June 16

This Day in History

Old West

Jun 16, 1890:

Alaskan explorer Fred Fickett leaves Army

Because of ailments he contracted during an arduous exploration of the Alaskan frontier, Fred Fickett retires from the military to become a civilian lawyer.

A native of Maine, Fickett enlisted as a private in the Army Signal Corps in 1882. By chance, he was assigned to duty in Alaska, a massive and largely unexplored territory the U.S. had bought from Russia in 1867. After two years stationed at Sitka, Alaska, where he learned the science of meteorology, Fickett was reassigned to Portland, Oregon, the headquarters of the Army's Department of the Columbia, which included the territory of Alaska.

In 1885, the leaders of the Department of the Columbia ordered Lieutenant Henry T. Allen to mount an expedition into the little-known interior of Alaska. Learning of Fickett's experience in Alaska and skill as a meteorologist, Allen had the private assigned to the expedition. With one more enlisted man and two prospectors, Allen's small band headed into the Copper River basin of Alaska in March 1885.

Fickett's scientific duties were challenging from the start. Harsh weather often made it difficult for him to make meteorological observations. Indians eventually stole his hygrometer, and his barometer was "rendered useless by the natives who were curious to understand the nature of its interior construction." The rugged country and monotonous provisions sapped his energy and caused sickness. After a few months of "indescribable hardships and privations," all of the men came down with scurvy. Despite the difficulties, Fickett continued to make scientific observations of the Alaskan environment. He later concluded that despite the harsh conditions, vegetables might be successfully grown in the region during the short but sunny Alaskan summer.

By June, the other members of the party had returned to civilization, but Allen and Fickett continued onward. The two men traveled overland to the headwaters of the Koyukuk River and then descended the river in canoes. Still suffering from illness, they reached the town of St. Michael on the coast in late August. In one short summer, they had charted three major river systems covering about 1,500 miles of wilderness.

Fickett returned to the United States by steamboat. He stayed in the Army Signal Corps for five more years before requesting and receiving an honorable discharge on this day in 1890. That same year, he published an account of his adventure, Narratives of Explorations in Alaska. His health had been permanently weakened by the ailments he contracted in Alaska, so Fickett moved to Tucson, Arizona, where he practiced law and managed mining operations. He died in 1928 at the age of 70.

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