Who was E.T. Barnette?

Elbridge Truman (E.T.) Barnette is generally credited with being the founder of what is now Fairbanks, Alaska. As is often the case with such things this was done quite by accident.

E.T. Barnette was a trader on the Yukon River and Captain of the steamer the Arctic Boy. In 1901 he decided to open a trading post at Tanana Crossing (what is now Tanacross). Located on the Tanana River along the trail from Valdez to Eagle this would be an ideal site for a trading post to supply would be gold prospectors on their way to the Klondike gold fields. After wrecking his own steamer on a rock at St. Michael (~125 miles southeast of Nome), E.T. Barnette hired Captain Charles Adams to pilot the sternwheeler the Lavelle Young up the Tanana River to Tanana Crossing.

Unfortunately, a stretch of shallow rapids, Bates Rapids, proved impassable to the Lavelle Young. The Lavelle Young then traveled Chena River in hopes of finding a way of by passing the rapids; it was hoped that the Chena was not a separate river but rather was a deep slough that branched off of the Tanana above the rapids. The Lavelle Young then traveled several miles up the Chena River before the water became too shallow for heavily laden sternwheeler and it was forced to turn around.

Captain Adams was unwilling to further risk the ship's going aground. Barnette's contract with Adams clearly stated that if the Lavelle Young could no longer navigate the river, the freight and passengers would be unloaded onto its banks. Adams had every intention of enacting this clause. Barnette insisted he be taken at least to the mouth of the Chena River but Captain Adams refused. After a short argument, Adams agreed only to take him downstream to a promising heavily wooded bank. On August 26, 1901 E.T. Barnette, his wife Isabelle, his partner Charles Smith, three other men as well as $20,000 in provisions were unloaded onto the southern shore of the Chena River at what is now downtown Fairbanks.

Within hours of their arrival E.T. Barnette had his first customers. Felice Pedroni (better known as Felix Pedro) and Tom Gilmore spotted the Lavelle Young on the Chena and made their way to Barnette's camp. Pedroni and Gilmore were nearly out of provisions and we were anxious to resupply before winter. With the realization that there were prospectors in the area and therefore, money to be had Barnette and crew set up a temporary trading post on the banks of the Chena River which he named Chenoa City. E.T. Barnette still had hopes of one day relocating his trading post to Tanana Crossing which was still about 200 miles away.

In early 1902, E.T. Barnette crossed paths with one of the most powerful and influential people in Alaska, the honorable Judge James Wickersham. Wickersham suggested that Barnette name his settlement after Charles W. Fairbanks, a powerful Republican senator from Indiana. Wickersham felt this would be a fitting tribute to his friend and mentor. E.T. Barnette agreed to do so having realized the potential value of having a powerful allies in both Washington, D.C. and Alaska. Senator Fairbanks continued to have influence in Washington, D.C. and in fact, eventually became Vice President under Theodore Roosevelt.

On July 22, 1902 Felice Pedroni discovered gold about 12 miles north of Barnette's trading post. A substantial gold strike in the Fairbanks area changed everything and Barnette no longer entertained thoughts of moving his trading post to Tanana Crossing.

E.T. Barnette then set about shamelessly (and sometimes illegally) promoting Fairbanks and often "exaggerated" about the amount and ease at which riches were to be had in the Fairbanks gold fields. This resulted in a stampede of would be gold seekers. In the November of 1903 Fairbanks became incorporated and E.T. Barnette became its first mayor. Within about five Fairbanks became the largest city in Alaska.

Historic characters from our pioneer past are often romanticized today. A case in point, is the fact that this homebrew competition was so named several years ago by the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce. They are in good company, however, since local schools and streets have also been named after E.T. Barnette. Few historic characters are worthy of such adoration and Barnette is probably not one of them. E.T. Barnette's motives were far from being altruistic. Barnette was known for his shady business dealings and was generally considered to be a scoundrel.

Barnette left Fairbanks in disgrace in 1911 amidst charges of embezzlement. The Washington-Alaska Bank which E.T. Barnette was president of went bankrupt on January 4, 1911. Many people blamed Barnette for the bank closure and the loss of one million dollars of the depositor's money. Following threats against his family, E.T. Barnette and his family left Fairbanks "under the cover of darkness" on March 27, 1911. Less than a week later, Barnette was accused of embezzling $50,000 from the bank. In December of 1912, Barnette was tried for embezzlement in Valdez, Alaska. He was found not guilty of all charges except for falsely reporting the financial health of the bank which was only a misdemeanor. Although tried and found not guilty of nearly all counts, public opinion remained against Barnette; many people believed that the outcome of the trial had more to do with E.T. Barnette's wealth and influence than serving justice. Whether Barnette was actually guilty of embezzlement or not is still subject to debate.

Hopefully having this competition named after a cheat and scoundrel does not reflect poorly on it. People like E.T. Barnette should certainly not be idolized. However, people the likes of him should also not be forgotten. Like it or not they are part of our history. Fairbanks exists today, in large part, due to the often shady dealings of a conniving man named E.T. Barnette.

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References:

Lundberg, M., 2001, Felix Meets E.T. - The Founding of Fairbanks:
http://www.explorenorth.com/library/yafeatures/bl-Fairbanks.htm.

Cole, D., 1999, Fairbanks: A Gold Rush Town that Beat the Olds: Epicenter Press, Kenmore, Washington, 224 pp.

Alaska Geographic, 1995, Fairbanks: Alaska Geographic Society: Anchorage, Alaska, vol. 22, no. 1, 96 pp.

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