One of my longest writing projects has finally come to an end.
In September 2017 I wrote a short piece in this blog inaugurating a new series chronicling my ancestor Frank L. Felter’s vacation from Los Angeles to Alaska in 1900. Over the course of 15 months and 18 blog posts I reproduced Felter’s entire manuscript letter, along with some commentary from me and as many relevant photos I could find.
But the fun didn’t end there! I’m happy to share that Felter’s story has been published in Alaska History this month. I called the article “History of a Wandering Yankee: The Reminiscences of an Alaska Tourist in 1900.”
After finishing the blog series I wanted to share Felter’s letter with a bigger audience, one that was interested and knowledgeable about Alaska history. Don’t get me wrong, I love everyone who’s actually reading my work on the blog, but I know I’m mostly writing to myself here (as of today, there are just 161 total views across all 19 posts in the series lol).
I wanted to get published somewhere a little bigger. But where?
I looked around at a few journals that published articles on Alaska history to see what would be a good fit for me. Not all historical journals publish articles the length of the Felter letter, and I wanted to write it as an annotated manuscript. And that’s not a standard format of historical writing that all publications use.
After a checking half a dozen journal, I decided that Alaska History, a publication by the Alaska History Society since 1984, was the best choice for me. Scrolling through the article titles in past issues, I thought Felter’s story had a good shot at being accepted there- they hadn’t published a whole lot on turn of the century Alaskan tourism in a while and they also had a history of publishing annotated historical manuscripts occasionally.
So I emailed Alaska History‘s editor, Ross Coen. I described the letter, my personal connection to it, and why I thought the journal’s readers would be interested in it. After looking around at their past articles, I wasn’t seeing a lot on Alaskan travel writing in the post-Gold Rush era. Most of what I was seeing was from before and during the Gold Rush, or in the 1920s and beyond. Since Felter’s letter was written just a few months after the rush’s end I thought I had something unique and hoped Ross would jump at the opportunity to publish it!
I wasn’t quite on the mark, but Ross forgive my naiveté. Here’s part of what he wrote back:
I’ll be honest, stories of descendants finding great grandpa’s gold rush letter in the attic are a dime a dozen. Most people who aren’t trained historians don’t know what to do with them. But the fact that you are a trained historian, archivist, and published author suggests to me that you’ll know how to contextualize the letter in ways that are of interest to the historical community. This could be very exciting and I look forward to talking with you more.
Ross also asked if I had any original photographs that Felter took on his journey (nothing exists that I know of). The answer was no. At this point, I realized that what I had was actually might not actually be as unique and compelling as I thought, that’s what I get for making some assumptions and not being well versed in Alaskan historiography and publishing trends. But I’m new to this!
At this point I thought I was going to be rejected. But I sent along the original Felter manuscript with some of the annotation ideas and some samples of other writing I had published previously. And then I waited for a while.
Ross shared them with some of his colleagues who were experts in the Klondike era. And they liked the manuscript! And Ross said my submission was accepted! Here are a few comments Ross shared with me (I don’t know who wrote these, but I’m very grateful for them):
I think that if annotated it would make a fine contribution to Alaska History. I found some of it really fascinating, like the explanation of why so many salmon packers had come in, etc.
I read the letter this morning and actually quite like it— maybe because the couple take almost the same trip from Seattle to Skagway and back that I took a few weeks ago—including the ride on the White Pass Railroad. It is really a good account of Alaska at the turn of the century. The author goes into some depth about the condition of various Alaska communities— particularly Skagway and Juneau. I would assume that the archivist can supply some more background information on Mr. Felter. He appears to be a businessman who might have thoughts of investing in Alaska. The tour through the Treadwell mines is particularly well done. The letter also shows the rather luxurious level of tourist steamship travel at the time. I think there were more tourists to Alaska than residents at the time.
I was in. Or rather, Felter’s good writing and eye for detail got me in. Felter might have been one of the dozens and dozens of people who wrote about their Alaska trips back then, but the details he included was what won Alaska History over.
I thought it was smooth sailing (just like the Inside Passage) from here, but that wasn’t exactly the case…now I’d have to annotate the manuscript for real this time. The notes and ideas I had written for the blog earlier were good but they were rough and sometimes amateur. It was time to go into serious historian mode.
Over the course of a few months, I worked on this project every day during my lunch break at work. It was a fun to take a break from being an archivist and be a researcher for a change!
I scoured all the secondary literature on Alaska travel, the Klondike era, and Pacific Northwest tourism I could get my hands on. Thankfully I could find a lot in academic journals on JSTOR and the other journal databases, and I was able to find a good amount of published primary sources from the time on Internet Archive and HathiTrust. Its good to be a researcher in the 21st century because its not easy just go to Alaska where a lot of the original sources are, though that would have been great for this research.
Slowly I reread Felter’s letter line by line, looking for sentences that needed the most explanation or touched on the most important and interesting points.
As a guide, I read a bunch of other published annotated historical sources to see how they wrote their notes. My biggest inspiration was Thomas Cox’s “Harvesting the Hemlock: The Reminisces of a Pennsylvania Wood-Hick” published in Pennsylvania History’s 1984 issue. Great example of how a historian can add great understanding to a primary source without taking away from the original writer’s voice.
The tiny details and the big picture were equally tricky. There were a few times I went down research rabbit holes- the history of Alaskan missionary education and steamship travel routes come to mind- to try to finish up a note on a specific place or person referenced. I also struggled a bit to wrap my head around the larger historical trends in turn of the century Alaska and figure out where Felter’s story fit in.
I should also mention here that Ross was a great editor and pointed me to some sources I wouldn’t have found on my own. That was SO helpful. Note to anyone who wants to be a better writer: get someone else to read your work, writing isn’t something we should do all by ourselves.
By the time I was finished, I had 42 really solid footnotes that really expanded on Felter’s story. Some of these notes are pretty intense- they’re longer than the manuscript text on the page! I crammed a solid Alaska tourism history bibliography into the notes as well, over 60 sources are cited in all.
I also had to write a good introduction that set the stage for Felter’s letter. A brief synthesis of Alaskan tourist history, all the genealogical background of Felter’s life I was able to uncover (which annoyingly was not a lot), and some excerpts of other Felter correspondence my family still has were all incorporated here.
After a few rounds of editing, the text and notes were all ready to go. The final task was to find images to include in the article. Originally I wasn’t expecting to do this (most academic journals don’t include images unless its for a special reason), but Ross thought this would help illustrate Felter’s story well. And he’s right, what I found worked really well.
Some of the photos were ones that I had already found while doing the original blog posts, but some were ones that I hadn’t seen before and was really excited to find! Ross was really hoping I’d find a picture of Frank Felter taken during or around the time of his trip, but alas I never did find one. I did find a picture of his step-daughter (who traveled with Frank) but it was at the end of her life in the 1950s so we decided not to use it in the article. Incredibly, Ross found a photo at the Alaska State Library of the Cottage City docked at a small Alaskan village dated the same time the Felters were traveling on that boat. Maybe the picture was taken by someone who they met on their travels! Stranger things have been true…
Finally, I had all the pictures, the introduction, all the completed notes, and the formatted manuscript. Everything turned in to the editing team and I was done!
Earlier this month an envelope arrived in the mail, and inside were several copies of my article in print! This is my first article to be published in hard copy, so this was a great moment for me for sure. And it makes me want to write something else soon (after a well deserved break tho). Hopefully my next publication won’t take quite as long as this one… Alaska History isn’t available online, but if you’d like a copy message me and I’ll send you one.
I was lucky to have a letter like Felter’s. I realize that he was a privileged person back in 1900 to be able to take such a trip and write about it, and that I’m incredibly privileged to have such a rich primary source in my family’s papers. And with a great editing team at Alaska History, I’ve turned the letter into something I hope has been a really good read.
After returning from Alaska, Felter said he wanted to publish and sell his story for a nickel a copy. I hope he’ll forgive me for making it free, I think he’d be pleased that 120 years later his story is still entertaining us and is finally in print.
Even if you don’t have 20 page historical letters like this one, I would encourage you to try transcribing and annotating your own family papers and letters! Its a fantastic exercise for any genealogist or historian- it forces you to grapple with sources and history you might not be familiar with and lets you connect micro/personal history to larger historical trends and events. And if you’ve got something really special, get it published or put it out somewhere online where others can find it. Believe me, there are people out there who are interested outside of your own family. Share your hard work with the rest of us, then we all win!