new book unravels the mysteries of an old map

During the summer of 1880, a Russian-born American named Ivan Petroff was sent north to Alaska by the United States government to gather information for the 10th Census.

During the summer of 1880, a Russian-born American named Ivan Petroff was sent north to Alaska by the United States government to gather information for the 10th Census.

Arriving at St. Michael, which lay near the mouth of the Yukon River, he was confronted by a daunting task: to travel into an area not well known, to gather information about the people who lived there.

In all likelihood, he was provided assistance in this task by an unlikely duo: a little-known native called Paul Kandik, and a French Canadian trader named Francois Mercier.

Together, the two, at the instigation of Petroff, produced a map of the interior of Alaska, perhaps to make it easier for Petroff to find his way. While Kandik drew the details upon a letter-sized piece of paper, Mercier applied names to the various features that were depicted. Some were written in his mother tongue, French, while others were transcriptions of the names provided by Kandik.

During the journey that followed, it is possible that Petroff added some information. There are also inscriptions that appear to be made in his hand.

This is probably the “first recorded drawing of the Upper Tanana and Kuskokwim Rivers, together with trails used by aboriginal people between those rivers and the Yukon,” says Johnson. It is a graphic portrayal of this area, and the regions beyond.

Petroff, who was once highly regarded for his knowledge of Alaska, took credit for the information, which appeared in numerous maps published in subsequent years. Kandik’s contribution was not acknowledged, and Mercier eventually returned to Quebec, where he drifted into the obscurity.

The original map also fell into obscurity and was not heard of for almost a hundred years. In 1983, Linda Johnson, then a newly hired employee at the Yukon Archives, went to the Bancroft Library in Berkeley, California, in search of an entirely different document known as the Kohklux map.

The Bancroft map librarian brought out the Kandik map, about whose origins little was known, and Linda Johnson embarked on a quest that lasted for more than 25 years.

Johnson eventually chose this document as the focus of her Master’s thesis at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. The book The Kandik Map,

newly published by the University of Alaska Press, is the 231-page result of this study and her quest for the identity of its namesake.

It’s been a busy year for Johnson; a few weeks before the December 9th launch of The Kandik Map, she had released another book on the history of the territorial legislature between the years 1909 and 1961.

If Johnson thought she would track down the identity of Paul Kandik, she was ultimately disappointed, yet her search led to a greater understanding of Kandik’s place and time.

She devotes a full chapter to her search for Paul Kandik and who he was. After reviewing an impressive array of sources from the time period, she was unable to connect Kandik to any other historical reference. It is as though he vanished into thin air. In the process, however, she reveals a considerable insight into the social life of the place and time.

In the end, she can only conclude that the area on the map for which he was able to provide the most detailed information (including the area between Eagle and Fort Reliance), is probably part of his homeland.

In another chapter, Johnson addresses the story of Francois Mercier, the other principle character in the story of the famous map. Mercier, who came from Quebec, spent 17 years, from 1868 to 1885, on the Yukon River.

He was an “independent trader at various times, a trader and key promoter for the Western Fur and Trading Company, a trader and district agent for the Alaska Commercial Company.”

For a number of reasons, Mercier didn’t gain the recognition he deserved for laying the foundation upon which others built their success in the interior Alaskan fur trade. He left no large family behind; in fact, he returned to Quebec, where Johnson was able to track down his ancestors. His story is recorded in French, which has isolated his account from the mainstream of historical study.

Mercier’s story is followed by a chapter on the mapping of Alaska. In this detailed section, Johnson describes and discusses a variety of maps made of Alaska, and the increasing detail that is added through time as a consequence of the work of various travellers through this vast region.

She further places the Kandik map in the context of this cartographic evolution. The map was significant in that it added detail about the location of the Yukon River, its tributary the Tanana, and the Kuskokwim River, in the interior of Alaska.

Worthy of note is the lack of a boundary line on the map, a detail that would have been of little consequence to Kandik, who saw this region as his homeland. Recognition of Kandik the true creator of this map has only recently been acknowledged.

The final chapter in Johnson’s book provides a more personal perspective on her quest for an understanding of the map. In it she details her travels far and wide to meet people and examine documents. She reviews the social aspect that traditional and personal maps of the landscape embrace and reveals that her search for meaning and understanding had its own personal and social dimensions.

The book includes an excellent selection of photographs of the Yukon River during the era of the Kandik map. Johnson also included a good choice of map images, but in reducing these to a size that will fit the page size, combined with low resolution reproduction, the publisher has rendered most of them disappointingly illegible. It would have been useful to have included a copy of the Kandik map as a full-size fold-out.

Also included at the end of the text is a useful copy of the Kandik map with numbered reference points that can be looked up in an accompanying table.

The book contains nearly 500 footnotes, all of which have been listed at the end of the text. There are lists of both published and archival material used in the research for this book, and an index at the end.

The Kandik map is a single historical artifact, about which frustratingly little is known. In a personal journey lasting years, Johnson has provided a remarkable understanding of the context of this document and has answered as many questions as possible about its origins.

Why not buy the book and read it for yourself?

Michael Gates is a local historian and sometimes adventurer based

in Whitehorse.