Despite being “Children of the Sun”, adventurous Africans also migrated to the glacial landscapes of the great Northwest. It is now common knowledge that Matthew Henson not only accompanied Admiral Peary on his mission to the North Pole, but was actually the first non-indigenous person to reach the summit. African presence in Alaska, however, remains an intriguing mystery.
George Harper, president and founder of the Blacks in Alaska History Project, has begun to critically examine the role of Africans in Alaska and chronicle his findings. In his work Blacks Who Made A Difference in Alaska’s History, he identifies nearly thirty individuals who made their way north during the period 1868 to 1959.
In 1900, Mattie “Tootsie” Crosby arrived in Alaska and remained for seventy-two years. She owned a boarding house and was known as a “good heart” who grub-staked many a miner during the gold days.
Captain Michael Healy, the son of an Irish plantation owner and a French-African mother, was an officer of the Revenue Cutter Service, later known as the U.S. Coast Guard. From 1871 to 1888 more than seventy whaling ships were lost in the Arctic Ocean and during this time Healy saved more than four hundred seamen.
It is unclear whether Dempsey was named before or after the death of its namesake Melvin Dempsey, who was of African and Cherokee ancestry. He arrived in the new town of Valdez in 1898 and during his lifetime was a merchant, a gold prospector and established a relief station on the Valdez Glacier. Dempsey reportedly opened the first free reading room in Alaska. He was also the postmaster of his mining camp on the Chistochina River, the site now named in his honor.