Melting the Ice: A History of Latter-day Saints in Alaska
The following excerpt from the new BYU Studies book Melting the Ice: A History of Latter–day Saints in Alaska by Fred E. Woods. Here Woods describes the initial introduction of Mormonism to Alaska, the "Great Land."
The hardcover book is available on the BYU Studies website for $19.95. The documentary film that accompanies the book is free for viewing on Youtube here. Thirty–eight clips of video interviews are available on a playlist here.
It would not be the beauty of nature that beckoned Mormons to Alaska, but rather the cry of gold, when Latter–day Saint Dr. Edward Giese/Guise Cannon reached Nome at the dawn of the twentieth century. Cannon spent the remainder of his life in Nome: he simultaneously occupied his time mining for both nuggets and Mormon converts, the latter weighing in with greater value. Dr. Cannon, himself a convert, born in Shelbyville, Kentucky, in 1824, led quite an adventurous life. Following his army service in the Mexican War and his first marriage in 1849, the news of gold motivated him to migrate to California in 1851. After successfully prospecting for a time, he invested in a potato farm business that went belly up. He therefore returned to his home state, where he practiced medicine until 1861. Cannon then migrated to Indianapolis, Indiana, with his second wife, Barbara Mook, for a period of four years and later drifted over to Omaha, Nebraska.
Before his conversion to Mormonism, Cannon was baptized along with his wife, Barbara, into the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in 1866 and made his first trip to Salt Lake City in 1871. Here, it was said, Edward met his Mormon Cannon kinfolks, possibly including President George Q. Cannon, a member of the First Presidency, who would later travel with family members on a pleasure cruise to Alaska. Making contact with the Cannons in Utah may have also influenced his decision to become a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter–day Saints, but it is not likely that they were his close relatives.
After embracing the Latter–day Saint faith, Cannon and his wife spent about a decade in Wanship, Summit County, Utah, where Edward again practiced medicine. Returning to Kentucky after his wife's passing in the 1880s, he spent part of his time in his home state and part of his time with his son Professor Alfred J. Cannon in Jeffersonville, Indiana.
At the turn of the century, the alluring cry of gold again reached Cannon's ears, and the now seventy–six-year–old adventurer emigrated to Alaska. The Argonaut Dr. Cannon was drawn to this far northwestern region along with John Bigelow during the gold–rush period that swept Nome. Although not much is known of Bigelow, Cannon dwelt in Nome and the Seward Peninsula region as a widower in his advanced years and spent the last decade of his life (1900–1910) digging for nuggets and mining the hills for converts. It appears Cannon was quite mobile in traversing the region: it was reported that he "maintained a chapel on wheels, which he called a tabernacle, in which [church] meetings were held in various camps in the province."
Although well beyond retirement years, he continued to occasionally practice medicine in this vicinity, but the Nome Daily Nugget (the primary newspaper for Nome) does not contain any mention of Cannon advertising his services during the time he lived in Nome, though he is mentioned in several articles.
While in Nome, Cannon converted a man by the name of Kedzie Noble Winnie, his most influential convert. Together they taught the message of Mormonism in this Alaskan region. Winnie was born a half century after Cannon (July 15, 1874), in Walton, New York. Just before the dawn of the twentieth century, he and his brother Leon headed northwest for Nome. However, Leon, unlike Kedzie, was not interested in religion and the two brothers parted ways; but Winnie became a dear friend of Cannon, who baptized him in the Bering Sea on June 25, 1902. He became the first known Latter–day Saint baptized in Alaska. In the words of his daughter, he found something more precious than gold.
Just three months later, Cannon ordained Winnie an elder, and Melvin J. Ballard, president of the Northwestern States (NWS) Mission, based in Portland, Oregon, signed the certificate. This was evidence that the Nome missionaries were in touch with a priesthood leader, although Cannon preached the gospel in Nome and in the Seward Peninsula region without any known verification of officially being set apart as a full–time LDS missionary. However, during Cannon’s time in Alaska, he had correspondence with other General Authorities and even received a letter from President Joseph F. Smith encouraging him "to continue in his good work and wishing God's blessing to be with him," a clear signal that the Church supported his labors. Furthermore, the Deseret News referred to Cannon as "the head of the Latter–day Saints Church in the Seward Peninsula District."
Not only did Cannon and Winnie preach the gospel together, they also opened in Nome the first known "Eskimos school" during the years 1903–1904. One relative related that Kedzie had told her he and Cannon "taught these natives to read and write [English] and gave them the Gospel teachings." Several years later, Winnie wrote, "Brother Edward G. Cannon and myself are holding gospel meetings regularly during the winter, and quite a number are interesting themselves in the principles of the gospel."