Volunteers uncover fate of thousands of Lost Alaskans sent to Oregon mental hospital a century ago

ANKERAGE, Alaska — Lucy Pitka McCormick’s family members cooked salmon, elk, beaver and muskrat over an earthen fire pit on the banks of the Chena River just outside Fairbanks as they honored her life. They whipped whitefish, blueberries and lard into a traditional Alaska Native dessert, then spooned the portions onto a paper plate, which they placed in the flames to nourish her spirit.

The family prayed as McCormick’s great-grandson built a small plywood box filled with gifts and supplies for the next world, such as her granddaughter’s artwork and a hairbrush.

The weeklong Koyukon Athabascan funeral ceremony in September was traditional in all respects except one: McCormick died in 1931. Her remains were only recently identified and returned to the family.

McCormick was one of about 5,500 Alaskans between 1904 and the 1960s who were admitted to a hospital in Portland, Oregon, after being deemed “actually insane” by a jury, a criminal offense.

There were no facilities to treat people with mental illness or developmental disabilities in what was then Alaska territory, so they were sent – ​​often by dog ​​sled, sleigh or stagecoach – to a waiting ship in Valdez. The 4,000km journey ended at Morningside Hospital.

Many never left and their families never learned their fate.

They are known as the Lost Alaskans.

For more than 15 years, volunteers in Fairbanks and Portland have worked to identify the people who have committed themselves to the hospital. Many were buried in Portland cemeteries, some in unmarked pauper graves. A few, like McCormick, have been sent back to Alaska for a proper burial.

“It was pretty powerful having Lucy back,” said her grandson, Wally Carlo. “You could feel the energy when she came back to Alaska, like she had to wait 90 years for this.”

A new database went online in February to help families see if their long-lost aunt or great-grandfather was among those sent to Morningside. The website, which builds on a previous blog, is a clearinghouse for research conducted by the volunteers.

Finding information was difficult. Most of the private hospital’s records were lost in a 1968 fire, and territorial officials did not document those committed.

The volunteers became history detectives in an investigation that lasted more than fifteen years. Among them: Karen Perdue, former Alaska health commissioner; two retired state judges, Niesje Steinkruger and the late Meg Green; and two other Fairbanks residents, Ellen Ganley and Robin Renfroe, assisted by Eric Cordingley, a Portland cemetery volunteer.

They scoured the dusty Interior Department records in the National Archives, the state archives of Alaska and Oregon, and old Alaska court files looking for every little tidbit: the results of bond trials, cemetery records, death certificates, old newspaper stories and the reimbursement of US marshals for the costs of escorting patients.

Ganley and Perdue began the search in 2008 at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. Armed with laptops and a scanner, they gave themselves a week to find any reference to Perdue’s uncle, Gilford Kriska, who had disappeared from the village of Nulato. , on the Yukon River in western Alaska, when he was a boy.

They found a wealth of information about others in Morningside’s payment requests for housing Alaska residents. Finally, they saw her uncle’s name on a patient bill, which showed that the federal government owed him a few cents.

That entry contained his patient number, which they used to find out more about Kriska, including that it was village nuns who had him committed.

Kriska eventually returned to Fairbanks, where Perdue said she met him once in the 1970s.

“He was slightly what we would call today developmentally disabled,” she said. He could read and write, but had few life skills.

Perdue said that while she was health commissioner, from 1994 to 2001, many people approached her with similar stories of long-missing family members. That pain was passed down in the families for decades — “intergenerational trauma,” Perdue said.

There are several thousand names in the new database, and more names and details are being added. Users may be able to find when and why a patient was admitted, when they left or died, a burial place, and a death certificate.

The hospital was founded at the end of the 19th century by Dr. Henry Waldo Coe, initially in his home and later on a rural farm in Portland. It operated under several names before being called Morningside.

In 1904, it received a government contract to care for mentally ill Alaskans, a contract that lasted until after Alaska gained statehood in 1959 and began building its own mental health facilities.

A variety of Alaskans ended up there: miners, housewives, Alaska Natives, a co-founder of Juneau, a banker from Fairbanks. Causes included postpartum depression, cabin fever, epilepsy, addiction and syphilis. The youngest patient was 6 weeks old; the oldest was 96.

Parents sometimes scared their children to behave by mentioning the hospital. “Inside, outside, Morningside” became a common phrase indicating that people could stay, move, or engage in Alaska.

It is likely that letters from the patients were never sent and that they never received mail intended for them, according to evidence found by retired Judge Steinkruger.

Morningside’s treatment of its residents came under public scrutiny in the 1950s. Congressional hearings and public outcry ultimately forced its closure in 1968. The former site is now home to an enclosed shopping center off Interstate 205.

From Portland, Cordingley documented burial sites at several cemeteries and obtained 1,200 death certificates from Oregon.

“I’m just glad I happened to be here when they needed someone to help,” said Cordingley, who has volunteered at his neighborhood cemetery for 15 years, helping to clean headstones and decipher obscure burial records .

In 2012, he began creating his own databases to help families find lost loved ones. He built three virtual cemeteries at www.findagrave.com, including photos of death certificates, burial sites and in some cases the patients. One virtual site is dedicated to Alaska Natives who died at Morningside, a second to other patients and a third to Alaskan children who died at another Oregon facility, Baby Louise Haven.

Cordingley found Lucy McCormick’s grave marker in Portland, informed the family – they were stunned – and later watched as she was exhumed.

McCormick’s aunt, Fairbanks furrier Helen Callahan, claimed she was “insane,” and McCormick was admitted to Morningside on April 5, 1930, after a jury confirmed Callahan’s diagnosis, records show.

In January 1931, doctors performed a hysterectomy. McCormick died of an infection within weeks of the operation.

Wally Carlo said his father and uncles never spoke about McCormick, and he never knew what happened to her. After Cordingley found her grave, the family decided to bring her home, Carlo said.

On a beautiful fall day, family members launched four boats on the Yukon River to take her to her birthplace in the village of Rampart. They were accompanied by eagles and swans, “as a greeting to Grandma Lucy,” he said. She was laid to rest on a hill overlooking the village of 29 inhabitants and the river.

“Never lose hope and try to bring them back to where they belong,” he said. “Their spirits will not rest until they are found and brought home.”


Online: The new database: www.lostalaskans.com A previous blog: www.morningsidehospital.com Alaska Natives who died in Morningside: https://www.findagrave.com/virtual-cemetery/552288 Other patients who died in Morningside: https //www.findagrave.com/virtual-cemetery/152302