ExploreNorth, your resource center for exploring the circumpolar North

Return to the Home Page The ExploreNorth Blog About ExploreNorth Contact ExploreNorth

Search ExploreNorth

Princess Thom, Richest Woman in Alaska, 1897

(also spelled Princess Tom)

Arctic & Northern Biographies

The Morning Democrat

Davenport, Iowa - Sunday, January 17, 1897

Princess Tom, richest woman in Alaska

    Alaska has its Hetty Green. Her name is Princess Tom, and she is by far the richest woman in Uncle Sam's subarctic possessions. She was recently interviewed by Professor Dyche, the noted zoologist of the Kansas university, who went up to Alaska after specimens of the Rocky mountain white sheep, which are almost extinct and exceedingly rare.

    Princess Tom he found in Juneau, that Alaskan metropolis at which all the gold hunters stop on their way into the Yukon valley. The princess is short and fat and about 60 years old, but she is as vigorous as if she was 20 years younger. In fact, when Professor Dyche was first introduced to her, she was exulting in her recent purchase of a fifth husband and pointed with pride to the fat, grinning young Indian who had entered her masculine harem for a consideration of 500 blankets. Such things are not uncommon in Alaska, where both husbands and wives are bought and sold by the natives.

    Princess Tom seemed to take quite a fancy to the professor, too, and offered to buy him for a sixth husband if he was for sale, but when he declined the honor she gave him a curious silver ring, set with a turquoise, as a remembrance of her unrequited affection. Then she showed him some of her treasures. These she keeps in her house, where they are constantly under her eye. The dwelling of the princess is a very comfortable frame structure of modern build and is quite a palace compared to the miserable huts in which most of the natives exist. It is filled from top to bottom with Indian treasures.

    The largest part of Princess Tom's fortune is in good double eagles, of which she has about $15,000 worth. These she keeps in hiding places known only to herself, and one of her greatest pleasures is to sit with her lap full of golden $20 pieces and play with the coins. Yes, there is no doubt that Princess Tom is a good deal of a miser.

Princess Tom, Alaska     Besides her gold she has bale on bale of sea otter pelts. As the fur of the sea otter is very scarce and is the court fur of both Russia and China, being used exclusively to trim the royal robes in both those great empires, it can easily be understood that this part of her treasure is worth a good round sum. In one room of her house Princess Tom has high piles of cedar chests packed full of these pelts, and she is in no hurry to dispose of them either, as she well knows that their value is increasing every year. The sea otter has been so assiduously hunted and is now so hard to find that good skins are worth from $100 to $800 each. Princess Tom owns about 500 of these skins, and she has a large number of native hunters out in her sloops constantly looking for more.

    It is in this way that Princess Tom makes good use of her husbands, for she makes them superintendents of various branches of her business, although she attends to many of the details herself. She does not confine her business genius to the collection of furs. She has blankets which are the envy of every chief in Alaska, and she counts them by the score. Of baskets, which the Yakutat Indians weave in such marvelous shapes and patterns, she has a great store, and she sells them always at the highest market price. Her assortment of jewelry is large, but she seldom wears any of it. On state occasions, however, she sometimes appears with her fat wrists loaded down with golden bracelets on which $20 goldpieces jingle as bangles.

    Princess Tom began trading when she was quite a young woman, and, taking her opportunities into account, she has been highly successful. At first she peddled the furs taken by her husband, and, finding she was skilled in trading, she bought furs from the other Indians and sold them at the trading posts with a good profit. At one time she put her wealth into copper kettles and blankets, but she learned that the white man's money was a more convenient and safer medium; so she stored up gold coins.

    Princess Tom is surprisingly well informed about American affairs and has a fairly good idea of what the big cities of the United States are like. Her own business she manages with great shrewdness and ability. Her husbands have little to say concerning her affairs. She has them graded according to age. The oldest is a sort of retired pensioner; those of middle age she keeps hard at work, while her latest and youngest acquisition is her especial favorite and lives a life of comparative ease and luxury.             CLARENCE P. SKINNER.

    From a presentation entitled "Our Neighbors, The Alaskan Women", made by Mrs. Clara A. McDiarmid (1847-1899) to the Congress of Women in 1893 comes the following:

The Sitkan Indians and those at Juneau are the best educated of any of the tribes. Their houses are modern cottages of frame or hewn logs, with doors and windows. I noticed many were numbered. They are comfortably furnished, especially that of the chief. We were greatly disappointed in not seeing Princess Thom, the greatest personage of all the tribes, the chiefs and medicine men all yielding to her authority. She has a very comfortable house, is rich in blankets and bracelets, wearing thirty gold bracelets, each made of a twenty-dollar gold piece. Her wealth is estimated at $10,000. This princess is about forty years old, is said to have had seventeen husbands, and still not considered a flirt. Some of these husbands have been cremated, some discharged, most of them are scattered around loose. She has been Christianized, and lives at present with her last, a very young man. When she sees a gentleman Indian whom she fancies, she trades blankets and bracelets for him; if he has a wife who can not be bought over, she takes her beautiful white yacht, invites the wife to take a sail, spreads the white wings, and floats out to sea. It is needless to say the wife is never heard of again. This princess is an exception to the general rule; it is usually the chief who has more than one wife. When he dies his wives fall to his heir - grandson or nephew, whoever he may be and if the heir refuse to accept the legacy, his clans unite in rebellion and compel him to submit, though the relicts may buy their freedom if they desire.
Princess Thom, Alaska