Story last updated at 4/11/2012 - 11:35 am
Charles Vincent Baronovich came to my attention years ago when I started researching a mine in Kasaan Bay. As I continued to research, I found many more things about this man who pioneered the mining and saltery industries in the 1870s. In addition, this independent individual enlightened me about episodes of illegal activities in early Southeast Alaska.
Baronovich is generally referred to as a Slav or an Austrian. It is believed he was a native of Dalmatia, Croatia, at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As a young man, Baronovich came to America and soon joined the transient mining population anxious to find new bonanzas. First, it was California that fired his enthusiasm. Then in the early 1860s, he was among the first to head north, lured by the stampede up the Fraser River to the Cariboo and Cassiar gold fields of British Columbia.
When Baronovich arrived in Alaska, it would have still been under Russian rule. It is likely that he would have arrived via the Stikine River, landing in what is today Wrangell.
Baronovich ended up in Karta Bay. This part of Kasaan Bay on eastern Prince of Wales Island was home to the northernmost tribe of the Haida, who originally migrated from the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia.
Although there had never been a trading post in Karta Bay, the Natives were experienced traders. From as far back as 1792 or maybe earlier, ships had traded at the southern end of Prince of Wales Island at Kaigani, where the Alaskan Haidas would paddle canoes filled with peltries to trade. Since the Kasaan Haidas were a considerable distance from Kaigani, they welcomed Baronovich to their village.
In time, Baronovich married a woman named Mary, one of the daughters of Chief Skowl, the ruler of Skowl and Kasaan Bays. As an integral part of the tribe, Baronovich kept two households at Old Kasaan, not to be confused with the present village of Kasaan, which is in a different location. Baronovich's larger home, built in typical Haida style, was run by his wife in the tribal custom, with several families living together. Since Baronovich was not accustomed to this communal fashion, he built for his immediate family a smaller house of logs and rough-hewn planks with partitioned rooms.
Sources indicate that the couple had at least nine children, and maybe as many as 14. The youngest, F. J. "Joe" of Ketchikan, went on to serve a term in the Alaska House of Representatives in 1933-36. Emma married Tom Case of Wrangell.
Another daughter, Cecelia, is described by contemporary author Matt Hawthorne; his memoirs describe Cecelia working at New Kasaan's cannery when it first started. She attended Carlisle Indian School and eventually married someone named Balenti, a name I founded connected with the Carlisle school.
A son, Nick, had a gravel business in Ketchikan for many years. Caroline, reputedly the oldest, married Paul Young of New Kasaan; another was Nellie. Another child died as a youth.
Baronovich had a passion for fine weapons and metal work. At one time he possessed many arms that were, even at that time, considered worthy of a museum. Often he would lovingly polish the inlays, rub down the stocks and clean the working parts of his guns. One day, to his horror, as he was cleaning a gun it discharged, and he accidentally killed one of his children.
The Haidas, who had taken him into their midst, viewed this deed by their laws - a life for a life. Chief Skowl was asked to take Baronovich's life in punishment, but the chief defended his son-in-law from the charge, declaring the shooting an accident. Baronovich was freed, but he was ordered to make restitution of one hundred Hudson's Bay blankets to his wife's clan.
After Baronovich's death, Mrs. Baronovich sold his guns, one by one, to the various officers who visited Baronovich Fisheries at Karta Bay. Among his treasures was a pair of dueling pistols covered with delicate engravings and inlays. These passed into the hands of a U.S. Navy officer. Another officer purchased Baronovich's ancient double-barreled flintlock shotgun that had the barrels and stock richly damascened with silver and gold. This officer reportedly preferred this fowling piece made by Gunnell of London over the latest Remington of the time.
Years ago, my husband, Frank, and I visited the site of Baronovich's saltery in Karta Bay. In the brush near remains of a log cabin foundation, we saw a gleam of metal in the moss. It proved to be a barrel from a small pistol with engraving on the side. When I look at it on my office windowsill, I like to think it belonged to Baronovich.
This is the first of a four-part series about Charles Baronovich. Pat Roppel is the author of numerous books about mining, fishing, and man's use of the land. She lives in Wrangell. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.