Thursday, August 9, 2012

Episcopal missionaries establish Tanacross 100 years ago

This year marks the 100th anniversary of St. Timothy’s Church in Tanacross. The church was one of a string of missions the Episcopal Church established along the Tanana River in the early 1900s to serve the area’s Athabascan Indians.

Tanacross is located in Eastern Interior Alaska, about 13 miles west of Tok. When the Episcopal Church decided to start a mission there, Tanacross — then called Tanana Crossing — didn’t amount to much. Located along an existing Native trail, which the Eagle-Valdez Trail (blazed in 1899) followed, it was simply a place along the Tanana River shallow enough for horses to ford, and consequently the place where the Eagle-Valdez Trail crossed the river.

A telegraph station, part of the Washington-Alaska Military Cable and Telegraph System, was built there a few years later, as well as a trading post. The telegraph station and trading post were abandoned by 1911. (This is the site where E.T. Barnette wanted to set up his trading post. It seems fortuitous for Barnette that he was forced to disembark at the Chena River instead.)

The book, “Rifles, Blankets and Beads: Identity, History, and the Northern Athabaskan Potlatch,” which talks extensively about Tanacross, explains that the Episcopal Church bought the abandoned telegraph station from the federal government. According to early missionary accounts, it took them 20 days to pole a boat upriver from McCarty Station (now called Big Delta State Historical Park) to Tanana Crossing. Arriving on Sept. 25, 1912, the missionaries also appropriated the abandoned trading post and rehabilitated it into the mission.

Although there were no Athabascans living at Tanana Crossing then, there was a sizable village at Mansfield, located about seven miles northwest at Mansfield Lake. It was these people the mission was intended to serve, and they appear to have readily taken to the Christian faith. In the book “Crow is my Boss,” Tanacross elder Kenny Thomas says that the people of Mansfield used to walk the seven miles from Mansfield to Tanana Crossing every Sunday to attend church.

The year after the mission was established, gold was discovered in the Chisana River about 70 miles upriver from Tanana Crossing. This strike attracted hundreds of non-Natives, spurred development of commercial river navigation, and stimulated traders to establish new trading posts along the Tanana River. Several trading ventures were started at Tanana Crossing, and in 1920 a post office was established.

The trading posts and church enticed Alaska Natives to start living there at least on a seasonal basis. However, it was not until a Bureau of Indian Affairs school was established in 1932 that Athabascans began settling permanently, moving from Mansfield, Kechumstuk (30 miles northeast) and other villages. It was also BIA officials who shortened the name of the village from Tanana Crossing to Tanacross in 1934.

The village remained on the Tanana River’s north bank until the early 1970s, when water contamination and fears of flooding prompted residents to relocate about a mile away on the south bank of the river. Also, there is no bridge across the Tanana River near the village, and the new location provided road access to the Alaska Highway (constructed in 1942) and the schools and facilities in Tok, only a few miles to the east.

St. Timothy’s Church in the new village is a re-creation of the old church, which still stands across the river. Constructed by village residents and dedicated in 1981, the new St. Timothy’s is similar in appearance to the old church and even houses the original mission bell.

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