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Book Review:

Arctic Village : A 1930s Portrait of Wiseman, Alaska

reviewed by Bill Jones

Setting: Wiseman, Alaska
Time: 1929-1935

    The book title, Arctic Village, is given to the small village of Wiseman by the author. Please know that there is a real Alaska town of Arctic Village some 150 miles northeast of Wiseman. The real Arctic Village is nestled in the foothills of the Brooks Mountains 140 miles north of the Arctic Circle and is the home of a tribe of the Gwich'in (Caribou People). Also know that the Native people at Wiseman during Marshall's time there were Eskimo and not Athabascan as are the Gwich'in at the real Arctic Village.

    Robert Marshall earned his BS degree in Forestry in 1924 and a PHD at John Hopkins Laboratory of Plant Physiology in 1925. Marshall came to Alaska in 1929. He was motivated by adventure, but with the excuse of adding to the knowledge of tree growth at the northern timberline. He settled in at Wiseman, an ancient trading site where four cultures of people had long come together during the summers for trade. Once there Marshall devoted his time to fraternizing with and studying the people instead of tree growth (admitted by him in the introduction).

    Wiseman is situated on the North fork of the upper Koyukuk River and is about 60 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 180 miles North of Fairbanks. Of the 127 population at Wiseman, 70 were white males, 9 were Eskimo males, 1 was Indian for a total of 80 males. There were 7 white women, 11 Eskimo, and 4 Indian, for a total of 22 women. 25 children made up the balance. The almost four to one ratio of men to women created interpersonal relationships that engrossed the author and became the center theme of the book. All of the white men were gold miners who had not been successful in the more popular Yukon and Forty Mile mining areas. They came to Wiseman singly and by pairs in search of pay dirt. They found the area about Wiseman not very productive. Most continued to pan for gold but also took up trapping to keep up expenses. They ended up almost destitute, some receiving money to tide them over from relatives in the lower States.

    Arctic Village is well written and interesting documentary. It is illustrated with photos and maps and it reads almost like an adventure novel. It gives a 1930 history of Wiseman and the nearby settlement of Coldfoot. The cultural aspects are almost entirely that of Marshall and the white miners, the harsh environment, and their rather spicy and not very tasteful association with the women.


Arctic Village : A 1930s Portrait of Wiseman, Alaska
by Robert Marshall
ISBN 0-912006-51-x
Available at Amazon.com