Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son

Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son

Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son

Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son


Walter Harper, Alaska Native Son illuminates the life of the remarkable Irish-Athabascan man who was the first person to summit Mount Denali, North America's tallest mountain. Born in 1893, Walter Harper was the youngest child of Jenny Albert and the legendary gold prospector Arthur Harper. His parents separated shortly after his birth, and his mother raised Walter in the Athabascan tradition, speaking her Koyukon-Athabascan language. When Walter was seventeen years old, Episcopal archdeacon Hudson Stuck hired the skilled and charismatic youth as his riverboat pilot and winter trail guide. During the following years, as the two traveled among Interior Alaska's Episcopal missions, they developed a father-son-like bond and summited Denali together in 1913.

Walter's strong Athabascan identity allowed him to remain grounded in his birth culture as his Western education expanded, and he became a leader and a bridge between Alaska Native peoples and Westerners in the Alaska territory. He planned to become a medical missionary in Interior Alaska, but his life was cut short at the age of twenty-five, in the Princess Sophia disaster of 1918 near Skagway, Alaska .

Harper exemplified resilience during an era when rapid socioeconomic and cultural change was wreaking havoc in Alaska Native villages. Today he stands equally as an exemplar of Athabascan manhood and healthy acculturation to Western lifeways whose life will resonate with today's readers.


Many alaskans first learned of Walter Harper during the centennial celebration of the 1913 pioneer ascent of Denali. Harper, who was of Irish and Athabascan descent, had been the first to stand atop North America’s tallest peak. a legacy climb by descendants and relatives of the pioneer ascent team aimed to give long overdue credit to co-leader Harry Karstens and team member Walter Harper. Attention given Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal archdeacon who was the organizer of the expedition, had overshadowed Karstens’s and Harper’s crucial roles in the triumph.

I had learned of Walter Harper a few years earlier when I opened Hudson Stuck’s A Winter Circuit of Our Arctic Coast. the moving dedication had piqued my interest:

In loving memory of walter harper companion of this and many other journeys strong, gentle, brave, and clean who was drowned in the lynn canal when the “PRINCESS SOPHIA” foundered with her entire company 25TH October, 1918

The sinking of the Princess Sophia remains the worst disaster in Alaska’s maritime history. Walter Harper and his bride of seven weeks, Frances Wells Harper, were among the more than 350 souls who perished after the steamer ran aground in a blinding . . .

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