Editor’s note: In today’s light, they seem impossibly young. They came to Yakutat separately as missionaries, she in 1901 at 21; he three years later at 22. In her scholarly article “Edward Anton and Jenny Olson Rasmuson: Swedish Convenant Missionaries at Yakutat, ” (Alaska History, Vol. 28, No. 1, Spring 2013) historian Mary Ehrlander offers insights into the Rasmusons’ first decade together, and how their legacy is embodied in Rasmuson Foundation’s mission. Many thanks to Alaska Historical Society for granting permission to use this article from Alaska History, the journal of the Alaska Historical Society.  Find more information about the Alaska Historical Society here.

Edward Anton and Jenny Olson Rasmuson: Swedish Covenant Missionaries at Yakutat

Mary F. Ehrlander, Director of Northern Studies and Associate Professor of History at the University of Alaska Fairbanks

When Swedish immigrants Jenny Olson and Edward Anton Rasmuson arrived in Yakutat at the dawn of the twentieth century no one could have imagined the extraordinary impact that they and their descendents would have on their adopted homeland during the following century. That legacy today is embodied in the Rasmuson Foundation, by far Alaska’s largest and most influential philanthropic organization whose mission is to improve Alaskans’ quality of life.

This photo of E.A. and Jenny Rasmuson, with their children Elmer and Evangeline, was taken circa 1911.

Jenny arrived in 1901 at the age of 21 as a missionary for the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant of America. Edward arrived in 1904 at the age of 22 to teach in the school for Tlingit children, though he would serve as a missionary, as well. Jenny and Edward were married in April 1905, just months after they met. They would live among the Tlingit of Yakutat for thirteen and ten years, respectively, during a time when incoming migrants were overwhelming indigenous Alaska villages with diseases and social pathologies that left survivors reeling. Acting as missionaries, social workers, and medical practitioners, with Edward also serving as a teacher and later as a U.S. commissioner, they developed competencies and confidence that would prepare them for leadership roles elsewhere in Alaska. The maturity, civic capacities, and social values they accrued not only would support his advancement as a banker and civic leader, but would foster a deep commitment to public service that they would instill in their children.

The experiences of missionaries Edward and Jenny Olson Rasmuson in Yakutat exemplify the myriad roles that missionaries played in small communities on the Alaska frontier at the turn of the twentieth century. Despite their extraordinary later accomplishments and experiences, near the end of his life Rasmuson wrote that he and Jenny recalled their years in Yakutat as singularly satisfying. The Rasmusons likely found their sojourn in Yakutat to be so satisfying for two reasons. First, they invested so much of their energies and souls into the community, and they reaped the rewards of that commitment in the trust they developed with the Yakutat Tlingit, as well as in the improved living conditions of the community. Second, they experienced great personal growth in this setting that might be termed “undermanned,” as they developed capacities to participate effectively in the polity, which in turn allowed them to experience the benefits of American citizenship. Their determination to direct the education and civic abilities they acquired in their adopted land toward public service, and their desire to foster in their children a strong commitment to humanitarian endeavors is reminiscent of Danish-born journalist Jacob Riis’ life story The Making of an American. All three embraced not only the benefits that American citizenship offered, but they modeled the archetypical role of citizen-activist in their advocacy for the less powerful. The deprivation that Riis endured during his first years in America gave rise to his crusade to eradicate slums. The Rasmusons’ experience in a small indigenous community with great needs fostered a lifelong commitment to the improvement of the well-being of Alaskans. The legacies of these immigrants, who interpreted their responsibilities as Americans as reaching far beyond themselves, have been profound.

The Swedish Mission Covenant formed in 1878, amidst the evangelical free church movement of nineteenth century Sweden. Free church adherents chafed at the Swedish Lutheran Church’s “dead formalism” that failed to respond to people’s spiritual needs, as well as the oppressive measures it used to maintain its authority. They proclaimed the Bible to be the authoritative source on Christianity, and stressed the capacity of individuals to interpret the Bible themselves. The Swedish Mission Covenant was a federation of local “communities of believers” for whom personal conversion and genuine faith also were paramount.3 Members tended to be strongly committed to mission work among the pagan peoples of the world. According to Karl Olsson’s history of the Covenant Church, the Swedish Covenant became interested in Alaska as concerns arose regarding the harmful impacts of Euro-American migrants on northern indigenous peoples. This interest in evangelism reflected late nineteenth century imperialism and progressivism that spurred many Christian churches to endeavor to uplift indigenous peoples of the world through civilization and Christianity, in the spirit of what Rudyard Kipling termed the “White Man’s Burden.” Presbyterian missionary and later education agent for Alaska Sheldon Jackson encouraged Protestant denominations to establish missions to serve Alaska’s Native peoples, and in the mid-1880s, under Jackson’s leadership, the Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians reached a “comity agreement” that accorded general areas of influence to various denominations, for instance the Presbyterians in Southeast Alaska, the Moravians in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the Baptists in the Cook Inlet region, and the Episcopalians in the Interior. Additional denominations, including the Swedish Covenant, entered Alaska, generally adhering to this understanding of territorialism. The purpose was to avoid unproductive competition among Christian denominations while ensuring that as many Alaska Native villages as possible received services.

In 1887, the Swedish Covenant missionary Axel Karlson began mission work in Unalakleet on Norton Sound in western Alaska at the invitation of Eskimos he met in St. Michael. The following year Swedish Covenant missionaries Adolph Lydell and Karl Johan Henrikson, established a mission in Yakutat in Southeast Alaska. Albin Johnson replaced Lydell in May 1889. By the summer of 1889 Yakutat’s mission house was completed, and an orphanage housed five boys. Henrikson built a sawmill, providing wood for housing for villagers, as well as offering employment opportunities for the Natives and income for the mission.

Meanwhile, the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant in America had been formed in Chicago in 1885 by Swedish immigrants who had been influenced by the evangelical free church movement in their homeland. At the request of the Alaska mission personnel, the Covenant of Sweden transferred responsibility for its Alaska missions to the Swedish Evangelical Mission Covenant in America in 1889. Owing largely to Karlsson’s and Lydell’s reports of the rapid spread of Christianity in their regions, the Swedish Covenant of America sent several more missionaries to Alaska and established missions at Chinik (Cheenik) on Golovin Bay and Shaktoolik, both in Alaska’s northwest region, and schools at Unalakleet and Yakutat.

The Swedish Covenant perceived its mission not only in spreading the gospel, but in teaching and healing, as did other Christian missions in Alaska. These efforts were part of a broader effort to aid the indigenous population in adjusting to the presence of large numbers of migrants, to protect Alaska Natives from Euro-American vices, and to ease their transition toward American citizenship. In much the same spirit, the United States Bureau of Education considered its appointees as much social workers as teachers. Along with teaching the children in school, they were expected to work with adults and families in their homes.

Teaching Native children presented challenges, including the children’s and parents’ “natural indifference,” as Governor Lyman Knapp put it, especially in fall and spring when families left the villages to pursue subsistence activities. The school year was condensed to accommodate the subsistence cycle, but attendance remained irregular.

Governor Knapp praised missionaries’ work in Alaska, particularly their educational efforts, declaring that “these noble agencies” (the missions) should be encouraged in their efforts. He said he was aware of no school that had shown better results than the Swedish boarding and day school at Yakutat.

In the late nineteenth century, as diseases swept through the territory, the Native population received little professional medical care besides that offered by military doctors. Natives suffered from high rates of tuberculosis, eye disease and venereal diseases, in addition to the influenza and measles that besieged the territory several times. Alaska governors repeatedly urged Congress to provide medical care for the Native population, with little response.

Missionaries and school teachers with limited medical training often served as the only western health care providers. In 1908 the Bureau of Education finally contracted with three missionaries and private physicians to care for destitute Natives and hired two full time physicians to provide health care to Natives in the south central and southeast regions. The Covenant Church sent doctors and nurses to Alaska to attend to the Native population’s medical needs, as did other denominations. The Covenant also actively supported General Education Agent Sheldon Jackson’s reindeer project to supplement the diets of the Eskimos when their traditional food sources appeared to be depleted. In another effort to increase self-reliance in the midst of population pressure, Covenant missionaries introduced small scale farming at the schools to teach students to garden, as did other missionaries and teachers in Alaska. Thus the Covenant Mission’s commitment to the Tlingit at Yakutat and the Eskimos in their “northern field” on Norton Sound and on the Seward Peninsula was comprehensive; the missionaries displayed equal concern for the people’s physical and spiritual well-being.

The remote Tlingit village of Yakutat lay within a bay on the northeastern shore of the Gulf of Alaska in an area rich in aquatic and land-based fauna, and vegetation. The majestic Mount St. Elias dominated the landscape. About 250 people, the vast majority Tlingit Indians, lived at Yakutat in 1900. Amidst abundant natural resources in the region, the Yakutat Tlingit had long been self-reliant and relatively sedentary. Both men and women produced a variety of arts and crafts for trade with travelers on ships that visited Yakutat, including elaborately carved bone handled knives, carved wooden bowls inlaid with mother of pearl shells, moccasins, and baskets. According to ethnologist Frederica de Laguna, Yakutat basketry was recognized as the finest of all Tlingit craft work. Tlingit men were master canoe builders as well. Yet their relative affluence did little to protect the Tlingit from high disease and mortality rates following contact with Euro-Americans, owing to their low immunity, poor sanitary conditions and ventilation in homes, and inadequate medical care. Moreover, trade opportunities offered access to a wide variety of western products, some of which had far from salutary effects.

Of the commodities and habits introduced by outsiders, without question alcohol had the most deleterious impacts on Alaska’s Native population. Reports by governors, ships’ captains, medical personnel, missionaries, and teachers from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are replete with condemnations of whiskey peddlers and of the intoxicant, hoochinoo, that Natives produced themselves. Both wreaked havoc in Native villages. The 1884 Organic Act prohibited the importation, manufacture, and sale of intoxicating liquors in Alaska, but the prohibition was “practically inoperative” according to Governor A. P. Swineford. The vast majority of Alaskans reportedly opposed the law and was uncooperative with its enforcement. In 1899, when enforcing liquor prohibition became utterly impossible following the discovery of gold in the Klondike, Congress ended the ban and established a licensing system by local option. Selling or transferring alcohol to Alaska Natives remained illegal, but enforcement was ineffective.

In 1909 Congress made providing liquor to Alaska Natives a felony, which helped reduce illegal traffic somewhat, but alcohol abuse continued to plague Native communities. Much of the cash that Yakutat residents earned through labor at the mission’s sawmill, the cannery and railroad work, and through sale of handcrafted items went to whiskey peddlers.

Covenant missionary Albin Johnson tried throughout his seventeen years in Yakutat (1889-1905) to stop the liquor traffic, frequently reporting alcohol violations to the government, but to little avail. By 1901 when Jenny Olson arrived, boat traffic was so regular that the Tlingit village’s former isolation was all but lost. Johnson wrote in his annual report to the Covenant: “Boats come and go, loaded with people of every sort. The most dangerous for us are those who come to attach themselves to the Natives in one way or another, ruin and humiliate their women, sell them liquor.” Following several months of liquor trafficking and drunkenness, with eventual threats of violence, at Johnson’s request Captain William Kilgore of the Rush brought Governor John Brady and Commissioner Edward De Groff from Sitka to Yakutat to investigate. Six people were tried and sentenced to jail time in Sitka, including the captain of the Newport, which had been anchored at Yakutat selling liquor. This was apparently the first time that the law had been applied in Yakutat, and Governor Brady speculated that both whites and Natives had come to believe that it never would be enforced. Agnes Johnson and Jenny Olson once attacked a whiskey peddler in his cabin, seized his liquor and brought it back to the mission, where Johnson reimbursed the man for his cost and then destroyed the bottles, to the man’s dismay. These were some of the conditions in Yakutat when missionary school teacher Edward Anton Rasmuson arrived in September 1904.

Jenny Olson was born in Sköttkärn in Värmland, Sweden in 1880. At the age of 18, she immigrated to Chicago, where several of her older siblings had settled. She attended the Swedish Evangelical Covenant Church there and its seminary, North Park College. She was ordained as a pastor before being sent to the Covenant mission at Yakutat in 1901.

Edward Rasmuson, who was raised on a farm in Blekinge, Sweden, immigrated to America just before his nineteenth birthday in 1901. He attended the Skogsbergh School, established by Swedish Covenant pastor Erik August Skogsbergh in Minneapolis, and then was recommended by the Covenant and hired by the U.S. Bureau of Education to teach at Yakutat.

Upon Rasmuson’s arrival, he and Johnson shared preaching and missionary work, while Rasmuson also taught the children in school. Shortly after Edward and Jenny were married in April 1905, Johnson and his family returned to the States, leaving the Rasmusons in charge of the mission and school. Prior to their marriage Jenny had earned $400 per year. Edward’s salary was $600, plus living space. The government paid him $480 for teaching and the Covenant paid the additional $120 and provided living quarters. After their marriage the Covenant stopped compensating Jenny directly and raised Edward’s salary to $900 per year, less whatever the government paid him to teach.

The Rasmusons worked hand in hand during the following decade as the sole missionaries in Yakutat. Their goal was that “Christ may be known by every Native as his or her personal savior.” They held church services every Sunday morning and evening, with Sunday school in the afternoon, except during the height of summer when the village was “as good as empty.” They also held formal services and prayer meetings on Wednesday evenings. During the winter they led prayer and song meetings on Friday evenings, and beginning in 1909 temperance meetings took place on Monday evenings. Edward preached while Jenny played the organ and led the singing, with her lovely soprano voice. On Sunday evenings she would play guitar solos. When Edward was out of town, Jenny took an even more active role, leading prayer and song meetings. In 1912 she began giving guitar lessons twice a week to those interested. The Yakutat Tlingit were quite musical. In 1913 most homes had phonographs, guitars, wind instruments, mandolins, violins, and other sorts of musical instruments. “Some of them can play quite well,” Edward reported.

Since the mission’s founding, Native members of the church had increasingly taken on roles of leadership and assisted in services. Max Italio was a translator who also had a fine tenor voice that the congregation enjoyed. In 1910 Rasmuson reported with evident pleasure that the Natives had shown more interest and had been of more help at the mission than at any time since his arrival in Yakutat. When he was out of town they organized services themselves under Jenny’s oversight. “Quite a few have participated with energy and warmth in prayers and witnessing.” During the past year the Tlingit people had come to these meetings without the formerly necessary coaxing. “It appears that they come with joy and a resolve to hear, learn and do the Lord’s will,” he wrote. In the past year twenty-six had been baptized, including twelve adults and fourteen between three months and fifteen years.

The following year Rasmuson reported the same trend. “We have also, especially since the new year, had the joy of seeing many, some of them firm skeptics, become one with God’s children.” The Sunday school teachers now were Tlingit; on Monday evenings they would meet with the Rasmusons to read and have the lesson for the following Sunday explained. Some lessons challenged the Rasmusons’ ability to explain them credibly. Oftentimes after Sunday school, the teachers and many other “believers” would visit the homes of the ill (“here there is always someone and often several who are ill,” Rasmuson noted) and sing for and pray with them. Sometimes as many as fifteen to twenty church members visited six or seven homes on a Sunday. Friday evenings Native church members met in their own homes and led prayer meetings themselves. “It has been pleasant to attend as a listener,” Rasmuson wrote. Tlingit church members now served as deacons, on a committee to aid the poor, as a church treasurer, as an interpreter, and as Sunday school teachers.

From his arrival in 1904 until 1909 Edward served as school teacher in Yakutat. His reports indicate that he took pride in the children’s progress, though he was frustrated at times, especially by their sporadic attendance. Rasmuson taught the children eleven subjects, stressing English language instruction for use in and outside school. He also gave “due attention” to temperance education. Both of these emphases aligned with education’s assimilative purposes. Just after Christmas 1907, Rasmuson wrote a glowing report to U.S. Commissioner of Education Elmer Ellsworth Brown on the Christmas festival, stressing the civilizing influence of his work with the Natives. He noted that a large, well dressed crowd had attended the celebration, and he praised the performances of the Native children, whom he had taught their recitations. He also noted a fine musical performance by a woman whom Jenny had taught for several years.

Rasmuson respected the Tlinglit’s self-reliance and accepted that seasonal subsistence activities took the students from school at times. In May 1908 he wrote that attendance had dwindled in late April as, “(t)he weather was nice, and families were occupied with hunting, fishing and clam digging at places nearby.” He added that “others just prefer the play ground on the beach to the desk in the school,” a concession that suggested his indulgence of children’s proclivities. Yet poor attendance during the October to April school year frustrated Rasmuson. Along with skepticism of the value of western education, alcohol abuse among parents and children alike kept children from school. Rasmuson regularly canvassed the village for students in the mornings, with moderate success. In November 1908, following a potlatch, school closed for four days “for want of scholars.” As Rasmuson walked through the village, he encountered some of the children “so drunk that they would fall whenever they tried to walk.” Despite these conditions, Rasmuson did not doubt the Tlingit’s devotion to their children. When the suggestion arose that mixed race children might have been neglected, he assured authorities that Natives cherished their “half breed” children just as much as other children.

In 1909 Rasmuson was relieved of his teaching duties because his dual roles as teacher and missionary created an unacceptable level of government support for mission work. This decision occurred within the context of a national trend toward secularization of education. It followed a scathing critique of educational practices in Alaska written by Frank C. Churchill, a special agent sent to the territory in 1905 by the Secretary of the Interior to investigate criticisms of Sheldon Jackson’s education policies. Rebekah Young arrived in January 1910 to replace Rasmuson as teacher. Owing to Yakutat’s reputation for alcohol abuse and because of the poor health of many of the residents, she was appointed to the teaching position mainly because of her nursing, cooking, and sewing abilities. For a variety of reasons, Young’s foray into teaching failed, and Yakutat essentially had no school for the following two years. Correspondence exchanged in the context of the kerfuffle between Rasmuson and Young illustrates how deeply devoted Edward Rasmuson was to the children and community of Yakutat.

Young’s inexperience in teaching and Rasmuson’s sense of ownership in the established order in Yakutat likely contributed to their falling out. Rasmuson claimed that she “had no room in her heart for the natives,” and that she referred to the children more often than not as “the little devils.” The children in turn “did not take kindly” to her. Parents reportedly told Rasmuson that she spent the school day reading novels and magazines, rather than reading to the children. Rasmuson offered her many suggestions regarding her teaching methods, only some of which she accepted. It was Young’s repeated personal use of firewood and coal oil supplied for the school that caused Rasmuson to question her integrity. She defended herself against the charges of dishonesty to the satisfaction of education chief W. T. Lopp. He declared that Rasmuson’s accusations of fuel misusage were “unfounded and malicious,” adding that Rasmuson was “a little czar” in Yakutat. Virtually any teacher would have found it impossible to interact with him, Lopp claimed. However, Superintendent of Schools J. H. Romig concluded that Young was not well prepared for teaching academic subjects. He recommended that she be replaced by a male teacher, perhaps an indication of Romig’s chauvinism, or possibly a veiled reference to his suspicion of some chauvinism on Rasmuson’s part. The righteous indignation that Rasmuson expressed when his reports on Young’s behavior were not accepted at face value does suggest that he may not have been entirely easy to work with. Yet, Rasmuson was clearly committed to the children and the community of Yakutat, which included not only saving souls, but educating and “civilizing” the Native people, and generally promoting their health and welfare. Harlan Updegraff, W. T. Lopp’s predecessor as Chief of the Alaska Division, described the Rasmusons as “very pleasant people” who were “earnest in their work.”

Like other missionaries and teachers of the time, the Rasmusons devoted significant time and energy to the medical needs of community members. Almost daily they visited people’s homes to see to their needs. They made hundreds of visits to villagers’ homes, received hundreds of calls, and gave medical attention hundreds of times, providing the medical supplies themselves, before the Bureau of Education sent provisions. Neither Edward nor Jenny had any formal medical training. They relied heavily on a basic medical handbook written by schools superintendent Dr. Romig, who had come to Alaska as a Moravian medical missionary in 1896. The national government’s policy of providing for the needs of Alaska’s Native population through its Bureau of Education employees was a matter of efficiency. In 1908 the Bureau supported 62 schools for Native children in the territory; thus in 62 villages teachers, and in some cases missionaries, provided a range of services to the community, most critically, medical care.

Of infectious diseases, tuberculosis caused the highest number of deaths in Yakutat, but other infections, such as trachoma, an eye infection that could result in blindness when left untreated, resulted in disability and destitution. In 1907 the death rate in Yakutat was 11 percent, with a birth rate of about half that. In spring 1908, 10 percent of Yakutat’s Native population was diagnosed with pulmonary tuberculosis. Following a March 1910 visit to Yakutat, Dr. Romig reported that most of the medical cases in the village were chronic illnesses that could only be palliated. “They need preventative medicine in the form of hygiene rather than drugs,” he declared, noting that sanitation could prevent the spread of tuberculosis and eye disease. In April 1912, Rebekah Young, now “teacher of sanitation” for the Bureau’s Southwest District, visited Yakutat and found the Native population “suffering with almost everything this winter.” Many had sores covering much of their bodies. Alaska’s governors made repeated pleas in their annual reports that Congress should pass sanitation legislation to improve conditions in villages and reduce disease. However, it was not until Alaska gained territorial status that its legislature created a territorial commissioner of health with the authority to enforce quarantines and sanitary regulations. In 1913, a year when alcohol consumption had increased, Rasmuson reported, “Quite a few children were born this year, but in many cases, for lack of proper care, they have been little more than guests here before being called home.”

Rasmuson surely understood the role that unsanitary conditions played in the spread of disease. He nevertheless attributed the Tlingit’s high susceptibility to disease to liquor and the Natives’ increased income. In 1908 he speculated that 90 percent of village residents over seven years of age “used liquor.” During the previous six months four deaths at Yakutat had been directly attributable to alcohol abuse.

Indeed, alcohol abuse was one of the greatest challenges to health and well-being in Yakutat while the Rasmusons lived there. Just as Albin Johnson had, Edward Rasmuson regularly urged officials in the territorial capital to enforce the ban on the alcohol trade, pointing not only to deaths resulting directly from alcohol poisoning, but to increased mortality from disease, particularly tuberculosis, owing to alcohol abuse. In January 1908, Rasmuson wrote in despair to U.S. District Judge Royal Gunnison in Juneau describing the situation and pleading for help, lest the Natives of Yakutat should face “total extinction.” The same month he lamented to the Commissioner of Education that the government showed more concern for protecting Alaska’s fur seal than for protecting her Native people. “It is indeed a pity that the natives are thus left almost without protection from those white men who will use any and all means at their command if only their purse profits by it.” Revenue cutters stopped at Yakutat regularly to look for poachers, but for years none had stopped to check on the welfare of the Natives.

In April 1909 Rasmuson proposed that he be appointed “special peace officer” so that he could arrest the local bootlegger and bring him to trial in Juneau or Skagway. The following year he was appointed U.S. Commissioner in Yakutat, which meant he served as justice of the peace, probate judge, notary public, and recorder. Finding the legal work interesting, he began studying law at LaSalle Extension University by correspondence, rising at four o’clock in the morning to read before his work day began.

In February 1909 Yakutat residents formed a temperance society, and by July of that year the society claimed forty members. All the officers were Native. To Rasmuson’s knowledge this was the first such temperance organization established by Alaska Natives. Various committees oversaw such tasks as assisting those who broke their pledges, aiding the poor, improving village sanitation, and village governance. For instance, members who were tired of hopping from stone to stone along the beach between the village and the mission station constructed a proper pathway. Members contributed funds to buy food for a bedridden man, and six young men volunteered to chop wood for him. In summer 1909 Rasmuson reported that recent visitors who had seen the village previously had asked him “what has taken hold of the natives?” They were sober, clean and well-dressed, and the village was noticeably tidier. By December 1909, the local bootlegger had left the village for lack of customers. The following spring, Rebekah Young reported that most of the adults in Yakutat and some of the boys and girls were members of the temperance society, and exhibited pride in “their Society and its influence.” Dr. Romig, wrote in April 1910 that the level of temperance in Yakutat was “the best I know and . . . speaks well for these people and those who influence them, of the mission and settlement.”

The years 1909-1910 appear to have been a high point in the Rasmusons’ sojourn in Yakutat. He wrote in June 1910 with pride of the improved conditions in the village. Residents now lived in frame houses with windows and doors that allowed ventilation. A sidewalk, illuminated on dark winter nights, led through the village. Many of the Native women owned and used sewing machines. “They wear clothes made according to the latest fashion, in this respect surpassing both missionaries and teachers,” Rasmuson crowed. Church attendance was high, and the local temperance society was active and effective with seventy members.

In April 1911 the Rasmusons took a furlough from April through late November and traveled in the United States and to visit family in Sweden. A new school teacher, E. M. Axelson, arrived in Yakutat in their absence. Upon their return the Rasmusons were struck by the improvement in the general conditions in Yakutat since their first arrival, and they felt privileged, rather than obligated, Edward reported, “to return to our little place.” In an ominous note he added that many were joyous at their return, but not all. “The interest for some has not been what it was last winter.”

Despite reported improvements in law enforcement after providing alcohol to Natives was made a felony in 1909, high levels of alcohol abuse would recur in Yakutat, especially seasonally in the coming years, as noted in Rebekah Young’s 1912 report and in later reports by teacher Axelson. Rasmuson hinted at a deterioration in conditions in his 1913 annual report to the Covenant organization. Some congregation members were as faithful as ever; in fact some were models of Christian faith and behavior. However others clearly were drifting. He attributed the change to the sharply increased incomes in the village. Three canneries now operated at Yakutat, and the competition led to tripled wages for employees. Outsiders had come to work in Yakutat, and they were a negative influence. “Drunkenness is their weakest side. . . . Drunkenness is the root of almost all evil. Illness of various types, poverty, unrest and much else follows from this wretchedness,” Rasmuson declared. His final annual report in 1914 was more optimistic, however. Except for a “regrettable exception” in the fall of 1913, there had been no problems with alcohol that year.

Following the Rasmusons’ departure, Axelson and his wife, Nellie, assumed mission responsibilities in Yakutat. In subsequent years Axelson’s reports to the Covenant organization included frequent mentions of the instability within his Christian flock. Summers were strikingly different than winters, with much more alcohol abuse during the former. Axelson reported to the governor in 1920, when he was also serving as liquor agent, that it was impossible to repress the liquor traffic in Yakutat. “The Indians make their booze, the White men brew beer, and the Chinamen mix their raisin gin. And I can find no one willing to swear to a complaint.” Until the mission at Yakutat was relinquished in 1958, missionaries continued to struggle to protect the Tlingit from white men’s vices with uneven results.

Yet the Rasmusons’ devotion to the people of Yakutat appears never to have wavered. Edward Rasmuson’s empathy for his flock and the community was perhaps never more poignantly illustrated than in a heart-rending 1908 plea to Commissioner Ellsworth, requesting support for two boys who had recently lost their mother. As she lay dying, the “faithful friend” of the mission had asked him to look after her children and possibly send them to school. He thus asked the commissioner for funds to send the boys to a Native American boarding school Outside. Rasmuson described the woman as a saintly person whose death had devastated not only her family but the entire village.

Indeed the Rasmusons had truly become immersed in the community. Their two children, Maud Evangeline and Elmer Edwin were born in Sitka in 1906 and Yakutat in 1909 respectively. Dr. Harry DeVigne was to travel from Juneau to attend Elmer’s birth, but inclement weather kept him away. Thus Minnie Gray, a Native woman, and Elmer’s father assisted in his birth. Billy and Minnie Gray and another Native couple, Steve and Annie Gee were close friends of the Rasmusons, and they frequently shared meals in one another’s homes, especially on holidays. The Rasmusons left Yakutat in September 1914. Reflecting on their experience in Yakutat, Rasmuson wrote many years later, “We both consider these years the happiest, most satisfactory and best remunerative years of our lives; would not have missed them for anything.”

Roger Barker and Paul Gump’s theory of undermanned settings, which Judith Kleinfeld has applied to the frontier setting in Alaska, suggests that the Rasmusons’ experiences in Yakutat contributed not only to personal satisfaction, but to the development of both the competencies and self-confidence that set him on a path to leadership in the Bank of Alaska and in the Territory. During their years in Yakutat the Rasmusons matured from single, relatively new immigrants in their early twenties to married parents of two young children in their early thirties who were church and community leaders. They had earned the trust of Yakutat residents as they devoted themselves to their spiritual and temporal needs, and they had gained the respect of Covenant, Bureau of Education, and territorial authorities. Serving in multiple roles of leadership in the remote community, the Rasmusons surged toward what Abraham Maslow called “self-actualization,” or the realization of one’s potential. Though their years in Yakutat were punctuated by setbacks, Edward and Jenny matured physically, intellectually, and civically in this crucible where the needs were so great and the responders so few.

After leaving Yakutat, Edward studied for and was admitted to the Bar in Minnesota. In 1915, at Jenny’s urging, they returned to Juneau where he planned to practice law. In April 1916, two months after passing the Alaska bar exam, he accepted the position of commissioner and deputy clerk of the court in Skagway. Edward and Jenny became active members of the community in Skagway. They joined the Presbyterian Church, there being no Covenant church in Skagway. They taught Sunday school, and Jenny participated in church services playing guitar and singing. Edward served as an elder for many years, and occasionally, when the pastor was away, he preached. “Stackars folk som måste lyssna” (“poor people who have to listen”), he wrote to his parents and siblings in Sweden.

As the only attorney in Skagway, Rasmuson served as the legal counsel for the recently established Bank of Alaska, the only branch bank in the territory, whose headquarters were in Skagway. Less than two years later, when the founder and president of the bank left Skagway in ill health, Edward was asked to “hold the fort” until another banker could be sent to Skagway. Rasmuson took a correspondence course to learn the rudiments of banking. Shortly thereafter, board members asked him to take over the leadership of the Bank of Alaska, which was foundering owing to the depressed Great War economy and hundreds of thousands of dollars of loans that were in default.

Vice-president of the bank, Andrew Benton, a New York accountant, wrote Edward in 1918 of his confidence in the former missionary, saying he was “one of the best men in the territory to have associated with us.” Rasmuson accepted the position. “Without adequate training, confronted with huge loan and operating losses . . . , he turned the tide. It was only done by his native ability, his resolute determination and above all, his unshakable confidence in Divine support strengthened by his missionary experiences,” wrote his son Elmer. Rasmuson served as president and director of the bank from 1918 to 1944, after which he was chairman of the board. During those years he transferred ownership in the bank from New York to Alaska, mostly into the Rasmuson family through purchasing stock. In 1946 Edward transferred to his son Elmer his stock control in the Bank of Alaska. That year the bank transferred its headquarters to Anchorage.

As demanding as leading the Bank of Alaska was, Edward participated in civic affairs during all these years. His first official foray into elective politics was his successful campaign for mayor of Skagway in 1921. He played an active role in Republican Party politics in the territory and served as territorial Republican National Committeeman from 1932 until his death in 1949. Rasmuson held leadership positions in two other banks, a mining company, and Anchorage Light and Power. He also served as Swedish Vice Consul for Alaska for many years and was knighted by the King of Sweden in 1937. Edward Rasmuson died at the age of 66 in January 1949 while he and Jenny were on a visit to Minneapolis. Jenny returned to the couple’s home in Skagway where she remained active in the Presbyterian Church, the Skagway Woman’s Club, the Eastern Star and the Pioneers Auxiliary. In the early 1950s she moved to Anchorage to be close to her son Elmer and his family. In 1955, Jenny established the Rasmuson Foundation, whose purpose was to honor her husband and, in accordance with both of their wishes, to leave a portion of their estate “for the benefit of others.” The Declaration of Trust stated: “The Rasmuson Foundation shall foster the advancement of the public welfare, the religious life, the public health and other charitable and public projects for the benefit of the people (of Alaska).” According to her son Elmer, Jenny’s “missionary spirit of doing good for others” prompted her establishment of the Rasmuson Foundation. When Jenny died in 1966, the bulk of her estate, nearly $600,000 transferred to the Rasmuson Foundation. The younger Rasmuson said that his religious upbringing instilled in him a strong impulse to direct his talents toward the public good, as well. At Elmer Rasmuson’s death in the year 2000, much of his vast estate was left to the Rasmuson Foundation, making it the largest private donor in Alaska.

Edward Rasmuson’s correspondence and official reports from his and Jenny’s years in Yakutat illustrate their pride in the work that he and Jenny were undertaking in Yakutat, their sense of accomplishment in the improved living standard and health conditions, their joy in their congregants’ faithfulness, and their confidence that the mission’s work was indeed improving community well-being. Ultimately it seems that Yakutat offered the Rasmusons an opportunity to mature as individuals, as Alaskans, and as Americans. They expanded their resourcefulness as they developed assets that would serve them and Alaska the rest of their lives. Though they left mission work when they departed from Yakutat, Edward and Jenny remained committed to church work and public service, attitudes they would instill in their children with far reaching impacts.