Many members of the Viani family settled initially in Calumet, Michigan, seen here in about 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

Many members of the Viani family settled initially in Calumet, Michigan, seen here in about 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

Unraveling the Story of Frenchy, Part 3

On Aug. 4, 1892, the Associated Press reported that the revenue cutter Bear had, on June 4, rescued only Peter Viani from the island

By Clark Fair

and Rinantonio Viani

AUTHORIAL NOTE: Part One introduced a man named Peter F. “Frenchy” Vian, and the attempt to tell the story of this former Kenai resident by Clark Fair in Alaska and Rinantonio Viani in Switzerland. Part Two revealed Frenchy’s real name and Italian heritage and some of the family dynamics that likely spurred him to adventure in Alaska.

Leaving Villa Viani

Pietro Francesco “Frenchy” Viani was not the first family member to leave the olive groves and the farming life of Italy’s Imperia Valley. In 1883, four or five years before Frenchy’s departure for America, his uncle Nicola Viani (brother of Frenchy’s own father) made the move and settled with his family in the copper-mining town of Calumet, Michigan.

When Frenchy became an immigrant, he stayed briefly with Nicola before venturing north to Alaska. At some point during his initial time in Calumet or during a later visit, he posed with other male Viani family members, each of them dressed in dark suits and holding a drink as if to salute themselves and their good fortune.

In the photograph six men can be seen sitting at or standing near a wooden table: Frenchy and two of his younger brothers, Luigi and Guiseppe; Giorgio and Francesco, two of Uncle Nicola’s sons; and a cousin named Domenico Barnato.

Giuseppe, the grandfather of Rinantonio Viani, left America and returned to Italy in 1901. (Rino’s father, Giò (named for his own father, Giuseppe), was born in America in 1896 and was about 5 years old when the family departed the United States.)

Before his return to Europe, the elder Giuseppe and another brother, Agostino, joined the Klondike gold rush. They departed Calumet in 1898 with five other men (all Italians) and a team of 22 sled dogs. On June 2, they crossed through Chilkoot Pass and soon established four placer-mining claims on Bonanza Creek, according to the online “Pan for Gold Database — Yukon Genealogy.”

Family documents indicate that on Oct. 26, 1899, Giuseppe deposited at the U.S. Assay Office in Seattle nearly 800 grams of gold valued at $471.61. His son, years later, reported that Giuseppe’s earnings paid for his family’s return to Italy and the subsequent purchase of an olive mill.

At some point, Frenchy’s sister Teresa also came to America. She married one of Nicola’s sons — named, ironically, Pietro Viani — and settled with him in Los Angeles.

Frenchy visited family often, particularly when that family was in the United States. He also corresponded regularly with family in America and in Europe.

Over the many years Frenchy lived in America, home and family never strayed far from his mind and heart, although he sometimes found himself — during his time in Kenai or his adventures in the Bering Sea—physically distant from both.

Of Polar Bears and Wild Escapes

On Feb. 4, 1891, the sealing schooner Mattie T. Dyer sailed from San Francisco. On Aug. 21 — after the ship had spent months hunting seals and trying to avoid government revenue cutters — the Morning Call (San Francisco) reported that three crew members had been deposited on treeless St. Matthew Island — one of the most remote locations in the Bering Sea and known at that time as the southern edge of the polar bear’s range.

“In spite of all the stories told [about] the number of men who have been devoured by the savage beasts,” said the newspaper, “a party of three are now on [St. Matthew] Island with the intention of remaining through the winter, and will spend time hunting the brutes.” The three men, described as one Frenchman and two Americans, were Peter Viani, Fred Burns and Jack Palsford.

The schooner remained two weeks at the island so crew members could help give the trio the best chance at success and survival. Logs were carried from the ship to the island to erect a 20-by-20-foot cabin (including an iron-plated door) able to “defy the attack of all the bears of the Arctic.” The three men were also supplied with “sufficient provisions to last until spring,” plus six heavy repeating rifles, plenty of cartridges, knives, hatchets and other weapons; cooking utensils and clothes.

The trio was guaranteed to receive as payment one-half of the value of all skins harvested. If there were any crew members who believed the three men had a chance to collect, the schooner’s first mate was not among them: “If they survive through the winter,” he said, “[they] ought to make their fortunes, but I doubt if anything more than their bones will be found in the spring.”

On Aug. 4, 1892, the Associated Press reported that the revenue cutter Bear had, on June 4, rescued only Peter Viani from the island. Cutter Capt. Michael Healy said that only Viani, down to the last of his provisions, had been present on the island. Viani claimed that his two companions had departed in a dory on May 4, attempting to reach Hall Island, about 3.5 miles to the northwest across the Sarychev Strait. Burns and Palsford had told Viani they would be back within a week, but they never returned.

Capt. Healy brought Viani aboard and then sailed for Hall Island, searching there without success for some sign of the two men.

That was only the beginning of the adventure for Viani.

Frenchy was a natural, enthusiastic storyteller, and he got considerable narrative mileage out of this escapade. But before any audiences gathered to hear his tales, he had to endure several more hair-raising months in remote Alaska.

For reasons that are unclear — possibly because the revenue cutter was still on patrol duty — Frenchy was not returned to San Francisco, the port from which he had sailed more than a year earlier. Instead, he was dropped off at Sand Point, a small community on Popof Island in the Shumagin Islands group just off the southern tip of the Alaska Peninsula.

There, he met and partnered with an old San Francisco sailor named Fred Hague. In September, Viani and Hague rented a sloop and outfitted it for travel. In October, they sailed for Fox Cape, a point of land on the south coast of the Alaska Peninsula. Sand Point lies about 45 nautical miles from Fox Cape, where the two men hoped to establish a winter hunting camp.

Their plans went awry, however, when they wrecked the sloop in a storm just off the cape and were able to salvage only a few provisions and their two “Esquimaux dogs.” Knowing they could not last the winter so poorly supplied, Frenchy offered to leave the rest of the provisions with Hague but take the dogs and one rifle. He would attempt to travel to Sand Point on foot for help and to shoot game for his food along the way.

How he managed to reach Sand Point, on an island, on foot was never clarified by news reports, but he did arrive there, somehow. He claimed to have taken 35 days to make the journey, over a distance he called 250 miles, and he encouraged the formation of a rescue party to find and save Hague, even though most concerned felt certain that he must have already perished.

TO BE CONTINUED

The exact location this photo was taken is uncertain, but it may have been in southwestern Alaska, probably in the late 1890s. Pictured is a bearded Frenchy, posing for a camera that he probably set up. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

The exact location this photo was taken is uncertain, but it may have been in southwestern Alaska, probably in the late 1890s. Pictured is a bearded Frenchy, posing for a camera that he probably set up. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

P.F. “Frenchy” Vian took this image of men and women harvesting salmon from a fish trap near Kenai in about 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

P.F. “Frenchy” Vian took this image of men and women harvesting salmon from a fish trap near Kenai in about 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
Frenchy poses in a fur suit, circa 1900. Location unknown.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Frenchy poses in a fur suit, circa 1900. Location unknown.

Frenchy captured this image of a Dena’ina family with a harvest of king salmon in the Kenai area, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

Frenchy captured this image of a Dena’ina family with a harvest of king salmon in the Kenai area, circa 1900. (Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection)

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection 
Male members of the Viani family pose in Calumet, Michigan, in the late 1880s. From left to right are: Frenchy’s cousin Francesco Viani, Frenchy himself, his cousin Giorgio Viani, brothers Luigi and Giuseppe, and cousin Domenico Barnato.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Male members of the Viani family pose in Calumet, Michigan, in the late 1880s. From left to right are: Frenchy’s cousin Francesco Viani, Frenchy himself, his cousin Giorgio Viani, brothers Luigi and Giuseppe, and cousin Domenico Barnato.

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