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Captain James W. Keene, Pioneer Alaska Mariner


There have been 4 geographic features in Alaska named for Captain Keene:

  • Keene Island - located in San Christoval Channel, Bucareli Bay, Alexander Archipelago (Southeast Alaska). The name was first published in 1891.
  • Keene Island - located in Wrangell Strait, Alexander Archipelago. Named by Meade in 1869.
  • Keene Channel - north of Keene Island, Wrangell Strait.
  • Keene Rock - northwest of the middle channel into Sitka harbour. Captain Keene first reported it to authorities in 1879.

The following biography and photo-engraving are reprinted from Lewis & Dryden's Marine History of the Pacific Northwest, a massive volume edited by E. W. Wright (Published in 1895)

      Capt. J. W. Keene of Skagit City was one of the arrivals on the Labouchere, where he remained until 1863, when, his apprenticeship expiring, he left her and went to the Cariboo mines. In the fall of that year he bought an interest in the sloop Red Rover and commenced trading along the Coast. He continued in this business with various sloops for several years, carrying passengers between Victoria, Port Townsend and other points on the Sound, and occasionally piloting vessels to the mill ports. In the spring of 1868 he took the schooner Pioneer to the Pribilof Islands on a sealing voyage. He was next master of the schooner Northwester running to Alaska, leaving her to pilot the United States steamer Saginaw, and from 1869 to 1879 was in the employ of the Government, five years of that period having been spent on the revenue cutter Lincoln. In 1879 he resigned and retired to a farm near Skagit City, but in the fall resumed his old vocation, taking the tug Mary Taylor from the Sound to Astoria. The following year he fitted out the steamer Favorite for the Northwest Trading Company and ran her for a year. He afterward served as master or pilot on the steamers Evangel, of which he superintended the building, Eliza Anderson, Henry Bailey, Leo, a steam schooner which he took to Alaska, and others. Since 1889 he has made frequent trips to Alaska in the government service, his last employment having been with the Richard Rush, on which he was stationed in Bering Sea during the season of 1894.


The following section consists of historic newspaper articles related to the activities of Captain Keene. These articles are transcribed exactly as printed, including all grammatical and typographical errors.


The Alaskan - Sitka, Alaska 1886

The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), August 14, 1886:
CAPT. J. W. KEENE is now master of the Leo. Capt. Keene is one of the oldest of the Alaskan pilots having been trading or sailing through the waters of the Alexandrian Archipelago since 1857, and he looks good for many years yet, which we heartily wish him.
[separate note]: The Leo returned from Juneau on Friday of last week, and sailed for Seattle at 2 o'clock Sunday morning, taking as passengers Mr. H. Heaton, of the Mission Home, Mrs. Heaton and their daughter Mrs. Smith, and John M. Dawson.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), November 27, 1886:
THE PIONEERS OF ALASKA - CAPT. JAS. W. KEEN - THE PERILOUS SITUATION OF THE STEAMER LABOUCHERE.- The mighty race of hunters and explorers who traveled the vast depths of the trackless wilds of the western territories are rapidly passing away. Their days of boundless energy are forever gone; and smiling gardens, illimitable cornfields, now cover the grounds over which they hunted the wild beasts and outwitted and fought with the wily savages of the plain. The wonderful adventures and hairbreadth escapes of these hardy men are now to be met with only in books; and it seems like reading selections from Homer's Iliad when we take up such a work as Washington Irving's Astoria, wherein are pictured such wanderings over flood and field, that the Iliad is tame in comparison.
    After all, what a Lilliputian field of adventure does Homer present in comparison with the grandeur and extent of the American continent; and now that the glamour and haze of years have destroyed the sharp outlines of character, we too may claim these men, the forerunners of this the greatest and last of nations as the rough demigods of our national history. The earth subduers, the pathfinders, the stalwart fighters of the savage forces of nature, as represented in these men, have had their day on the continent proper, but still linger and are well represented in grit, sinew, muscle and indomitable perseverance by the few prospectors who wander about among the highest peaks and the deep gorges of the Rocky mountains and the Sierras of the Pacific coast. The thirst for adventure of the Anglosaxon race and the passion to explore new countries and climb over unknown mountains and wander along unknown streams, has the broadest sort of a field for gratification in this our latest acquisition. The military explorers have had their day. The latter came in with a flourish of trumpets, through the daily press, and go out like a rocket, in the ridicule of the same "powerful engine of civilization." But the unheralded obscure and hardy prospector, with his scanty "grub stake" strikes out into the "unknown," fearing no dangers, defying all difficulties, and surmounting all obstacles. It is not for the ignis fatuus of a possible rich find of gold alone, that he braves all the terrors of the unknown regions; but the gratification of that inherent love of adventure which inspires him to do and to dare, that no other race possesses in such a high degree as that of the Anglosaxon.
    It should be our pleasant task while yet our pioneers, our pathfinders, our indefatigable prospectors, are still living, to gather from their lips their stories of suffering; of triumph, of adventures by flood and field, and to hand them down to posterity for their wonder and admiration.
    Washington Territory and Oregon were the last places to yield up the secrets embosomed in the mountain fastnesses and the interminable river valleys to these hardy explorers, prospectors and pioneers. After these were conquered and there were no more new mountains to climb or unknown rivers to trace, the vast and unknown regions of the far northwest in Alaska seemed to invite these topographical and geographical Alexanders to further labors. From the first and for years after the cession of Alaska to the United States, the unknown terrors of the territory have been exaggerated by paid writers so that the fabled hell of the Hottentots had here at last found a local habitation and a name, on account of the frigid terrors so graphically portrayed. During the 19 years that the United States have held possession there has not been a year in which the press has not teemed with gross fabrications and misrepresentations as to its people, its climate and its resources. To this state of things there has been but few exceptions. Only within the past few years, or since gold was discovered, have the people outside of Alaska gained a definite knowledge as to the true character of the country. This kind of information THE ALASKAN has endeavored and will continue to impart to its readers. The prospectors on sea and land will tell the truth - what fish are to be caught and where and in what quantity; and the commercial reports will prove to the outside world that there is something in Alaska besides icebergs and frozen seas.
    The prospectors on land will return to civilization with belts well lined with gold to spend among their friends and return again to explore still deeper in to the trackless wilds not yet trodden by the foot of a white man. The debt that modern civilization owes to the hardy pioneer and prospector will never be paid, and it is fortunate that these worthies find their greatest reward in the exhilarating excitement attendant upon their explorations. It is the prospector who first opens up new avenues for the adventurous trader, then the hardy pioneer and his family, and thus are new lands won from the primeval wilderness. The school house, the church and newspaper follow as a matter of course and our last acquisition is gradually growing like the "states."
    Among the earliest of our pioneers in Alaskan waters is the genial captain of the steam schooner Leo, James W. Keene. His first visit in Alaskan waters was anterior to its cession, and while Alaska was a dependency of Russia, in 1859. He came as a boy on the latter cruise and in 1862 was a witness of the trouble on board the steamer Labouchere, in Cross sound, in which the captain and the crew came near being sacrificed to the fury of the savages. At that time there were nearly 2,000 Indians camped on the ground and in the village all prepared to trade. Over sixty of them had come on board, this being double the number usually allowed for trading purposes. There was considerable discontent manifested on account of the enhanced value of marten skins, which was the currency of the country, and the captain of the Labouchere was disposed to ignore this increased value of the currency in his transactions with them. There were several tribes or Quanns represented in the multitude gathered at Cross sound, but the Cross sound Indians were disposed to domineer over the other Indians in making the bargains. From 60 to 70 sea otter skins were brought by the Coyon and Yakatat Indians for trade. This was the greatest number ever offered for trade at one time. A long time was consumed in preliminaries and the Yakutats wanted to go home and started to trade, when a chief of the Hoonahs took up one of their skins and threw it out, saying that he would not allow the trade to be spoiled by outsiders. This caused considerable excitement and confusion along the deck. The guard at the gangway, interested in what was going on, left the door slightly ajar and a young chief shoved his hand in, the guard seeing this slammed the door to, and jammed the hand of the Indian who raised a howl and several Indians jumped forward to pull the door away and struggled with the guard in doing so. Capt. Stevenson pulled out his pistols and the excitement increased. The captain was disarmed in a twinkling. The crew got their arms gained and held the quarter deck but the Indians held the captain with a dozen knives pointed at him and neither side would strike the first blow.
    Meantime there was a great deal of shouting and finally something like a parley was attempted. All this time the members of the crew had their pieces leveled at the Indians but the captain ordered them not to fire or he would be killed. Finally the chiefs agreed that if the men lowered their arms he would not be harmed. Meanwhile the cannonades had been loaded with buckshot and a man stationed at each with a lighted match ready to fire. The head chief finally agreed that if the men would lay down their arms they would leave the ship. Fully 500 Indians had managed to get on deck during the excitement and confusion and remained there over two hours discussing the situation, for these is nothing an Indian loves so well as a big pow-wow. When everything quieted down each Indian was treated to a glass of rum before they filed one by one down the ship's side. Shortly afterwards a big war canoe filled with representative men, came alongside and made the captain a present of a valuable robe. Then there were ceremonious talks in a Pickwickian vein anent the trouble and they finally parted greater friends than before. It was one of the most exciting incidents of his life, and the latter hung in the balance for quite a while, for a brave Norwegian member of the crew, and assistant trader, was down below when the trouble began, determined that the savages should never get the ship and had laid trains to 700 pounds of powder, intending to blow up the ship as soon as he saw the Indians were getting the mastery. When the Indians left the ship the Norwegian was discovered seated with a jug of rum on one side and a flint and steel in his hands ready to strike the fatal spark that would blow the ship and everything in it to atoms. Both parties were scared. Captain Stevenson slipped his cable during the night and crept silently away. The Indians meantime did the same thing and in the morning at daylight not a savage tent was to be seen on the beach.
    This is only one of the numerous incidents showing the change that has taken place in the character of the Thlinket Indians and the life of the early traders among them, with which THE ALASKAN proposes to continue to entertain its readers and illustrate the history of the territory.

The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), December 4, 1886:
PIONEERS OF ALASKA - TREACHEROUS INDIANS - DANGERS OF NAVIGATION - TRADING WITH THE NATIVES. - In our last article describing the adventures of Capt. Keene we left him on board the steamer Labouchere getting off from Hoonah, emulating the example of the Indians who had silently folded their tents and likewise stolen away.
    From Hoonah or Cross sound the Labouchere made a straight trip to Fort Wrangel; the captain not caring to risk another encounter with the Indians until he was better prepared to receive them. About this time Capt. Keene was making four trips a year to Alaska on trading steamers. The trip succeeding the trouble with the Cross sound Indians, Capt. Stevenson of the Labouchere determined to be fully prepared for all emergencies in future trade with the natives. There were a large number of miners at Fort Wrangel doing nothing, and he took with him 24 picked men from among them - men who would "stick at nothing" and every one of them as brave as a lion. The Labouchere was in no hurry to enter Cross sound, and slowly reconoitered the neighborhood. Finally she steamed into the harbor and in a short time a peaceable trade was being carried on with the natives. Unusual precaution had been taken to prevent trouble. One half of the deck had been screened off from the other with a canvas wall, and when one of the chiefs became a little noisy and obstreperous, a part of the awning was accidentally (?) lifted up revealing 24 stalwart miners armed to the teeth and looking terribly ferocious. The effect upon the chief and his clansmen was electric. Their voices were subdued at once and they cooed little turtle doves in the subsequent trading for that trip.
    There were dangers ahead on every trip in those days, not only from the treachery of the Indians but from the intricate channels studded with dangerous rocks, sandspits and reefs, and thick weather to contend with; not taking into account the sudden squalls. And there was the ever present possibility of a man being killed while on shore among the natives, on account of the terrible blood vengeance so universally practiced among the coast Indians. Howsoever, the life of an Indian was taken, accidentally or by design, made not the slightest difference if only a white man was remotely connected with it; then the nearest male relative of the deceased Indian was bound by all the laws of his family to kill, if not the party originally implicated, then any white man that chance and opportunity offered.
    There was generally some trouble or blood feud in those days, principally among the Kake, Hoochenoo and Takou Indians, and a man had to be exceedingly circumspect in his intercourse with the natives in order not to lose the number of his mess.
    Capt. Keene was five years on board the Labouchere, having come round Cape Horn in her on her first trip to the Pacific coast, leaving her in 1863.
    Numerous trips on small trading schooners were afterwards made; sometimes the captain venturing all himself in the cargo, and at others, entering into partnerships with others. Some of these trips were financially successful and others were not, making about an even balance. These trips were made at intervals right up to the time when the territory was ceded to the United States in 1867.
    During the summer of 1865 he was engaged in prospecting for codfish up as far as Kodiak island.
    After the transfer of the territory in 1868, he started out on a fur-sealing, (and to use his own language) "pirating expedition." The latter was evidently not a successful venture for he returned on the steamer Constantine. Subsequent to this, several successful trading trips were made to Chilcaht for Messrs. Whitford & Stores of Sitka. The following winter he went as pilot on board the U. S. S. Saginaw, under Capt. Richard W. Meade, continuing in the same position as long as the Saginaw remained in Alaskan waters. He was on board of her when the Kake village was completely destroyed by bombardment. The latter set was a reprisal for the murder of a white man by the Kake Indian Quanni, an account of which has been lately published in THE ALASKAN. The Kakes were then noted as the most savage and vindictive of all the aborigines on the coast.
    While acting as pilot on board the Saginaw he did duty as an interpreter also, having managed to acquire an extensive knowledge of the Thlinket language during his numerous trading trips. For doing this double duty he received a salary of $180 per month.
    In the summer of 1869 he was in command of the schooner Sweepstake, owned by Kinkead & Louthen, with successful results to the owners. We have since known Kinkead as the governor of Alaska - the first territorial governor - the most genial, open-hearted man that ever served the people of a state or territory, whose memory is still cherished by numerous friends in this faraway country.
    In the fall of 1869 Capt. Keene acted as pilot on board the revenue cutter Lincoln from Sitka to San Francisco and transferred in 1871 from the Lincoln to the revenue cutter Reliance. The latter is now an occasional visitor under the name of the Leo. He was attached to the latter until she was sold in San Francisco in the fall of 1874. Then he was variously employed until May, 1875. Subsequently acted as pilot on board the Wolcott and afterwards in 1879 acted as pilot on board the U. S. S. Alaska to Sitka from Victoria.
    The latter vessel came up here to settle the differences between the white residents and the Indians. All those were in the country at that time can remember only too well the feverish incidents of that perilous time. The history of those days of terror remains yet to be written.
    At this time Capt. Keene made one and a half trips Alaskaward, clearing $1,000 for his services as pilot and interpreter; as he naively remarked, "they were the best paying trips of my life."
    In the fall of 1880 he was employed as master on board the now historic little steamer Favorite, owned by the N. W. T. Co.   After completing his contract with the latter company, which embraced a four months' trip through Alaskan waters, he returned home. On this trip the foundation for the subsequent development of the great oil and fish works at Killisnoo was laid. In 1882 he superintended the construction of the missionary steamer Evangel, owned by A. P. Ludlow of Seattle. Before this was fully completed he was taken very sick and given up by all the best physicians about, but pulled through by sheer force of will. He didn't intend to die. The sickness cost him $2,000 and the loss of 18 months' work. Since that time he has made occasional trips, but spent most of the time rusticating on a farm in Skagit county, W. T.   He was called from the farm to take charge of the steam schooner Leo, on her last trip up here on a charter of Dr. Sheldon Jackson, our general agent of education in Alaska. Capt. Keene has been following the seas since he was 13 years of age, and we would take him to be 45 now. He has been in Alaskan waters and identified more or less with the development of the country for 20 years and more. He has seen all the different phases of territorial and non-descript legislative patchwork , and through the woof of the country's chequered career the web of inimical influence like the dark and gloomy threads of fate have ever loomed up unmistakably. At present there does not seem much hope to brighten our political horizon, for with us heretofore it matters not which party is dominant, the rights of Alaska are ever ignored. We can meantime continue to strive for our political rights and may the energetic and enterprising Keene live to see our vast territory clothed with all the political privileges which are inherent and of right belong to it, and no doubt the additional star to which, as a territory, she is entitled to be represented by, in our national flag, will shine out before all nations as brightly as her sister stars of the flowery flag, and add an additional lustre to that emblem of freedom.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), April 9, 1892:
A PIONEER NAVIGATOR ON THIS COAST
    A recent issue of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, contains a short history of the adventures of Captain J. W. Keen, who is well known among Sitka's old-timers, it is as follows:
    Captain J. W. Keen, who is at Providence hospital, recovering from a fracture in the leg, was one of the pioneer pilots in the Bering Sea, Puget sound and along the coast south to San Francisco. His life has been one of excitement and many times of danger. He was born on the western coast of England in 1842, and in 1856 was apprenticed to the Hudson's Bay Company.
    His first trip to the Pacific coast was in the steamer Labouchere, which was wrecked some years later near San Francisco. For five years he served the company in the Northern waters, then the Russian possession, and was with Captain Dod when he brought the scalp of Colonel Eby, the collector of customs, who was killed by Indians in about 1857, from Kake Indians on the north end of the Kou islands. The price paid was six blankets, six pocket handkerchiefs and two bottles of rum as a good will offering. In 1862 he was on the steamer which was taken in the waters of Cross sound, Alaska, by the Indians.
    At the expiration of his service he went to the Cariboo mining district. In the summer of 1866 he took the A. L. Wester to San Francisco with a cargo of halibut. The fish sold at 25 cents per pound in the hold, but so many had spoiled that the venture was a failure and Keen received $1.50 for six weeks work. After knocking about in Southern waters until 1868 he went to Alaska in the schooner Pioneer and engaged in the seal industry. In one season the crew killed 9,000 animals, whose pelts brought $2.50 each.
    Trouble with the crew caused him to go to Sitka, where he was engaged as pilot of the United States steamer Saginaw. For thirteen years he was engaged in the government service and since then has frequently taken vessels into Alaska waters. Two years ago he piloeted the Albatross, on board of which was the senatorial party. The first trips north by the revenue cutters Corwin and Wolcott, were under his charge, and the steam schooner Leo, which sailed from San Francisco to Alaska in 1886 with a party of school teachers, had him for a pilot.
    For a time previous to his injury Captain Keen was living on his ranch near Skagit City, and, in his own words, taking things easy.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), October 3, 1896:
J. W. Keene, pilot of the Wolcott made us a pleasant call yesterday. He is a pioneer pilot in Alaskan waters, and is a walking encyclopedia of early Alaskan days.
    The revenue Cutter Wolcott came into port last Wednesday after a tempestuous voyage to the Westward. Captain Philips, the efficient commander, honored our office with a brief call. His presence was like a ray of sunshine that brightens wherever it reaches. May his visits be frequent.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), May 19, 1900:
Capt. James W. Keen was a welcome caller at THE ALASKAN office the other day. He came up as pilot on the Revenue Cutter Bear and will return to Seattle on the Cottage City and join the Perry. He has cancelled his engagement with the Pacific Steam Whaling Co., and will go with Capt. Kilgore on the Perry this summer. The Perry will be in Sitka about June 1st.
[separate note]: It is generally understood that Capt. Snow, formerly on the Wolcott will take Capt. Keen's place as pilot of the Excelsior.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), August 20, 1904:
Capt. J. W. Keen, attached to the Grant and a veteran pilot of 35 years in Alaskan waters is with the Perry.
[separate note]: The U. S. R. C. Perry, Capt. Dunwoody, commander, came along side of the wharf last Monday leaving on the afternoon of the same day. She came from the westward where she had visited Nushigak and other canneries on Bristol bay, thence thro Cook Inlet and Prince William Sound to Yakutat. From here she goes to Klawak and to all the canneries in southeastern Alaska as far north as Pyramid harbor. She will return to Sitka in about ten days and take on coal. Unless orders are received to the contrary she will proceed hence to her station in Astoria, visiting the S.E. canneries en route.


The Alaskan (Sitka, AK), August 19, 1905:
Captain James Keen, pilot on the Perry, is an old-timer in these waters and altho 63 years of age is as fresh-looking as a man of 40.
[separate note]:The U. S. R. C. Perry left yesterday afternoon for Seattle via the several canneries en route with fish-commissioner Kutchin on board.





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