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Edvin's legend

Search for lost diary of early Alaskan explorer, prospector continues

Posted: August 28, 2011 - 7:00am  |  Updated: August 29, 2011 - 9:33am

Duane Edelman has been searching his whole life for something he's never seen.

It's a journal.

A diary said to exist.

But, it's an account of a life unlike what most would expect.

The 55-year-old Valdez resident is hunting for the writings of his great-grandfather Edvin Edelman - a Finnish man who left home in his youth and ended up living a true Alaskan life in the Southeast and Southcentral parts of the state.

"Because my great-grandfather was so adventurous that he went to the trouble to make the first oil lease in the territory, that he built his cabin and married a 16-year-old Alaska-Russian native in the community of Kenai in 1896 and raised eight kids, survived going to Fiji Islands and Russia on a cod ship - the tenacity and the drive this person had is what has made our family strong and who we are," Duane said.

Although Edvin's tale is remembered now only through letters he sent home detailing his adventures, Duane is determined to find the journal said to have last been seen or held more than 50 years ago.

He's offering a $2,000 reward for the return of the journal, which was thought to be lost when it was brought to a public viewing many years ago. He's asking for the public's help in any form.

"It is a piece of us that means too much to not have made that attempt," he said.

The search was recently re-fueled by a family reunion Duane spent several months planning and organizing. That family reunion - which included more than 30 relatives and four Finnish relatives - was hosted Saturday at the Tyotkas Elders Center in Old Town Kenai.

Duane started hearing about the legend of Edvin as he was growing up the oldest of six children.

"It was a homesteader's lifestyle that I grew up with and those treasures and memories are really deep-rooted in me," he said.

The Finnish side of his family - spelled Edelmann - contacted him when he was 20 and started a correspondence. He learned the letters his great-grandfather mailed home were translated to English by relatives and put online through a website dedicated to the Edelmann family history.

"I found them just extremely fascinating because it gave us a glimpse into the life of someone back in the 1800s," Duane said.

A letter sent from Fort Wrangell, Alaska in 1885 detailed the start of Edvin's journey. He wrote home that he had left San Francisco to try his luck in the Alaskan gold mining industry and was awaiting a steamer to take him further north.

"Since the Americans went there they have found gold near Sitka, Harrisburg and on the River Yukon," the letter reads. "There are not many white people. The country is inhabited by Indians and Russians, but I intend to stay there to get rich or die.

"I have some companions with me and we have the best rifles and pistols you can get in America and we know how to use them. In such a wild country, one cannot feel safe for one's life. Sometimes, when you find a place where there is gold and go away to hunt or for some other business, others may show up to start work on your land. Then you have to use your gun to keep what is yours."

Another letter sent later gives the Edelman family a few more details of Edvin's life.

It details that Edvin sailed from England to North America, then to the West Indies, East India, Manila, South America, Australia and the Fiji Islands.

Edvin also served in the U.S. Navy near the coast of China and Japan.

He arrived in California in 1881, but left to fish for cod near Russia. He finally landed in Alaska in 1885 and sailed from Juneau in an open whaling boat in 1888 to start prospecting for gold and to begin hunting.

In 1889, he started to hunt bears and trade with the natives of the Cook Inlet area. Duane said his great-grandfather then did not see another white man or speak a word of English for two years while living on the Western coast of Cook Inlet.

In 1895 he started a trading station on the Sustina River and a year later married Dominia Oskolkov, a girl of Russian, Finnish and Indian descent who was born in Kenai, Duane said.

The two had eight children, but the youngest drowned in the Kenai River when he was 15. The youngest surviving child was Duane's grandfather.

Edvin possessed Alaska's first oil lease - located in Oil Bay - and there is still a creek there named after him. He also surrendered a gold claim up on the Rainbow Creek near Turnagain Arm.

But, he made better money sailing gold miners around the state than he did digging for gold in the ground, Duane said.

"These letters document how adventurous this man was and it gives us a glimpse into the world of what was happening not only during the gold rush days, but in Alaska and the early settling days of Kenai," he said.

Although the story would seemingly stop with the information contained in the letters, Duane is convinced the journal would reveal a bit more about the man he is so intrigued by.

"My grandmother said that she had seen the journal and she had it in her hands during a family discussion in the house in Kenai when she was first married to my grandfather," he said.

Duane said he would like to find the journal, translate it and publish it to have the stories preserved for his family and to forever provide a "broader glimpse" at their roots.

For the last several days, Duane and family have traveled around Alaska seeing the land Edvin helped settle. He said it was fulfilling to show his Finnish relatives the land that once captivated his great-grandfather, specifically Cook Inlet.

The Edelman family spent the day remembering and paying tribute to Edvin at the reunion, Duane said. But, it would have been even nicer to have the diary on hand for the gathering.

"Being able to capture that history out of a journal and get the Finnish family to translate it into English as well would just be a life-long dream that I could pass on to my kids and great-grandkids other than just these letters," he said.

When asked what it might mean to him to run his hands along the cover of the book, see his great-grandfather's handwriting and finally read in-depth about his journeys, Duane paused a moment.

"For me, it would be hard to put into words," he said. "It would bring tears to my eyes, honestly. I am normally a very strong person but family for me is extremely important."

If residents have information regarding Edvin Edelman's journal, Duane Edelman can be reached at (907) 255-7624.

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