Bill Dawson: The Price of Success, Part 2

William N. “Bill” Dawson was a spinner of yarns who came to the Kenai Peninsula in the 1890s

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Part One introduced William N. “Bill” Dawson as a spinner of yarns who came to the Kenai Peninsula in the 1890s and became a trophy hunter mostly in the Skilak Lake area. In the winter of 1897-98, he frostbit his feet so badly that all the toes on one foot required amputation.

The Ozark Mountaineer

William N. “Bill” Dawson, a profiteer who spent the last third of his life on the Kenai Peninsula, was born to Lucas and Jane Dawson in rural Missouri in November 1846 (or possibly 1845). He was the middle child of the seven Dawson children who lived past childhood. Emily, his oldest sibling, was nine years his senior, whereas Nancy, his youngest sibling, was 17 years his junior.

According to the U.S. Census of 1850, the Dawsons were living in Holt County, Missouri. A year later, they were in Mills County, Iowa, and remained there for at least a decade. But when Bill Dawson got married in 1877, he and his betrothed were back in Missouri before a Justice of the Peace.

Dawson’s bride was Genevieve M. (“Geneva”) Eppler, a resident of Andrew County, Missouri, who was nearly 20 years old when she and Bill tied the knot. Dawson was about 31. By the mid-1880s, he was a Holt County farmer, and the Dawsons had produced three children, none of whom lived past age 5.

At some point, the Dawsons divorced or were separated, and Geneva went on to have a very different life. Bill remained a bachelor for the rest of his life and wandered off to seek his fortune, first on the West Coast and then in Alaska.

Geneva remarried, this time to Cassius Cornelius Shanks, who became the American vice-consul to the Consul General in Mexico City, Mexico. He died there of cirrhosis of the liver only two months before Bill succumbed to kidney disease in Alaska.

Geneva herself lived to age 91, dying as a well-to-do, respected widow in San Bernardino, Calif., in January 1949 — outliving both former husbands by 27 years.

Bill Dawson’s departure from Geneva and his whereabouts for the next few years are difficult to determine for two main reasons. First, many 1890 U.S. Census results were destroyed in a 1921 fire and the subsequent disposal of the damaged records. Second, a surprising number of men with the same or a similar name make tracking William N. Dawson during this time period problematic.

Among the many other Dawsons in California in the 1890s were at least two men named William N. Dawson. The one who would end up on the Kenai was listed in 1892 as a registered voter in Yuba County, Calif. Records state that he was 46 years old, stood 5-foot-11, was light complected, had gray eyes and brown hair, and was born in Missouri.

When Alice and Willietta Dolan, who referred to Dawson as “a former Ozark Mountaineer,” met him in Kenai in 1911, they described him as having eyes of “faded blue” and “light brown hair and whiskers.”

On March 29, 1894, the San Francisco Examiner published an article describing a schooner that was bound for Cook Inlet and the “Upper Yukon” in search of gold and was expected to be in Alaska for at least seven months. Most of the miners aboard, led by G.R. Reed and W.N. Dawson of Marysville, Calif. (seat of Yuba County), were expected to stop in Cook Inlet.

Both the schooner and one of the most important passengers were named C.D. Ladd. A wealthy San Francisco gun dealer, Charles D. Ladd seemed always on the lookout for a quick buck. He and a partner had had previous business dealings with a cannery in Kasilof. In 1900, Bill Dawson was counted as a resident of Kasilof.

In the previous few years, he had been hunting out of Skilak Lake — and probably out of Tustumena Lake. He had built his “shack” on Skilak’s south shore in 1897, just prior to the winter he frostbit his toes.

The Manipulator

In 1898, when big-game hunter John Tatchell Studley encountered Bill Dawson and learned of his frostbite and amputation, Dawson expressed a desire to hunt with him. But Studley quickly determined that Dawson was no longer capable of stalking through the taiga or climbing in the Kenai Mountains.

Studley, author of “The Journal of a Sporting Nomad,” was happy to take Dawson’s advice about hunting techniques and locations, but he declined Dawson’s request to accompany him on his quest for trophy moose and Dall sheep. Instead, once he and Dawson reached Kenai, he hired another local man, William J. Hunter, whom Studley described as an impressive, skilled and knowledgeable guide.

Dawson, for his part, did not appear to take offense at the selection of Hunter, although the two men would butt heads years later when Hunter would question the ethics of Dawson’s friend and business partner, Peter F. (“Frenchy”) Vian.

In the 1900 U.S. Census, Dawson was listed as a resident of Kasilof and as a 54-year-old miner who had been a blacksmith in his home state of Missouri. He lied when he told the census taker he was a widower. (Ironically, his ex-wife Geneva also lied when she claimed to be widowed before she wedded C.C. Shanks.)

Sometime after Christmas, Dawson moved to Kenai, where he quickly established connections among the handful of white men living in the village. Besides Vian and Hunter, he befriended or made the acquaintance of George S. Mearns, an early Kenai postmaster; Alex Ryan, a mail carrier whom Dawson would help send to prison a few years later; and Hans P. Nielsen, the superintendent of the Agricultural Experiment Station in Kenai.

Many of the white men of Kenai used their financial advantages and the authority of their race to control life in the village; some of these efforts were subtle, but most were not. Alex Ryan, for example, was notorious for his ill treatment of Kenai Natives.

It was also about this time that small articles of questionable veracity began to appear on the inside pages of Southcentral Alaska newspapers and often read like inside jokes — as if the suppliers of these “news items” wished to see just how much ridiculousness they could get away with.

For instance, a short notice in a 1902 edition of the (Valdez) Alaska Prospector said: “It is the common rumor in [Kenai] that W.N. Dawson, generally known as ‘Bill,’ is about to become a benedict.” A seldom-used definition of benedict is a newly married man who was previously considered a confirmed bachelor.

In March 1914, the tricksters tried a similar prank. In a column called “News Along Kenai Trail” in the Seward Gateway came this item: “It has been announced that Mr. W.N. Dawson, known as Sanctimonious Bill, is engaged to marry Miss Leether Belle, one of the girls of Kenai. The wedding will take place in June and will be officiated over by Dr. Weel Barn, assistant priest.”

Perhaps the most outrageous of these newsy notes appeared in the spring of 1912, when the Seward newspaper announced that the Libby Company, which had recently purchased Frenchy Vian’s cannery site at the mouth of the Kenai River, was planning to forego hiring its usual lineup of Chinese and Native workers and to instead employ only “white girls.”

According to the report, Libby planned to bring in a crew of 150 white women, which was seen as a boon to the meager, white, mostly male population of the area.

“The bachelors of this section of Alaska,” said the paper, “seem to think there will be good opportunity to win a wife. Many say they will desert the prospecting and mining game and will turn fishermen for a time, and help supply the cannery with fish in order that the girls may hold their jobs.

“Already,” the article continued, “some [local men] have placed applications with the manager of the cannery for positions as fishermen, and others are building boats and will be prepared to work as independent fishermen.”

The silliness of this idea contained an obvious racial undercurrent and a nearly equal undercurrent of social manipulation. Neither notion would dissipate quickly.


Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection
Peter F. (“Frenchy”) Vian was a longtime friend and business partner of Bill Dawson.

Photo courtesy of the Viani Family Collection Peter F. (“Frenchy”) Vian was a longtime friend and business partner of Bill Dawson.