One Complex Man, One Stalwart Hero
by Earl J. Aversano
Above: Leonhard Seppala at the time
of the serum run, in his signature coat.
If there is any one human name which resounds down through the decades, since those fateful few days in early 1925 in Alaska, it is Leonhard Seppala. The man who bore this name was a Norwegian born of the "Kven" people, peasant fishermen who spoke their own dialect of the Finnish language, and who had emigrated into Norway from the northern sections of Finland and Sweden in the 18th and 19th centuries (who today enjoy official status as a minority people in Norway). He was born in the small town of Skibotn on September 14th, 1877 and, with his family, moved to the fishing village of Skjervøy two years later, where his father worked as a blacksmith and a fisherman. In time, he would rise out of his humble beginnings in Norway to become one of the most famous men in Alaskan history. This is his story.
Early Life In Norway
Leonhard Seppala (pronounced LEH-nerd SEHP-luh) was the oldest child in his family, and was put to work when still very young on the family farm with odd jobs. By age 12, he was accompanying his father on his fishing excursions up to Finnmark, the northernmost county of Norway. His duties included baiting hooks, cooking meals, washing and doing the laundry. Though it was hard work for the boy, he earned quite a bit of money doing it, and returned every year to assist his father, until 1897.
At 20 years of age, Seppala set out to seek his fortune, which brough him to Kristiania (known today as Oslo). He worked for a couple of months at Aker Mechanical Industries, and then in the smithy of C.F. Andersersen, where he earned a diploma. While in Kristiania, he met up with his childhood friend, and first girlfriend, Margit (who had earlier journeyed to Kristiania to follow up a job opportunity). They had a happy reunion, and soon planned to get married. Margit, however, died suddenly, which broke Seppala's heart. Returning to Skjervøy, he took up work in his father's smithy.
Then, in 1899, came the startling and exciting news of gold strikes in the Klondike of the U.S. territory of Alaska, and in the Yukon territory of Canada. Seppala read the headlines in the newspapers, and then learned more when Norwegian Jafet Lindeberg (pronounced "YAH-feht LIN-deh-berg...one of the "Three Lucky Swedes" who struck gold at Anvil Creek, near what would become the town of Nome) returned home, bearing gold, U.S. dollars and fantastic stories. Seppala was enthralled. He struck up a friendship with Lindeberg, who loaned Seppala money to return to Alaska with him.
In 1900, Seppala boarded a ship bound for America along with many other gold-seeking hopefuls, and became bound to Lindeberg as a new employee of his Pioneer Gold Mining Company. Arriving in Nome on the steamship S.S. Ohio, on June 14th, he began learning the mining trade from the ground up. He started out by driving a wagon hitched to a team of horses, filling a slip scraper to clear sluice boxes, and shoveling gravel at Discovery Claim on Anvil Creek. In the early, almost lawless days of Nome's first few years, the Scandinavian miners had many difficulties with claim jumpers and scheister lawyers, and Seppala experienced many touch-and-go adventures dealing with unsavory characters in the defense of the claims of the Pioneer Gold Mining Company and its immigrant workers.
Above: The "Three Lucky Swedes" of Nome - Jafet Lindeberg (top),
John Brynteson (lower left), and Eric Lindblom (lower right).