with him ample evidence of his success as a hunter in the shape of a splendid collection of horns of moose and mountain sheep which fell to his gun. He had been hunting and mining in the Cook Inlet section for six years [i.e., since about 1894], and it was his opinion that no better large game shooting is to be found anywhere.”

Some Important Truths

Despite Frenchy’s repeated claims that he had been born in Corsica, which had been part of France since 1768, and that his parents, too, were French citizens, those statements were simply untrue. In fact, Frenchy’s last name wasn’t even Vian; it was Viani, and he and the rest of his immediate family were pure Italian.

So why invent a past?

The answer is almost certainly that Frenchy was attempting to avoid anti-immigrant sentiments, which were particularly strong at this time in America against Italians, especially Italians who were Catholics, according to “Immigration and Relocation in U.S. History,” part of a collection of historical materials in the United States Library of Congress:

“During the years of the great Italian immigration, [Italians] had to confront a wave of virulent prejudice and nativist hostility,” stated the Library of Congress materials. “The U.S. [in the late 19th century] was in the grips of an economic depression, and immigrants were blamed for taking American jobs. At the same time, racialist theories circulated in the press, advancing pseudo-scientific theories that alleged that ‘Mediterranean’ types were inherently inferior to people of northern European heritage.

“One 1891 cartoon claimed that ‘if immigration was properly restricted, you would never be troubled with anarchism, socialism, the Mafia and such kindred evils!’ Attacks on Italians were not limited to the printed page, however. From the late 1880s, anti-immigrant societies sprang up around the country, and the Ku Klux Klan saw a spike in membership. Catholic churches and charities were vandalized and burned, and Italians were attacked by mobs. In the 1890s alone, more than 20 Italians were lynched.”

Into this precise moment in American history stepped Frenchy. Likely, then, disguising his Italian heritage was an act of self-preservation.

Frenchy was born Feb. 18, 1865, in the small village of Villa Viani in the Imperia region of northern Italy. His parents, Francesco and Angela Viani, named him Pietro Francesco Viani.

Pietro was the Vianis’ eldest surviving child; he had four brothers (Agostino, Giuseppe, Luigi and Carlo) and two sisters (Teresa and Bianca).

In June 1887, 22-year-old Pietro, then a soldier in the 92nd infantry of the Royal Italian Army, finished 13th in a regimental shooting competition. A certificate he received that day referred to him as Tiratore scelto, meaning “sharpshooter.” Shooting accuracy was a skill that would benefit him greatly in the following decades.

Pietro left for the United States about a year after being certified as a marksman, following an uncle who had immigrated five years earlier and settled in Calumet, Michigan. The Italian Vianis were farmers in a river valley lined with olive trees growing in what was then the Italian province of Porto Maurizio — and Pietro seemed in subsequent years never to tire of reminding his parents how much wealthier and independent and smarter he was than they would ever be.

In early July 1901, while Frenchy was ensconced in the Hotel Stevens in Seattle, awaiting steamship passage back to Kenai, he took up a piece of hotel stationery and wrote on it a prideful, defiant letter to his parents. He said, in part:

”With this present letter I’m telling you that I’m still alive, and I hope the same for all of you; maybe you wish to know what I’m doing. I’ll tell you in one word: nothing. For 10 years I haven’t worked for anyone else but me. Now I have skipped hunting and started a life as a trader, which is nothing else but that of a gambler. Today I buy gold mines and tomorrow I sell them. Sometimes I gain and some other times I lose….”

He then described the large amounts of money he was spending on accommodations, food and steamship passage. He said he moved “in the highest society” and bragged briefly about the value of his “shop” (place of business) in Kenai.

“I would have so many things to tell you,” he continued. “Unfortunately it is useless to tell you as you don’t understand them. I would come home if I could, but I can’t leave my shop. I have nothing more than to greet you all warmly … and I’m forever your son Pietro Viani il Bandito who didn’t feel like hoeing in your garden, and you think you are right to make a boy work when he isn’t born to work but is born for something else. (You want to make a donkey drink when he isn’t thirsty.)

“I [have] made more money here in Alaska than you have made your [whole] life, and if you’d live another one you wouldn’t do half of what I made. Now I’ll tell you that I also know how to spend money, and you shouldn’t forget it.”

Frenchy’s reference to himself as “il Bandito” (the Bandit) was especially telling. Although the phrase contains a connotation of criminality, in this context it is likely a reference to a son who defies his father (or parents) and refuses to accept the path in life he has been told to take—probably that of a farmer in the same valley in which he was born.

TO BE CONTINUED

Image courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
In 1887, Frenchy (born in Italy as Pietro Francesco Viani) earned this marksman’s certificate as a member of the Italian military.

Image courtesy of the Viani Family Collection In 1887, Frenchy (born in Italy as Pietro Francesco Viani) earned this marksman’s certificate as a member of the Italian military.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
Starting in the late 1890s in Kenai, Frenchy Vian owned and operated the Cook Inlet Fur Company. The location is marked out here because he was using this company stationery to write to family while he was temporarily in Valdez.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Starting in the late 1890s in Kenai, Frenchy Vian owned and operated the Cook Inlet Fur Company. The location is marked out here because he was using this company stationery to write to family while he was temporarily in Valdez.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
This image is likely of Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, probably in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection This image is likely of Frenchy with a team of sled dogs, probably in the Kenai area in the late 1890s or early 1900s.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
Frenchy’s immediate family posed for this photograph in about 1888, the year that Frenchy immigrated to the United States. From left to right are: brother Luigi, (standing in back) sister Teresa, (standing in front) brother Carlo, mother Angela, brother Giuseppe, father Francesco, sister Bianca and brother Agostino.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Frenchy’s immediate family posed for this photograph in about 1888, the year that Frenchy immigrated to the United States. From left to right are: brother Luigi, (standing in back) sister Teresa, (standing in front) brother Carlo, mother Angela, brother Giuseppe, father Francesco, sister Bianca and brother Agostino.

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