Big Wolf: The Adventurous Life of Frederick G. Schwatka
by Douglas W. Wamsley
Staunton, VA: American History Press, $28.95 (paper) $48.95 (hardcover)
Reviewed by David Woodman
Douglas W. Wamsley has established himself as a skilled biographer of nineteenth-century American explorers. In his last book, Polar Hayes: The Life and Contributions of Isaac Israel Hayes,
M.D., Wamsley demonstrated meticulous research and attention to detail, often using obscure and rare primary sources to bring his subject and world to life. Most readers of this publication are familiar with Frederick Schwatka from his Arctic work and his valuable leadership of the Franklin Records Search Expedition of 1879. Wamsley’s new book, Big Wolf – The Adventurous Life of Lieutenant Frederick G. Schwatka, similarly brings the fuller details of this remarkable man’s life to a broad audience.
Wamsley starts his recounting with Frederick’s parents, industrious and energetic survivors, with the 4-year-old Frederick, of the rigours of the Oregon Trail. Growing up in the then-frontier lands near Astoria gave young Frederick character traits that later served him well – hardihood in, and love for, challenging outdoor pursuits and a hardworking determination to see his efforts through to completion. His experience with the local first nations peoples also fostered an acceptance and respect that would set him apart from many of his contemporaries. Companions described the young Frederick as “a gregarious gun-loving, ruddy-faced boy with a streak of independence” who was noted for his boyish pranks and self-deprecating humour.
Next, Wamsley traces the young man’s development as a fledgling writer employed as a “printers devil” in his brother’s publication, where he “gained a sound schooling in the newspaper business” that would be useful in his later career. His restless ambition for a more active life led him to pursue a place at West Point Military Academy, where he graduated in the middle of his class and with an average number of disciplinary “demerits” (many resulting from “pranks” and “misplaced laughter.”) This mixture of writer and outdoorsman would become a core element of his later life.
After graduation, Schwatka spent seven years as a cavalry lieutenant on the western frontier. His physical endurance and cheerful personality were well suited to conducting long patrols in testing country, and he became inured to hardship while serving in isolated and often comfortless posts. Intellectually restless, Schwatka was granted extended leave to pursue law and medical degrees, which he completed successfully in 1875-6. Wamsley rightly concludes, “[a]t the age of 26 he had accomplished more than most persons would in a lifetime … [he] had succeeded as a student, soldier, outdoorsman, lawyer and physician.”
Not all of his military service was tedious. Returning from college, as part of General Crook’s division, Schwatka fought in battles at Tongue River and the Rosebud and led the cavalry charge at the Battle of Slim Buttes. His commanders mentioned his courage under fire; his former commander Anson Mills stated, “He could not speak well enough of the young lieutenant’s bravery in the field and his other soldierly qualities.” A soldier who served with him remarked, “A better or braver man never existed. He was kind-hearted and generous to a fault.”
Unlike the prevailing attitude toward the enemy Indians as “savages,” Schwatka’s interest in, and respect for, the skills and culture of those he encountered are evident in his writings. His understanding, easygoing nature and diplomatic skills made him a frequent intermediary between the army and Sioux and Cheyenne leaders. He was welcomed into two tribes, and the Sioux gave him the name that serves as the title of this book (his later Inuit-given name, “Big Spectacles,” does not have the same impact.)
The labour for which Schwatka is most famous was the Franklin Records Search of 1878-80. This expedition is covered in five of the book’s seventeen chapters. The main details of this expedition are well recorded in the contemporary accounts of his companions Gilder and Klutschak, but unfortunately, Schwatka’s private papers were lost during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Luckily, a draft article about the expedition was rediscovered in 1965 and edited by Edouard Stackpole as The Long Arctic Search. Wamsley’s skillful retelling, weaving the main elements of these three accounts, should become the first reference for the general reader. Wamsley supplements these with other rarely-referenced sources, including newspaper accounts and speeches. These, especially an interview given within days of his arrival with the New York Tribune, add helpful context and interesting details to enlighten even those familiar with the standard source material. Informative ethnological discussion and biographical asides of Schwatka’s companions are interspersed throughout and offer pleasant diversions from the straightforward chronological narrative.
The inclusion of modern Inuit traditions of the expedition, collected by David Pelly, augments the value of his treatment. His use of current scientific work on the wrecks of Franklin’s ships, and Dr. Douglas Stenton’s recent terrestrial archaeological work, brings the story up to date. However, Wamsley scrupulously avoids speculative editorializing or analysis concerning these, as his purpose is not to attempt to solve this enduring mystery but as a biographer to recount his subject’s contribution.
On his return from the Arctic, Schwatka, having burned his bridges with the military establishment through his almost-continual leaves of absence and frequent bouts of binge drinking, unsuccessfully pursued a pension, which forced him to seek other revenue sources. Most men, having attained international fame as an explorer by age 31, would have settled down. With a new wife and daughter, he could have enjoyed a comfortable domestic life by falling back on his medical or legal training, but it was not in Schwatka’s nature. His post-Franklin life followed his established pattern of “a small cohesive group, combined with Indigenous peoples’ assistance, sound decision-making, and calculated risk-taking.” These consisted of unlikely business ventures and adventurous endeavours, resulting in many books, popular at the time but now largely forgotten, public-speaking events and a prodigious amount of often self-serving journalism. Despite his substantial writing output and public appearances, Schwatka’s self-promoting pursuit of fame and fortune was only mildly profitable. His far-flung business interests and busy schedule of cross-country public appearances rendered him a largely absentee husband and father.
To maintain his fame and public interest, Schwatka fell back on his skills as an outdoorsman. His most significant exploration took place on the new American frontier – Alaska. Using his position as the personal aide to General “Bearcoat” Miles, the two men organized a military reconnaissance to the newly-acquired territory that would be a significant focus of Schwatka’s later career. He surveyed the Yukon River in 1883, followed by an unsuccessful assault on Mt. St. Elias two years later and a final expedition in 1891 to the unexplored White River valley deep in the Alaskan interior. His writing about these travels offers an interesting prequel to the Klondike gold rush that would overtake the region in 1896. As a contract explorer-with-a-pen, Schwatka pursued or created many opportunities, including a winter trek in Yellowstone Park and travels in northern Mexico. These produced little more than grist for his publicity mill. Many of Schwatka’s “discoveries” were controversial, as he largely followed in the steps of others and rarely gave credit to them. His later reputation would also suffer from his tendency to exaggerate and over-dramatize his accomplishments.
Throughout the book, Wamsley sympathetically explores Schwatka’s complex personality – hardy and adventurous, an organized and inspiring natural leader, friendly and amusing, yet self-promoting and prone to exaggeration. He retained his admiration of indigenous cultures and people but occasionally agreed to their sensational exploitation when it served to enhance his public appearances. From his time as a hard-drinking cavalryman Schwatka also, except when actively involved in strenuous activity, was prone to alcohol and substance abuse. His coverage of the events leading up to Schwatka’s untimely early death by overdose is the most complete treatment I have read.
One regrets the lack of Schwatka’s private correspondence, which would have helped illuminate this complex man’s inner life. Reliance on contemporary writings about him, pro and con, is rarely given by those who knew him personally and is usually coloured by the writer’s bias. Schwatka’s prodigious published output is journalistic, sometimes offering insight into his humour and self-deprecating nature but mainly leaving his personality opaque (not a bad attribute in a journalist.) It must be remembered that, unlike personal letters, his writings were intended for publication and were penned to serve his professional interests.
The most trustworthy assessments come from those who shared trials in challenging situations. After his death, a fellow cavalry officer recalled, “The officers and men in the regiments in which he served loved him, and none more so than the lowliest private, for he was always kind and considerate.” Klutschak credited the success of Schwatka’s Arctic expedition to his “wide knowledge, good judgment [sic], energy and correct handling of his men.” The Sioux, learning of the death of their adopted brother, held ceremonies of remembrance.
The book features adequately-reproduced illustrations, and maps of Schwatka’s travels, although these are smaller than desired and often challenging to follow. The endnotes are well done, offering a means to check on provenance and occasionally offering extended context or information that would have disrupted the flow of the main text. A complete bibliography and index both provide value.
Like his work on Hayes, this book becomes the standard biography for another often-neglected American explorer. It is a welcome addition to the Arctic and Alaskan exploration literature. It should also interest those interested in late nineteenth-century frontier life, Manifest Destiny, or simply in tales of fascinating characters. It is highly recommended.