By Melinda Munson
Editor’s note: A version of this article will appear as the cover story of this year’s Skaguay Alaskan, available mid-May.
James Bernard (Ben) Moore first saw his future wife at a potlatch near Haines in March of 1890, in the Native village of Yen-da-Stucka. His recollection of their meeting, found in his diary accounts: “Skagway In Days Primeval,” reads like a romance novel, with details modern day readers will find problematic.
“The men who took actual part in the dance vied hard with each other to make the most impression among the large audience. While standing there taking all this in … I happened to glance up to a door that had just been opened … and two young girls came out; one apparently fourteen or fifteen years old, quite light of complexion, of somewhat delicate appearance, and with long black hair. In fact she looked pretty, refined and modest, and in a way above any of her class I had yet seen. She saw me at the same time I saw her, and after we held each other’s gaze for a moment, she… ran quickly back into the room. I became immediately interested in this little girl and curious to know all about her. I was lonesome and yearning for companionship from the opposite sex,” (136).
The young woman, Lingít Saayí (Klinget-sai-yat in most texts)* was in fact from a high-ranking Tlingit family. Her mother, Kudeit.sáakw, was of the Kaagwaantaan clan of the Finned House (Ligooshi Hít) of the Eagle moiety. Her father, George Shotridge, was headman, or shaadehunias, as was his father before him.
Born in 1874 in Klukwan, Lingít Saayí was 14. Ben was 20.
That first glimpse almost didn’t happen. If Haines shopkeeper Mrs. Healy had her way, Ben would have stayed away from the village.
“Mrs. Healy strongly advised me not to attend the big doings but Mr. Healy saw no reason why I should not go up and see it all,” Ben wrote (132).
Ben considered Mrs. Healy like a mother, a substitute for his own, Hendrika, who lived in Victoria, Canada.
But Ben heeded Mr. Healy’s more palatable advice, and attended his first potlatch. He made it clear he regretted his decision, and the eventual union, which ended badly for both parties with a divorce in 1909, allegations of abuse and one partner later taking their life.
“Thus it was with me, and thus it was that lifelong unhappiness was brought about for her and for me, and which one’s fault was it? Surely not hers, but mine,” he wrote (137).
After the mysterious encounter at the potlatch, Ben stayed overnight with Lingít Saayí’s family, and continued to visit the young girl.
“I took this little girl out sleigh riding with dog teams, and we went coasting, and in a short time became quite friendly and enjoyed each other’s company very much. And unconscious of it, I grew to like and then love this little maid, and she in turn grew to think a great deal of me. But even then I did not realize or think she was destined to become my wife” (137).
After Lingít Saayít and her father left for Sitka for six weeks, Ben assessed his feelings and decided to seriously pursue the relationship, which everyone around him already believed to be a settled affair.
The two were married in October of 1890. Lingít Saayí was 15 years old. They held a Tlingit ceremony, then traveled to Juneau where they were married by a Presbyterian minister with both of the bride’s parents present. None of Ben’s family attended the wedding.
Ben referred to his new spouse as his “little girl wife.” Prior to their marriage, he started calling her “Minnie,” after his sister. From that point on, Lingít Saayí lost her Tlingit name and would forever be known by the new moniker.
While it appears to have been a love match, at least according to Ben, it also made sense financially for both families.
“The Tlingits were happy to make that connection because it would strengthen their trade relations,” said Dan Henry, professor of communication studies at Lane Community College in Oregon, and author of “Across the Shaman’s River.”
Ben’s father, Captain William Moore, a German immigrant to Canada, had arrived in Skagway in 1887, then called Shg̱agwei (heart-wooded place).** Captain Moore witnessed a small number of prospectors already working and foresaw the arrival of more. He and his son built a small log cabin that today is Skagway’s oldest structure. They homesteaded 160 acres, built a wharf and a sawmill, and prepared for the goldrush, which would start in 1897 and end in 1899.
For the next several years, the newly married Moores traveled the Juneau area where Ben worked mostly at sawmills. Sometimes the couple rented a log cabin, sometimes they lived in a tent. In November 1891, their first child, Benny, was born. Lingít Saayí’s mother and sister were present for the birth. In November 1893, second child Edith Gertrude was welcomed into the family. Again, the maternal grandmother and sister were there to help. Their third and final child, Frances, was born in Skagway in August 1898. None of Lingít Saayí’s family were present for this birth.
“They [Lingít Saayí’s family] didn’t go to Skagway. Skagway was a racist white town,” Henry said.
The Moores also didn’t have support from Ben’s father.
“Ben marrying Minnie cooled that relationship with his father,” Henry said. “He called her a squaw.”
Despite their wealth from the wharf and land claims, their well-furnished home and Lingít Saayís high Victorian fashion, the Moores also faced racism from the steadily rising population of new arrivals.
“The majority of people who came up to Skagway in an attempt to get to the Klondike gold fields were not well-traveled or educated. They had never seen people who looked different than themselves,” said Johanna Evans, former National Park Service employee and Skagway history buff.
Evans said the children endured racial slurs, thrown rocks and being tripped.
“They had to go through the gauntlet,” Henry said.
By 1900, the two oldest children were in Tacoma, attending boarding schools, a far distance from the ill treatment their mother continued to receive.
“Although the number of women in turn-of-the-century Skagway was three times less than the number of men, Minnie was deliberately excluded from the normal clubs, card parties and charity events,” wrote Doreen C. Cooper, in the National Park Service’s, “A Century at the Moore/Kirmse House.”
“She pretty much stayed cloistered in her home,” Henry said.
“She was thrown into the white world where all she knew was the Tlingit world … In Skagway, there was nobody to talk to,” he added.
In 1906, the remaining members of the family relocated to Tacoma, probably to escape Skagway’s socially hostile environment. In 1909, Lingít Saayí filed for divorce, citing abuse, cruelty and her husband’s mismanagement of money. Because her name had always been included on deeds, an unusual arrangement for a woman, particularly a minority woman, she received half of the assets.
Lingít Saayí’s mother died sometime during the gold rush and her father passed away in 1908. Contact between her Klukwan family appears limited after the move to Skagway and there is no indication the Moore children were introduced to their mother’s village. Following the divorce, Lingít Saayí moved to Victoria in 1910 and remarried a man of Dutch descent. She committed suicide in 1917 after an argument with her husband.
“Mother was never very happy,” Frances said at the inquest. “I have heard her threaten to do away with herself quite a while ago.”
Ben died in 1919, having lost most of his money in bad investments and regretting that he emigrated from Alaska. While he left behind documents that would later become a book, there is no known written record from Lingít Saayí, although she wrote consistently to her brother, Louis Shotridge, an ethnographer for the University of Pennsylvania, and a controversial figure in his Native community.
Much of the information concerning the Moores is from the perspective of Ben and Captain Moore, white men afforded the privilege of directing the historical narrative.
“We have no first-hand accounts [about this topic] from the First Nation people,” Evans said.
Evans, born and raised in Juneau, is not of Native descent, and was at first hesitant to comment publicly on the topic of Lingít Saayí.
“I very much believe in allowing people to tell their own story. It is not my place to tell another culture’s story,” she said. After informal conversations with members of Skagway Traditional Council (STC), she agreed to speak with The Skaguay Alaskan.
Evans, normally a “madame” for the Red Onion, spent time in the restored Moore House on 400 Spring Street in the summer of 2021 when she worked for the Park Service during COVID-19. She said that time ignited a curiosity and inspired, “my research, my opinions, my personal interest in Klingit-Sai-Yat.”
The Skaguay Alaskan reached out to various Tlingit entities regarding this article. STC, a federally recognized tribal government, responded with the following statement.
“Currently, STC continues to research, trace and gather the tribal side of various Skagway stories and voices; however, at this time, we do not have enough resources to endorse accuracy of stories covered in the Klinget-sai-yat article,” said Sara Kinjo-Hischer, STC tribal administrator. “We believe that Klinget-sai-yat’s side of the story has yet to be told.”
Lingít Saayí’s narrative most likely wasn’t preserved by her descendants, some of whom were not even aware of their Native bloodline.
Cooper noted in her article that, “Even today, her grandchildren know much more about their Moore family background, but little about their Tlingit heritage.”
For Evans, the most tragic part of the story is the psychological trauma the wife and mother had to endure over and over.
“Klingit-sai-yat is trying to build community here. She is trying to have a good life. She is trying to fit in. She is rejected over and over,” Evans said.
“She was extremely elevated in her own community. She was supposed to have a future of matriarchal respect. Instead, she was torn down,” Evans continued.
When the Moores first settled in Skagway as a family, they lived in the small cabin that had been used to stake a claim, before eventually building and adding on to what became an enviable wood-built house.
“The restored homestead enables visitors to better understand the rapid changes faced by the Moores during Skagway’s development, from the rough log cabin to the Victorian house complete with piano and electricity,” Cooper wrote.
The homestead may also be a symbol of how quickly the Moore’s relationship changed under the influx of prejudice and societal expectations that arrived with the gold rush.
More details about the life and perspective of Lingít Saayí might be lost in a nation with a history of Native erasure. Glimpses of the matriarch can be found in Ben’s brief mentions of her in his diary, a divorce document, the handmade clothes turned to rags she used to chink the logs in the original Moore cabin. It’s not much of a monument to a woman who endured separation and abuse.
“The gold rush changed the trajectory of her life, and not for the better,” Evans said. “She was exposed to some of the most abominable behavior and tried to move away, tried to re-marry, tried to find a way to exist in this holier-than-thou culture that had no idea of the beautiful, abundant culture and life she had in Klukwan. Her resiliency did shine through; her many attempts to pivot, to learn, to adapt – but in the end – it feels like those efforts weren’t really acknowledged or valued.”
*X́unei Lance Twitchell, Alaska Native language associate professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, noted that Kóox̱’ Dave Strong from Klukwan references Klinget-sai-yat as Lingít Saayí.
**Twitchell provided this “more accurate” translation of Shg̱agwei.
Thank you to Melissa (Lissa) Kramer, curator for the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, National Park Service, and her staff, for assistance obtaining photographs and research materials.