A Bibliography of Alaskan Literature 1724-1924

Judge James Wickersham’s Bibliography of Alaskan Literature brings together more than ten thousand references to histories, travels, voyages, newspapers, periodicals and public documents.

In the October, 1928 issue of The Washington Historical Quarterly, published by The Washington University State Historical Society, there appeared a brief but historically interesting book review of James Wickersham’s A Bibliography of Alaskan Literature 1724-1924, a book of over 635 pages with an equally long subtitle: Containing the Titles of All Histories, Travels, Voyages, Newspapers, Periodicals, Public Documents, etc., Printed in English, Russian, German, French, Spanish, etc., Relating To, Descriptive Of, Or Published In Russian America or Alaska, From 1724 to and Including 1924

Charles Wesley Smith, the Quarterly’s business manager, key supporter, and frequent book reviewer, who would one day be University of Washington Librarian Emeritus, observed that the publication of Wickersham’s book “may well be considered a notable event.”

James Wickersham, a 43-year-old politically active lawyer in Tacoma, Washington, came to Alaska as a newly appointed federal judge in 1900, crossing the territory by dogteam in winter and steamship in summer to administer justice wherever it was needed. In 1903 he made the first climbing attempt on Mount McKinley, but he was turned back by a sheer rock wall which now bears his name—the Wickersham Wall. 

In 1908 he was elected as Alaska’s first delegate to Congress, eventually serving seven terms, and even though as a delegate he never got to vote, his impact on Alaska cannot be overstated. He was instrumental in the passage of the Second Organic Act of 1912, which granted Alaska territorial status and an elected legislature; he secured funding for the Alaska Railroad in 1914, and he was responsible for the creation of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines in 1915, which later became the University of Alaska, and for the Alaska public school system. He proposed the first Alaska Statehood Bill in 1916; and introduced legislation to establish Mount McKinley National Park in 1917. 

In the introduction to his edited edition of Wickersham’s 1938 memoir Old Yukon, Tales, Trails, and Trials, UAF historian Terrence Cole described Wickersham as “the federal judge, frontier lawyer, congressional delegate, political power broker, legal scholar, mountain climber, self-taught ethnologist, linguist, historian, and book collector who shaped the literature, law, history, education, commerce, and politics of Alaska.”

1928 Washington Historical Quarterly Book Review

Charles Wesley Smith’s review of A Bibliography of Alaska Literature 1724-1924 (Cordova, Alaska: Cordova Daily Times Print, 1928. Pp.27+635), from the October, 1928 issue of The Washington Historical Quarterly:

The publication of Judge James Wickersham’s Bibliography of Alaskan Literature may well be considered a notable event. This book brings together in available and convenient form more than ten thousand references to histories, travels, voyages, newspapers, periodicals and public documents relating to Russian America or Alaska from 1724 to and including 1924. It wholly supercedes the pioneer bibliographies of Dall and Baker (1879 and 1884) and the more recent list of A. H. Brooks (1906). Few if any of the commonwealths of the United States can claim an equally adequate and satisfactory survey of their bibliographical resources. 

The compilation of this monumental work began in 1908 when the compiler was sent to Congress as the Territorial Delegate from Alaska. Nearly twenty years of successful and persistent work has been devoted to collecting material and about two years to the actual task of compiling the manuscript. Associated with the compiler have been several specialists including such capable men as Mr. Hugh A. Morrison of the Library of Congress and Richard Geoghegan of Fairbanks, an expert Russian linguist. 

The scope of the bibliography is indicated by the following statement drawn from the preface: “Every reasonable effort has been made to secure every title of printed books or magazine articles relating to Alaska, and of every book or newspaper printed in the Territory.” Many of the references, more than three thousand items, refer to United States government publications. Librarians will especially appreciate the fullness of the citations to these federal documents, including as they do complete congressional designations together with serial numbers printed in black-face type. 

The arrangement is alphabetical under subjects such as: adventure, aeronautics, biography, birds, boundary, description, education, explorations, fiction, fur trade, history, etc. Under each subject the entries are alphabetted by author. Each entry is numbered in order, there being a total of 10,380 numbers. A voluminous index makes reference to the particular number of each item or title. 

A survey of the entire literature of any subject is most useful to all who make use of printed materials relating to it. Such bibliographies add range and effectiveness to research and greatly economize the labor of all workers in the field. The importance of this new publication is much greater therefore than that of an ordinary book since it will multiply the usefulness of all existing books relating to Alaska. 

The volume is a strictly Alaskan production. It has been published under provision of the Session Laws of Alaska, 1927. The printing was done in Cordova, and the distribution is under the direction of the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, Fairbanks (College Post Office) Alaska.

Narrative Outline of Alaska History

Perhaps the most interesting section of Wickersham’s book is the 17-part history of Alaska, beginning in 1724 with Peter the Great, who drew up plans for the Kamchatka Expedition, to determine the relationship between Asia and North America. The officer in charge of this expedition would be Captain Vitus Bering, for whom the Bering Sea is named. 

There are several more sections on Russian explorations, and then the history turns to the international telegraph line in 1865; Spanish, English and French voyages to Russian Alaska; the transfer of Russian America to the United States; the missionaries in Alaska; the Klondike stampede; and the relationship of the Territory of Alaska with Canada’s Yukon Territory. 

Wickersham’s bibliography is well described in the Foreword by Charles Bunnell, the first President of the University of Alaska, who appreciated the author’s donation to the ‘Farthest North College’ of all monies realized from sales of the book: “For two hundred years the published information concerning Alaska has been scattered over the four corners of the Earth. There has been no instrument by which one could discover what has been written, who was the author, and who was the publisher. Honorable James Wickersham with infinite patience and industry undertook to provide such an instrument. He has rendered a very notable service, and has provided the casual inquirer as well as the student with a most comprehensive timesaving device.”

Terrence Cole commented in his Introduction to Old Yukon: “Appropriately enough, the Wickersham bibliography was the first book published by the fledgling Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines (now the University of Alaska), the institution that Wickersham had founded. Scholars and librarians immediately recognized that his ‘monumental’ bibliography was probably the most valuable single book ever written about Alaska.”

James Wickersham championed the cause of Alaskan statehood until his death in Juneau, in the fall of 1939, at the age of 82.  His homes in Juneau and Fairbanks have been preserved as museums, keeping alive his legacy and his legendary achievements.

Bibliography of Alaskan Literature

• Review in WA History Quarterly  

Old Yukon: Tales Trails Trials

Wickersham State Historic Site