To me there’s nothing half so fine,
As baked or roasted porcupine,
Give fools their silk and knaves their wine,
But give me lots of porcupine.
This tongue-in-cheek praise published in the 1897 volume of the Sunrise Literary and Dramatic Club Journal would be more dire if not for the few women inhabiting the boom town of Sunrise who often roasted that porcupine, operated the Yukon stoves, ran the post office, tended the gardens, and even sometimes worked family claims.
The experience of frontier women in the gold fields differs markedly from that of men drawn north to seek their fortunes, yet is rarely chronicled. Kenai Mountains-Turnagain Arm National Heritage Area’s newest book, Gold Rush Wife, colors in some of that missing narrative.
Gold Rush Wife is a genuine and tumultuous recollection of Nellie Frost’s adventures over four years of the Turnagain Arm gold rush. The story illustrates the brief, rich history of Sunrise City from the perspective of a courageous, caring woman who experienced triumph and defeat on the frontier. Nellie’s story, as told to her daughter, is the only known book of a woman who participated in the Turnagain Arm gold rush.
Nellie Frost followed her husband Jack north from California in 1897. She came with curiosity, optimism, and an incredible work ethic. She kept diaries, letters, and photographs of her family’s and her community’s successes and heartbreaks. Nellie’s stories of adventure, and those of friends from that intense time in Alaska, captivated her daughter Dorothy who was born in 1907, six years after the pioneering couple left Alaska.
Dorothy Frost dug deeply into family history, interviews, and primary documents to tell her mother’s story. She sought unsuccessfully to publish her manuscript during her lifetime. Her nephews gave her papers and photographs to historian Dr. Rolfe Buzzell, who edited Gold Rush Wife and added maps, additional photographs, and the explanatory subtitle, The Adventures of Nellie Frost on Turnagain Arm, 1895-1901 as Told to Her Daughter Dorothy Frost. KMTA published the book in 2016.
Some of the hundreds of photographs that bring Gold Rush Wife to life were unearthed as fastidiously as scattered gold. Faces faded from historic photos emerged using digital enhancement, including the striking cover photo of Nellie Frost, her husband, and a mining crew near Mills Creek in 1897.
Editor Rolfe Buzzell counts Nellie Frost’s story as “remarkable for its grittiness” as well as the resultant treasure of “adventures of a lifetime and lifelong friendships,” including the close bonds of a handful of white women living in a community of a hundred men.
Paired with Albert Weldon Morgan’s book Memories of Old Sunrise, this new book offers an insightful contrast between the very different masculine and feminine perspectives of the same events of Alaska’s history.
Gold Rush Wife is available from local retailers, Amazon, and the KMTA website. Stay tuned for book launch events this spring, including April 23 in Anchorage, May 7 in Seward, and May 21 in Hope.