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  • Writer's pictureLynn Lovegreen

AAPI 2021: Jujiro Wada

Jujiro Wada photo in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 1908

When Felix Pedro discovered gold near E. T. Barnette’s trading post, Barnette saw an opportunity to get rich quick. But someone had to bring in the miners. Jujiro Wada was his PR guy, and much more. Wada was a legendary Alaskan figure in his day. Who was Jujiro Wada, and why don’t we know more about him?

Jujiro Wada was born in Ehime Prefecture, Japan in 1875. He stowed away on a freighter headed to San Francisco as a teenager. He found work on the whaler Balaena and spent three years with the crew, learning English and navigation.The ship wintered over at Pauline Cove, Hershel Island, in the Beaufort Sea. Wada encountered the Inuvialuit there and learned how to travel and live off the land from them. He liked the North so much he returned after his contract with the Balaenaended.

In 1898, Wada was on a supply ship stranded in the ice near Point Barrow. He took a dog sled team to the mainland and was able to get assistance from the Natives he had befriended there. That earned him some gratitude from the ship crew and the beginning of his reputation in the North.

Wada worked for Charlie Brower, manager of the Cape Smythe Whaling and Trading Company, where he probably honed his skills in dog mushing and Alaska Native languages. Later, he trapped, did surveying, and promoted new businesses throughout Alaska and the Yukon, showing his skills in many different areas.

By the time of Pedro’s gold strike in 1902, Wada was working for E. T. Barnette. Barnette sent him up the Yukon River to take the news to miners in Dawson City. Hundreds of miners set out for Fairbanks, most disappointed to find the best claims were already taken. But the stampede Wada caused led to the establishment of Fairbanks as a boomtown, and later as a more settled community.

Wada went on to travel around the territory of Alaska and northern Canada hunting, trapping, prospecting, and delivering mail. On one famous trip, Wada took over a year to mush his dogs from the headwaters of the Chandalar River to the Arctic Ocean, to the Mackenzie River, and over to the Porcupine River. He even won a marathon race in 1907, earning a reputation as a great runner. Wada is also known for helping establish the original Iditarod Trail from Seward to Iditarod. He and his partner struck gold in 1912 on the Tulasak River.

Wada stayed active in Alaska and Canada. He trapped and prospected in the Yukon and Northwest Territories. Wada prospected in the Mackenzie Delta area in the 1920s, and took a dog sled team to Winnipeg to promote the oil discovery at Norman Wells. In his last years, he spent more time in the States. He died in 1937 in San Diego on one of his travels.

Discrimination is probably the main reason most people haven’t heard of Wada. Unfortunately, Anti-Asian feelings ran high in the U. S. at the time, so he was not always respected as he should have been. His application for citizenship was denied in 1901. When he went to the States on a business deal in 1913, he was falsely accused of being a Japanese spy. Although he was upset about these developments, Wada continued his love for the North and its people.

Maybe Wada is finally getting the credit he deserves. A biography, The Samurai Dog Musher Under the Northern Lightsby Yuji Tani, was published in Japan in 1995. The city of Seward, Alaska erected a statue of Jujiro Wada at Fifth and Railway Avenue, near the Sealife Center. There’s even a musical about his life, Chasing the Aurora: The Samurai Musher- the Tale of Jujiro Wada from Japan. Even if he isn’t a household name yet, we owe him credit for what he did to create the Alaska we know today.

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